Wednesday, 23 December 2020

Writing on-line during Covid by Helen Chambers


Covid has played havoc with creativity. Mine definitely, and probably yours. For a while, the only writing I managed was in my newly-named diary, Journal of the Plague Year (with apologies to Daniel Defoe). I dipped into his account for inspiration and was initially shocked by his reporting of daily death totals. Now of course, I’m obsessively familiar with graphs, charts and the R-number.

One positive aspect of being at home more has been the burgeoning number of author talks, courses and opportunities made available online at reasonable prices, or even better, for free.

Organisations like Moniack Mhor, the Scottish Writers’ Centre, were early finds for me. I’ve listened to Maggie O’Farrell on Hamnet (Maggie cradled a poorly cat whilst talking to us), Val McDermid on crime (at her garden table enjoying tea and cake) and most recently, AL Kennedy cleverly sharing highlighted parts of a ‘lockdown’ short story draft she’d written, whilst explaining her process.

At Arvon, I enjoyed an excellent Joanne Harris session (you can always tell a teacher) discussing structuring a novel from her shed - the magical shed in which she writes and tweets! A smaller writing group, MK Writers, made widely available a wonderful online talk by Tania Hershman and David Gaffney, short-form authors, who expounded their varying story creation process (she writes from word prompts, scientific discoveries and images, he writes from life - overhearings, signs, actual events).

A cancelled face-to-face event I’d booked months previously also went online. Stephanie Carty’s superb ‘Psychology of Character’ was converted from a day in London to a two-week period of emails and video-clips, which enabled time for reflection between activities.

Tania Hershman offered 5-consecutive days of emailed notes and prompts, at the end of which I had written a new story - and this was instrumental in finally getting me writing fiction once more.

The Scottish Book Trust expanded their once-a-month 50 word competition to weekly, and we at the Wivenhoe Writers all tried short-short-short writing (see our earlier blog) We also successfully moved our group meetings online, until we can meet properly once more.

With lockdowns and restrictions likely to continue into the New Year, let’s keep our eyes open and make the most of the available online opportunities. Happy Writing New Year!

Tuesday, 23 June 2020

Microfiction on the theme of 'Rose.'

As a writing group exercise, Helen came up with the theme of  'Rose' as the basis from which to write a microfiction.  Microfiction is a subsection of Flash fiction and can be as small as fifty words.  It's pretty challenging to tell a story with so tight a word count.
Here are some of the results, one of which is a series of Haiku (but still under 50 words).

by Clare Hawkins

‘Gentle Hermione looks delightful next to the Viburnum,’ she said.
Speaking as Hermione herself, I’d have preferred to have been further away. You can never be too sure with Viburnum. Then when I saw the grubs on his leaves I really panicked.
‘Shift me.’ I wafted my strongest scent at her, but she didn’t heed, didn’t see his leaves going brown, or smell the stink, until the next day.
‘What can we do?’ she squealed when she came dead-heading.
I tried to prick some sense into her.
‘Spray him! Diazinon, Paradichlorobenzene, Paraquat, anything, just do it! I’m your prize rose!’

by Helen Chambers

Rosemary: leggy, blue-grey, Mediterranean type with dry sense of humour, seeks another with an interest in climbing, growth and possibly to establish an anchored root network. Applicant must complement foliage, evergreen nature and promise to keep warm during leaner times. Only aphid-free specimens need apply. Photos required.

by Sue Whytock
All thorns, these bloody roses. Ended up wrapping the stems in kitchen towel - Snowman and Snow Dog on it. Well I can’t get to the shops, can I? It’s either that or bloody bog roll.

We’re not close neighbours. I’ve always found her a bit stuck up; but before all this, we’d wave and pass the time. Her Colin was the outgoing one. Always whistling.

Should be lillies really...can’t be helped.

I put them on her doorstep anyway, just rang the bell and crossed back to mine. I would have told her to mind the thorns. Can’t be helped. 

Haiku in four verses
by Philippa Hawley

Thirty-eight years you and me
Red roses and fizz? 

Rose fields and pink champagne or 
Fish and chips with beer? 

No presents just a card and 
Let’s leave it at that.

Lucky people you and me
We have all we need

Sunday, 3 May 2020

Character and conflict

I’ve just read the brilliant ‘Uninvited’ by Liz Jensen (thanks to Helen for the recommendation). The book is described as: ‘A masterclass in creepiness – as unsettling as Margaret Atwood or Kazuo Ishiguro’.

The protagonist, Hesketh, has Aspergers and during the novel is thrown into situations of constant chaos and change, aspects of life he finds difficult to manage. Hesketh is at ease with Venn diagrams and fact, rather than the strange, murderous events which unfold throughout the novel with, seemingly, no logical basis.

The ‘Uninvited’ is a masterclass in how to put your character into conflict, and something I think we can all learn from.

A good story always has conflict at its core, either external (a difficult relationship or a physical obstacle) or internal (fear) and that conflict must have a satisfactory conclusion.

Ways to create conflict include:
  • Pitting your character against themselves
As in the ‘Uninvited’, part of the conflict is within the character and the character must face their fears or limitations.
  • Pitting your character against another person
In Harry Potter, the obstacle is the loss of his parents and his awful step-family. He must escape them to find his true nature.
  • Giving your character legal conflict
Many historical novels use women’s rights as an obstacle for conflict. How will your character succeed in an era where the law is against her?
  • Physically trapping your character
You might use a prison or an island - somewhere the character needs to escape from.
  • Using nature
In Jaws this is the man-eating shark. It might also be a tidal wave or a volcano erupting.
  • Using technology and science as conflict
Frankenstein is a good example of the destructive nature of science, as is Jurassic Park. Humans using science to create monsters.
  • The supernatural/unknown
The War of the Worlds is a good example of using the unknown to create conflict. Who are the alien species and why are they killing humans?

The most successful novels combine internal conflict and external conflict, as well as showing the cost of that conflict. In the Uninvited, the personal conflict is Hesketh’s battle with his Aspergers. The external conflict is him trying to find the reason why the human race is imploding, before it becomes apocalyptic.

Thursday, 5 March 2020

Reservoir 13 by Jon McGregor - Breaking the 'rules'

I found Jon McGregor’s ‘Reservoir 13’ an utterly absorbing read: a teenage girl disappears near a moorland village and a whole community is affected, in the immediate aftermath and in the years to come. The mystery of her fate underlies the stories of the novel’s many characters, whose lives and experiences change and develop along with the seasons and the surrounding landscapes.

The novel is also interesting because of the way the writer skilfully violates the standard advice frequently offered to amateur writers of fiction. There are no paragraph divisions, the points of view and locations often alter swiftly, within the space of a page, and the direct speech is not conventionally presented, but integrated within the narrative. The third person narration often describes events, people and topography from a distant, ‘bird’s eye’ view, then swoops in nearer, to reveal individuals, their relationships, their voices and their internal lives. The characters’ separate story lines are variously linked to the girl’s disappearance, the passing years measured by the distance since the event.

Here is an extract from Chapter 1, which illustrates some of these features. The people in the village are still greatly affected by the disappearance of the girl.

At the butcher’s for May Day weekend there was a queue but nothing like there once would have been. Nothing like the queue Martin and Ruth needed to keep the shop going. Martin had been keeping this to himself, although it was becoming obvious and nobody asked. Irene was at the front of the queue telling everyone what she knew about the situation at the Hunters’. She did the cleaning there, and knew a thing or two. You can imagine what it’s like for the girl’s parents, she said. Having to watch us all down here just getting on with things. Ruth saying but surely the village couldn’t be expected to put life on hold. Austin Cooper came in with copies of the Valley Echo newsletter and laid them on the counter. Ruth wished him congratulations, and he looked confused for a moment before smiling and backing away towards the door. Irene watched him go, and asked if Su Cooper was expecting. Ruth said yes, at last, and from the back of the queue Gordon Jackson asked would there be any chance of getting served before the baby was born. A breakdown truck came slowly down the narrow street, with a red LDV Pilot van hoisted on the back and a police car following. The van was wrapped in clear plastic. Martin wiped his hands on his apron and stepped outside to watch it pass. Gordon came out with him and lit a cigarette. Martin nodded. That changes things, he said. Fucking break-through is that, Gordon said. The swallows returned in number, and could be seen flying in and out through the open doors of the lambing shed at the Jacksons’ and the cowsheds over at Thompson’s and the outbuildings up on the Hunters’ land. The well-dressing committee had a difference of opinion about whether to dress the boards at all this year. Under the circumstances. There’d never been a year without a well dressing that anyone could remember………… 

This section presents a wide range of elements of plot, setting and characters, slipping from straight narrative into free indirect speech then to sudden changes of topic and location: Martin’s awareness of his failing business, the personality of the village gossip Irene, the Cooper’s fertility problems, the progress of the police investigation, Gordon Jackson’s personality, the wider countryside and seasonal village activity.

These devices create a rich and compelling picture of the lives of the inhabitants of a village community and the cyclical nature of country life, as well as an intriguing mystery which stretches over thirteen years.

Monday, 3 February 2020

Five stages of grief by Clare Hawkins

Five stages of grief

That morning, (I could not have watched all night),
came the denial stage: this wasn’t true.
It was a monstrous error misconstrued,
until the facts were faced. Then anger flamed
at those too stupid, ignorant to see
how they’d been duped by lies and promises
a better future. But, what if we tried
to bargain with them, show them what they’d lose,
get them to change their minds. Impossible.
What’s done is done; what’s black is black.
Depressed and powerless I nurse the loss
and try to move on to the final stage
Acceptance that part of my identity
has been torn out, the country’s turned its back
on reason and humanity. This state
is surely the most painful of them all.