Thursday, 27 June 2013

How to Pick Short Story Ideas Out of a Hat

It was a lovely idea. I had rocked up to Lisa Clifford's inaugural writing retreat - The Art of Writing - in the Tuscan hills to give a talk about 'Blogging from the Heart'. I gave my talk, accompanied by nerve-soothing white wine, and in the following days found myself swept up in writing lessons given by expert tutor/novelist Jim Friel ('The Posthumous Affair').

I was daunted. I've never taken part in a writing exercise in my life. I never show my work to anyone unless it's at submission stage. I never open up my ideas to anyone, toss things about, shake down my story line.

Perhaps I should. Do you?

One of the exercises that really had me rolling was this: Jim put a batch of different locations typed on slips on paper into a big colander. He put a batch of different characters into two empty fruit bowls. He then put a batch of different plot lines into another container. Then he barked: Get To It!

A group of writers stared at each other, some squirming, others already rising from their seats. You took one slip from each bowl and sat down for a matter of minutes - constructing a story sketch with your location, two characters and plot line. A recipe.

A field of bright strawberries
A gambler
An only child
A compass error

What would you make of that? Or,

A spaceship
A reluctant bride
A detective
A gift is returned

Astonishing, isn't it? Fun. Crazy. Belittling. A cusp.

Oh dear! My way of writing short stories is so gluey compared to this - I have to have a springboard of a sort, a nexus to head towards, or a jarring first line. Not so much characters as shadows to work with. Movement and action, direction. Then I like to let something magical take place. I can't say I will get great stories out of these hats - but it is good to have one's thinking upended, no?

F.Scott Fitzgerald by Carl van Vechten
One morning Jim read the most bewitching passage by F. Scott Fitzgerald and showed us a master a work. Deft description. Action. Dialogue. Ahhh! Another day he used a passage from Joyce's 'The Living and the Dead' to show words in motion: this time he asked those present to extract, understand and reshuffle the great writer's shimmering words, and create a poem. A poem - yes - but less of a poem than a new sensory way of reading words, of slipping them into place.

It all had this writer quite dumbstruck, enthused, keen to get back to work.

Have you ever been to writing workshop? And?


  1. No, cos I'm not a writer ... but that sounds as though it would be both terrifying and exciting (if I were a writer!). I guess he's appealing to that idea that if you want to write, write and don't wait for inspiration. I don't think that's your problem but I think some writers do think they have to wait for something to pop into their heads - or so I've heard.

    Thanks for sharing ... I love hearing about things like this ... perhaps something like that would unlock the creative juices among even the non-creative among us. (Actually, now I think I might send the idea to my Primary School teaching son - no reason why it couldn't be used in a school class is there - that is, the three colander idea. The poem one might be a bit tricker for 8-10 year olds.)

    1. Well thankfully we didn't take it to the next level and show our work (mine was hilarious and unconvincing but perhaps there were buttons pushed?) but I recognise it was useful for us to broaden our appreciation of our own imagination. That is a great lesson for kids. And all of us!

      Sometimes when I don't have a clear idea and I just sit down and 'write', well, for me it rarely works out. I have to wait too! (And I'm continually asking myself too - is this really worth the trouble to write? Is it useful, new? Awful hoops to leap through!)

  2. I do enjoy writing from prompts when, erm, prompted! But the resulting work never really feels my own, if that makes any sense. It's good to have these "recipes" to hand for if the self-made inspiration ever dries up, though. Thanks for posting this!

    1. It does make sense! If I take off like that it feels as though I am not engaging with the whole sort of writing armoury I (imagine I) have in place. And yet that sounds so limited. Do you think we should reshuffle and try out different ways of writing - or getting it out? But do we get to the same place? I often worry so hard about which way things are going and what if I took a different path? It already feels so shaky most of the time.

  3. This is fascinating. I do like to write from prompts but I think I'd be terrified to share something unpolished. Which is why I suppose I've never tried a writing workshop: too much pressure.

    1. Yes I am unable to show unpolished work. I think that would just crush me. I'm not a great collaborator - and yet we did a collaboration exercise and I threw myself into it with wild plot ideas. Fun! Although it did seem such a different path from the way I write. Think at the end of the day it would just confuse my already addled thoughts.

  4. We did something similar on the MA once. If you can let yourself go it's sometimes amazing where these prompts can take you.


    1. Yes I found it very weird as I tend to set myself up mentally before I even sit down to write, and usually have a story or idea just waiting to writhe on the page (doesn't happen every day!) So it was quite a challenge - but surprising! Did you get something out of it?