And because I like my classes to be ‘interactive’, do feel free to post your comments, replies to questions and even your writing from the class exercise(s), if you so desire…
OK, here goes. Right, well we’re starting off with a couple of notices:
1. It’s National Short Story Week (17th – 24th November) and this website has got lots of interesting goodies on it, including short stories to read and listen to, tips and recommendations. To tie in with that, we’re going to be looking at a prize-winning short story today.
2. Mumsnet, in association with literary agent Janklow & Nesbit, have announced a new novel-writing competition.
You need to submit the first 8,000 words of your novel to email@example.com along with a 500-word outline of the remaining chapters, by 30 January 2015.
Janklow & Nesbit guarantee that every entry will be read by one of their agents. (And by the way, although you have to be registered with Mumsnet or Gransnet in order to enter, it’s not obligatory to be a parent or a grandparent in order to do so, so don’t let that put you off).
3. Anyone doing NaNoWriMo? No… OK, let’s move on!
At this point, we see who’s done some homework from last week (‘Minute poems’ and Woman’s Weekly Serial ideas…) and we spend some time listening to the poems and ..er.. well only one person has an idea for a WW Serial – and he’s already sent it off to the editor, so there’s not much to say on that!
We talk a little about ‘endings’ of books and stories.
They’re just as important as beginnings but it’s so easy to be disappointed by an ending and it can ruin an otherwise enjoyable story. I ask for examples of novels whose endings have ruined the experience for readers (I say ‘Gone Girl’ as my contribution but there are dozens – almost every book I read, to be honest!).
Endings don’t always have to be ‘happy’ or clear-cut. You can have sad or ambiguous endings, in which you leave the reader to draw their own conclusions but it’s a thin line between ‘ambiguous’ and ‘confusing’. The last thing you want is for the reader to say, “Eh?! Is that it?” and to be turning the pages, looking for the rest (or to throw the book across the room).
Endings must be satisfying and logical and should tie up at least some of the loose endings. And if possible, don’t make your ending too obvious from the start. Many women’s magazines reject stories because it’s immediately clear, how the story is going to end.
Make sure it’s your characters who solve their problems. Don’t rely on ‘deus ex machina’ – ie: a convenient resolution that comes out of nowhere (eg: your previously poor and starving hero wins the lottery! Or is saved by ‘divine intervention’, or when Harry Potter is defenceless in a fight, a phoenix suddenly brings him the Sorting Hat, with the Sword of Gryffindor conveniently inside it…)
We read the winning story in the Writers Bureau 2014 short story competition, ‘Kissing Him Goodbye’ by Glenda Cooper – except, with a twist – I sneakily withhold the last few paragraphs and only give you the story up to and including the line “Still four guineas is four guineas. For that Jack Delinpole would kiss a flea-pocked dog.”
And during the coffee break (with ginger biscuits, no less), I give you time to think about how you might end the story.
There’s some time for writing when we reconvene and then we listen to some of the suggested endings before reading the ‘real’ ending – and the judge, Iain Pattison’s report.
It’s always useful to read judge’s reports if you can and particularly if it’s a competition that you entered. It gives you an idea of why the judge picked a certain story and what you need to do to hopefully get your story closer to that winners’ rostrum.
If you want to read the runners-up too, they’re here.
Homework: To write a short story that ends with the line: “And then the phone rang.”
I have brought a selection of objects with me and I spread them out in the middle of the table (see photo!).
A man’s glove; a car parking ticket; a heart-shaped stone; a pair of sunglasses; a badge that says ‘Totally Loved’; a magnifying glass; a toy monkey; a sewing kit; a bag from University of Sussex; a small picture of a temple in India; a gadget for weighing your case; a hip flask with a golfer engraved on it; a narrow pink scarf/belt; some knitting (a half-finished scarf which caused much mirth when I admitted I’d been knitting it for 2 years).
I ask you all to pick an object. Everyone looks very nervous.
Then, I ask a series of quick-fire questions and ask you to write down the answers without thinking too much about it. It’s quick so that there’s no time for editing or self-doubt. Just go with whatever comes into your head first.
This exercise, by the way, comes courtesy of the brilliant Avril Joy’s
newsletter. If you’d like to get it (FREE), just email her at firstname.lastname@example.org and she will add you to her list.
Here are the questions:
1. Who owns this? What is his/her name – give first name and surname.
2. Where are they? And what are they doing?
3. What time of year is it? How does the air around them smell, taste?
4. What are they afraid of?
5. What have they lost?
6. What do they wish for?
7. Who or what stands in their way?
8. Where are they going next?
Next, using your character’s first name as a starting point + a verb, start writing and don’t stop until I say so (I give you 5 minutes but Avril Joy recommends 10 – 20 mins). eg: John Spencer strolled through the park, admiring the flower beds full of bouncing daffodils…
We listen to everyone’s piece (or at least, those that want to read out).
Homework: Next week we’re going to look at screenwriting/screenplays so if you get chance, please have a look at some of the sample scripts on the wonderful resource that is the BBC Writers Room website.
Plus, we’re also going to be looking at ‘cat and dog poems’ (by popular request!). Please bring along your favourite poem in the feline/canine department, if you have one!
Thank you and enjoy the rest of your day!
Well, I may not have chatted with any class members but I did enjoy being part of the learning experience today. Thanks, Helen. Kate Hogan
Thanks for popping by, Kate. Hope you had time for a ginger biscuit and coffee in the break, at least..?
My goodness I’m exhausted, Helen! You do work us hard. I like the idea of reviewing a story but then working out how you would end it.
Tracy – I do work you hard! But I work myself equally as hard, preparing and marking it all! But it’s good for me! (I think?!)
Sigh. I do miss your classes, Helen. Unfortunately, still working for ‘the plod’ on Thursdays. Thank goodness I still have your blog to keep me going. I thought Glenda Cooper’s winning story was excellent. Really raced along for me. And, as you say, the judge’s comments were very useful. Must have a go at one of your exercises. I remember the button one we did with you and how we tried to remember the technical name for button phobia.
Hi Clare! You wouldn’t recognise the class now – everyone’s writing has really gone up a gear and of course, we’ve got new people. But if you ever get chance to come back (even though we’re ‘full’ I’m sure we could squeeze you in!) you’d be more than welcome. I thought Glenda Cooper’s story was excellent too – a worthy winner (and all in under 1000 words, which is no mean achievement!). Has your story appeared in PF yet, by the way? Hope I haven’t missed it but I suspect I probably have! Things are mad between now and Christmas but let’s try to meet up again in the New Year! x
Hi Helen. No, my PF story hasn’t appeared yet. But the Almond Press Broken Worlds anthology featuring my shortlisted entry is due out before Christmas, so a few friends may be receiving signed copies in their stockings 🙂 Likewise, it’s manic down here, too, but yes, let’s try to get together in the New Year. I still haven’t taken a trip on the steam railway yet! xx
Helen…what a great post and I loved joining the virtual class….I chose ‘a pair of sunglasses’ and ended up with a little story about a chap called Eric Percival who thinks he’s a PD… I’ve posted it here but hope everyone realises its a really a work in progress and was put together in 10 minutes. I thought it might encourage others to post what they came up with. As you know, I wish I could join a writing group or club but there’s nothing here in Italy. Any chance of a virtual class every week? I’d be happy to pay.
Eric Percival edges his way through the crowds of Chinatown. It’s eight O’clock Friday evening, July 10 and the air is heavy with the aroma of Cantonese food. The street merchants are stir-frying over open flames, the sizzling meats and vegetables sending steamy bursts into the air.
Eric looks over his shoulder to make sure he’s not being followed. He adjusts his sunglasses, pulls his fedora down over his balding head and puts his hand inside his jacket checking that his ‘piece’ is still inside the breast pocket.
It can’t be long now before he picks up the trail. He lost him only for a second outside Piccadilly Circus station and knows his usual route.
He sees him, the leader of the Xiu gang, disappearing into a side alley. Eric weaves his way through the crowd, his middle aged portly body ducking and diving, avoiding walking sticks, ladies handbags, small children and other obstacles in his path. He flattens himself against the brick wall and edges toward the corner. It’s dark in the alleyway. He reaches for his gun as he swings around ready to face his enemy, the evil gangster head on.
No one is there. The alley is dark and empty. There are no doors and no escape. The bastard has eluded him again. Eric replaces his gun and steps back into the crowded streets, picks up a bowl of noodles and makes his way back to the station.
Monday morning July 12, 5 am Eric arrives at work. Padlocks his pushbike to the railings, punches his card into the clocking in machine and makes his way into the staff room. He hangs his anorak up along with his rucksack from which he removes a small package and a paperback,
‘Mornin Eric, ‘ave a good weekend? Your mum packed you a decent sandwich today then? Watcha reading now? Not another Chandler book? You’ll be an expert on ‘im soon.’ Pete the foreman laughs and slaps Eric on the back.
Aw, Ninette, thanks so much for your kind words. I was a bit worried that it was all a bit silly and/or self-indulgent, so you’ve cheered me up! And what a great piece you wrote – well done! (worth developing I think!). I have thought about offering some kind of ‘virtual classroom’ or in-line teaching (in the past) but I just think it would be too time-consuming and bring back the dreaded Stress, which is always lurking around the corner. Maybe one day, when I’ve dropped a few other things that I do.. but in the meantime, I may well run my ‘virtual classroom’ as an occasional post again, so ‘stay tuned’!
What a great story Ninette, I can really see Eric in China town…I’m a huge fan of Chandler myself, so I can understand his obsession. And I’d love some virtual writing activities too, I’m in the same boat as you (though in France rather than Italy).
Thanks Philippa I’m glad you enjoyed my little story, it was fun to do… I am doing two online writing courses at the moment but they’re not exactly interactive. Perhaps we can meet virtually a couple of times a month? Exchange ideas and exercises? My email is email@example.com Feel free to drop me a line. I’m in Le Marche Italy.
Your classes sound such fun, Helen! Mind you, as I can only write in privacy (in the comfort of my own home) you wouldn’t want me there as I would be the one sucking the end of my pencil and staring out the window! Tracy knows – she saw me a t the WW workshop.
Wendy, that would be absolutely fine. I have other students in my class who also can’t ‘write on the spot’ (or with others around!). Unfortunately for them, it doesn’t stop me running writing exercises in the class because others in the group like them BUT I don’t force anyone to do them or to read out. Everyone has different styles of learning/working!
I would have loved to have joined your virtual class, Helen, but I’m so busy with work at the moment I couldn’t have considered it. However, will you be running later classes, say, in the summer?
I’m not planning anything ‘formal’ in the way of the virtual classes but I may well do another one over the coming weeks. Thanks for dropping by!
What a great idea to share your class online Helen! I’d have loved to join in but crazy busy right now – Nano has fallen by the wayside, alas….And I second Ninette’s plea for more virtual classes, being another non-UK resident. Though I totally understand the need not to take on too many commitments that take your focus off your own writing, so no pressure! 🙂
PS. Just read the Fish prize-winning story from 2012, pretty enjoyable: http://www.fishpublishing.com/Fish-Anthology-2012.php#roommates
The roommates one? Yes, it was good.. but long!! I was wondering when it was ever going to end..!
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