Two great writing exercises from my writers’ group.
We had another great meeting at my writers’ group this week. One of our newer members Steve led the ‘lesson’ and I was curious to see what he would bring as it was the first time he’d been invited to create material for us to work with. Well, he certainly didn’t let us down. In fact he had so many ideas that he brought two themes to the table and let us choose which we would like to spend our 15 minutes writing about.
Just to let you know a bit more about how we work, we always generate hand-outs so that we have written material to work from and don’t have to listen intently to the session leader’s instructions and scribble it all down at the same time. This means that we can pay full attention and ask questions to clarify what we’re supposed to be trying to achieve, and also gives us reference material to take home and continue working from.
Steve’s hand-out was nice and simple. The first option was Plot Generation with a choice of character, setting and situation. We were supposed to select the same number in each section, but hey, we’re creative individuals and some of us mixed and matched.
3. Homeless Person
2. In a telephone box
3. Railway Arches
1. Terminal Illness
2. Fired from her role
Short story of max 250 words in which a plot is developed encompassing the above themes.
You’ll note that Steve gave us a word count of 250 words because the ‘lesson’ is only part of our weekly meeting as we also make time for free reading and to hear people’s ‘homework’ which is work they’ve generated from a previous week’s ‘lesson.’ He was very wise choosing a low word count because some people panic and think they have to write a complete, polished piece of writing in 15 minutes. Believe me, some group members write amazing pieces in such a short time, but others require more thinking time and only scribble down a few notes. This is why we finish our pieces as ‘homework’ and get priority in reading them to the group for critique during the following weeks. It’s a system that works very well and out of these writing prompts several of our members have created short stories that have gone on to win major competitions.
It was interesting that two people chose to write about the Cab Drive, Restaurant, Terminal Illness theme. They were such different stories. In one the Cab Driver was the person with the illness and after a day of highly entertaining passengers he stopped off at a café to read his important letter and then didn’t know how he was going to tell his wife the bad news. A good construction of happy day turns sour. The other was the Cab Driver taking someone to see a particular restaurant they used to dine in and the Cabbie wondering why he wanted to go to such a scruffy eating place when he could obviously afford much better. Here we had the concept of ‘the last supper.’
You can see from these two examples how precisely the same writing prompt generated two unique ideas.
The second option Steve offered was to:
Invent a character through thinking about their possessions: 10 objects
- Battered leather briefcase
- Large blue silk handkerchief
- Bottle of prescription painkillers
- Apple iPhone
- Grecian 2000 black hair dye
- Business card
- Divers watch
- Sepia photograph of great grandparents
- Withered poinsettia
- Pencil sharpener
The first thing that happened when we all read through the list and discussed it was a hilarious five minutes of banter with everyone describing the type of person who wears a diving watch! One bright spark suggested that anyone who wears an expensive diving watch either can’t afford the sports car, and has to make do with the watch as an expression of wealth; or has a paunch and doesn’t really dive. Two men in the group proudly drew back their sleeves and displayed their diving watches! One said he used to dive and the other said, “When I told my son that this watch will still work at a depth of 300 metres he said, ‘yes Dad, the watch will, but you won’t!’”
Stories generated from the prompt, once we had stopped laughing, included two murder scenes, in which the police were putting together a character profile of the deceased; and one argument in which the wife was yelling at the husband to buy a new briefcase. All three writers had the start of something intriguing and are intending to flesh out their ideas and bring finished pieces in over the next few weeks. One person had their corpse decayed and rotting, the clue to the time of death being the withered poinsettia as they’re always around during Christmas…a clever inclusion of an obscure item.
For my own part I decided upon the Cab Driver, the telephone box and 1965, and this is what I wrote. Remember, this is written in under 15 minutes during our meeting and transcribed direct from my notebook, with no alterations.
“The pips are going, phone me back…What! Alright, alright…”
Reluctantly I pressed more pennies into the slot. You didn’t mess with these boys, not for the price of a few coppers.
“Lenny? Lenny? You still there?” His voice rasped down the line.
“You got that then? Corner of West Street, tomorrow night, 10:30 sharp. Ronnie’ll hail down your cab and you pick him up, just like any other fare.”
“Where do I drop him?”
“Don’t get funny with me, Lenny. He’ll tell you once you pick him up. Least you know the better.”
“That’s a long sweep to go right up and round again…one way traffic and all that. So you make sure he’s there on time, on my side of the road.”
“He will be.” He paused and I heard him suck in a long breath. “Don’t let us down, you understand?”
“I’ll be there.”
I held the receiver listening to the purr as he hung up. Slowly I clicked it back into the cradle and leant heavily on the side of the phone box. It stank in here, the rain pummelling against the glass, steaming the booth up, but never washing it clean. Bit like me really…yep, just like me.
The beauty of these short exercises is that they force you to jump straight into the action. There’s no time for preamble and elaborate descriptive passages. We have to get in there and get the nuts and bolts of the story down, to captivate our audience, even if the piece isn’t complete and the action left hanging. When other people in the group say, ‘Wow, what happens next?’ you know that you’re onto something good.
If any aspiring writers would like to have a go at either of these prompts then I’d be pleased to see their work and include it on my blog to show others what can be achieved from a few simple ideas.