February 2018: From sentence to story

Tonight our writing group did an exercise where we started with a basic sentence, then talked as a group about what we could do to bring it to life.

We had a bit of fun coming up with our basic sentence. There were six of us tonight, so we went around the table adding one word per person until we had our example: ‘John drank copiously after his sacking’.

Then we asked the question: how would we bring that story to life?

lost job image
Image by David Shankbone at https://www.flickr.com/photos/shankbone/6219944289/

Continue reading “February 2018: From sentence to story”

December 2017: Writing freely

Tonight we did a writing exercise. We thought we’d pick a random sentence from somewhere a bit different, so one of us pulled out her Spring 2017 issue of Unlimited Human! The random sentence we picked to start our free-writing was:

“For kids seven and older we teach them a rapid induction before the movie.”

We all started with that sentence and wrote freely for 7 minutes.

Image from https://www.flickr.com/photos/pseudobulb/35800751360 

Our stories of course went in very different directions, mainly around how we interpreted the word ‘induction’. One went with hypnotic inductions, another went with training inductions for children and another went down the path of orientation prior to watching a horror movie.

What we discovered is just how beneficial free-writing can be.

Continue reading “December 2017: Writing freely”

November 2017: What is love?

Tonight’s writing exercise came from the current Hunter Writers Centre project called Read, Write, Love, where members can send in pieces about love to be published on the website.

One member of our writing group was having trouble coming up with the initial idea of a story, and we wanted to explore why this was so difficult.

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Image by Modesto del Río at https://www.flickr.com/photos/modesto/27391744543/

Love is an abstract concept, so for our writing exercise we used a concrete object to focus our attention and write something about love. We had to all pick something from the table in front of us and connect it to love.

Writing about love is relatively easy, but there’s a risk of it being cliche. Love stories have been done over and over, and the challenge is finding something unique about love. Has love been so overdone that it’s impossible to write something that’s never been done before?

After five minutes we read our free writing and discussed what worked and what didn’t work.

Out of the four of us here tonight, three of us wrote ramblings about love that went nowhere. But one of us nailed it. The strawberries on the table told a short but deep story of love, with a tragic ending (and might just end up being a fantastic piece of microfiction… watch this space!).

In summary, we agreed that when developing a story, love couldn’t be taken simply on surface value. It’s a concept that has many layers and could be looked at from many different angles.

The story that worked was about a strawberry, which stood in place for love. The story used a concrete object that represented love, but didn’t speak directly about love itself.

Have you ever written a story about love? Share your comments below.


October 2017: What’s in a title?

pile of books
Image by Julie Jordan Scott at https://www.flickr.com/photos/juliejordanscott/4248190717/

Tonight we did a writing exercise inspired by titles.

We looked at the list of Manbooker Prize winning stories and their titles. Each person chose the title that appealed to them the most and wrote for 5 minutes, inspired by that title.

Here’s what we found.

One of us wrote a piece for Howard Jacobson’s The Finkler Question because she was curious about the concept between looking for answers versus asking more questions. She also wanted to play with the link between ‘think’ and ‘Fink’.

The Blind Assassin by Margaret Atwood was another’s choice. She was drawn to the incongruity of the title, as she wondered who would hire a blind assassin. Therefore it set her up for a challenge that the story needed to solve (and ended up being that the assassin wasn’t literally blind).

One person chose Sense of an Ending by Julian Barnes because she wanted to write about the idea that a sense is not definite, but it’s there. She wrote a story about a couple in a relationship who shouldn’t be together, but neither wanted to be the one to end the relationship.

Life of Pi by Yann Martel was another’s story title. She wanted to play on the connection of Pi to maths, and develop a character who’s life was viewed through a mathematical lens.

And another person chose The Inheritance of Loss by Kiran Desai, because the title reminded her of a family story, and she developed the story around that.

It was a great exercise to look at all the Manbooker winning titles and think about what makes a good title. We discussed the importance of a good title, because it’s the first thing that draws a reader to a story. It appeals to our curiosity, our ability to connect it to our own lives, or the play on the meaning of a certain word.

The title supports the story, but sometimes a title’s true meaning won’t be clear until after we’ve finished the story.

Pondering a title can ignite our creativity. Usually we write our title last, after our stories are already set in stone. This exercise turned that process on its head, as we wrote the story around the title for a change.

What is your favourite story title? Have you ever considered writing a title before writing a book? 


September 2017: The tail end

Tonight we did a writing exercise that Sally brought in by the Magic Violinist called How to End a Story.

Before we started we identified that we all had our preferred types of endings. ‘Ambiguous’ was popular within our group, as was ‘bittersweet’. We agreed we rarely write tragic or happy endings. The exercise intended to challenge ourselves by writing an ending type that we wouldn’t usually do.

The exercise talked about 4 different types of story endings:

  1. The “happily ever after” ending
  2. The tragic ending
  3. The ambiguous ending
  4. The bittersweet ending

We started all our stories with the same phrase: “The lizard was enormous, at least three feet long. It also wasn’t in its tank.” We had to write the ending first, in a style that challenged us. Then we had 10 minutes to complete the exercise.

Iguana, Watch, Lizard, Reptile, Animal, Dragon, Scale
Image by http://maxpixel.freegreatpicture.com/Animal-Scale-Iguana-Lizard-Watch-Reptile-Dragon-2039719

We learnt that we often gravitate towards a preferred ending. We all found it quite challenging to think outside that style and we had to push ourselves to get to the different ending.

The mere fact we had to start with an ending was challenging for most of us. For on person, the ‘the ending first’ approach was a comfortable one, as that’s how she usually writes (starting with the ending, then problem solving to get the characters to that ending). But for everyone else, it was an entirely new concept to follow.

Our stories went down paths they don’t usually go. One person found it exciting to work towards that bittersweet ending, and another discovered a surprising taste for horror, following her tragic ending story.

What is your preferred ending style? Please share your ideas below.


August 2017: Distinguishing voice

Tonight we had a discussion about VOICE, and considering all attendees to our writing group today were female, whether a female can effectively tell a story in a male voice.

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Image from https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:EH_Voice_Box.jpg

One of us brought in a story she’s working on for the upcoming Catchfire Press Competition due at the end of October. It is written in first person deep point of view, but the challenge is that the main character is male. We discussed whether the story had a effective male voice, and how the author could strengthen the male voice without coming across as stereotypical.

The main character is a father taking his 3 year old daughter to a swimming lesson. Three aspects we discussed about the story, that could be changed to make it sound more masculine were:

  • We changed ‘I avoid looking at the swim coach’ to ‘I’m not going to look at the swim coach’.
  • We removed the words ‘of course’ throughout the story, as we agreed this can sound feminine.
  • We changed the sentence ‘I push her feet into her shoes then take them off again, sigh loudly, and put them on the right feet this time.’ to ‘I shove her shoes on. For f#$%’s sake, they’re on the wrong the feet again, but I’m not changing them now.’

One of the group also mentioned that a great example that shows the difference between male and female voice is a book by Margaret Atwood called ‘The Heart Goes Last‘.

What do our readers think? What ways can you manipulate words to change the voice from male to female or the other way round?

July 2017: Holding on to this drainpipe

Tonight our writers group did a writing exercise by randomly picking a sentence from a random book Guards! Guards! by Terry Pratchett. We had 5 mins to free-write, starting our story with the sentence ‘Holding on to this drainpipe’. When finished, we each read our stories aloud.

Facade Drainpipe Decay Ram Cornice Structure
Image credit: http://maxpixel.freegreatpicture.com/Facade-Drainpipe-Decay-Ram-Cornice-Structure-526250

We were tapping into the very first idea that comes into our minds, and we discovered some pretty interesting things about how we each develop our stories:

  • The drain was a metaphor for depression (in fact, the drainpipe was an underground drainpipe, where for others it was a pipe on the outside of a building, some many stories up). The drain was a big black hole and the character was already inside, clinging to the grate above.
  • The drainpipe was literal, and introduced a problem that had to be solved (a person hanging from a pipe, 6 stories up, and the person needed to find a foothold, or a way to be rescued). One of the key elements of a story is an obstacle that a character has to overcome, and being stuck on a drainpipe was that obstacle.
  • The story developed around a recent event that we’d been discussing just prior to the exercise (the tragic death of Justine Damond). Justine was the girl in the story, and she was holding on to a drainpipe by a canal in America.
  • The story was driven around characters. The author threw two characters and a drainpipe together, and the story developed around that. The author understood the personalities and drivers behind the characters, so their actions came naturally from there.
  • The drainpipe was on the move. And the character was attached to it. It was a little quirky, a little humorous and got our palms sweating by the end.

This exercise made it clear that we all get our inspiration from very different places. As expected, our stories took very different directions, despite using the same starting sentence. However what was most surprising was the very different approaches we took to get those stories on the page.

What’s usually the approach you take when starting a story? We’d love to hear from you in the comments below.