Sorry for not blogging for a few days. Was very caught up in the British Council's City of Stories creative writing workshops, which have been very intensive. For this first week we had Sarah Butler of Urbanwords who ran workshops for us last year too.
I know those of you who weren't in the workshops are dying to know what went on, so here is a potted version :
We read and discussed three short stories : The Lady with the Dog by Chekhov (a classic, this, and one of the best love stories I've read), The Numbers by Clare Wigfall (my favourite of the three, and you can download it from here), and Popular Mechanics by Raymond Carver (a very powerful short short). How did each of the writers achieve their effects and what could we take away from the stories with us?
We thought about plot and how it differs from story, and we drew a diagram of the plot in our own short stories.
We looked at the decisions you have to make when you write a short story : Whose story is it? Who is telling it? What tense do you want to use? What mood/tone/atmosphere do you want to create? What is the timescale? What is the change that happens in your story?
We looked at how those decisions applied to a short story we are writing, and we wrote two alternative beginnings to the story to see which one worked best.
We looked at how we build characters. We too one of the characters for a story we are currently working on and filled in a table which asked questions like - What is their favourite item of clothing and why? What's their favourite food? What's their relationship with their parents like? What are their obsessions? What do they usually have in their pockets and handbags? In what ways are they like you?
We drew round out hands and then made notes about our characters hands, and then did the same with our feet and their feet. (And were amazed at what extra detail this threw up.)
The we put our characters in a situation they would never normally be placed in, and looked at what happened to them. (My rather dowdy, self-sacrificing Malay lady got a makeover in a department store and rather enjoyed the experience!). the we had them lose an item that was of great significance to them. (The poor woman lost her wedding ring, and wasn't too happy with me.)
We focused on dialogue, and looked at how it has to always further the plot and express character, but how it can also do other things such as set the mood, increase readability. We analysed a brilliant scene of dinner party dialogue from Larry's Party by Carol Shields.
We worked on mood and atmosphere, considered how we create a sense of place, and had one of our characters revisit a place they had known as a child. (My Rosmah went back to the kampong.)
We considered what we look for when we edit our stories, and then looked at a sample of writing, and then at our work with a checklist in hand.
And then we heard extracts from everyone's stories and offered feedback. This was an incredibly useful process, and we learned from hearing everyone talking about the other extracts, as well as from the feedback on our own. On my part, I know where a story I'd abandoned to the desk drawer went wrong and where it needs to be fixed.
And in between all these things we did lots of short writing exercises to get us warmed up and focused.
This week our workshops continue with Ardashir Vakil, and I'm greatly looking forward to that, although getting psyched up for some intensive brainwork!