We advise athletes to perform warm-up routines before playing a sport, musicians and singers use warm-up exercises too, and in writing class, prompts and creative writing exercises loosen your imagination while honing your writing muscles.
Prose is architecture, not interior decoration.
In Class, We Splurge!
The goal of the prompts is to encourage clear, lively writing. Encourage the use of specific images, well-chosen verbs and precise nouns, “showing rather than telling” and to avoid clichés.
To achieve this ideal takes practice, practice, practice!
The exercises are often more fun in a class, or with two or more people, but doing them alone and at home is fun too.
If, while writing, you’re at a loss how to continue writing consider the five senses (sight,sound, smell, touch, taste); or shift your perspective from high to low (what’s happening in the sky or the floor above or underground, under the sea, in a cellar…), from close to far away; or consider the journalist’s five questions—who, what, when, where, why.
Choose a prompt – and remember, you can take as little of the prompt as you want – one word or the memory or idea it evokes…
Weigh a few possibilities (brainstorm, mind map, outline, list)
Write without interruption for 12-15 minutes. (Use an oven timer or the stopwatch facility on your mobile)
Be surprised at what comes up and continue to write… and remember, you can always change your mind and choose a different prompt. At home, you are teacher, student, writer and reader.
If you can tell stories, create characters, devise incidents, and have sincerity and passion, it doesn’t matter a damn how you write.
Variety The Spice of Imagination
First lines, ideas for beginnings:
It was no ordinary date…
It was no ordinary house…
She was no ordinary babysitter…
‘Look, I didn’t want to be a refugee.’
‘Three things happened this morning but only one changed my life.’
‘Welcome aboard,’ said the captain, but his smile didn’t reach his eyes.’
Describe a first – why is it memorable?:
Your first kiss, first car, the first job
Your first pet (kitten/puppy/ rabbit/bird, lizard…)
Your first child, first grandchild, first sibling
Your first day of school, your first day of university
Your first night in a bed by yourself or away from home
Fibs, Excuses, Embellishments, Wishful Thinking …
The dog ate my homework.
She said, ‘It’s not you, it’s me,’ but I knew she was lying.
The weekly horoscope said 5 and 8 were my lucky numbers.
I was here the whole time, you just didn’t see me.
The alarm didn’t go off.
He was in the supermarket too. It can’t be a coincidence.
Quotes To Inspire A Reflection, Prose or Poem… Write Your Truth, Your Experience, Your Pleasure, To Know More,
The one thing that you have that nobody else has is you. Your voice, your mind, your story, your vision. So write and draw and build and play and dance and live as only you can. ~ Neil Gaiman
Write down the thoughts of the moment. Those that come the most unsought for are commonly the most valuable. ~ Francis Bacon
If you do not breathe through writing, if you do not cry out in writing, or sing in writing, then don’t write, because our culture has no use for it. ~ Anais Nin
I write for myself things that I’ve gone through. ~ Dolly Parton
Love. Fall in love and stay in love. Write only what you love, and love what you write. The keyword is love. You have to get up in the morning and write something you love, something to live for. ~ Ray Bradbury
Usually, I walk and think about things. When I come across a thought that makes me laugh, I write it down. ~Demetri Martin
Writing a story… is simply an exploration of the nature of behaviour: why people do what they do, how it affects others, how we change and grow, and what decisions we make along the way. ~ Lois Lowry
I write entirely to find out what I’m thinking, what I’m looking at, what I see and what it means. What I want and what I fear. ~ Joan Didion
I went for years not finishing anything. Because, of course, when you finish something you can be judged.
Choose three prompts from the suggestions above or write whatever thoughts they triggered… look at the challenge as an exercise to warm-up the process, one for ‘homework’ and one to move out of your comfort zone and instil a passion for writing!
Here are three efforts from me triggered by prompts and written in class during a splurge:
Try the following exercise frequently to hone your writing skills:
Create a short story that is 26 sentences long, each sentence beginning with the letters of the alphabet starting with A and continuing to Z.
Add other, arbitrary conditions, such as a sentence should be only one word; there should be one question mark, one quotation, there has to be a definite beginning, middle and end – no loose anecdotes or ramblings. There must be a story, not just a stream of consciousness!
Rigid rules often produce fascinating results—such as with well-written sonnets, which have 14 lines and tight rhyme schemes, each line governed by a specific number of syllables and alternating stressed and unstressed syllables.
Apply some form and rigid rules to your stories and see if that makes writing – and finishing – easier.
I love deadlines. I like the whooshing sound they make as they fly by.
Make time in your schedule for writing.
When you sit down to write, don’t be afraid of how it will come out.
Take pleasure in exercising your imagination and writing.
Always celebrate the work you’ve done, no matter the result. Having shown up and done the work, kept to a plan or deadline is an accomplishment. Share here or email it to a friend or send it off to a competition – be brave:)
Trust that you’re making progress, a little at a time, day by day – and have fun!
It is perfectly okay to write garbage—as long as you edit brilliantly.
For over a month now, every state in Australia has been in some form of lockdown and the measures taken by various levels of government appear to have worked. Unlike other parts of the world, we have successfully flattened the curve quickly and some states are looking at some relief from isolation by relaxing social distancing advice.
However, in Australia people have died and lives of many changed forever.
Each day there are still fresh cases of coronavirus reported, but nowhere near the numbers other countries are recording. Social distancing and quarantining appear to have worked because most of the population have respected the need for and obeyed the rules and the various public health messages.
In my little corner of Mordialloc, it has been strange–and very pleasant–to see less traffic and few parked cars. People are going on family walks, strolling in pairs or singly, entire families take the dog for a walk! Children play in the street, and chalk rainbows, love hearts, and well wishes.
All of this reminiscent of my childhood in the 50s (Scotland) and 60s (Australia).
Friends in other places have similar observations with a friend in Aberdeen who walks several miles a day through the lovely countryside of Inverurie, commenting when she rang me that the lack of cars has meant less pollution. She only washes her hair every few days rather than daily and no ‘black muck’ appears in the water!
A Time of Reflection
The last few weeks I’ve put up posts with ideas and prompts to help people who want to write or who have been writing but can’t go to classes or their usual groups because of COVID-19.
For some people writing will be a fill-in hobby, others may dream of a novel or collection of short stories sitting in a bookshop window.
There will be people writing life stories or a memoir which is a slice of their life, perhaps family history or researching for a school project or essay.
Feedback suggests the posts have been helpful but now as we near a ‘new normal’, perhaps it is time to record the experiences you’ve had over this period. You can incorporate them in a poem or short story or journal about them – but leaving some record for future generations is helpful – create a time capsule if you will…
People will look for historical records about the pandemic, just as we’ve seen plenty of articles about the 1918 Flu Epidemic, the Ebola and SARS outbreaks and even the Bubonic Plague.
“If writers stopped writing about what happened to them, then there would be a lot of empty pages.”
List what you have been doing to cope
How is it different from life before lockdown and social distancing
Make note of what you like and what you don’t like about isolation – I know some people have already made resolutions to value friendship and family more, live with less material things, value the environment more…
Ponder how your life has changed and whether any behaviours or activities will remain even once free of lockdown restrictions
This is a monumental period in history – global pandemics do not happen that often!
You may have experienced personal tragedy but also joy, or have knowledge of someone whose journey has differed from yours.
Have you made recent friends, lost established friends, or discovered qualities such as strengths or failings in people, whether family members or in the community?
What new skills have you learned?
What old skills have you revived?
Has your opinion of technology changed? Have you improved/increased your use of technology or do you regret your lack of knowledge?
How is homeschooling or working from home actually working out?
Have you received or sent parcels? What were the contents? How did the experience work out?
Are you a hoarder, panic buyer or did you manage to go without those items in much demand like toilet paper, flour, pasta and rice.
Did your use of social media increase, decrease, what you shared change?
Did you join any new online groups?
Have you ‘hit the wall’ yet – how are your anxiety levels?
Are You More Present in Your Life?
Rich sensory experiences surround us daily — IF we take the time to observe and as writers note them down.
Become a keen observer and recorder of the sensory intricacies of life. Make it a habit to jot down your observances in a journal or snap a photo to remind you of the weather, the season, the unusual occurrence… on my daily walks with Josie, I take at least one photograph of something interesting or new I notice – a cloud formation or blossoming flower.
Sometimes these changes are close to home – like this Yucca plant of mine that has flowered for the first time in nearly a decade! And the interesting fungi in the front garden – in fact fungi seems to mushroom all over Mordialloc – or maybe I’m just noticing it more.
Or these pigeons sitting in a bird bath – can you imagine the conversation? The one in my garden annoys the lorikeets but loves feeding on the seeds they spit out, and the ones on the deserted footy oval are excellent at social distancing.
What stories can you make up?
Have the parcel postman or couriers visited more than usual?
Contactless deliveries can bring surprises – write the story behind the parcels:
I haven’t seen my daughter, Anne, for weeks because of COVID-19 restrictions and miss her. I know she misses me and her sister but also misses Josie, our Kelpie/Staffy Cross who gives us so much pleasure. She has earned this certificate made by number two daughter, Mary Jane:
She got a special delivery from Anne to celebrate her first year with us. Josie was a rescue dogbut with the Pet Circle parcel became a lucky dog!
I received a parcel to learn pottery, a gift that gives twice because the arts and crafts have suffered from the economic shutdown and this helps to keep a small workshop viable.
One of my sisters sent me a knitted version of my favourite poet Rabbie Burns – knitting her forte but new projects helping her cope with being stuck more inside than usual and of showing she is thinking of family.
The picture of the praying mantis snapped by me after my daughter told me we had a visitor at the door!
Small delights happen every day and we mustn’t forget to notice and appreciate them and let our imagination roam.
Devote some time to dwell on daydreams. They are spontaneous messages from our subconscious. Not everyone has a daydream-friendly mind. In fact, some people have been taught to repress daydreams as mere distractions.
As writers, however, we should not only welcome daydreams but train ourselves to be aware of them. In fact, the core of most of my novels has come from daydreams. Daydreams are our primal storyteller at work, sending us scenes and topics that our imagination or subconscious wants us to investigate.
Each day, we should devote time (I usually do this before sleeping) to reviewing our daydreams and determining which of them insists on being turned into a story. Don’t push away those daydreams that make you uncomfortable: The more shocking the daydream, the more truthful about us it is. Embrace that truth.
Have Your Rituals Changed?
I’m retired from teaching at the moment – the return of breast cancer and arrival of coronavirus a perfect storm.
My morning ritual of observing the visiting lorikeets goes on for an extended period now and I never tire watching them come and go to feed at other times of the day or enjoying each other’s company in the bottlebrush outside my bedroom window.
Do you have a morning ritual? Has it changed recently like mine has?
Are you doing more cooking? Experimenting? There was a shortage of flour, eggs, sugar – in fact, lots of items disappeared from supermarket shelves in panic buying sprees. This made for some creative recipes being shared on social media.
This variation of Anzac biscuits is a healthier alternative to traditional Anzacs and results in a dark, slightly chewy variety of the biscuit. We understand some ingredients may be difficult to find in supermarkets at present. You could try your local health food shop, otherwise use the substitutes listed under ‘Ingredients’. You’ll still be getting the low-GI goodness of rolled oats.
1 cup wholemeal spelt flour
1 cup rolled oats
1 cup desiccated coconut or shredded coconut
¾ cup coconut sugar
2 tablespoons maple syrup
2 tablespoons water
½ teaspoon bicarbonate of soda
Substitutions (which I used)
Swap the wholemeal spelt flour for plain or wholemeal flour
Swap the coconut sugar for white sugar
Swap the maple syrup for golden syrup
Method:Preheat oven to 160°C and line 2 baking trays with baking paper.
In a large bowl, combine flour, oats, coconut and coconut sugar.
In a small saucepan, stir the butter and maple syrup over medium heat until butter melts and the mixture is smooth. Take off the heat. Stir the bicarbonate of soda with the water and add to butter and maple syrup.
Add to the oat mixture and stir well to combine.
Roll level tablespoons of the mixture into balls and flatten.
Bake in the oven for 15 minutes or until golden.
Allow to cool for 10 minutes and then transfer to a wire cooling rack.
Nutritional Info: Our knowledge of nutrition has progressed somewhat since World War II. We now know that we need to eat more whole-foods and less processed foods. While these biscuits are still a sweet treat, the maple syrup is far less processed than golden syrup traditionally used in Anzac biscuits. Coconut sugar is a lower GI alternative compared to white sugar and provides small amounts of nutrients not found in white sugar. The goodness of rolled oats, an excellent source of beta-glucan soluble fibre that helps to reduce cholesterol; combined with wholemeal spelt flour, provides healthy whole grains to balance out the sweetness.
Has technology been Your Friend or Foe?
I’m lucky because I’ve kept abreast of many of the changes in technology and my computer literacy and competency better than others in my age group. Both my daughters are highly skilled with technology so they fill any gaps exposed when dealing with this catastrophic virus.
I downloaded and have now used ZOOM several times. The first time there were minor glitches but subsequently, there have been no problems.
Courtesy of the Health Issues Centre, I’ve heard medical experts and local consumer health reps discuss the current crisis and offer opinions, ideas and suggestions to the government.
Courtesy of the Australia Institute, I’ve listened to economic experts and been able to ask questions of them, including the Shadow Treasurer, Jim Chalmers MP and hope to take part in other sessions with Media, Environmental and Arts representatives.
Courtesy of the trade union movement, I’ve taken part in sessions with the first woman ACTU Secretary, Sally McManus and the first woman General Secretary of the International Trade Union Confederation, Sharan Burrow.
Many organisations are organising online discussions and hoping for feedback from as many ordinary Australians as possible. This is an unusual time and who knows how much more difficult life will become after the health crisis eases and we must face a devastating economic crisis.
Stay informed, raise your voice, be part of the solution, not part of the problem.
My daughters have used ZOOM and other platforms to catch up with friends all over Australia and internationally, and many people rely on similar software while working from home.
We have had trivia and movie nights and I love hearing the laughter when a group of them get together but I know many people are not so fortunate.
What have been your experiences with technology? Do you have a disaster or comical story? Do you use Face Time on Messenger?
What type of social media helps you stay in touch with those you can’t visit? Or do you prefer a phonecall, text and email?
Here is a piece of flash fiction inspired by a sound (I mentioned incorporating sound in a previous post). The setting is in the 1930s when the world went through the Great Depression – yes; we have survived economic crises before too. Night Terror by Mairi Neil, flash fiction.
But to end on a funny note involving current times and technology, here is another Facebook meme doing the rounds.
Two days ago we experienced the coldest April day on record in Melbourne.
Today is definitely wintry – stay safe inside, stay well and stay strong – and scratch that pen or tap the keyboard. If all ideas fail, you can do what people normally do when they get together – but write don’t talk about the weather!
Long patience and application saturated with your heart’s blood – you will either write or you will not – and the only way to find out whether you will or not is to try.
In life, we use five senses and if a writer, we should also use them in our writing to allow the readers to experience poems and prose on all levels.
In previous posts, I’ve talked about other senses and today I’ll concentrate on the sounds in the real world and the world you create when writing.
We are farewelling autumn in Melbourne and because of the COVID-19 lockdown and social distancing, there were some traditional sounds missing from Melburnian lives – minimum playing in parks and on beaches, football and other sporting games cancelled and the annual ANZAC Day celebrations and accompanying parades didn’t happen – although we did light up the dawn…
Autumn Mairi Neil
Autumn… the clocks change
a time to enjoy
an extra hour
snuggled beneath the doona
Autumn… walks in the park
crunching leaves underfoot
a season with warm days
pretending summer still around
Autumn… vibrant flowers
a time of colourful
rainbows dropping from trees
playing peek-a-boo through fences
Autumn… a season to pause
contemplate winter’s chill
prepare body and soul
with warming soups and good books
Autumn… a time of contemplation
The Easter story and ANZAC
Love and Hope the best human qualities
Write about the sounds of your autumn – before coronavirus and what you have experienced recently. What daily sounds do you notice in isolation?
Extend your thoughts and think of a sound that isn’t around anymore: the click of typewriter keys, the tone that played during the test pattern on 1950s TVs, the brrrring of your portable alarm clock, the sound of the dial turning on a telephone, the theme of an old TV or radio program, the sound of a former pet’s paws on the hardwood floor, the sound of the doorbell of a house you used to live in, a steam train’s whistle, the clink of milk bottles…
… What memories do those sounds conjure up?What rooms, people, neighbourhoods and workplaces do you see in your imagination?
Remember the starting handles for cars? Remember, an overheated radiator often spoiled trips in the summer, or cars refusing to start in winter?
Did the roar of a neighbour’s motorbike wake you up, or did they have a Holden V8? What about church bells ringing, a grandfather clock striking? Someone practising a musical instrument (bagpipes/drums), off-key singing – an acoustic versus electric guitar? The tap of dance shoes or a walking stick, the squeak of a pram or wheelchair?
What sounds do you hear now?
does a tree mulcher or leaf blower shatter your peace?
perhaps a chainsaw cutting trees down
how noisy are the garbage men? Do you remember the days of chasing your bin lids down the street?
do neighbours have hens – a rooster? Or perhaps a pig?
what about someone learning a musical instrument?
did you ever stop and listen while someone played a street piano, a busker played their fiddle or guitar?
Sounds of Albert Street Mairi Neil
In the morning, at dawn break
in a dreamlike state
to sounds that jar
electric train whistle
whine of car, after car…
a distant noticeable rumble
the roar of the sea
as white caps tumble…
I picture huge waves crashing
spewing debris ashore
against pier and rocks splashing –
on the street, horses make
a constant clip-clop
as daily exercise take…
familiar daily tapping
announced in suburbia
by family dogs yapping.
a dawn chorus will sing
curlews, starlings, magpies
twittering, cawing, whistling
blackbirds, seagulls and crows
dewy feathers a-glistening
If you are writing a memoir or a historical story or novel, pay a visit to your local museum for research. If you’re lucky, there will be firsthand accounts and exhibits of household and workplace equipment and tools to remind you to include authentic descriptions and sounds.
Spend some time brainstorming a list of descriptive words that you can refer to when needing inspiration. Continually add to your list, expanding memories and categories as they evolve. Your list could look like this:
the soft sound of someone breathing or harsh gasp of breath
buzz of a chainsaw (or bees)
drone of an aircraft or car
bark, yap, yelp, howl of a dog – think of other animals noises
rumble of thunder, wheels on concrete – an empty stomach, that can also grumble
rustle of leaves, bushes, trees, pages of a book
gurgle of a drain, water in a hose, water down the plughole
the wail of a child, or laugh and giggle
quiet as midnight, the hush of morning, the silence of sadness….
Writing Exercise 1:
Choose any of these images, think of the sounds you will hear if you are also in the picture. Write a story or poem, or memory.
Writing Exercise 2:
Extend one or all of these sentences to make the situation real – pick any genre, add a character, theme and plot – or write a poem. (Team it up with one of the images on this post perhaps?)
The kitten MIAOWED when I left for work.
The puppy BARKED when I left for my jog/to go shopping.
The tree branches SWAYED in the wind.
The cursor MOVES across the computer screen.
The clock TICK-TOCKED in the kitchen.
Sounds for excitement or pizazz
In a piece of writing, a sentence including descriptions of noises creates a strong atmosphere. It rouses the reader’s excitement.
Sound unrelated to the action but characterise the place is perfect for creating atmosphere. You can combine several sounds in a single sentence:
An empty beer can clattered along the pavement
Keyboards clacked, papers rustled, and printers whirred
Upstairs a toilet flushed and water gurgled down the drainpipe
Thunder rumbled in the distance, lightning flashed
Washing machines sloshed, driers rumbled and coins rattled into slots
Motors whined, and tyres screeched on the tarmac
Hooves clattered on the cobblestones below
The train sped up with a low growl that rose to a high whine within moments
Thunder roared, and raindrops hammered against the glass
The fire in the grate crackled and red gum logs hissed and popped
the engine throbbed as the waves slapped the side of the boat
ice clinked in the glass as Bond poured her a martini
Writing Background Noise
You can insert a sentence about background noises in any part of the scene where it makes sense. For example:
The point of view character is waiting (for a job interview, a medical appointment, a rescue, an execution, an exam…) what do they hear? Inside and/or outside noises?
A character pauses or delays replying. A sentence like this implies the pause and is more interesting than ‘he paused’ or ‘she hesitated’… what can fill the silence?
To emphasise an exciting moment. Is there a clap of thunder, applause, a balloon popping, laughter…?
To further raise the tension in a suspenseful situation, insert a sentence about background noise the moment the reader holds his/her breath.
When the setting is dark (at night, or in a cellar), sprinkle sounds throughout the scene to add to the mood suspense, to ground the reader.
Here are two different pieces of short fiction including background and action sounds:
The sounds mentioned above may inspire you; think about the examples shown and write a scene with background noises to create a realistic scene and draw the reader in.
Whenever characters do something – walk, work, fight or rest – their actions, even if in a small setting, will create a link between the action and the setting.
Emphasise this link, especially if you want the reader to become immersed in the story. The best way to do this is by describing the sounds arising from the characters’ interaction with the environment.
She ran out, banging the door behind her.
The door slammed shut behind her.
Here are some other examples:
The door screeched on its hinges
I sank into the armchair, and the cushion wheezed.
The seat squeaked under his weight.
Stairs creaked as she retired to bed.
Gravel crunched under their feet.
The wheeled suitcase rattled across cracked paving-slabs.
The light plane trundled over the patched tarmac.
The windshield wipers scraped the glass.
The grandfather clock chimed midnight.
The lift shook and grunted to a stop.
His breath rasped as he scraped the mud off his boots.
The car keys jangled in the air as he tempted her to go for a drive.
Writing Exercise 4:
Use some above examples to write a story or poem, or perhaps a memory, or let the following images inspire you:
When I visited London in 2017, Big Ben was under renovation, but it still worked.
International tourists cluster beneath Melbourne Central’s famous musical clock as it opens up to reveal Australia’s famous birds
Have you seen or heard any other famous clocks?
What about the clock at Melbourne’s National Art Gallery – what would it feel like to be trapped in a time warp, or trapped inside a clock?
There are famous bells like this ship’s bell in Shetland and the one aboard the Rainbow Warrior – exciting tales of shipwrecks and rescues make a great story with plenty of sounds of the sea and storms:
Sound – the waves crashed on the rocks, the gulls screaming above. Sight – the heavy, grey rocks look as if they will slide into the leaden sea. Touch -the wind lifts my hair and sudden gusts sting my face. Taste – the spray from the waves leave salt on my lips
Do you have a travel tale? A character who goes on a spiritual journey?
There are pictures of churches and temples and tourist attractions to inspire imagination or memory –
Home Delivery of Milk
Sometimes photos remind us of how sex-segregated occupations were in years past. When I was young, librarians were primarily female and milk was delivered by males. Many streets had a post where the horse-drawn milk delivery cart could be tied up.
When I migrated to Croydon in 1962 there was still a horse trough in the main street. And in Mordialloc in the 80s there was one outside Davis’ Laundry in Bear Street. (horse trough and laundry both gone)
The horse always knew where to stop on the route and wait until the milkman delivered the bottles. When I arrived in Australia as a nine-year-old, I thought it was wonderful to have a horse and cart bring the milk and often cadged a ride from the milkman.
Did you ever talk to the milkman or his horse? Feed it? Collect the manure for the garden? Describe a scene you remember including sounds, smells, taste.
Was milk delivered to your home when you were young? If so, did the milkman bring any other items? Can you remember a coalman, firewood being delivered, soft drink (Loys), the iceman? Did you have a refrigerator or an icebox?
Great grandparents may have kept the milk cool in a small stream that ran across their property, or in a bath of cold water. Write about your childhood memories of home deliveries of milk and possibly other groceries.
How often were the deliveries? Daily? Can you remember when deliveries stopped – how did you or your parents feel? Were you over-awed at the first supermarket visit? Were you friendly with the milk bar or corner shop owners?
Have you had home deliveries during the lockdown?How different was that experience from earlier days? Can you imagine home deliveries for a range of goods resuming by drone??
What things are better left in the past and what’s your ideal future?
In the mornings, when the light of day is breaking do you imagine you can still hear the sound of glass milk bottles in wire baskets heading to your front door?
Did you go to the local dairy and get milk and bottles of cream in glass jars?
Reflect on how the way you shop and what you shop for has changed – emphasising sound.
Here is a Facebook meme that made me smile because I still have one of these by my bedside!
Writers describe a sound when the situation draws attention to it – a door creaks, so your protagonist turns her head. They can also use a sound for effect – to get on the reader’s nerves, to alarm or relax them. The soothing babble of a little brook is comforting but the shrieking sound of nails scratching over a chalkboard, the exact opposite.
Has a sudden or particular sound frightened you? Acoustic shock effects are deeply ingrained in most readers. The sudden uproar of a roaring chainsaw is frightening enough, but if it is wielded by a madman bent on murder, you’ve got your shock value!
Nowadays, if writing sci-fi you’d be describing the noise of lightsabers!
Good writers use all the senses to give readers a multi-dimensional experience. Using the senses evokes feelings and responses in the reader.
Senses like sight, sound, and smell can also build tension.
When you’re writing, think about using all the senses to allow your readers to immerse themselves in the world and lives of the characters. Try to incorporate these into your writing.
The most engrossing books are the ones that draw us into their world and evoke many sensations and emotions.
The reader doesn’t just experience what the main character can see. Using sounds and smells can evoke pain and fear.
Great writers make our mouths water as we read about sumptuous feasts, gasp as the main character touches something that they’re not supposed to and grimace when they taste a bitter berry that could be poisonous.
Write a little every day, without hope and without despair.
We are still in stage 3 Lockdown and still practising social distancing – but not from our pens or computer keyboard!
It’s easy to write poorly, but it’s hard to write poorly every day. Wait. Let’s go back a step: It’s hard to write every day.
Writing is a craft and like all crafts there are techniques to improve your work and to make it stand out from others. One such writing technique or device is personification.
PERSONIFICATION is giving human qualities, feelings, actions or characteristics to an inanimate or non-human object. This can include giving human characteristics to animals or animal characteristics to humans or even writing a story from an object’s point of view.
For example: the window winked at me (winking is a human action, the window is an object); the tree clawed at me – tree branches are not human arms.
Personification enriches poetry and prose and may be culturally biased because writers experiment, they express their emotions, reflect their upbringing and education and life experience. They will write personal views of certain human attributes, cultural perceptions, and sayings when they write creatively.
Personification is probably the most common figure of speech we come across and most of us use examples several times a day in speech and writing without realising we do.
Personificationinjects human behaviour into material objects or abstract concepts.
Advertisers and marketers use it to sell products all the time. For example: health educators will try to make vegetables exciting to children.
We talk about shoes killing us, colours screaming, a furious sea battering the coastline, a doona smothering us, the wind crying, howling or whispering…
TV adverts talk about cancer as if it is a bullying soldier, an invading army, an enemy of the state… if you have cancer we must battle it.
A house might be a demanding baby to be soothed by a coat of paint…
Pay attention to the seductive ditties, words, arguments in marketing and you’ll understand the value of personification to persuade an audience, drawing them into a world they identify.
Contemplating our own mortality is a struggle and confronting – death is a taboo subject to many families and cultures, so we use personification to describe our feelings:
The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse in the New Testament – usually named as war, famine, disease and death.
We have depicted death as a serious farm worker (the Grim Reaper) – remember the Aids campaign?
An old woman with a broom (always witch-like) also used to represent death!
There are various representations for someone described as a fox: a sly old fox, a silver-haired fox, a vixen, a good hunter, an evil marauder, a thief, a murderer… depends on your point of view or experience of foxes and what the story is about.
It’s so easy to personify that many poets don’t realise they’re doing it. Be mindful of your personification tools and use them sparingly.
Don’t be obscure – if you are writing about a gymnast, readers shouldn’t think you are writing about a light bulb or a tree.
In Emily Dickinson’s poem Death is a gentleman with impeccable good manners –
Because I could not stop for Death He Kindly stopped for me The Carriage held but just Ourselves And Immortality.
Personificationcan pack a punch.
In 1819, cavalry charged into an unarmed crowd of men, women and children demanding parliamentary reform in Manchester, in the north of England.
About 20 people died and over 400 wounded. The tragedy shocked the country, and it became known as the Peterloo Massacre (the battle of Waterloo occurred four years earlier.)
Percy Bysshe Shelley’s poem about the incident reveals his anger and contempt for the politicians fighting the reforms and who he blames for the shocking tragedy:
I met Murder on the way He had a mask like Castlereagh Next came Fraud, and he had on, Like Eldon, an ermined gown; His big tears, for he wept well, Turned to mill-stones as they fell, And the little children, who Round his feet played to and from, Thinking every tear a gem, Had their brains knocked out by them
Personification can reduce big concepts, events, even people or authority to a level we can understand. It can turn the ordinary into something extraordinary, memorable, or at least something we see with new eyes.
What kind Of Person?
Decide what kind of personal traits or career each of the following could be. Write a sentence or perhaps write a character profile for a story:
In case you are uninspired or unsure, I’ve shared a range of responses from past students:
A shark – a used car salesman, someone in marketing, a predator A goat– a good climber, a person who eats anything, someone with a ravenous appetite, a stubborn old goat, mindless, randy, agile, nimble, single-minded, socially and physically active A worm – a bookworm, wriggly, a crawler, worm their way into affections, slimy, shy, retiring A rabbit – skittery, timid, shy, bright-eyed, brainless, harmless, breed like a rabbit, sexually irresponsible, randy, cuddly, fluffy bunny A leech – clingy, bloodsucker, parasite, ingratiating, an invader, An elephant – good memory, solid, stoic, get with the strength, clumsy, blunders, too big for their boots A snake – slithery, slippery, dishonest, shedding skin, a fake, a bigamist, dangerous, untrustworthy A wombat– hides away, muddleheaded, determined, a night worker, sleepy, retiring type A lamb – innocent, vulnerable, frolics, gambols, meek, religious person, a follower A rat– selfish, sneaky, dangerous, untrustworthy, crafty, survivor, deserter, attacker, insatiable
When the sun entered the room, he threw his bright light into a dark corner.
Her warm orange glow made everyone feel better.
In the evening, she is a buxom wench in flame-coloured taffeta.
He is the centre of our world, and the day pivots around him.
The shadow crept around the building as furtive as a thief.
She huddled cold and forlorn in the shadow, praying for rescue.
The bushfire raged throughout the night, destroying everything in his path.
Thunder & Lightning
The thunder roared and lightning flashed and she knew the two giants would fight all night.
The earthquake swallowed the city in several angry bites.
We have to continually be jumping off cliffs and developing our wings on the way down.
Cat on Condominium Rooftop Mairi Neil
Soaking up the sun
green eyes ignore life below
people scurry to work
forget to look up
marching ants trudge
to soulless jobs
drones on daily grind
a boring bind.
No such limitations for the cat
rising and stretching limbs
warm tiles a luxurious bed
to sleep and dream of
the tramp of footsteps
cacophony of voices
fading rising fading rising
the daily grind
not his bind.
A butterfly flitters past
pauses briefly on a tree branch
trembling wings bathed in sunlight
green eyes blink, a paw twitches
but passersby unaware
of Mother Nature’s show
weary feet tramp and trudge
the daily grind
grips and binds
An elegant stretch, the cat sits
to watch the dying sun
green eyes observe life below
people scurrying home from work
forgetting to look up
they’ve missed the sunshine
the butterfly’s graceful dance
the cat’s sunny somnolence
their daily grind
a soulless bind
Write about a character or an event and use personification. Here are some sentences that could start you off –
The cloud scattered rain throughout the city.
The ancient car groaned into third gear.
The daffodils nodded their yellow heads as we walked up the path.
The wind sang her mournful song through the rafters of the barn
The microwave’s alarm told me it was time to eat my TV dinner
The camcorder observed the whole tragedy
The chocolate cake begged to be eaten
The crockery danced on the shelves when the door slammed
Look around the room, or your home, your workplace, your garden, the local park, a cafe, a place you visit regularly… (some of these will be from memory because of COVID-19!)
Think about inanimate objects and other everyday items – what kind of vocabulary do they have?
The sturdy, dark brown bookcase in the corner- is it male or female? Cheerful or depressed?
Could the corkscrew on the bar be on a diet, have a memory of failure?
Is the bargain basement table sneaky or does it feel second best?
An antique, leather armchair and an Ikea stool do similar jobs, but do they have different ways of looking at the world
How do you feel about computers? Have you been frustrated and yelled at the computer – how did it answer?
What stories about clocks do you have? Write about your favourite or least favourite alarm clock – perhaps it is a baby’s cry and not a clock at all!
You may have the same bed after a failed marriage but does it feel the same – maybe miss the previous occupant?
What stories have you about trees in your garden – removing them, perhaps one fell down and damaged something, perhaps you always got fruit and bottled it, had a tree house… do you talk to the trees and do they answer you?
Those Wedgewood plates you inherited – do they have the same thoughts as you – do they feel fragile, overused, useless, precious?
Our sense of smell can do more to revive a memory than other senses and yet it is often a sense writers forget to include. Whether you are writing about indoors or outdoors remembering to include a smell will enrich the scene for the reader.
How often have you caught a whiff of perfume or food cooking and you are reminded of someone or transported to a place in memory?
Many smells are accompanied by a particular taste – sour or sweet, bland or tangy, ‘to die for’ or vomit-inducing… the experience for the reader can be visceral.
Senses empower limitations, senses expand vision within borders, senses promote understanding through pleasure.
A Lesson On Smell
Whenever we had a lesson to encourage the inclusion of smell in writing, I’d ask for suggestions and the student responses often overlapped because certain pungent smells stick in everyone’s mind.
However, the more we wracked our memories ‘to be different’ or recall what made an impression, the list grew – maybe you can add to this collection from a variety of classes:
The strong odour of our pets – dogs, cats, reptiles.
Gardens enlivened by rosemary, lavender, geraniums
Special perfumes – Estee Lauder, Chanel, Christina Ricci…
Working as a nurse in hospitals/nursing homes/clinics – the smell of disinfectant, anaesthetics, lotions and creams
The perspiration and sweat of fellow teammates playing a sport, the smell of lovers, of commuters, workmates, sweaty feet, old sneakers, shoe polish
Fresh country air, honeysuckle in hedges and cow pats in the fields
Lilacs and lily of the valley and roses, Daphnes – flowers with a redolence that lingers
The smell of the sea, seaweed, tea-tree bushes, rotting fish
Steam train smoke, fires burning red gum logs, barbecue and campfire smoke
New car smell, leather upholstery, new carpet smell, polished furniture
The smell of freshly turned soil, padded down straw in chicken coops, horse manure
Antiseptic like Fennel, Dettol, bleach, ammonia, outdoor toilets, raw sewage
Chocolate and sweet shops, jam being cooked, baked bread,
Mustiness and the dank smell of cellars, caves, old, buildings
Dry and decaying wood – the smell of death, animal and human urine
Mowed grass, the eucalypts and other trees, dead flowers
Fish and cod liver oil, garlic, onion – many different spices
Whisky, rum, beer, cordial, coffee, cocoa, tea…
Flowers are always a favourite and easy to include in a poem or story because they are found inside as well as outside. Every season has some shrub flowering and pot plants or cut flowers in vases are common whether on balconies or dining tables.
And what if you had no sense of smell? People can lose it after an illness or injury. At the moment while we fight COVID19, some people are saying their sense of smell and taste are not only affected but don’t fully return once they recover from the virus.
How frustrated and disappointed would you be if unable to smell fresh coffee or baking bread?
It might be dangerous if you can’t smell because sometimes a bad smell is the first sign of danger like a gas or petrol leak.
A student who was a carpet layer said if he didn’t have a sense of smell he’d be more cautious because many of the old carpets he had to remove have animal and human urine stains and other nasties.
You might have to rely more on the reaction of other people. Think about this if you give a character either no sense of smell or keenly developed olfactory glands.
A Sense of Smell
If I lost my sense of smell
how could I tell
when dinner was ready or
when the dog needed a bath
I’d have to watch visitors up close
for signs of irritated eyes and nose
No memorable scents of changing seasons
to uplift and linger…
winter rosemary massaged between fingers.
A walk by the sea to enliven senses
without salty air
could lead to despair
I’d drift disengaged
like floundered fish or discarded shells
without those pungent seaweed smells.
No comfort at home
from the smell of fresh sheets
and clothes newly laundered
no thrill of familiarity from a lover’s body
or distinctive perfume tied like shoelaces
to family, friends, and favourite places.
Gone the delight of visiting the lolly shop
to choose a special treat for the movies
or sniffing freshly baked bread and brewed coffee
and of course, the milky delight of newborn babies
shampooed hair and soft moisturised skin
the list is endless once you begin…
On the other hand
life could be grand
without smelly feet or rancid meat
no dog poo or stinky loo
no foul smells to make the nose twitch
oh, how I wish for an on and off switch!
‘There should be an invention that bottles up a memory like a perfume, and it never faded, never got stale, and whenever I wanted to I could uncork the bottle, and live the memory all over again.’
Rebecca by Daphne Du Maurier
“When you write the story of your life, don’t let anyone else hold the pen!” (origin unknown but quoted by Gurbaksh Chahal, Huffington Post)
Who Attends Life Story Classes?
In Life Stories Class, for three hours, students write, discuss, chat, laugh and cry, sharing experiences, memories, opinions, dreams and reflections.
Most classes vary in age but one class the students spanned 9 decades of living.
Families can be traced to colonial times or have arrived with the waves of migrants after WW2. For some English is a second language, others wish they still knew a language or culture that is lost.
Some have never married, others are divorced or widowed, some childless, others have children and grandchildren.
Some write about ancestors, immediate family, friends, ourselves, the joys and tragedies.
Some write prose and poetry, essays and anecdotes, flowery descriptions or minimal words.
Some learn how to craft the stories to include the senses, dialogue, humour or pathos.
We all remind ourselves how we felt, what we feel now, what we want others to know.
We gift of ourselves as we gift our words, nurturing each other, supporting each other – and most importantly, we have fun!
Here is a list that I give students and ask them to write at least a paragraph of what the smell means to them – later they are asked to expand at least two into a personal essay.
Try it – you are relying on your memory here, you don’t have to break lockdown and go outside. Many of the smells may be found inside your home or garden shed!
Think about the smells – is the smell sweet like perfume, or stinky like sewage, faint or strong, current or in the distant past? What person, place or event does it revive or what character and story can you create?
radiators heating up
fish – oysters
a new car
BBQ – meat or onions
roast or curry,
List the smells you associate with a particular season:
The smells of summer
The smells of autumn
The smells of winter
The smells of spring
Now weave some of them into a story or poem…
In The Great Gatsby, F. Scott Fitzgerald introduces us to the Buchanans in early summer. He emphasises the breeze blowing through the room, billowing the curtains and the women’s dresses. Later, the same characters are seated in the same place in the heat of summer as weighted down, dispirited, languid.
The story has progressed and so have the characters but he connects them to the place and reveals how they have changed through the weather/season – they are no longer bright, breezy and carefree. Circumstances have changed and so have they and their earlier energy no longer on show.
He has added balance and unity to both character and story.
In their magazine a long time ago, the Victorian Writers’ Centre used to publish a writing prompt for members to practice their craft. I think there was a prize of reduced membership – not sure. I never submitted a story just used the exercise as a bit of fun.
This one had to be exactly 250 words about a ghost haunting a Georgian mansion in Southern Ireland, the visitations always accompanied by a foul smell.
The Truth Stinks Mairi Neil
The cottage door burst open and several burly members of the local constabulary filled the room. Seamous O’Flaherty blanched with fear.
‘Ye murdering swine,’ barked Sergeant O’Neill, ‘we found your dagger outside the big house, still dripping wit poor William O’Malley’s blood.’
O’Flaherty crouched against the wall of his tumbledown cottage pleading for his life. O’Malley had been the Head Gamekeeper for George Thomas, the English aristocrat who owned half of Kiltmargh in County Mayo and the rights to land with the best game and fish. O’Malley and O’Flaherty often hurled abuse at each other after a few ales in their local.
‘Yerve got the wrong man,’ Seamous whined, ‘lots of poachers use the same kind of knife!’
‘We know ‘tis yours,’ sneered the Sergeant.
‘I’m innocent, please listen. Let me go!’ The constables ignored his pleas and hauled snivelling Seamous into the police wagon. The rough justice continued, until within the hour, Seamous hung from the rafters of the stables nestled in the shadow of the Thomas family’s Georgian mansion.
If the indignity of such an ignominious death was not enough, the vigilante executioners had dragged Seamous through a pile of fresh horse manure before stringing him up.
On October 31st each year, on the anniversary of that terrible night, Seamous returns searching for evidence to prove his innocence. His visitations are always accompanied by a foul smell, earning him the nickname of the farting ghost.
It appears in death as in life, poor Seamous O’Flaherty stands wrongfully accused!
A marvellous little book compiled by Michael Marland called Pictures For Writing, published in 1996 by Blackie & Son Ltd, Glasgow and London proved a godsend in early days of teaching.
I used it a lot when I started teaching almost full-time at Sandybeach Centre and Mordialloc neighbourhood House after John died. Here are two photographs that may spark a story. Remember to introduce smells or a smell:
The bushfire picture is definitely topical as far as those living in Australia are concerned – I’m sure there will be plenty of stories, novels and poems featuring the catastrophic summer we have lived through. Tragedy compounded now by COVID 19.
Bush On Fire Mairi Neil
(written after Black Saturday)
The sun is dulled by a veil of cloud
animals culled, Mother Nature a shroud
This defeated giver of life so dear
a dried-up river with power unclear
a red threat creeping, gathering power
creatures weeping, air rancid and sour
It dances with glee destroying with ease
devours blade and bush its direction a tease
whipped and encouraged by wind’s collusion
fiery menace forages and causes confusion
until the sun’s conscience explodes and
a large nimbostratus cloud reveals worth
the life-saving rain soaks the scorched earth.
You return to the house where you grew up, only to learn it has been condemned.
Why I love the smell of …
Why I hate the smell of …
Two characters are lost in the woods or the mountains – they have to survive overnight before rescue.
Write a story, essay or poem using the following title: Yesterday’s Coffee, Sunsets will never be the same again or Unforgettable or The worst mess I ever had to clean up
What comes after this opening sentence:
Why is this on the front porch?
‘I’ve got to get out of these clothes—fast.‘
If you want to annoy me, just
We have read stories about paparazzi haunting the alleyways and snapping celebrities putting the rubbish out, and stalkers going through bins.
Did you know the City of Kingston do spot checks of bins to ensure people are recycling properly and putting the appropriate rubbish in the right bins? Apparently, you’ll get a note to improve or a sticker to say well done.
If someone inspected your rubbish bin – or recycling bin – what could they surmise about you – would they be mistaken?
Do you have a favourite celebrity (or one you don’t like) what do you think they’d have in their trash worth writing about?
Write about someone who takes shelter. What is the most dominant smell and why should it matter? (Think bus shelters, doorways, under a table, in a foxhole, in someone’s arms, in a church, in a cave …)
Two Quotes For Inspiration
This one is particularly relevant considering the disastrous economic consequences of the current lockdown because of COVID 19 and the pain many people are experiencing with social-distancing and isolation:
The arts are not a way to make a living. They are a very human way of making life more bearable. Practising an art, no matter how well or badly, is a way to make your soul grow, for heaven’s sake.
Sing in the shower. Dance to the radio. Tell stories. Write a poem to a friend, even a lousy poem. Do it as well as you possibly can. You will get an enormous reward. You will have created something.”
and from another successful writer:
Writing isn’t about making money, getting famous, getting dates, getting laid, or making friends. In the end, it’s about enriching the lives of those who will read your work, and enriching your own life, as well. It’s about getting up, getting well, and getting over. Getting happy, okay? Getting happy.
As always – feel free to share the post and ideas, or any work you’ve been inspired to write:)
Winter isn’t supposed to start until June in Australia, but yesterday and today in Mordialloc, after torrential rain most of the night, we woke to a decidedly, wintry chill.
When I opened the door to take Josie for her walk, a cold blast of wind from the sea had collected the temperature from the South Pole and Josie gave me a look that said, ah, now I know why you put that coat on!
For those who don’t know, Melbourne has a reputation of ‘four seasons in the one day‘ so this quick turnaround in the weather (temperatures dropping from low 20s to 8 degrees) doesn’t really come as a surprise.
However, it is still autumn and I’ve always advised overseas friends to visit Melbourne in autumn, the season when I think the city looks its best. Here’s hoping the icy blast is an aberration and not the future because of climate change, the other catastrophe we face along with COVID 19!
Autumn Mairi Neil
Autumn… a time to enjoy
the clocks changed
an extra hour
To snuggle beneath the doona
Autumn… a season with warm days
pretending summer still around
walks in the park
crunching leaves underfoot
Autumn… a time of colour
rainbows drop from trees
playing peek-a-boo through fences
Autumn… a season to pause
contemplate winter’s chill
prepare body and soul
with warming soups and good books
Autumn… a time of contemplation
Easter story and ANZAC
Love and hope the best human qualities
Write down your thoughts on autumn, or any other season for that matter?
Think of the likes and dislikes, the activities you can or can’t do,
Other parts of the world are heralding spring and as I discovered when I visited Siberiain April 2017, there are places where winter lingers longer than others.
And if you live in the Pacific Islands, summer seems to last all year. Here is the survival kit I advise everybody to have when they visit Samoa like I did!
No matter where you live you can write about the seasons and if you have been lucky enough to travel there is the added material of comparison and maybe even the awe factor depending on where and when you travelled.
Look at any photographs to jog your memory and help add colour and authenticity to your stories if you describe what you see.
Some countries specialise in having breathtaking seasons like Cherry Blossom time in Japan, where I was fortunate to visit in 1984. Here is a short piece about the trip. cherry blossom time by Mairi Neil
I also wrote some haiku after the visit – that’s almost compulsory!
Haiku Mairi Neil
Cherry blossoms fall
pink velvet raindrops
Tranquil and silent
old men hushed
as blossoms on ground
Children play peek-a-boo
the change in the wind
Vibrant colours everywhere
blossoms float and fall
brightening my day
What is your favourite season?
What season do you dislike?
Write a short story so we know what season it is but don’t mention the name of the season
Write a story about the main character forgetting to change the clocks.
have you ever forgotten to change the clocks? What happened – were there consequences?
Choose a group of words and write a story, poem, anecdote – set a time limit of 10-20 minutes – this would be the average writing time in a class. You can change the form of the word but try and include them all.
Remember – leave your writing for a day or two and then reread, edit, rewrite:)
Playful Seasons Mairi Neil
In dewy meadow, Spring flowers bright
buttercups bloom, a magnificent sight
while strolling upon this carpet of gold
a test is remembered from days of old
a yellow flower waved under the chin
do you like butter, we asked with a grin.
In dewy meadow, under strong Summer sun
childhood revisited as we have some fun
clumps of wild daisies smile up at me
their perfect white petals fluttering free
a bunch of daisies transformed with love
necklace and bracelet feather soft as a dove
In dewy meadow, Autumn leaves fall
dandelions transform into puffballs
with gentle breaths, we blow and blow
discovering Time as spores drift like snow
one o’clock, two o’clock –– maybe three
until naked stem is all we can see.
In dewy meadow, Winter walks are brisk
the puddles ice over putting feet at risk
I spy a toddler wearing bright rubber boots
splashing in puddles, not giving two hoots
a flashback to childhood appears in the rain
it’s worth wet socks to feel carefree again.
How many Seasons Are There? Does Australia Have More Than Four?
In 2014, Dr Tim Entwisle, the director of Melbourne’s Royal Botanic Gardens wrote a book called, Sprinter and Sprummerchallenging the traditional four seasons, and encouraging Australians to think about how we view changes in our natural world. He said, since 1788, Australia has carried the yoke of four European seasons that make no sense in most parts of the country.
When he was on the ABC to explain his book and ideas he stirred up interest, support, antagonism and fascination. Many people agreed with the author that the reality for Australia is many more seasons than the traditional four but few liked Sprinter and Sprummer as names!
Living in Sydney, London and now Melbourne, I’m convinced that the four traditional seasons don’t make sense in Australia. My proposal is that we instead have five seasons based on the climatic and biological cycles we observe around us.
… minutes, hours, days and months are the way we organise our lives—sowing crops, attending job interviews, picking up kids from child care, playing footy, getting our hair cut and so on. Seasons are for noting, celebrating and tracking the changes in the world around us. If we get them wrong we don’t lose our crop, job or children.
It’s a tweaking of the current system. The familiar anchors, summer and winter, are there, but the bits in between and the duration of the seasons are adjusted for the southern Australian climate…
We could embrace one of the Aboriginal seasonal systems, but I fear this might be just too radical for most Australians (who, contrary to popular belief, are a rather conservative people)…
Then there is climate change and the fact that the seasons are changing, whether we like it or not. Perhaps we need an evolving system of seasons. However, we should at least get it right in the first place and try to reflect, if not our specific region, then large sections of the country.
There are no perfect or correct seasons. I am happy for my system to be rigorously debated and tested, and I would be thrilled if, through more people observing and monitoring the natural world, I have to totally redesign it.
In the South West of WA – there are some widely acknowledged Noongar Seasons which correspond well with what is suggested in the article.
People in Melbourne should also visit the Indigenous Garden and Forest display at the museum (after lockdown is over) and learn what our indigenous people call the seasons – and there are more than the arbitrary four we cling to, although I have devoted past posts to writing about winter.
What are your thoughts on Sprinter and Sprummer? Have you alternative names?
How do you cope with the seasons – is there a special ritual attached to your changing seasons, maybe they should be called that eg. Vegetable planting season, tree trimming season, burning-off season …
in suburbia, it could be tourist season and roadworks season
or maybe we should have flu and COVID19 season and healthy season…
There will be plenty of creative writing around coping with COVID19 and speculation as to how the world coped with the global crisis.
Writers draw inspiration from observing the world, people, situations, politics, trends – we are all opinionated! Sometimes it is good to let your thoughts marinate and have the benefit of hindsight or reflection.
Most people are worried about the next few months but many are also planning the shape of the world’s recuperation and recovery:
The Fall of 2016
For some the change of seasons
can be bitter chocolate…
Autumn succumbs to winter,
days darken like spiced cider
and blackened bark,
heralding winter’s deadly cull,
lauding lifeless landscapes.
Sticks and stones underfoot
not grassy knolls or mossy rounds.
Colourful autumn foliage invites
Frog Pond green
But like Wall Street’s
soulless stock surprises
and the rust belt of America’s
winter winds bluster
sweeping lonely leaves loose…
Colours crunched to mush
Ashes to ashes
Dust to dust
until Mother Nature’s miracle
And a tiny shoot springs to life.
We Always Need Hope especially In Today’s World
Hope is an orientation of the spirit, an orientation of the heart; it transcends the world that is immediately experienced and is anchored somewhere beyond its horizons. It is not the conviction that something will turn out well, but the conviction that something is moral and right and just and therefore you fight regardless of the consequences.
Hope is the quality of character that sustains belief under seemingly impossible situations – when kindness seems impossible or poverty inevitable or when the world seems cruel and life unbearable.
People encounter sources of hope in the imagination, in the words and examples of others, and in witness to the natural wonders around us every day.
Hope does not extinguish suffering but sustains the belief that there can be an end to it, if not in your own life, then in the future. And so hope propels you into action.
And just because it has been so wet this weekend, here’s a reminder we are a country of ‘drought and flooding rains’ with a poem and a piece of flash fiction written in class splurge time A Roof Over One’s Head by Mairi Neil
Flash Storm Flushes and Flusters Mairi Neil
Who will be the first to drown
from the heavens challenge
of a waterfall tumbling down?
‘Not me,’ said those with umbrellas held high
‘Nor me,’ said others huddled inside and dry.
‘I don’t care,’ cried the child with glee
splashing in puddles; yelling, ‘Look at me!’
Thunder roared and growled –
was that a lightning flash?
People braved the downpour
and made a dash – for bus shelters
snuggled close to strangers – others
crossed streets ignoring dangers.
‘I don’t care,’ cried the child with glee
splashing in puddles; yelling, ‘Look at me!’
Any port in a storm a cliche true
doorways and porches home
for more than drenched few
downpipes sagged and gushed
collapsed under watery weight
surging water made rivers of roads
scheduled transport cancelled or late.
‘I don’t care,’ cried the child with glee
splashing in puddles; yelling, ‘Look at me!’
Soaked, sodden, and shivering
commuters crowd tram, train and bus
meteorological or seasonal confusion?
No, – it’s Melbourne – no need to fuss.
Who cares? cries the inner child with glee –
splashing in puddles looks fun to me!
How we talk and what we say is part of our personality and our character. Others will often judge us by our speech (the content as well as manner), may even identify us by the way we talk.
For instance, because I still have a recognisable accent people will refer to me as ‘that Scotswoman’,’the Scots lass’, ‘the lady with an accent’, ‘the woman who speaks funny’, ‘Jock’, ‘the Pommy’, ‘the Brit’, ‘the Irish one’ – I’ve also had variations not so complimentary ‘the foreigner’, ‘the red-ragger’ ‘that wog’ …
What you say and how you say it is important. It is important in real life and therefore is important in writing– with a few tricks and rules of what not to do thrown in.
People pick up your mood by your tone of voice – those who know you will not only pick up the obvious mood but also the nuances.
You know, how a domestic scene can play out:
Do you like my new dress?
A few seconds pause.
Of course, I do, dear.
You didn’t even look.
Yes, I did dear.
No, you didn’t.
Remote Control for TV is grabbed, stabbed and television silenced.
You can have a really good look now.
Hmmm. Very… nice… dear.
Dialogue Is Important
But it can be difficult to write so that it sounds natural. you don’t want your characters to sound like a talking statue – wooden, without warmth, boring, unrealistic…
Dialogue is difficult to master as a writer. You have to constantly work at it to sound natural but you can’t be over the top with accents or else characters can become caricatures.
Most people don’t speak in grammatical or even complete sentences but you can’t write in all the ums and ahs either. There has to be a balance.
It is as author Stephen King advises,
“Writing good dialogue is art as well as craft.”
Filmmaker Quentin Tarantino adds,
“If I’m doing my job right, then I’m not writing dialogue; the characters are saying the dialogue, and I’m just jotting it down.”
This is what I tried to do in a class exercise years ago – the students could choose a picture as a prompt and had to write more than one voice into the scene without using he said, she said etc. A Fishy Story by Mairi Neil
Try these simple exercises—
• Go to a busy place andlisten to people. Dialogue moves a story along quite quickly but it must sound authentic.
At the moment with COVID-19 if you are in lockdown, you will have to rely on memory or eavesdrop on neighbours or whoever is sharing your house, or put on a DVD of a film or watch a documentary, game show, (even adverts) to make notes of conversations. (Scroll down for exercises)
If people are with friends or family, they will speak more naturally. Find someone who is sitting with a friend and listen (don’t be too intrusive or you might be accused of stalking or receive threats with violence for being rude and nosy!).
If you’re in a coffee shop, you might overhear people talking to friends about what’s been going on in their life. This is the best way to hear a conversation you can write as natural dialogue. For me, the best inspiration for stories and dialogue tips found when travelling on public transport.
The old man eased into the seat opposite and raised his trilby. His courteous nod revealed a bald patch atop thinning grey hair. A Lancashire brogue boomed, ‘Morning ma’am, Fred’s the name, pension bludger’s me game.’
Doris smiled. In her cultured Australian accent, she said, ‘I’m Doris and I’m retired too.’
‘I’m eighty-five,’ Fred said waving a gnarled hand, ‘and feeling it today.’ His rheumy blue eyes darted from Doris to other passengers engrossed in conversation or plugged into mp3 players. ‘ I don’t know why I’m still alive,’ he added with a fit of coughing.
Brown eyes widened as Doris squirmed in the vinyl seat; picked at an imaginary spot on her linen skirt. In a barely audible voice, she said, ‘I’m eighty-five too and thank God for still being here.’ She blinked. ‘Many of my friends aren’t.’
Fred adjusted silver-rimmed spectacles slipping close to the edge of his hooked nose. He rubbed at his short beard; licked creased lips. A garden gnome coming to life flashed into Doris’s mind, but her smile disappeared when he said, ‘I don’t believe in God or Eternal Life. Don’t worry about shuffling off. Don’t give a toss what happens when I die.’
Doris kneaded her wedding ring and clasped her hands to still restless fingers. Fair eyelashes flickered behind tortoiseshell glass frames as she noted Fred’s blue-grey cotton bomber-jacket and matching trousers, his fashionable fine-checked shirt. Tieless, but neat; plus his black leather loafers gleamed and screamed ex-army. Arthur always said, ‘you can tell an ex-serviceman by their polished shoes.’ He was inevitably right.
Not wanting to give offence, she chose her words, adopting the placating tone she used when her husband got in one of his moods. ‘Our generation, who served throughout the war, question what we were taught to believe.’ She tensed thin shoulders. ‘A wiser power than us will reveal the truth when ready.’
Fred ignored the last sentence. ‘That’s right love, eight years in the Royal Navy – joined up for the duration and stayed on a bit.’ His voice flattened, ‘survived being bombed, being sunk twice and,’ he ended with a flourish, ‘bad grub and too much grog.’
Doris laughed. Students sitting nearby smirked, the plump matron lowered her magazine. Doris thought of Arthur and the legacy of his experience. The tram stuttered past towering office blocks, darkened inside as a large cloud swallowed the sun. She shivered. Did Fred suffer night sweats and awful dreams? She remembered Arthur’s flashbacks of the trauma of his war; his years of heavy drinking. Did Fred’s wife contend with erratic and sometimes violent outbursts amid his jolliness?
She forced her attention to the present as her companion said, ‘I had eight brothers you know –– and they’re all dead. I’m the lucky last!’ He paused. ‘Well, I don’t know about luck, but I’m the bloody last.’
from Just for The Moment, Mairi Neil
• Watch a good movie. Quentin Tarantino movies are known for their excellent dialogue, but there’s an endless list of what you can watch to improve your writing. Dialogue is usually well planned in films for maximum value. There’s only a limited amount of time to say something on the screen. The film is a great reference for studying good AND bad dialogue.
• Write a scenewhere each character can only say one sentence. How will you convey what they’re trying to say and move the story along with a limited amount of dialogue? This will also help you improve your descriptive writing. Remember, sometimes less is more when it comes to dialogue. You want to show your readers what’s going on, not tell them.
• Watch a clip from either a TV show or a movie, and rewrite the dialogue in that scene. How can you improve it? What can be cut out? What can be added? This will help you understand dialogue and how you can improve your own.
Be a good observer and listener
Identify some key variables and play with them. if you write good dialogue, the reader feels they are in the story with the character. They are right there and can hear the voice. You have to avoid just having talking heads with no real action or using the dialogue to dump a lot of information rather than move the story forward.
Think back and analyse a recent conversation and ask these questions:
What was said?
How was it said?
Who said it?
Why was it said?
How did you perceive it?
If you can remember the last argument, debate or disagreement you had or witnessed even better to capture it in words.
If you can “hear” the character’s voice in your head, that’s better than any worksheet. Think of the key variables influencing dialogue:
Perhaps goals and agendas, characters’ knowledge of each other, characters’ attitudes toward each other, relative status of the characters …
What type of vocabulary does a character use (formal, slang, profane, simple sophisticated… )
How does the character structure their sentences (hesitations, complex or simple, fragmented, long-winded… )
What attitude or tone of voice does the character have (abrupt, sarcastic, imperious, humble, polite, rude, boastful, flirtatious, angry, pedantic… )
What subject matter or commentary does the character prefer ( egotistic, talking about self, sensitive, gossipy, apologetic, religious, anxious, worried about money, bombastic…)
It is also important to remember that silence or a pause in a scene can be realistic dialogue and reveal more about the character and plot development than pages of dialogue or telling.
Action is the best way to show external conflict and dialogue and internalisation by the character (thoughts) the best ways to present the internal struggles.
Your Turn To Write
I’ve chosen some pictures of scenes that scream story – you can manipulate the setting and people to any country or era you choose.
I love Edward Hopper‘s paintings – they are evocative of an America from an era I remember in movies, television shows and many novels.
These pictures are from a beautiful book of his most famous works I picked up in a wonderful bookshop in Melbourne’s centre. They sold Remainder hardback stock at a fraction of the original cost. I’ve never been in a job with a high salary but when I was young and single and working in the city in the 70s and 80s, I haunted Mary Martin’s bookshop.
Throughout his career, Edward Hopper was concerned with the relationship between “the facts” of observation and the improvisation that happened when making a work of art. Use your imagination and write about the characters.
Reveal their personalities and character through dialogue as well as behaviour.
Things to think about:
You can write from the point of view of one character – what is their goal or agenda?
Does the non-point of view character have a hidden agenda? What is their backstory?
Change one character’s attitude toward the other
Change one character’s knowledge about the other.
Change the relative status between the characters (increase or decrease the difference in status, or swap their statuses)
If these pictures don’t spark your imagination then practise writing dialogue by:
Write a scene with two characters having an extremely tense conversation in a peaceful setting such as
the botanical gardens,
an avenue of cherry blossom trees,
an empty beach
an empty church
Imagine a courtroom scene or a police interview room, a telephone conversation between a teenager and parent, or a scene at a reception desk where there has been a mistake with a booking.
Have a look at the following opening sentences from The Penguin Century of Australian Storiesedited by Carmel Bird – what questions do they raise and where could the story go?
You can’t plagiarise – so don’t start your story with the exact words but the lines may trigger a similar idea.
‘We sat in our navy-blue serge tunics with white blouses.
A Snake Down Under,Glenda Adams
‘If you don’t wait under the house,’ said Rhoda to me, ‘she won’t come at all.’
Under The House, Jessica Anderson.
Down by the bar at the end of the pool, Ella Fitzgerald was telling them to take love easy easy easy and the women with skin like bark kept taking the conversation easy with two gate-crashers from a lugger.
Petals from Blown Roses, Thea Astley
I select from these letters, pressing my fingers down.
‘ABCDEFGHIJKLMNOPQRSTUVWXYZ’, Murray Bail
Louise was born on a Monday; she was married on a Monday, and her cat was eaten by an owl on a Monday.
The Powerful Owl, Candida Baker
I think you will agree, these are all intriguing opening sentence prompting questions.
IMAGERY IS IMPORTANT TO ENGAGE READERS
A successful image jolts the reader’s nervous system when explanation falls flat. Consider, “Donna felt weak,” versus, “Donna was unable to bring the spoon to her mouth.”
Which one makes you want to know what happens next? The rewrite is an example of showing and the first of telling.
Get used to writing the first thing that comes into your head – don’t censor or edit – you’ll be surprised what it may lead to. Many great writers say they do not write per se – but are merely vessels through which writing flows.
The subconscious produces the writing, you just have to keep up. Train yourself to write specific pieces over particular timeframes. Eg. One short story or poem a week.
Set tangible goals but be flexible– life is for living not worrying about self-imposed challenges.
Now it is your turn…
Try to write fast and not plan (no mind mapping today)– just let your mind focus on creating an image the words trigger.
Once you get a story down – then you can shape it for your audience – but you have to write it first!!
An original idea is not necessarily one that hasn’t occurred to others (a concept, plot, twist in story), it can be your approach to the story idea that’s original.
Stephen King wrote about teenage vampires years ago but Stephanie Meyer’s depiction made her Twilight series best sellers.
Your originality will be the slant you choose, your style of writing and your interpretation of a good but perhaps well-worn idea.
GRAB A PEN AND WRITE
Rewrite each of the following statements in a way that shows instead of explains (tells).
By concentrating on creating an effective image your writing will get a boost. (Remember all of this advice and triggers can be used for poetry if that’s your preferred genre.)
Her hair was a mess.
The garden was ready for picking.
I hate broccoli.
You always change your mind.
The moon is full.
Fred’s car was a mess.
The food did not look good.
The terrier was mean.
The old woman’s shoes did not fit.
The party was fun.
Have you created a great first line? Can you continue with one of the stories?
(If none of the above inspired, check Google images on a theme you want to write about and make the image come to life by telling the story of the picture.)
Practice makes perfect good advice when it comes to creative writing. The more you read writers good at their craft, the more you learn and absorb their expertise. The more you write, the easier it becomes to remember a lot of those techniques and apply it to your own writing.
To craft a compelling story, you must first launch it in the right direction. Never forget that the entire course of a story or novel, like an avalanche, is largely defined within its first seconds.
I love short stories and read a lot of them – and I love travelling (I’ve done a lot of that too!).
Here are twelve first lines to consider why they ‘hook’ you in – and by the way, this is important for all writers, even those into non-fiction! These first lines are from The best of Lonely Planet Travel Writing, 2009 edited by Tony Wheeler
I got off the plane in Addis Ababa and there, as in so many airports so often in the past, was my school friend, Louis, extending a shaky hand. Pico Iyer “No Food, No Rest, No…”
In Borneo, there were only two destinations: upriver and down. Stanley Stewart, “Upriver”
For weeks after returning from my ill-fated journey to the Indian Himalayan village of Kaza, I had difficulty explaining to people why I’d wanted to go there in the first place. Rolf Potts, “Something Approaching Enlightenment”
We lost the side-view mirrors somewhere outside Nakhon Ratchasima. Bill Fink, “The End Of The Road”
It was a blazing tropical morning in the middle of nowhere. Simon Winchester “Ascension In The Moonlight”
This story – this true story – concerns reciprocal kindnesses in a country which has come to symbolise humanity’s trials. Nicholas Crane, “Finding Shelter”
Through moonlit fog, I walked from the bus station towards the colonial centro of San Christóbal Chiapas. Laura Resau, “Secrets of the Maya”
When I was working in China, it seemed that everyone I needed to see was not where he was supposed to be. Karl Taro Greenfield, “On The Trail”
Blam! The mad Tibetan slammed his head against the windscreen with such force that cracks shot across the screen from the point of impact. Tony Wheeler, “Walking the Mount Kailash Circuit”
In 1974, when I was 23, it was not uncommon for a young person to gather together a few dollars, strap on a backpack and spend part of the summer hitchhiking through Europe, searching for unknown foreign adventures or merely trying to postpone the inevitable adult responsibility called ‘work’. Greg Tuleja, “A Slight Leaning Backward”
Devoted as I am to the ethos of Lonely Planet, I was never a backpacker. Jan Morris, “Ignoring The Admiral”
The flat perched at the top of the house, little more than a lean-to riveted to Mrs Puri’s ceiling. William Dalrymple, “City of Djinns”
I wrote this story from a prompt in a writing game – you had to go fast and furious and the prompts were bizarre.
A decade ago, I read about Martha Grimes who writes a series of mystery novels in which the titles are taken from the names of British pubs.
What stories could you write (they don’t have to be mysteries) featuring typical fast food and other restaurants around Melbourne’s suburbs?
Here are a few ideas to get you started – apologies but you should know by now I love alliteration:
Star Struck at Starbucks
Mayhem at McDonald’s
Danger at Domino’s
Blah Blah’s Battleground
Gloria Jean’s Gluttony
Pancake Parlour Pirate
Taco Bill’s Tyranny
Curry House Caper
If you are into historical fiction or any genre imaginable here are a few names of British Pubs I pulled from The Wordsworth Dictionary of Pub Names – an intoxicating history of a famous British institution, Wordsworth edition, London 1994,
It is amazing what books you find on your shelves! I’ll list where the pubs are so you know I’m not making them up – but so what if I was – I am a creative writer:)
A Bit on the Side (Chippenham, Wiltshire) Abbot’s Fireside (Eltham, Kent) Air balloon (Abingdon and elsewhere) Angel by the Bridge (Henley-on-Thames) Atmospheric Railway (Starcross, near Exeter) Babes in the Wood (Hanging Heaton, West Yorks) Bag ‘o Nails (Annesley, Nottinghamshire) Bald-face Stag (Burnt Oak, Edgware) Bareknuckle Boys (Holmfirth, Huddersfield) Bleak House (Horsell Common, Sry and elsewhere) Cuckoo Bush (Gotham Nottinghamshire) Crystal Palace (Merthyr Tydfil and elsewhere) Crown and Cushion (Eton and elsewhere) Cross Rifles ( Bridgwater Somerset) Court Jester (Hampton Gloucester)
And the alphabetical lists go on for 300 pages with a potted history of each name – although many state the obvious!
Maiden’s Head (Maidenhead and elsewhere) Magpie and Stump (London EC4) King’s Head (London and elsewhere) Queen’s Arms ( Watford and elsewhere) Try Again (Bristol)
Now Go Do Fast Writing
Close your eyes, relax and breathe deeply.
Say to yourself: With every word I write I will become calmer, more confident and more creative. Repeat 3 times with feeling.
Imagine yourself writing quickly and fluidly Smile – this is writing for pleasure!
Let go of your logical mind.
Let your subconscious come up with the words and ideas – trust your memory to have stored interesting events, people, thoughts…