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The Rickmansworth Writer’s Group

Hello Readers,

I attended the Rickmansworth Writers Group for the second time on 2nd March 2014.

As usual, the group organiser Mike Loveday (a published writer who teaches writing to adults in community settings) set out a mini agenda for the three hour session, which included;

  • A 10 minute writing exercise (taking inspiration from a set of scenarios all based on dialogue).
  • The reading-sharing-critiquing of written works by members of the group.

 A 10 minute writing exercise…

The first task on the agenda had been a ten minute ‘warm-up’ writing exercise, taking inspiration from a set of scenarios based on dialogue – as listed below. These were adapted (by Mike) from Zoe Fairburns, Write Short Stories – and Get Them Published (Hodder Education, 2011).

Scenarios:

1. Write a conversation between two people, with a character whose way of countering loneliness is phoning up a call centre and engaging the listener in conversation.

2. Write a conversation between yourself now and when you were half your current age. Be aware of how language and attitude differs.

3. Write the final conversation between two people (end of business arrangement, a friendship, a romance?). Let their feelings show.

4. The “cold call”: One person is trying to persuade another person. (Doesn’t have to be selling a consumer product). The pair have never met before. Write their dialogue.

5. Write a conversation between a carer and a person being cared for. Make use of (subtle or unsubtle) conflict and tension.

The goal had been to produce a free write narrative, a poem, a flash fiction, a short story – or any other literary form that had inspired us at that moment.  I had chosen scenario number 1.

I had created a screenplay / dialogue piece / telephone conversation between two characters. Here is ‘Phone Call’ – which was edited following the writing meeting.

—–

Phone Call

The phone rings. The call centre guy reads an outside line on the display. He thinks it is unusual that a member of the public has managed to get through to his line directly. Telephone numbers were never advertised, and all outbound calls were marked ‘unknown’ – so that customers were unable to return calls. He picks up the receiver.

– Hello. C… c… c… can I speak with Alan Davison please?

– Hello. This is Alan Davison speaking. May I ask who is calling please?

– Not just yet. I do have a good reason to call you. I called to tell you that I am lonely.  I have been lonely for years – I know you are the person to wash my loneliness away.

– I’m sorry Sir, but we are unable to provide professional support. We sell car insurance. Can I suggest you call the Samaritans?

– The Samaritans cannot help me like you can, Alan.

– Excuse me? Who is this speaking?

– It’s your b… b…brother. Luke. I guess you were never told about me, right?

– Sorry Sir, I think you may have the wrong number?

– I know this is a shock. I know you will never believe my words over the telephone – how about we meet?

– I don’t think that is a good idea, Sir. Is there anything else we can help you with today?

– Yes. Meet me tomorrow morning, outside your work building. Say, eleven?

– I’m afraid that won’t be possible Sir.

– Then if you are unwilling to cooperate, I suggest you look me up on Facebook to prove the situation.

– How will that prove anything?

– Because we are identical twins.

End

—–

Following the ten minute exercise, we were given a worksheet detailing what can be shown through dialogue. This was adapted (by Mike) from Zoe Fairburns, Write Short Stories – and Get Them Published (Hodder Education, 2011).

 How to Write Effective Dialogue

 Using Direct Dialogue:

  • In a story, direct speech benefits from fizz, sparkle, movement and a sense of “conflict” between people.
  • Aim to make it obvious who is speaking from the dialogue itself, so the reader / listener doesn’t become confused. Otherwise best to use “he said” or “she said”.
  • Good to practice to avoid resorting to melodramatic speech verbs to make the dialogue seem more interesting e.g. “he exclaimed”. A better technique is to put the drama into the dialogue itself.
  • Similarly, good practice to avoid relying on explanatory adverbs – “he said shyly”. Let the words speak for themselves.
  • In real life people often rely on stock phrases, repeat words, talk in circles – you can make use of this, but in a story you can do so more sparingly (rather than wear out a reader’s / listener’s patience and interest).

What you can show through dialogue:

  • Relationships between people – Affection or insult. Formal or Informal. Tact or Aggression. Condescension or Respect.
  • Origins – National, regional, class differences (avoid stereotypes though).
  • Age – 7, 17, 47, 87 year olds all speak differently. Teenage slang words vs. old-fashioned terms. More limited or richer vocabulary. Rambling vs. speed of communication.
  • Attitude to “conversation” – Interrupters, sentence finishers, contradictors, ignorers, avoiders, or people who turn the topic of conversation back to themselves.
  • Attitude to “self” – Trailing off and not finishing sentences. Checking with the listener that they agree – “do you know what I mean”.
  • “Obsessions” – Using repeated phrases, recycling favourite topics. Obsessions can be significant or mild.
  • “Lies” – Evading answers Exaggerating. Excluding information. Providing excess, unconvincing detail.

In addition to discussing the points on the worksheet, the group also covered other aspects on the subject of dialogue.

  • Pacing – how shorter speech can speed up a piece of writing; and longer speech can slow down the pace of writing – all depending on the effect the writer wants to create.
  • Overheard conversations – one member of the group had recommended using a notebook to capture snippets of conversation. I informed the group that lyricist Michael Stipe (of music band, R.E.M) undertook this practice regularly for his song writing – and that many snippets can be heard in the lyrics of their songs and in the title of the band’s albums. Automatic for the People was apparently a phrase that Michael overheard in a restaurant – when the waiter had advised customers that food was ‘automatic for the people’ (as in self service).
  • One character completing another character sentence for them – how often do we struggle to find the last word we want to use in a sentence – and in the time it has taken to think of the word, someone else has found it for us? I know I do this quite often – especially so on tired days when my brain is still in sleep-mode.
  • Action and setting – rather than have your characters just talk it out, have them continue with their actions and task – have them move around – let them connect with their environment. Remember, nothing is still in drama – even if the character is seated at a table – he is bound to be flicking a cigarette, swirling a cup of coffee or yawning.

The reading-sharing-critiquing of our own written work…

My flash fiction ‘Freedom’ was critiqued by the group. The reaction to this story was mixed; some having loved it to the point of wanting to pin it on their wall, while some curled away from it due to its minor horror / dark / pain content. This led me to think about the horror genre and how people can feel and react to it so differently.

Before I dig deeper into the discussion that took place, I will start by adding, that I wrote this piece after a very tired day at work. It was one of those days when my body and mind was exhausted, yet was also in a kind of thoughtful and reflective state. I had arrived home and questioned life and it’s routine – I’d asked myself ‘was there really any escape and ultimate freedom in this life, from work, from repeated pattern?’ Now, please don’t get me wrong, I love life and I love my routine, but on that particular day I was completely worn-out and thinking how nice it would be to stay in a position of freedom forever. And so I decided to allow all of these emotions evolve into a story.

Read the story Freedom

When the group began to discuss the story, the first word that came up was ‘pain’. One writer seemed to recoil at the idea of pain and blood, and the need to have to experience this to achieve her ultimate freedom. Another writer explained that he did not think the themes were horrific in the slightest – that we are all born into this world in pain, with blood – and that the themes are a normal part of our existence.

Another writer also saw it is a ‘watch what you wish for’ – which was quite an interesting take on the plot. This raised thoughts like ‘maybe we should all be happy and content our lives. May be the ‘wanting more’ is ultimately what causes us unhappiness – that it is about living in the now and not the past or future.’

It was very interesting to see the in-depth take on themes of the story – because originally, to me, the story was one that that had only expressed ‘escape’ – nothing else.

Some writers found the story Kafka-like and dreamlike – the fact that everything the character experiences does not possess full evidence of it actually happening– for instance, the writing just appears on the mirror – she does not see anyone or anything write it. This questioned the reliability of the story and the integrity of the characters mind.

franz-kafka

A writer had also mentioned the actual structure of the story. He liked how the story was split into two parts – the first part, the beginning, is where we live the characters’ dreams – and the second part, the ending, is where the dreams are played out and we experience them with her. This also led on to specific word-use in the story. Words such as ‘scrawled’ had a menacing, insidious feel – adding to the horror of the story. Some writers had mentioned the symbolism in the story – that bathing was a means to cleanse the soul – the perfect setting for the ultimate cleansing of her life.

I finished the discussion by informing them of an ending that I decided not to add the story – mainly because I wanted the reader to interpret it and end it in their own way. But for me, in my world, I pictured the character breaking the glass of the window, flying out towards her faraway land –  wherever that was, and ultimately achieving her escape.’

The next piece of work to be critiqued was a poem written by another writer. The title was called ‘Critique for the Day’. This had a fairy-tale quality and structure, which was nicely fused with darker words and themes of the piece. The writer had confessed after the discussion, that is was an autobiographical piece that came to be written because he always found himself concerned with his own thoughts – and how much they could be portrayed by others if he were to share them. A comment was made by another writer (before the writer confessed) that we ‘all assume the protagonist was human – when it could have in fact been about an ice-cube or an insect.’ There was nothing to assume the subject was human actually – and so this thought led me into thinking about the wonderful world of animation.

The last critique was on a poem – a selection of observations that all occurred to people at the same moment in time – lunchtime. I had commented on the humour which mostly occurred in the habits of the characters during their meal break. It made me think about comedy and how humour may be at its best when we hear or read about habits and moments that we all have in common but rarely share with each other. I also mentioned that the story reminded me of CCTV – a camera moving around on all the characters at the same moment in time – in my mind I pictured a series of moving pictures. It was asked if all the characters were related, and I guess all the readers were expecting some final answer in the story to show that they were. In the end it was revealed the only way they were related was in the essence of time. This was kind of difficult for me to grasp, being a writer of stories – and I guess I have to learn to accept that some pieces are not always stories – but are there to exist purely as themes, emotions, thoughts, concepts and rhythms.

Dylan Thomas’ Under Milk Wood was mentioned as being the inspiration behind the poem. The writer had commented that it had been his goal to capture the minute details of everyday life, just like Dylan had. I think this concept of ‘minute detail’ is a brilliant tool for flash fiction. I believe one minute detail (whether it be an object in the setting, the habit of a character) can light up a story like a lightning storm.

under milkwood

I hope you found some of the ideas in this month’s write-up inspiring. I am loving these sessions – they are certainly opening up my mind to new ways of thinking and seeing things – as a writer and a reader.

Until next time, happy reading and writing!

Donna x

©2014.alittlebirdtweets

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The Rickmansworth Writer’s Group

Hello Readers,

This week, I attended the Rickmansworth Writer’s Group at Costa Coffee – in Rickmansworth. I had always wanted to attend a writing group, so when I saw this group advertised locally, I seized the opportunity. It was wonderful to meet other writers – to share, read and discuss written works.

Our group organiser was Mike Loveday; a published writer who teaches writing to adults in community settings. He had set out a mini agenda for the three hour session, which included;

  • A 10 minute writing exercise (a photo prompt)
  • The reading-sharing-critiquing of our own written work
  • A discussion on the different methods of writing

 A 10 minute writing exercise…

The first task on the agenda had been a ten-minute ‘warm-up’ writing exercise. Mike had showed us a photograph of a man lying on his back, on a lawn; holding and looking through a camera. Half of the image had been purposely concealed with a piece of paper. Mike had said to us ‘Describe what you think might be happening in the picture. Now write for ten minutes.’ Having gazed at the photograph for a few seconds, we had then taken to our pens and paper. The goal had been to write with imagination; to produce a free write narrative, a poem, a flash fiction, a short story – or any other literary form that had inspired us at that moment. I wrote a flash fiction called ‘Balloon’.

Balloon

His hands twist around the camera. Through the lens, he searches a great perspective. On the horizon he sees a hot air balloon, floating in the sky. He is left unsettled, for in the basket stands a boy; he is smiling, waving back through the lens, from miles. The boy must have spectacular vision, he thought, for no human could possibly see me from this distance. Their eyes lock. He knows that the boy he sees through the lens is far from human. His blank eyes show it so.

When the piece of paper had been removed, and the photograph revealed, it had shown a huge snake spiraled around the man’s body – its face peering directly, menacingly, into the lens. We had all chuckled at the odd discovery – it had been quite a different image from the ones we had imagined. Some of the visions that we had conjured had been dark, fun – some even pornographic! These pieces had not been shared with the group.

The reading-sharing-critiquing of our own written work…

We had then taken turns to read our own written works to the group. One of my own flash fictions called ‘Doppelganger’ had been critiqued, in fine detail – which was very eye-opening! The critique had taught me that each of us can, and often does, visualise written works quite differently from each other. That sometimes, the images the writer intends to portray through words can be quite different from the images that are conjured by the reader.

My story had provoked a discussion about word choice in a narrative, and how one word can strengthen or weaken an entire piece. Words such as ‘darkening’ was mentioned as being strong– for it had portrayed an ever-changing environment – and if I were to have used the word ‘dark’ it could have had felt quite static. ‘Oddly’ was said to have been a strong word – and that it had a more powerful effect than the word ‘odd’. ‘Red-perfumed’ was deemed a weaker, hyphenated word; one of the readers had been unable to visualise the two words together as they had suggested two different ideas. ‘Attire’ was also said to have sounded formal in comparison to the other words within the sentence. I had been asked if my word choice had been intentional. My reply had been ‘they came out naturally at the time; and the selection of words would have been dependent on the mood I was in at the time of writing.’ Had I just left the office when I conjured ‘attire’? Had office work inspired my inner speech? This critique had highlighted to me, the importance of word choice; that it is a very powerful element in writing – the correct word can make a piece of writing light up; the wrong word choice can diminish a piece into oblivion.

The female protagonist in the story had been described as being rather elegant – and it was mentioned that the era was the only time when it was considered ‘sexy’ for a woman to be smoking cigarettes! Some had been able to visualise the woman smoking clearly, as though it were a scene in a film; and this had been due to the readers having been aware of the ‘Film Noir’ genre. It had been said that metaphors such as ‘Hitchcock’ and ‘Bates Motel’ had aided the reader in visualising the story better. However, some readers struggled with visualising the piece, having had no idea about the ‘Film Noir’ genre. This had led me to raise questions – ‘what impact do previous experiences, memories, have on the impact of the written material that we read in the present?’, ‘Do writers need to portray and adopt ‘universal visions’ in their writing, for them to be clear to a wider range of readers?’

Sinister, had been used to describe the overall feeling and tension in the flash fiction. I quite liked this comment, as it had fitted nicely into the genres that I write in. Flowing, had been used to describe the narrative style; mostly due to the similar sentence length throughout the piece. I had been asked ‘why does the protagonist want to go to Bates Motel?’ and ‘how could this possibly happen if it is a fictional place?’ I had not thought of any of these questions when I had written the piece – because my desire, my attention, my focus, had been entirely in trying to express the emotionally disturbed woman – and her longing to imitate an idol. Others had answered ‘it doesn’t have to be a real place’ and ‘it could be a dream’ – and I those answers summarize the essence of fiction; the writer does have the power, the freedom, to design his and her own worlds – wherever they may be. I had learned a lot from three questions – I will now try to read and view my own writing from the perspective of many different kinds of readers. I will try to imagine what questions a romance reader might ask about one of my horror stories – what questions a science fiction reader might ask in one of my thriller stories. I will learn to constantly ask myself ‘why’ – why am I writing that word, sentence, and scene? Am I expressing what I want to say in the best possible way, to the array of readers that are in our universe?

At the end of the critique, a writer called Vivien Maier had been mentioned as being someone I might find inspiring. I have made a goal to research her this week. What a beautiful name she has!

At this point in the session, we had a well-earned coffee break. I must say, a private meeting room inside Costa coffee is the perfect setting for a writing group – it conjures images of Paris and its café writers; smoking, sipping espresso, whilst writing in their notebooks – La bonne vie, darlings!

Next a writer had read her poem. The ‘untitled’ poem had been about a woman, remembering her youth, grieving for her love, and finding consolation in a library book (in which she escapes from her hectic life). The poem had provoked both sad and humorous emotions in the readers – the sad parts had grown sadder – providing the reader with an increasing emotional punch. The first two lines had painted a setting, an atmosphere ‘dark, washed-out grey’. This had cleverly linked with the third line and the character’s depressed emotions. The poem had finished with a last line, and a clean closure. This had raised the question ‘Is it better to leave a poem, a story, open or closed? Some had favoured the open option, as this gave the reader room to complete the story themselves – also allowing the writer a pressure-free ending. Some had favored the closed option, as this gave the reader a concrete answer – and gave the writer contentment in that their work was received fully. I think both open and closed options have their advantages and disadvantages; I guess it all depends on the individual piece.

We had then discussed authors that worked in a similar style to the poem. Some names that had been mentioned were; Sylvia Plath (The Bell Jar was referenced as being a favourite piece by one of the writers – an English teacher), Yeats, Sophie Hannah and Wendy Cope.

Next, a writer read his poem. This poem had adopted a rhythmical beat – with every first and third line rhyming. It had played on themes of humour and patriotism. I had noted the choice of words in the poem, and how they had all contributed to the themes of the piece. Again it had made me think about how important word choice is in any written piece. The themes had worked perfectly with the uplifting rhymes. The writer had used a very dated word and had fused it with simplistic language – which I had found to be very effective. There had also been a very clever element to the poem. In one line we were made to laugh – then in the first word of the line that had followed we were made to read ‘laughing’ as a word. I found this a superb way to provoke emotion in the reader one minute, and then next, have the reader read a word describing that emotion. It had made me pause at that moment at the sheer genius of it! I may try this trick in one of my own flash fictions in the future. I’m not sure if this is a recognised literary technique or not?

At the end of the critique, Tony Harrison had been suggested as a writer to research; based on their similar poetic rhyming styles.

Next, a reader had read her short story. It had been highly descriptive, and we got to know the protagonist and other characters through narrative.  It had been mentioned that dialogue could have strengthened the piece by bringing the characters to life through interaction. Weaving background into the ‘now’ of the story was also mentioned as a method of strengthening the piece – rather than overwhelming the reader with backstory before the story actually begins.  It had made me think of the early stages of plotting outlines of stories – the method of juggling scenes and chapters around on cards. I find this a very creative way to play with a story.

A discussion on the different methods of writing…

When the critiques had finished, we had each read a few passages from Raymond Carver’s ‘On Writing’ – new short story theories (Page 275). We had discussed the different methods that writers use; how some writers are content with free writes and numerous drafts – allowing the story to lead them; how other writers are avid plotters – visualising each scene so that they are in control of the story. I believe Agatha Christie had watched her entire novels play out in her mind before even picking up a pen! We had also discussed how different ages, deadlines, and academic teaching also have an impact on the way we write. The truth was, every writer has their own methods of writing – there is no right or wrong way. Also, the writing world is constantly evolving – and the methods we love one day may be abandoned the next.

During the end of the session I had been asked what I thought about flash fiction as a form of writing. I had answered with ‘It’s a great way to get a story completed quickly – unlike a novel which can take months, years.’ I also mentioned the word ‘brevity’ – the cutting of non-essential words – and that I believe this is an essential part of the form. I expressed that without brevity we are merely rambling – and not producing flash fiction at all.

After thoughts…

In those several hours I felt I had learned and achieved much. I had created a written piece in ten minutes. I had offered advice and received advice on writing. I had found confidence in reading aloud. I had discovered new writers, and new ways to analyse written works.

The session had also brought back good memories of college and University days. It had reminded me of how much I loved (and still miss) the study environment; it has that sense of belonging and purpose. And, this is why I intend to continue to attend the monthly sessions.

Have you ever considered joining a local writing or reading group? It’s a great way to meet like-minded people and improve your knowledge in the subjects.How about creating a group yourself?

Coffee and Writing

Until next time; happy reading and writing!

Donna x

©2014.alittlebirdtweets

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Daphne

“The storm had come up strong and wild. I remember there were three men, and a woman. They were screaming in the midst of the deafening wind. The noise was unbearable. I tried to run to help them, but they fell into the river before I could reach them. Then I looked up to the clouds and I saw it…it was looking at me.”

Daphne sat awkwardly, rocking back and forth upon the hospital bed, her knees clenched to her chest, as she recounted the storm to Rowena.

“Saw what? What was looking at you, Daphne?” Rowena asked, “Honey, I know this is uncomfortable for you, but it is important we revisit the storm so that you can be free of your recurring nightmares. Do you understand?”

Daphne stopped rocking. She stared up at Rowena with vacant eyes and formed her mouth into a large oval and screamed, “I saw the evil of the storm…and it is going to get me and you, all of us! It’s just a matter of time!”

Rowena shuddered and didn’t reply. She recorded the conclusions of her session with Daphne in her notebook.

Day 53: Symptoms of psychosis; namely ‘lack of insight’. Daphne is still experiencing frequent psychotic episodes. She is totally unaware that her delusions/hallucinations are imaginary.

“Thank You, Daphne, that will be all for today.” Rowena said, getting up to leave.

But before she reached the door she stopped suddenly as she listened to the cold words that were leaving Daphne’s mouth.

“Rowena, you are next.”

©2012.alittlebirdtweets

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