Crowded with letters – writing workshop

13 May

In the Festival Writing Workshop, Alice Jolly shares the elements of a compelling story: detail, viewpoint, structure and editing.

It is an excellent introduction to fiction and memoir writing on the last day of Swindon Festival of Literature. Usually by this point, winter has moved to summer and Lower Shaw Farm is the first to trap the rays. Sun on the Sunday previous baked both kids and adults at the Children and Family Day, but today a chilly wind is on the menu.

No matter. Inside the converted shed, teachers, civil servants, retired people, mums and dad warm up with homemade soup and flapjacks and hone our prose. Some have never written before, some are already published, so it will be a challenge for Alice to teach to that range.

DETAILS are introduced with two poems: Handbag by Ruth Fainlight (‘My mother’s old leather handbag / crowded with letters she carried / all through the war‘) and Death of a Peasant by Welsh poet, R. S. Thomas (‘Lonely as an ewe that is sick to lamb‘). The key is picking ‘one detail which will create a much wider world,’ says Alice. Both poems engage all five senses – it is so easy to linger on the observations of sight and forget the other ways we absorb a scene, a story and make memories. ‘Show not tell’. Make the reader feel the sadness of the character, don’t tell the reader a character is sad.

We are asked to create a character with four details – gender, age, occupation and a particular relationship with someone – then write a scene where they wake in the morning and get ready to go out. Alice encourages free writing to switch off our inner editor.

Next comes VIEWPOINT and its role in clarity – which character is thinking/feeling what/when; we need to pick a head and stick in it. So who is our main character? What will they experience and feel and what do they observe about other characters? Alice asks us to rewrite our first piece from a different viewpoint. I wrote mine in third person so the rewrite is in first person.

Alice takes us through the STORY STRUCTURE, described as ‘the spine to hold the book up’:

  • Who is the main character?
  • What is the main character’s problem or quest?
  • What is the insightful moment or trigger? (also known as the main question – when this is answered, the story ends)
  • Is there enough at stake/jeopardy? (do we care enough?)
  • Is there a chain of cause and effect?
  • Is there an ending/resolution?
  • Is the plot credible and hole free?
  • Do we empathise with the characters? (not necessarily liking the characters)
  • Does an overall theme or idea emerge?

EDITING is the part that writers love or loath. I love it, to a point. This is the opportunity to remove the ‘flabby bits of stuff’, says Alice, such as replacing generic and cliched description with words unique to the situation.

A debate ensues whether stories should begin with character or description. Depends on the character/description/book/reader preferences, we tentatively agree. Alice advises us to subtly add background and avoid info dumps (not that it lost Dan Brown any sales), and vary the ‘verbal rhythms’ – sentence length, sentence beginnings.

‘Every scene in a novel, things turn. Write the turn big.’ The example Alice gives us is the story of a boy who visits his uncaring grandfather. He picks up the walking cane – will he use it to strike his grandfather? ‘Dramatise the turn,’ says Alice, don’t throw it away in a weak sentence. ‘Make it big. Make it work. Make it matter.’

‘Good writing casts a spell,’ she said.

So armed, off we go to make magic.

Alice Jolly, a University of Oxford creative writing tutor, led the Swindon Festival of Literature Writing Workshop at Swindon’s Lower Shaw Farm, 13 May 2017. Alice’s latest book, Dead Babies and Seaside Towns, is a memoir crowd-funded through online publisher, Unbound.

Words by Louisa Davison

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