An exercise to try for the fun of it – not for the claustrophobic.

A poet-friend of mine has been in hospital for seven and a half days, and expects to stay there another week.  ‘Four wall sickness applies,’ Mike says.  I’ve not heard this expression before, but think I get the gist.  She says that what’s keeping her sane are books and her laptop.

One friend has offered to bake her a cake with a file in it, which set me thinking about the nature of our reading escapes.  I’ve travelled through space and time thanks to stories: I’ve also escaped from some tedious travelling experiences in the same way.

There are many valid questions we can ask ourselves about technique and theory in writing.  Those tend to be specific, and engaging with them can help us to progress.

One of the commonest question that comes up in both my reading and my writing groups is, What makes a good story?  I think this is an inspiration-blocking question for writers.  The possible answers are as varied as the number of readers who are out there.

But, here’s a fifteen-minute exercise that comes off the back of it.  The aim is not to think too hard about this, just go where inspiration takes the camera hard-drive 020

  1. Imagine you are imprisoned.  Your bodily needs are catered for, but you are held within a small cell with nothing but plain-painted walls to look at.  You have not committed a crime, so you have no need to worry about trials or punishments.  You have no pens, pencils or instruments to scratch words into surfaces or dig your way to an escape.   What faces you is time and idleness.
  2. As a special dispensation, you are allowed three reading books.  Which titles would you chose?  List them: they’re yours now.
  3. Time passes, and you’ve read every word of them, including all of the publication details.The walls are as bare as ever.  You’ve done handstands against them and meditated.  You’ve bounced on the mattress until your legs turned to jelly, and there are still hours and hours of light-time when you’ve nothing to do.  What sort of book would it take to transport you out of this situation?
  4. List a few subjects.
  5. Since you have so far been a model prisoner, your guard is pleased, and decides to give you a treat.  When you wake up one morning you find a cardboard box has been placed in your cell.  It contains four paperback novels by authors you’ve never heard of.
  6. Invent names for the authors.
  7. Chose one author.  What is the title of their novel?
  8. Do the same for the other three.
  9. Which title sounds most intriguing?  Name the main characters in it.
  10. Write a short synopsis – one paragraph – for this title.
  11. Now write a list of titles for the chapters within the book.

Well done.  You have just completed a rough plan for a novel.  Who knows, you may have been inspired to start writing it in full.

You are free.  The walls of your prison have disappeared.  All you need to travel now is your notebook and pen/ laptop.DSCF5507

Happy writing.

Recognising the individual within a pack


An exercise I often use for creating a character is based on a questionnaire.  It begins by asking for the mundane details of human life: name, age and address, then moves into the personal areas of like, dislike, favourite things, hopes and fears.

I’ve no idea who first realized that forms could have a creative use besides being a boring necessity.  Not me, my tutors all used versions of this when teaching me.

In my turn, I’ve adapted my own variations on theirs, that I set according to which aspect of character formation I’m working on.  For instance, do I want to create a character from scratch, or develop an existing one?

Here, in best Blue Peter style, is an example of a general purpose one:

© Cath Humphris

Twenty Questions on your protagonist.

Character Profile for _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ (full name)
1. Address:
2. Date of Birth?
3. Place of Birth?
4. How does this character occupy most of their time?
5. Who, if anyone, do they live with?
6. How long have they lived like this?
7. What object does your character always carry?
8. What do they most like about their appearance?
9. What do they least like?
10. What does your character do on Thursday nights?
11. What is character’s most valued talent?
12. What is their favourite way to spend holiday time?
13. List three things that make them angry:
14. Describe their favourite clothes?
15. What is their favourite pass-time/hobby?
16. Who are they closest to?
17. What is their favourite extravagance?
18. What is their favoured economy?
19. Describe their most embarrassing memory:
20. What is their secret ambition?

No, don’t groan, trust me.  It can work, even if you start rather flippantly, because clearly the name, and the answers to the first three questions can be plucked from the air.  The trick is to write your answers down, and complete all the questions, even if you have to complete them out of order.

Commit to completing the list and I defy you to not find yourself linking the pieces together.  As the questions become more personal the whys and wherefores build up and a backstory emerges.  This is research.  It’s the bottom of that Hemmingway iceberg theory that is your story.

There are two things that I like to see happen when I do this with a group.  The first is that some of their answers extend beyond the page, either into the margins, onto the back of the handout, or into a notebook.  The second, is when someone has to go back to an earlier answer and rewrite it to make it fit with the answers they’ve made further down.

That’s when I know they’ve hooked into the individuality of their character, and a flat stereotype is becoming individual, and therefore, rounded.

Quick notes – an acheivable exercise for the rushed.

Have you got five minutes, and a scrap of paper handy?

Anything will do, the back of an old envelope; the border of a newspaper; that blank page in your diary – you know, the one you leave all year because it’s bound to come in handy some time…well, now’s the day.

Why not start making notes for a Pillow Book?  It seems to me a perfect occupation for time spent waiting in queues.

Not sure what a Pillow Book is?  Well, the term is flexible.  In general, it seems to haveSei_Shonagon_artist_unknown 1700s been an early form of notebook.  But I’m aiming to be specific in my use of the term, and refer to the one kept by Sei Shonogan, a lady-in-waiting to the Japanese Empress Consort Teishi.  This was circa 1002 AD.

Sei Shonogan’s Pillow Book is predominantly made up of lists.  The topics and contents of these range widely, and include references to objects, people, events, her thoughts, observations, poetry and gossip.

Not sure?  Try this one:

Things that give a clean feeling

An earthen cup.  A new metal bowl.  A rush mat.  The play of the light on water as one pours it into a vessel.  A new wooden chest.

On one level it’s a simple collection of objects.

And yet, it’s much more, isn’t it?  I see a fragment of sensations from another society: another age, but some of them still echo in ours, don’t they?  I think there’s poetry in the way she groups the images, and I love the phrasing of the title.

Here’s another:

Things that are distant though near

Festivals celebrated near the palace.  Relations between brothers, sisters, and other members of a family who do not love each other.  The zigzag path leading up to the temple at Kurama.  The last day of the Twelfth month and the first day of the First.

So much of this is in what’s implied.  Is it just a list, or is it part of a picture?  I like the way this one ranges from the general to the particular.

Lists like this seem to me a style of writing that thrive on breaks for reflection.

The first challenge, is the title.  Will you make up one of your own, or borrow a ready made one?  What about, ‘Things that make your heart beat faster‘?

You could treat it like a brainstorm, and throw down images in a hurry.  But take a little time, and let some of them expand out, to include sentences, ‘On a night when you’re waiting for someone to come, there’s a sudden gust of rain and something rattles in the wind, making your heart beat faster.

After that, do you leave your items in their naturally occurring order, or do you rearrange them?  Perhaps you break the lines up…

A Special, once-in-a-lifetime, not to be missed, Offer

I want to let you into a secret.  I’m an inventor.  I know, you’d never have guessed it, would you? It’s taken me years to design, but now I am ready for the grand unveiling of my life’s work, a TIME MACHINE.

There’s only one minor problem, the ingredients for the fuel are so rare that I’ve only enough to make one, return trip.  But, I’m willing to share that trip with you.  Only you.

Salvidor Dali, The persistence of Memory, 1931

Salvidor Dali, The persistence of Memory, 1931

Where would you like to go?  Will it be the past or the future?

Why?  What will you do there?  Who will you see?

There’s a story there, I think…

Writing What We Know – Two: a demonstration and an exercise.

mantellearning to talkI’ve been reading Hilary Mantel again.  Not her Thomas Cromwell novels, but that other matched pair, Giving up the Ghost, and Learning to Talk.  The first title is her memoir, the second her collection of short stories.

Why together?  Well you don’t have to, but from the aspiring writer’s point of view, to read them both is to take an armchair masterclass in story techniques.

In a literal sense, part one of the memoir is littered with musings about Mantel’s approach to writing techniques and advice:

Plain words on plain paper.  Remember what Orwell says, that good prose is like a window-pane.

…Stop constructing those piffling little similes of yours.  Work out what it is you want to say.  Then say it in the most direct and vigorous way you can.

Watch out though, as usual, that dark sense of humour is never far away.

But do I take my own advice?  Not a bit.  Persiflage is my nom de guerre.  (Don’t use foreign expressions; it’s élitist.)  I stray away from the beaten path of plain words into the meadows of extravagant simile: angels, ogres, doughnut-shaped holes.  

This is a writer in conversation with herself.

Besides, window-pane prose is no guarantee of truthfulness.  Some deceptive sights are seen through glass, and the best liars tell lies in plain words.

I’ve been so busy with the highlighters that my copy is in technicolour now.   I used this text to teach a memoir course, so I had to focus closely on the tricks she deploys, the repetitions, the withholding and careful dissemination of information, the shifts in viewpoint and narration.  Until I picked the book up again, I’d forgotten just how jaw-dropping her technique is.

Put that aside though, it’s not what I’m thinking about here.  Instead, sift out the content and incidents of her life: where she grew up, and what it was like there; the members of her family and their circumstances; who her neighbours were, and how school and religion impacted on her life.

These are the kinds of facts that we should know about our fictional characters, these are the things that help to make them seem as if they might be walking in the real world, somewhere.  Or as if we might know them, or maybe even be them. But how does the writer begin to build a world like that?  Why am I discussing a memoir in terms of fiction?

Because I’ve been reading King Billy is a Gentleman, the first title in the short story collection.  Its narrator is a boy who grew up in a village outside Manchester.  His father disappeared and was replaced by a lodger. The lodger was an engineer, with prospects, who moved them to a better house.

‘You must never tell anyone we are not married,’ my mother said, blithe in her double life.’

In the memoir, Mantel writes:

My mother stops going out to the shops.  Only my godmother comes and goes between our house and Bankbottom.  The children at school question me about our living arrangements, who sleeps in what bed.  I don’t understand why they want to know but I don’t tell them anything.

There are other parallels we could trace in these two works, but I’ll leave those for you to discover.  What interests me now, is to think about how the short story might have evolved from the memoir, and whether we can learn something to apply to our own work.

You might argue that Mantel has just incorporated some of her memories into a story.  I’ve not asked her, so I can’t swear to this, but reading the story reminded me of an exercise that’s an old favourite of mine. I call it the What if…’

Think back to the earliest years of your life, and list some of the events that stand out in your memory.  Concentrate on one.  Close your eyes and try to recall as many details as possible about that time:  what you saw, thought, touched, tasted, heard and felt.  Who else was there?  What did they look like?  What did they do?

Now write it down.  Hopefully, as you write, new memories will occur to you. Try to cover at least one side of lined A4.

Read it to yourself.

Now put that page aside and ask yourself, ‘What if I’d been born the opposite gender?’

Re-imagine that event you’ve written about with this alternative you as the central character.  The ‘real’ memory is already pinned to the page, so you’re free to embellish it now.

Begin to write about what happens to this ‘alternative-you’, in the first person.

In case you think this is just another of those daft parlour game type exercises, here’s an excerpt from an introduction in Mantel’s story collection:

In her memoir she explains how, after her strange childhood, she came to be childless herself, and how the children who never saw the light have trailed her through the years and become part of her life and her fiction.

It’s not always easy, inventing people.  Sure, you can pluck a name out of the air, or stick a pin in a directory, but then you’ll need to fill it out.  Central characters, we mostly agree, should be rounded.  Which does not mean we’re thinking in pounds or kilos, of course.

Characters need an inner life. They need thoughts, ideas and emotions.  The reader should believe that characters exist beyond the boundaries of the page, that they have a past and future, as well as a present.  That’s quite a challenge.

So why not give yourself a head-start, and use what you know?rounding out characters

An Alphabetical Brain Stretching Exercise – The sense of using Non-sense

I’m starting this with an apology, because I can’t trace the creator of the exercise I’m leading up to.

alphabet topper 3I don’t remember where I first came across this piece of word play.  I do know it’s been around a long time.  I’ve old books of ‘parlour games’ that do something similar, so perhaps the author was the wonderfully talented Anon.  I’ve tried looking it up, but that’s not easy without knowing the correct title.  So, should anyone know the origins of this, I’d be grateful if you’d tell me.

This is really an exercise that allows us to be absurd.  In case you’re wondering why you would want to, let me ask, why wouldn’t you? At its purest, nonsense literature covers a great raft of wonderful imaginings, in poetry and prose.

You may not want to write of owls and pussycats, or even a Jabberwocky or a disappearing Cheshire cat.  That’s fine, no reason why you should.  But don’t pass by this exercise because of that.  Being able to let go of rational and logical reasoning does not have to be just about the sense of ridiculous.

Exercises like this one help us to free our imaginations.  Like Freewriting, the purpose of this is to block off that annoying inner critic we all have.  Here you are not just allowed to write nonsense, you are almost obliged to.  Adults often need to be reminded how to be playful, especially with words.  This is another way of practicing that.

There is only one big rule here: No dictionaries.  That would definitely be cheating.

capital lettersWrite your name, then start to write about yourself using ONLY words that begin with the same initial letter.  You may aim for some form of sense, but obviously that’s going to take some ingenuity, and lateral thinking, and it’s much easier, and playful, to allow the words to take-over and lead you.capitals 3

Here’s my attempt:

Cath can’t count competently.  Cringes concerning cubes.  Creatively challenged, Cath calls cute canine companion.  Cooperatively contemplating clouds causes calm creativity.  Circling charming countryside can counteract craziness: certainly challenges concerns.  Change corners constantly.  Cooky claims, continuously cooling cures cheese.  Codswallop! Canned corn concerns con-captain creating caption concerning cash.  Can’t continue containing corn.  Could con-captain can cabbage, cubed?  Credit card claimants call competent cats.  Cool cats corner crazy con-captain, controlling control cars.  Crushed customers claim considerable cash.  Council catch crook, charge certain callers copiously.  Cuffs count collars, claim cheese.  Cool cats can consume cheese.

As you can see, there’s only a nod towards sense here.  You may be able to achieve something more coherent.  The thing is, you don’t have to.

What you will do, though, is stretch your vocabulary, both for words and for meaning.  Hopefully, what you will find is that while you may start out slowly, every so often the words will flow.  They may not make much sense, but try to let go of your need for rational and logical, and allow your pen to lead you.

Look instead at how wide your vocabulary really is.  Because if you can do this for one paragraph, using just one letter of the alphabet, just think how many words you must have tucked away in your personal lexicon, just waiting for a chance to be applied to your writing.

Writing Blocks – strategy 1

So I’ve had this blog site for five months and, apart from some occasional fragments about gardening, all I’ve really done is make lists and dither about creating suitable content.  Of course, I have all sorts of great excuses to justify this inactivity, but I logged on this morning because I have now admitted to myself that all my reasons for not writing this blog have been exactly what I warn my students about: displacement activities.

Okay, so I haven’t been washing the kitchen floor rather than write this (though I do keep the house clean, honest), or tidying my bookshelves, but I have invented a whole raft of reasonable excuses, and what they come to, is fear.

They are, of course, the same fears that inhibit most writers at some point:

  1. What can I write about that has not been written before?
  2. Why would anyone want to read about what I think?

I tell my students that they have to develop strategies to get around that kind of thinking or nothing would ever get written.  ‘If you don’t write it,’ I say, ‘someone else will.  Not in the way you would have done, but someone will do something so close to it that it will feel like they stole your idea.’

They say, ‘That’s all very well, but what if I’m not good enough?’

I tell them, ‘You’ll never know if you don’t try, so I’m going to help you put that first word on the page.’

Then I set them an anti-displacement activity exercise.

One of them goes like this:

  • Read this list of well-used displacement activities.

Washing up

Walking the dog

Cleaning the car

Tidying the room

Mowing the lawn

Cleaning the windows

  • It is a terrible list, isn’t it?  But this is how far some of us will go to avoid writing.  If we let this kind of thinking get a hold on us we will soon have immaculate households, but have nothing written down.
  • How strong are these excuses really?  It can be tough making time to write.
  • Displacement activities are habits, just like smoking or chocolate.  All we have to do is break our habit.
  • It can be difficult to break habits, ask a smoker, so we’re going to use some lateral thinking.
  • Look at the list again and find an activity that would not naturally occur to you.  Write it at the top of your page.
  • It is now your major barrier to writing, so create a strategy to side-step it. This is an opportunity to take a creative approach.   Think laterally and write a full page response to this problem.

I like this exercise.

But it occurs to me that in passing this exercise on now I have just completed a displacement activity of my own, as my intention when I switched on the computer was to complete the story I have been working on.  So, maybe all activities could be counted as displacements.

I’m sure there is something you should be doing instead of reading this.