Thursday, 14 March 2013

Leeds Writers' Festival 13 March 2013

Had an inspiring day yesterday.  I attended the Miles Salter 'Great Story Openings' workshop in the morning.  Miles has a book for teeneagers and a book of poems published (another one is due out later this year) and he is currently working on another story for 8-10 year olds.  Miles feels that the opening of a story needs to a) be memorable and b) make and impression on you.  He started by passing round a sheet of paper with the first lines of 14 famous novels.  My little group of three sadly only managed to identify six of them.  We discussed which of the lines intrigued us and which ones turned us against wanting to read the rest of the novel.  Interestingly, we all had differing choices except for all agreeing that we didn't like the first line of "My suffering left me sad and gloomy."  Surprisingly this turned out to be from Life of Pi, but of those of us that have read it, we didn't remember this as being the first line.

We were then challenged to write an atmospheric opening which references the weather but not people.  Here is mine:

As it hit the ground, the electricity ran free, burning its way through the flesh of the soil, fingers reaching into the unmarked grave.

Miles recommends intrigue, as in don't give the reader too much information at the beginning.  We then had a exercise where each of us had to choose from the following scenarios:

  • A man narrowling misses a train.  Something or somebody important is on the train and he is desperate to see/find them.

  • A child awakes in the night to hear strange noises in (or outside) the house they are in.

  • An (apparently) normal woman does a dramatic and unexpected thing in the middle of a supermarket.

  • A man or woman chooses to get into a stranger's car.

  • A boy witnesses a terrible crime.

  • A young woman discovers family papers that say she is adopted.

  • A man has a heart attack on a train/bus/plane.

  • Or something of our own.

I chose the normal woman doing something dramatic and unexpected in the supermarket.  This was followed by another exercise where our character have to find an object and use that as a way into the story.

Miles left us with his favourite quote 'Make them laugh, make them cry, make them wait.'

Over lunchtime there were 'Writing Out Loud' readings introduced by Dr Amina Alyal.

In the afternoon, I attended the 'Heroes and Villains' workshop with Alison Taft.  Alison has five novels completed, the third of which will be published later this year.  After introducing ourselves, we started by naming our favourite fictional characters and outlining what it was about them that made us like them so much.

Our first writing challenge was to take an age, a sex and a trait and come up with a character name that fits this trait.  Mine was 'the sportiest' and my 24 year-old female I called Anna Lightfoot.  The plot had to stem from what your character wants and this was that your character had to be at a meeting by a certain time that afternoon and it was a matter of life and death if they didn't.  We were then given our first obstacle that the character had to overcome in order to get there in time.  My obstacle was that the washing machine has shrunk all her clothes.

As we were writing this, Alison then gave us our second obstacle (mine was that the train she was on is hijacked by terrorists) and then a little writing time after that, the third obstacle (a crisis of confidence) was given out.  This resulted in my character having a hilarious, if slightly unbelievable, little story.

Alison explained that how we relate to characters in books is what we get from reading about them dealing with the obstacles thrown in their path.  How the character gets to their object of desire.

We were then given five questions that we had to answer for our character that we had come up with:

1) How did they get on at school?
2) What is their relationship with their parents like?
3) Who was their first love?
4) Describe their last telephone conversation.
5) What did they have for dinner last night?

All stories are the characters 'Want versus Need' and the external and internal forces that stand in their way.  The first inciting incident should tell us what the character wants and then each obstacle has to get bigger every time and can be self limiting, until they get to their object of desire.  Take your protagonist and give them an internal need (flaw).  Decide what they want more than anything else in the world and what they need more than anything else in the world, then give them 3-4 obstacles standing in the way of getting what they want and are designed to test their flaw.  For example Harry Potter wants to know who he is and wants to defeat Voldemort. 

Alison feels that stories provide us with a moral map for situations.  The obstacles both internal and external have to become more difficult, e.g. the biggest battle we ever face is often with ourselves, self-limiting beliefs.

If a character gets what they want and what they need (Disney ending)
If the character gets what they need but not what they want (ironic ending)
If the character gets what they want but not what they need (hollow ending)
If the character gets neither, then you are committing story suicide (nothing resolved)

Alison finished with a challenge to write the last story up to 3k words and said we could email it to her for feedback.

The day ended with the guest writers reading out some of their poems and their novels were also available to purchase at the event.

This was an excellent day, which I am definitely going to sign up to attend again.  I will also be sure to double check that my story openings adhere to the rules Miles has set and that I have given all my characters wants/desires/needs that can be satisfied to some extent (even the support cast).

1 comment:

  1. I enjoyed the day too - thanks for posting the notes on your blog so that I don't forget the main points we covered :)