Monday, 21 September 2015

Who Dares, Wins - Taking risks with your writing (FOW15 Diaries)

How often do you get stuck in your writing? You look at what you've written and go 'bleurgh!' because it just...isn't...working?

Sometimes we need something to pull us out of the hole we appear to have dug ourselves into - and this workshop, run by the lovely Shelley Harris (author of Jubilee and Vigilante) looked at some intriguing methods to get our writerly juices flowing again. But it meant taking risks, forcing ourselves to move outside of our comfort zone.

The first thing we tried was character names; we had to write five names that we would never give our characters. When asked why we'd not use them, the reasons were many and varied - but Shelley challenged us to go away and write a colourful character for the boring name, to write Tarquin Roderick Matthias Jameson the Fourth without a penny to his name... I found myself writing quite a few 'upper class' names, or ones that sounded like doddery old ladies. Wonder what that says about the names I do choose and perhaps my prejudices for those I don't...?

Then we considered what stories we'd write if no-one were ever to read them. That's because we've all got no-go areas in our writing. Perhaps we choose not to write about our past, because we worry about upsetting people still living. Perhaps we choose not to write about sex or violence, for fear of shocking our readers. (She seems so nice! How on earth would she know about that?)

There are bound to be other examples - these are just what popped into my head as I was writing the blog - but the real reason we don't write certain things is because we are afraid of being judged; we edit ourselves, even before we've begun writing the story. If you could write, knowing that no-one would ever read what you've written, you have edited out instead other people's judgements and allowed yourself the freedom to commit what you want to write to the page. I'm not sure what I'd write if you were never going to read it; I fear my own self-editing rules are etched too deep inside to ever erase completely...

(Both of these ideas were attributed to Susie Maguire)

The next idea Shelley showed us was a morphological matrix. The creative think tank on wikispace describes this as 'a tool for generating options. It provides a structured or systematic way to generate a large number of possibilities including many unique or highly unusual options.'

Sounds complicated, but it's not, really. Draw yourself a grid. Across the top of the columns, add labels like 'jobs I've done, locations I know well, skills/knowledge I possess, favourite smells, current obsession'. Now fill in the lists with at least eight items for each one. Dig deep.

When you've done, combine the items across the grid in many and varied ways - and when you have, for example, egg pickler, the brook path, how to knit socks, lily of the valley and notebooks, (yep, they really apply to me) sit and think about what story you'd tell with them. Mine the familiar - but tell an unfamiliar story. It's a bit like those books you had as a kid, where the page was split into three parts and you could flip over different sections so you had a diver's head with a doctor's middle and a ballet dancer's feet...

On the subject of mining your own life experience, ask yourself questions - do you believe in justice or mercy? In nature or nurture? If you could return to one time in your life, when would it be and why? Complete the sentence 'Most people wouldn't guess that I...' Can you use these things to add to or generate a story?

You could BE your character. At which point, Shelley shared her experience of dressing up as a superhero for a day while she researched her novel, Vigilante. (You can read about her experience here.) Easy, it was not. But without that experience, Shelley couldn't have known what it felt like to put on a mask and hide behind the anonymity whilst trying to do good.

Make the unexpected happen; Pixar story rule #9 states 'When you're stuck, list what WOULDN'T happen next and material to get you unstuck will show up.' Your subconscious inevitably finds a way - which led us onto Petals problem solving.

Now this one was spooky - lots of folk in the room seemed to come up with a solution to a problem using this method - all starting with a single, completely random word from a dictionary. My problem was trying to make a character more active in a scene where she's arriving at an island on the king's ship - I had no idea how to solve that.

Shelley asked for a number, which gave her the page in the dictionary. The second gave her which word to pick on that page; can you believe the word was 'ahoy'? When my problem was ship-based? Spooky moment number one...

On a clean page, we drew a central circle, and surrounded it with eight 'petals'. In the centre, we wrote 'Ahoy' and around the outside - in the petals - we wrote words we associated with it. Mine were all very piratey and sea-faring, as you might expect.

Then the work began. We had to use the words we'd written in the petals to solve our problem. And the weird thing? I did - but I'm not going to tell you because I've not worked it into the story quite just yet. We were asked to share our thinking process; some climbed up into their crow's nest or looked through a telescope to see the bigger picture, and solved their problem that way. Everyone agreed that this method felt 'spooky' because from just one word, we solved our many and varied problems.

The idea is that the apparent randomness isn't really as random as you think. The process simply allows your 'good' mind to step out of the way and allow your subconscious access to the problem; it might have worked just as well if we'd had the word 'bell' or 'foot' in the centre of our flower, who knows?

And the last thing to try, to get your writing out of a slump?  Ask yourself what you'd write if you couldn't fail? And get it written. (Or as Shelley said, The F***-It Draft, or FID) Only to be used as a last resort, mind you, this method can come up with moments of sheer genius because it releases you completely.

In summary, taking risks in your writing is about being counter intuitive, about finding strategies to unloose your subconscious - and, probably most importantly, to stop caring about what others think!

Here's to a riskier Squidge in future...


  1. Sound like a brilliant workshop, thanks for sharing!

  2. My pleasure, Katrina. I'm all for sharing stuff I find useful myself...