What's it about?

This blog has a very specific purpose: it's a place to post prompts for creative writing during the time of the lockdown. Initially it was for the use of my writing group, as we cannot for the time being meet in person - but I want to open it up to anyone who'd like to have a go at creative writing. I very strongly believe that writing is good for you: while you're writing, you're off somewhere else - you've escaped! And that can only be a good thing during lockdown.

Do sign up to be notified by email when a new prompt is posted - usually on Thursdays - and I would love to hear how you're getting on in the comments. Have fun!

Thursday, 30 April 2020

Using an object

We have a guest! This is Jackie Marchant, who has made this lovely video about how to use an object as a starting point for a story. The video was originally made for children, but I think Jackie's suggestions will work for anybody. So do have a go - you can use the model of a train which Jackie talks about if you want, or choose an object of your own.

As Jackie suggests, there are all sorts of different ways you can go with this. You could write a story, or the object might trigger memories of a person or a place you might associate with it.

Anyway - over to Jackie!

Jackie's most recent book is a fantasy adventure, The Sword of Red. She has also written a series for younger children, about a character called Dougal Daley.

Dougal Daley
The Sword of Red

Thursday, 23 April 2020

Stories in pictures

Some years ago, my mother-in-law was living in a care home. She had a lovely room, with French doors that opened onto the garden, so that she could watch the birds. All her life she had loved books, but recenly, she had lost the ability to read for any length of time: we never could quite work out whether this was becuse of her sight, or because she couldn't retain the memory of one page when she went on to the next.

Anyway, one day when I went to see her, she was gazing at a picture on the wall of a French town. "I've been looking at it for hours," she said serenely. "There's so much going on in it, isn't there?"

There's a lot going on in the three pictures below, too. Have a look at them all - a really good look. What is the setting? The people in them - what are they like? What are the relationships between them? What's happening in the picture?

Then you could go on to think about the artist's intention. What reasons were there for his/her choice of the objects/places in the background? Is his/her interest in the people alone, or is she/he trying to make some more general point?

Then choose one as a focus for your writing. You could:

  • Simply describe what you see, and see what happens - it may develop into something else, it may not.
  • Home in on one particular character, and imagine what they're thinking and feeling - describe that. (This is a monologue.) Is there something crucial about this moment in time? Does the character have a secret which is about to be revealed, something s/he wants to say?
  • Find a story in the picture. What happened before the events of the picture? Or is the picture the beginning - does the real story happen afterwards?

The Dance, by Paula Rego
David Hockney's portrait of his parents
Home from the Pit, by Ron Gribbons. Gribbons was one of the Pitmen Painters. You can find out more about them here.

Thursday, 16 April 2020

Let's go for a walk...

One thing we can still do at the moment is go for a walk, and what a blessing that is! But we are limited to places close to home; this will be an opportunity to walk further afield - even if only in your dreams! 

(Of course, if you want, you can choose a walk you're enjoying at the moment. The picture below, for instance, shows the beginning of my usual walk.)

So, what I would like you to do is to take us on one of your favourite walks. Try to remember the sounds you heard, the scents you smelt, as well as what you saw: really put yourself there, in that place - and that way you'll take us there too.

Photographs can be useful prompts. The one above is of a street in Lucca in Italy - the walk doesn't have to be in the countryside.

The walk can become a story, if you like. You could use the character you created last week if that works. Ask yourself questions: what was the character doing there? How were they feeling - excited? Apprehensive? Worried? What was round the corner? Who, or what, did they meet? What happened next?

Or it can be a recollection, a memory. Your choice.

Have fun!

Thursday, 9 April 2020

Creating characters

For many writers, characters are the most important part of any story. Author Inbali Iserles has created - for the lockdown - a series of videos about how to write a novel. I settled down happily to watch the one on plotting (watch it here) - which is not my strongest point; but found that for Inbali, plot really comes from her characters: they drive the plot - not the other way round.

Here's a lady you might recognise. Is she always this calm? Would she really rather be somewhere else? And is sludge green really her favourite colour?

So let's create some characters - and the stories, hopefully, will follow!

First, a very simple exercise. Think of a person you've seen around; not someone you know, but just somebody who's caught your eye, whom, perhaps, you've wondered about. (If it wasn't for the lockdown, I'd send you out to do some people-watching in a coffee shop or in the park, but alas that's not possible, so you'll have to dredge your memory banks. That man who walks the streets with a hunted expression on his face; the elderly woman who's always exquisitely dressed, but never seems to talk to anyone.

Now, describe their appearance. You might, at any stage, find yourself  becoming intrigued by your character, getting involved, telling their story, and that's fine - just do it! Follow the thread!

But if not, start to ask yourself some questions about them.

  • What name would fit this person?
  • What piece of clothing would s/he be happiest wearing?
  • Does s/he have any characteristic habits? (Eg pushing hair back off face, fiddling with a necklace she always wears, driving like a maniac?) Or maybe s/he has a pet phrase - 'At the end of the day...', 'Least said, soonest mended...'
  • What does s/he care about most in the world?
  • What is s/he secretly frightened of?
  • What does s/he most want?

Now - write about a day in the life of this person. Maybe a significant day - someone's birthday - maybe their own - or wedding, or graduation. Write about their day, from their point of view - and try to show all you've learnt about their character through what they do, how they do it, what they say, how they say it.

So not: Vivian was very frightened of deep water, but: Vivian flinched as she gazed into the still, deep water of the lock. She moved away from the edge. She couldn't help but remember... etc.

But don't agonise, and don't worry about getting everything in - just do what Inbali says, let your character lead the way - and have fun!

Thursday, 2 April 2020

Dialogue and speech punctuation

Before everything changed, my writing group had asked me to do a session on speech punctuation, and that's what this will mainly be.

(Please note: if you just want to get on with the writing, scroll past the information about punctuation and go straight on to the tasks. The technical stuff is there because my group asked for it: PLEASE don't get stuck on it. I absolutely wouldn't want you to think you can't write unless you know every single fiddly rule about punctuation!)

But a word about content, too. People quite often say that they find writing conversation difficult. A couple of tips here. 

People don't talk as they write. Speech is a much less considered thing - we speak quickly, because we're responding to what the other person's saying; we're thinking about what we're saying, rather than how we're saying it. And we use tricks to help us speak more quickly - so for instance, we tend to use verbal contractions a lot: we are more likely to say, for example, I don't think you should do that, rather than, I do not think you should do that. So just using verbal contractions will instantly make conversations sound more natural.

Bear in mind also that we don't write down speech exactly as it is spoken. Think of all the times we say um and er when we speak; or the times when we wave our hands about or use some other gesture to help us express ourselves. If we put too many ums and ers into dialogue, it quickly becomes tedious to read - and of course we can't use gestures and expressions when we're writing: we just have words - and punctuation.

Talking of being tedious - let's just touch on dialect. This is a bit of a minefield. I think that if you try to convey dialect exactly for very long, it can be just that - tedious. You have to find a way of suggesting it, of conveying the rhythm and flavour of a particular dialect or accent, without trying to be too precise about every word. But possibly not everyone would agree with me about that!

First, please read the notes I've made below on speech punctuation. Then put it all into practice as follows. It doesn't have to be entirely dialogue, but it would be good to use a fair bit!

  • Rewrite a section (or all, if you like,) of a fairy story. Keep the dialogue lively - try to put a different slant on the story while you're at it!
  • Or, if you want to be more current - think of a situation arising from the present crisis, and write a dialogue between two people: eg in a supermarket queue, between two nurses, between a parent and small child who doesn't understand why life isn't how it normally is. (This doesn't have to be very long: as always, see how it goes.)

Speech punctuation

I know that speech punctuation causes some problems, so I’m going to attempt to create a simple guide. Here goes!

Direct speech: this is when you are writing the exact words that someone has spoken – and this is what we’re dealing with here. For example: “Don’t open the door to strangers while we’re out,” said Grumpy to Snow White.

Indirect, or reported speech: this is when you’re reporting what’s been said: eg Grumpy told Snow White not to open the door to strangers while the dwarves were out. Do you see the difference? The reader can tell what was said, but the writer isn’t using the speaker’s original words.
          What we’re going to be looking at is direct speech – you don’t need any special punctuation for indirect speech.

Inverted commas
You use inverted commas to mark out the words that are spoken. You can use either double commas – “Hi!” – or single ones – ‘Hi!’. It doesn’t matter which, provided you are consistent.

If you need to include a quote within the piece of speech, you use the other kind. Eg: “You know what they say – ‘Better be safe than sorry’,” said Bashful shyly.

Other punctuation
A piece of speech always has something to punctuate it at the end: eg a comma, a full stop, an exclamation mark, a question mark, an ellipsis (that’s when you trail off with three dots – and it is conventionally three, not more). This piece of punctuation goes inside the inverted commas. Eg: “Of course I won’t open the door to anyone!” said Snow White, laughing. “I’m not stupid! Now off you go, and stop worrying…”

NB If the piece of speech is inside another sentence, it will not end with a full stop. So, compare:
          “I hope she’ll be all right,” said Grumpy anxiously.
          Happy smiled. “I’m sure she will. And she locked the door after us, don’t forget.”
(But if we put that the other way round, it would be: “I’m sure she will,” smiled Happy. “And she locked the door after us, don’t forget.”)

We’ve often talked about this. It’s pretty simple really, and it’s all for the sake of clarity – to make it easy for the reader to follow who’s saying what.
          So: when a different person starts to speak, you start a new line – and you indent, as you do for a new paragraph. You do this even if it’s just one word, as follows.

          Snow White was curled up in a comfortable chair, reading a book of fairy stories and eating a chocolate biscuit, when she became aware of a noise. Someone was tapping on the window! Thinking one of the dwarves had forgotten something, she jumped up.
          But it wasn’t one of the dwarves. It was an old woman. Her face was in shadow because of her hat, but she looked tired as she leaned on her stick, and Snow White instantly felt sorry for her.
          “Hello,” she said.
          “Hello my dear. Could I come in for a rest, do you think? I’ve come a long way through the forest, and I’m so very tired.”
          Snow White remembered what the dwarves had said. “No, I’m sorry. I can’t let you in.”
          “Why not?”
          “Because I promised.”
          “Oh!” The old lady sounded so disappointed – and so tired – that Snow White felt guilty.
          “Well, perhaps…”

I think that covers most of it, but if anything’s not clear or if I’ve missed anything out, just ask.