I attended the Tessa Hadley Masterclass today with two of my fellow CWG members at Ilkley Literature Festival today.
A practical hands-on masterclass with experienced tutor Tessa Hadley, Professor of Creative Writing at Bath Spa University and author of six novels, who regularly has stories published in The New Yorker, Granta and the Guardian.
There were fifteen attendees in total and after introducing ourselves Tessa informed the group that we would be looking at five different beginnings to a story to see what you can do/where you can go with a scrap of a story.
We first looked at The Jungle by Elizabeth Bowen who was a stylish writer and we were asked to spot the mind snags in the first page and to think about what we thought would happen next. We underlined the 'telling' sentences that appeared to foreshadow what was to come and the information that was given on the character just from the beginning. We understood that the 14 year old girl was at Boarding School and that she did not have a best friend, her description of the garden as a Jungle proved her imagination and that there was a sinister probability about it with the dead cats juxtaposed with the secret dog paths that pointed to the character being away from safety for the first time. It felt like she was trying to escape and wanted real things to happen rather than the imagination that she can get in books.
With this sense of foreboding, my partner for the exercise and I came up with different scenarios for what could happen next:
1) Being followed - good/bad intentions
2) Come across a tramp - new friend/foe
3) New friend but one with a secret
4) Come across an animal - new friend
5) Entrance to another world (her go inside or someone come into hers)
I was also toying with the idea that she was a ghost (that was why she did not have a friend and wanted to escape her confines) who is stuck at the Boarding School and this is her way out to the next life.
There was a lot of information in the first page and we were asked to think of an object with a chain of consequences, finding a terrible/beautiful moment. The path you choose will make the moral universe of your story and the writer sets up a contract with the reader in the first page/paragraph that plays with their expectations. From this you have to decide whether the work can carry the weight of your serious message in the story. You have to decide how your narrator knows what they know and how/why to reveal or hide this information so as not to leave your reader feeling betrayed but enriched by the ending.
Tessa then revealed the ending of the story, which was totally different to our scenarios, that had echoes of some of the things that some of the other groups had eluded to. The character Rachel makes a friendship with an elusive and different to the norm girl, Elise, and she brings her to the Jungle, but they fall out leaving Rachel bitter. In the end they make friends again and it is a love story of friendship.
We were then given a set of beginnings to stories and asked to speculate on what we thought would happen next, whilst looking at the different ways to launch the universe of story. Then we should drop a catalyst, something outside/extra to the information we have and how deliberate plot making really pushes your story making.
We were given Scarves, Beads, Sandals by Mavis Gallant and we decided that the only way it could go from the gamut of information/backstory was an affair.
A very informative workshop and for further information on Ilkley Literature Festival events, see www.ilkleyliteraturefestival.org.uk