Thursday, 11 October 2012

Creative Writing Workshop with Stephen May

This event was part of Morley Literature Festival and was held on Wednesday afternoon at Morley Library and it was an inspiring and useful workshop.

Stephen started off with an exercise where we'd to write a 50 word mini-autobiography that had to include one lie.  We read them out and the other members had to guess which part was the lie - most of us struggled to guess the lie.  Stephen used this exercise to demonstrate that there are plenty of stories out there, but yours is unique and only you can tell it your way.

He then related a tale about a guitar he used to own and asked us to pick an object and describe it in as much detail as possible, including another section telling the story behind it.  This was mine:

It is the first thing you spot in the cabinet, garish in its sea of normality.  Colours catch the light in a pastel embrace as the ample curves welcome you in their warm hug.  A tough lid to open which reveals quiet beauty within.  To the untrained eye it is old and ugly, cold and pitted with scars, but to me it is a memory that cannot be replaced. 

This describes a porcelain pot left to me by the Gradmother of my husband, who was a woman that I was told before I met her, that I would hate and she would hate me.  She was in fact a warm and generous woman who had so much love to give, if you only opened yourself up to receive it.

Stephen explained that this exercise was the opposite to what writers do on their own.  You are pushed to produce something, instead of writing as if you had all day to do it.

We then swapped a shoe with the person next to us and had to look at the shoe and describe it in detail, i.e. not just the colour, make etc. but who would buy it, wear it, what it says about the owner.

They are the colour of sand after the rain.  The frivolous girlie pattern spreads over the front, yet it has a sensible 'can't fall over too easily' heel.  A large buckle screams for attention and the material is moulded to the shape of her foot, even when she is not wearing it.  Size 38, but still manages to look delicate, a shoe that tries to stay creative in the constraints of its tame colour.  The pits of the pattern marked, no, stamped, across the front, declaring that it is not the same as all the rest.  Buckle holes strain wider, evidence of too many nights dancing with no thought to anything but the music.  The stain of the buckle brands the side in charcoal lines of dominance, reigning it back in, though the leather is soft to the touch around it.  At the front it is raised, spiky, begging you to notice that it has lived, that it is loved.  A thread hangs loose near the buckle, nestled next to the the elastic hanging towards the heel.  The buckle stands to attention, ready to be used once more.  Butter soft metal shaped by eager fingers, sings out its practicality.  Underneath, the pattern is not yet worn; this stamp of femininity in masculine colours.

The next exercise was to use the voice of one of your parents before you were born and try to write a scene in third person from their point of view.  This was so that we can raise questions in our writing, but refuse to answer them.  Sir Arthur Thomas Quiller-Couch said 'Make them laugh, cry, wait.'

We then worked on a structure check-list to put in our writing, to help write a novel/story greater than its parts, the eight-point narrative arc:

1) STASIS - where you are at the beginning of something e.g. Once upon a time
2) TRIGGER - something happens that causes a
3) QUEST - your hero/ine has to do something
4) SURPRISE - something they were not expecting that forces a
5) CRITICAL CHOICE - difficult decision for the protagonist
6) CLIMAX - the consequences of the decision
7) REVERSAL - e.g. employed/unemployed, orphan/learns who parents are
8) RESOLUTION - the happily ever after (though it can be left open-ended)

Stephen recommended the book 'Write a novel and get it published' by Nigel Watts, the Arvon Foundation and the Regional Read scheme which is currently featuring his book 'Life! Death! Prizes!

The next task was to write a story that incorporated the 8 narrative points, a secret we had each been given and to include an old lady, a £10 note, a young boy, a railway station and who you would imagine the owner to be of a shoe to be (Stephen showed us a girls brown suede knee-length boot).  The secret I was given was 'I can speak 11 languages' and I wrote a piece about a man who had removed himself from society, so much so that he no longer spoke, let alone used his 11 languages, who has to face his demons in order to save the life of a young boy.

Stephen admitted that this was a machined way of doing things, but that this will give us the embryo of a story to work on with the eight parts, a foundation for us to build on.  The aim of the workshop was to get a skeletal structure for your story so that you have the arc to enable you to go away and flesh out those bones.

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