I’ve booked my place on one of the upcoming Creative Writing School workshops and have just finished my second block of these, having gone to the initial sell-out run of classes, which started last year at the Southbank Centre’s Literature and Spoken Word festival in 2010. They’re run by Greg Mosse, who teaches on West Dean College’s MA Creative Writing.

First up, I’ll be straight: if you’re not used to having ideas shot down or critiqued (however gently) then you need to be prepared for it. Going to Creative Writes and being used to reading out my work in a small group has girded my ego somewhat.

This is more of a class format than the Creative Writes workshops, and I find it’s been the perfect counterbalance to a softer group format. Greg Mosse is a lecturer, so is used to teasing ideas out of slightly terrified-looking students! In past sessions we’ve covered plot, setting, dialogue, suspense, characters and tapping into your own experience as a basis for fiction.

Each session is structured, so we know what to expect, and what to expect to achieve at the end of it. We’re taken through solo and group written exercises, sometimes having to swap people around so we get to talk, mingle and bounce ideas off relative strangers – not to mention occasionally presenting ideas that you came up with in your old group, to a whole new group of people. The techniques we’re taught are geared towards writing successful commercial and literary fiction, and we’re taught to take cues from TV and film writing. This might seem a bit odd, but consider this: our expectations of written fiction have been raised by visual media, with its quick transitions and tightly-structured scenes.

You don’t have to write as if writing for TV or film  as we’re not looking at screenwriting, but you do have to give your audience a reason to turn the pages; the sentence structure you’d have used maybe 30 years ago is as anachronistic as a TV drama from 30 years ago. When I watched the classic I, Claudius, for example, I found the scenes were long and wordy, with little supplementary action. Compare that to a modern TV drama, and you can really see the difference: old programme feels old. No matter how riveting the story, you have to work harder to pay attention because we live in an ADD world… Oh hey! What’s this? *plays with shiny thing dangled in front of me*. Ahem. We’ve become accustomed to shorter, quicker scenes, and fiction has to keep up with that.

I’ve found the workshops challenging, but in the best possible way; as a result, my writing has improved. Greg is really nice and approachable, and I’ve chatted to him about my own novel and how best to structure it. I’ve learned about what readers expect from contemporary fiction, and how writers can use visual techniques to give this to them. For instance, you don’t spell out to the reader that ‘X thought Y was a bit of a dick, that’s D-I-C-K…’, but you use plot devices, conflict, dialogue and character development to reveal this. Think of it as a 360° approach. You know this instinctively when reading good fiction – even when reading shit fiction that you can’t put down – but putting what works into practice isn’t easy.

Top Tip: ‘Show, don’t tell’ basically means, er, ‘tell by showing’. Instead of explicitly explaining the context of the story … no, you’re boring me already. Go straight to the action. No ‘Marie was thirty-nine, divorced, she was broke and had six hungry children to feed, blah blah blah…’ Save that for the blurb.

Pass this and go straight to Marie counting her pennies and struggling to buy enough food in the supermarket, looking longingly at the pale skin and indentation of a wedding ring on her finger, coming home and crying over the decree nisi while her children ran around, the pangs of hunger in her belly… you get the picture. But don’t remain on setting the scene too long, because you still need to pull all those other levers – plot, character, pace, dialogue etc. – to keep the story moving. That’s the aim: keep it moving till the very end; that’s where you want your reader to be.

 

 

 

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