One of the writerly activities I enjoy is co-running sessions at Bath Central Library with Alex Wilson www.writingeventsbath.co.uk. We organise blocks of four sessions and for two hours, use prompts and exercises to get people writing. There’s a mixture of beginners and more experienced writers. Yesterday we started a series with several newcomers and a few who’d been before. One of our regular participants said although writing groups which critique drafts and give feedback, are good and useful, she loved coming to our sessions to get ideas. There’s always something she takes away to develop. And it’s fun.
Our groups follow the same structure each week. First, we suggest sending the inner-critic on holiday – nobody should have a critical voice hampering their first efforts. Then we begin with free-writing – five minutes of stream of consciouness rambles and ask writers to highlight anything interesting afterwards – a word, a phrase, a dream. After that, it’s straight into a writing exercise. We’re great believers in launching in, so Alex hands out art postcards and tells everyone to writes a story connected to the image. She gives some pointers. Someone will have fallen over, or got lost and this will begin the story. They must introduce a sound, a colour and a smell.
I try this exercise out myself and am amazed, as always, how a time limit and specific instructions focus me. Two minutes before the end, Alex tells us to finish the story. A moment of complete blankness and then the end of my story emerges. We have to give it a title. Another second and that’s done too. Now, we’re told to cluster ideas which might deepen the story. I feel pleased. I managed to create quite a decent Flash fiction and have ideas of how to improve it. I even like my title. We get people to talk in pairs then read out their titles and the essence of the story in one sentence only.
Time for a break. Penguin biscuits and a drink are an essential component of our groups.
Our theme for this four week series is Beginnings and after the break, I talk through a handout listing 12 cliched novel beginnings which bore agents. We discuss this for a few moments. One of the cliches is waking up in the morning from a dream. Of course an exception to this rule, is the beginning of ‘Rebecca’ by Daphne du Maurier. Most people remember the opening sentence; ‘Last night I dreamt I went to Manderley again.’ The group decides the name Manderley is a big hook. But the following paragraph of the novel also lures the reader in.
We’ve had postcards as prompts, so now I introduce mining memories to find ideas for beginnings. I ask writers to go back to a memory of being a child in a kitchen they knew well. As well as including sensory details, they are to write a story beginning focussing on something happening in the kitchen. It doesn’t need to be that dramatic; I give an example. My mother suddenly begins to dance in our family kitchen. This is very unusual and out of character for her. Again, with little hesitation, everyone begins to write. It’s just for five minutes, but it’s amazing how much gets down on paper.
The final exercise is to find an idea for a beginning prompted by random words. I give them ‘a lie’. They are to think of a lie they have told as a child (or adult) and write it down and its consequences in note form. To fictionalise it and ramp up the plot, they can make the consequences worse. There’s a local story competition closing next week with ‘A lie” as one of the themes. I suggest they could write a story based on their lie and enter this competition.
All that remains in the last half an hour is for people to read out some of their work from the morning. We like to encourage this. There is no critical feedback – these are first drafts. Everyone reads out something, even if it is just one sentence and it’s fascinating to hear all the different voices and what people have made of the different exercises. There’s lots of good stuff and potential for completing stories. The atmosphere has been light-hearted and supportive and people go off looking happy and eager to write more. That’s the main thing.