Archive for the ‘Fiction techniques’ Category

Structure is one aspect of fiction writing that seems to stump beginners. One of the principal anxieties is what to leave out. Well, less is more. Pare things down to a racing chassis – including nothing unnecessary or gratuitous – and build up from there. Here’s a helpful tip – try using the Story Spine, famously devised by Ken Adams for Improvisation in the Theatre. Condense your observations of an event into:

  1. Scene setting – eg ‘Once upon a time’
  2. Trigger point – eg ‘Then one day’
  3. Development – eg ‘And then . . .
  4. Crisis – eg ‘And then . . .’
  5. Resolution – eg ‘And ever since then . . .’
  6. The Moral of the Story is . . .

And now, write on.

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At the beginning of any Lonely Furrow Company group session, I like to encourage people to feel ‘in the room’. I use a few Open Space guidelines to settle people down – such as ‘Who-ever comes are the right people’ and ‘Whatever happens is the right thing to happen’. For added safety, I add the Chatham House Rule: ‘What is said in the room stays in the room’.

And then we begin – usually with a free-write on ‘Why am I here?’

I run two sorts of creative writing groups. One is concerned with creative writing and publication. The other has as its focus the well-being of individual participants and creative writing is the means to achieve this. At the point of the first free-write, the nature of the group becomes clear.

Writers concerned with the art and craft of creative writing and the possibilities of broadcasting and publication concentrate on technique – themes and inspirations, characterisation, plotting, location and descriptions, dialogue, editing, language and style and how to approach publishers. They are honing their skills. They may enjoy the ride but the finished product – story, poem, memoir, drama – is their goal. (This blog is devoted to this sort of creative writing.)

On the other hand, in a therapeutic creative writing group, the possibilities of self-exploration mean that technique doesn’t matter. In these groups, creative writing may take the form of journal writing, unsent letters, dialogues, expressions of altered time perspectives, and creatively-written accounts of imaginings, dreams and visions.

These writers may take pleasure in the writing itself. But, for these writers, it is the process that counts. Nothing written can be ‘wrong’. The purpose of the writing is to observe what is going inside the writer and what is going on around them and to bear witness to this. It is not to produce a work of Art.

As, for example, journal therapist Kate Thompson explains in Therapeutic Journal Writing (Jessica Kingsley Publishers 2011): “for most people who practise therapeutic journal writing, the product of their process will be greater understanding, behavioural change or enhanced well-being rather than the writing itself.”

And, released from concerns over spelling, grammar and punctuation, writers – who never thought of themselves as writers – begin to use words fluently to feel into the darkness within and shed light. (The writing blog I have developed for this group is named Light for Shadows (http://lightforshadows.wordpress.com ))

There is another major difference between the two groups – the desire to ‘share’. Creative writers who want to produce stories or plays are not writing in a vacuum. Part of their purpose in writing at all is to ‘share’ – whether this is reading aloud to a group or being published.

But, within the therapeutic creative writing group, seeking to know themselves better, the ‘sharing’ is optional. For some, it’s enough to have borne witness to their lives with only themselves as audience. They may then choose to share with a trusted A N OTHER. Or they may choose to destroy what they have written. Whatever they choose doesn’t diminish the power of the process itself. And their choice not to share is a valid strategy and must be respected.

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There’s far more to speech than words. Whether you want to write plays, field memorable characters in your novel or simply learn more about people for professional and personal reasons, you need to be able to read the signs.

Here’s an exercise to improve your attentive listening skills – which will particularly help you as a writer creating characters.

  • Take your notebook to a public place.
  • Settle down and listen. Not to the content. To the way speech is delivered.
  • Make notes on the voices you hear:
    • Think about pace – is the speaker speaking quickly or slowly, interrupting their ‘dialogue partner’?
    • Are they waiting for their dialogue partner to finish – without really listening – so they can then say what they want to say
    • Are they finishing sentences for other people?
    • Are they greeting each statement or question with a pause and what impact is that silence having?
    • Do they have an accent? Is a regional flavour present in their choice of vocabulary or the sound of their words?
    • What does this tell you about their educational background or class?
    • Do they have favourite/characteristic phrases which they repeat?
    • What is the tone – high, low, aggressive or appealing?
    • While you are listening, does this change? How does it change?

By doing this, you will develop some guidelines for when you are creating your own characters. But, be careful. People don’t like to be listened to, un-invited. One of my clients was embroiled in a heated exchange for listening and note-taking too obviously. Be discreet!


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As Summer fades into memory, creative writers among Out of the Box Workshop participants are going to look closely and briskly at technique. And, when we’ve mastered the techniques used in writing fiction or in writing creative non-fiction such as memoir, journaling and travel writing, we’ll move on to a Creative Writing for Publication series! Of which, more later.

Lonely Furrow Company Events 

Current Listings:

(All events will take place at The Conservatory, 28 Park West, Heswall, Wirral CH60 9JF unless otherwise stated.)

September 10th 2011 (10am – 12.30pm) Creative Writing Techniques – Memoir and journaling. (£20)

September 24th 2011 (10am – 12.30pm) Creative Writing Techniques – Finding your voice (Part 2) (£20)

October 22nd 2011 (10am-12.30pm)  Creative Writing Technique – Plotting (£20)

November 26th 2011 (10am – 12.30pm) Creative Writing Techniques – Memorable Characters (£20)

December 3rd 2011 (10.am – 12.30pm) Creative Writing Techniques – Place and setting (£20)

January 21st 2012 (10am – 12.30pm) Creative Writing Techniques – Travel Writing (£20)

In the Autumn, place and dates yet to be fixed, Lonely Furrow Company will also run a series of monthly lunchtime meetings for ‘blocked’ creatives – people who don’t know where to start or can’t keep going. These will be based on the programme devised by Julia Cameron in her international best seller The Artist’s Way. You’ll be expected to bring your own lunch – soft drinks, tea and coffee provided – but you will – more importantly – have the opportunity to monitor your own progress while supporting other creatives through their recovery. A low fee is meant to encourage as many creatives as possible to commit to this programme.  Please contact me on elizabeth@lonelyfurrowcompany.com for further information and to register your interest in joining us.

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In July, three Out of the Box Writing Workshops are due to run  – led by published writer Elizabeth Gates MA.

July 2nd               Finding your voice

This is the holy grail of the writer’s art and craft. And, in this workshop, we’ll look at the elements of word and phrase, content and theme. You will then be able to tell the stories that matter to you in your own way.

July 9th                Memoir and Journaling

Have you or members of your family kept journals? Do you want to start?  This workshop will teach you: how to write, how to organise your materials, and how to do justice to the materials others have left you.

These Creative Writing workshops will take place at The Conservatory, 28 Park West, Heswall, Wirral CH60 9JF (10am – 12.30pm). Cost is £20 per participant. For further information, please contact Elizabeth on 0151 342 3877 or email elizabeth@lonelyfurrowcompany.com

July 20th               Style – academic, blogging and journalism. You’re an expert. You want to reach a wider audience but how do you do this? Articles on the Internet or in print could be the answer. But you must adapt your academic style to these other media. And this workshop will teach you how.

Unless otherwise stated, all professional development and communication Out of the Box workshops will take place at The Conservatory, 28 Park West, Heswall, Wirral CH60 9JF (1pm – 3.30pm). Cost is £25 per participant. For further information or to book an in-house workshop for your organisation, please contact Elizabeth on 0151 342 3877 or email elizabeth@lonelyfurrowcompany.com

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Every year, on the Isle of Berneray, the selkies – the young seal people – leave the sea for one day only. We take off our sealskins, and dance on the sands, at the water’s edge. We laugh and run and feel a freedom we do not know in our own form. We play at being humans. And, although only for one day, it feels good. A delicious trick.

But, for many generations, our seal mothers and fathers have told us, “Beware the humans who live on these wild islands. They long to be like us – to survive in the sea and know no cold – to play in our world as we can in theirs.”

But we – being young – are not afraid.  We always believe we will win the trick. But – oh, my children – I must tell you the story of how I almost lost you. And of  another grief which came to me instead.

I was the most beautiful of all my sisters and longed to dance on the White Sands with the Prince of Seals, the most handsome and the strongest of his generation.

The Day came. We hauled ourselves out of the turquoise Sea and slid out of our skins. The pile of our pelts grew and grew – black, white, silver, dark brown and mine. Glimmering gold in the sun. The most beautiful you could hope to see.

And then, my children, oh how we danced, your father and I. On sands white as silver against clouds black as steel. We loved our youth. But, then the day was over. My sisters, my brothers, laughing, sought out their skins from the pile.

Then I wept. The skins were gone, my brothers and sisters were gone and I was alone. My beautiful golden skin – it was nowhere to be found. The Prince of Seals was calling me – I could hear him across the waves of the evening sea. His call was lonely. It echoed the loneliness of my own heart. But I could not come back to the sea.

Then, I realised, I would have to find my skin myself. No-one else could help. I curled up on a rock and thought.

Only a human would have had what it took to take my beautiful skin. Certainly, on this lonely, wild island, nothing else had thumbs. But also, nothing else would want to steal something for its beauty, alone. What other use could an empty sealskin serve?

Across the green mounds behind the strand, I could smell the peat fire. Only a human would need  a peat fire. I became sure – my pelt was somewhere near fire. I followed the scent on the air – smoking, bitter, ancient – speaking of earth centuries shared by the sea. Salt in the wind.

My legs pained me to walk. The sun was down to the rim of the now black sea and I, I was desperate to reach the peat fire. The world was suddenly cold, suddenly hostile. Its magic was dying away. I was facing nothing I had ever known.

Then, outlined against the firelight, I saw him. A human, a fisherman, hulked in the darkness, listening to my weeping. “Mortal man!”, I cried out, “mortal man! If you have taken my skin, please give it back to me. Without it, I cannot go home.”

The memory of my Prince of Seals bit into my heart and I wept. But, I was destined to find someone to love me that day. The fisherman led me to his hearth, to his peat fireside, and warmed me with cloth he had woven himself from the wool of the sheep he tended on the Isles and washed with the rain of the Isles’ heaven and dyed with the fruits of the Isles’ rough earth.

I was enchanted. And I stayed. And I bore him a daughter. A beautiful child – entirely perfect – even down to the webs of skin between her tiny fingers and toes. She was so beautiful, your sister. It broke my heart to leave her.

But leave her I did. It happened this way. I loved the fisherman. In my way. I tended him. I tended his cottage. But I could not forget that I did not belong.

Then one day – as I dusted – as human wives do – I saw something gleaming gold in the firelight. Hidden up in the thatch, what I had searched for – all that time – had found me. It was time to go.

At first, I didn’t understand that the choice before me was either/or. I just felt compelled to explore the possibility. I kissed my darling, knowing I was going on an adventure, and would not see her till morning. I ran to the shore, across the white sand and down to the turquoise sea. I drew on my golden pelt, dived from the rocks into the deep and gleaming water and swam towards the setting sun.

After a time, I was aware of a seal swimming alongside me. Your father had waited all those years. And now we could dance again. We reclaimed our sea and I never went back to walk on the land. Which is how you and I come to know each other.

But, I do sometimes swim near the Isle again. And she walks there. And I call to her. She hears the longing in my call. But she does not understand. I call and I call my love to her and she does not understand. . . .

Writing Games

I wrote this story from the point of view of the Seal Wife. When it is told traditionally it is written from the point of view of the fisherman.

1)Rewrite the story from the point of view that excites you – the fisherman, the seal children, the Prince of Seals, the human daughter?

2) Change the form of the story. Write a poem, a ballad, a dialogue . . . anything you want.

3) Consider the most significant moment for you of the story. What made it so striking, important for you? How did the writing help this impact – sensory detail? Moral dilemmas expressed in what imagery? How was the tone created?

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We all love stories. And story-telling is a uniquely human skill. It’s unlikely that a flock of birds, for example, would spend their time telling ‘sad stories of the death of kings’, as Shakespeare, a master story-teller, put it.  Unless of course, these birds are descendants of Jonathan Livingstone Seagull. But then, that would be another story. You see how it goes.


Stories allow readers to understand other viewpoints in other worlds – ranging from other people’s minds to other people’s cultures.  There has been a growth, for example, in novels which explain a Muslim viewpoint – Sebastian Faulks’ A week in December or A Thousand Splendid Suns by Afghan author Khaled Hosseini. These novels are best sellers because people want to understand the Muslim point of view and these novels seem to help.


Readers achieve this understanding because they engage with the novel’s story.  Put simply, we as readers enter the dream world of the novel and we learn what that world and those people are all about. And, as writers, to engage them – to take them by the hand and across the threshold – we use plot and structure.


Writing game:

  1. Choose one of your favourite books
  2. Which character do you like best and why?
  3. What is the problem or conflict your hero/heroine has to deal with?
  4. What is the most important moment in the story for you?
  5. Are you happy or unhappy about the way the story ends?


If you repeat this with several novels, you’ll begin to understand why these are your favourites.


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