This week’s blog is in celebration of short stories, which is just as well as it is National Short Story Week. How many of us regularly write? Those of us who are teachers constantly exhort our pupils to take up that challenge, but do we ourselves? Our guest blogger is professional writer Louise Etheridge, who shares her tips and tricks to help get us into writing.
We all love reading stories because, at heart, we’re all storytellers. It’s what humans are for. We all have stories bursting to pop out of our imaginations just when we least expect it, whether we know it or not. But not many of us actually sit down and write stories because we think writing stories is what other, cleverer, writey people do. I write stories and am not cleverer or writey so I think you should have a crack at writing stories, too, because you’ll enjoy it, you’ll find out a lot about yourself and, most importantly, you will adorn the world with sparkling, unique stories.
So, if you feel like dipping a toe into your own creativity, the nice people at Coventry Primary English have given me one of their expensive virtual blog pages so that I can show you how you can get started.
Step 1: Turn up on the page
The good thing about writing stories is that the possibilities are endless. The bad thing about writing stories is that the possibilities are endless. Deja vu or not, when you have a blank page it’s really difficult knowing where to start. The fear of the blank page, or the blank screen, or whatever you are writing on – once I had the unsettling experience of a blank banana – can block your imagination faster than a duvet down a toilet.
But by sitting down to write you’ve already started writing a story. You turned up on the page. Yay! That means instead of thinking,”Oh, I’ll find out about my amazing capacity for imaginative storytelling later. I’ll just get on with the ironing/marking/filling my trainers with guacamole,” you chose to take up your glitter pen or keyboard and sit down to write. That is the biggest step of all and all great writers do that to start with. So there, you’re half way to being Hemingway. Just by sitting down with a pen, a bit of paper and an intention to create, you are channelling all the good dead writers and the lovely writers that aren’t dead yet. Well done, top marks.
Step 2: Give yourself permission to write utter utter utter rubbish.
The good thing about giving yourself permission to write appallingly is that you can throw your inner critic out of the window to play with the crows in the park. Perfectionism is bad and naughty when you are starting to write a story; so if you want to be a perfect storystarter, ditch the perfectionism. That’s a conundrum in itself but rather than waste time thinking that one through, just know that perfectionism is the enemy of creativity. When you’re used to judging other people’s work (you might be a teacher, a judge on Strictly or whatever), it’s so easy to start judging your own work. Don’t. Perfectionists think that a perfect story must spring in all its glossy loveliness from the keyboard first time: a flawless, immaculate piece of prose that will be worshipped for centuries. Naaaah! Don’t be afraid to write rubbish. In fact, glory in rubbish. Roll around in the poverty of your language, the laughable non-sequiturs, the ugliness of your prose. Terrible writing is extremely funny, so you can’t lose. Enjoy the badness. All “proper” writers have written stuff so bad even the paper has walked out. To prove it, google “terrible first drafts of great books.” Dickens, what a mess! Proust, get your act together!
Remember, it’s only a first draft. Oh yes, that reminds me, that’s a good trick. I’m a writer by trade – yes, people actually PAY me to write (they haven’t found me out yet!) and every time I sit down to write something, my Inner Critic (a cross between a rancid goblin and Craig Revel Horwood) whispers “Daaarling, this is atrocious!” So I say “Thanks for sharing, now go play in the park,” and then I write “It’s only a first draft” at the top. It reminds me that the first go can be a bit pants. I did that for this blog entry, and I’m sorry if it is still a bit pants but never mind.
When you give yourself permission to write rubbish, you can set your creativity free.
Step 3. Ditch the rules.
There’s probably a proper way to write a story but when you sit down to play with your imagination there should be no rules. Everything you know or teach about story writing – character arcs, dramatic architecture, the 6-step method, the Lavantine Triangulation method, Doherty’s Past-Present Construct (the last two I made up because I don’t know much about story rules and I want you to think I am clever) – forget them. You might want a beginning, middle, end, you might not. It doesn’t matter. The important thing is to get those creative juices flowing, get those words and ideas down, those turns of phrase that secretly you admire. You’ve plenty of time to play with the words and ideas later, to decide “Hey, this bit would be better over there! “or “Why did I give the hero a beak? He’s not even a bird. I’ll take that out.”
Step 4: Play the Story Club game.
Ok, you’ve turned up on the page, you’re happy to write rubbish. Stuff the rules. But what do you write ABOUT? It’s your story. You have amazing power. You can write about anyone doing anything anywhere. The universe of your imagination is probably bigger than the actual universe, but I haven’t researched that with my scientist friends. How on earth are you going to select a story from the millions and trillions of possibilities? Easy! Play the Story Club game. This gives you a framework; some parameters to exercise your creativity and get your imagination down on the page. The Story Club game is writing a story about 3 things in thirty minutes. You can adapt it easily – for your workmates in your lunchtime, for a creativity session with a bunch of fifteen year olds etc, but here’s how I play the Story Club game. You’ll need;
1) A friend.
2) 30 minutes.
3) Your brain.
Take one friend whom you trust and who doesn’t mind writing or reading rubbish. You can sit with each other or you can play online. I play with my friend Roya by email. Sunday is our parameter day and Wednesday is our submission day (all will become clear, perhaps.)
1) Email each other three things to write a story about. Try and make the things as unlinked as possible. Linking unlinked things is like sit-ups for your creativity. The three things are:
a) A character. This can be anyone or anything e.g. the Archbishop of Canterbury, a lamb, Dave, a happy tree.
b) A setting. This can be anywhere or nowhere e.g. in a spaceship, among gerbils, in a Brazilian prison, underground, in the slough of despond.
c) A situation. This can be scary, silly, boring, anything e.g. the loggers are coming, someone has their foot stuck in a gate, meteorite! a jam sandwich has gone missing, nun fight, paint is drying too quickly, the leaves aren’t falling off the trees anymore.
2) Put thirty minutes on the microwave timer and write a story about the character, setting and situation you have been given until the microwave pings that it is time up. For instance, once I had to write a story about an accountant in Olympus when cheese was coming alive.
3) Read and admire your story. Think how creative you are to be able to take unlinkable things and make a story out of them. Exchange your stories with your friend to read, and praise each other to the skies.
In those thirty minutes there’s no time to sit and think. There’s no time to worry about grammar, punctuation, common sense. It’s a starry brain splurge of creating a first draft of a story. If you do this you’ll be amazed at what you can create in such a short time. And hopefully it will give you confidence that you can write stories and that you are a storyteller.
And if you have ever read Roya’s thirty minute story about a lamb in a Brazilian prison who stole a jam sandwich, you know the meaning of despair. I cried for a month.
Useful resources: pretty much anything by Julia Cameron. Storytellers I like: Roald Dahl, Saki, Lemony Snicket, Rachel Ferguson, Stella Gibbons, Malcolm Price, J K Rowling, Edith Wharton, Hugh Walters, Charles Dickens, Noel Streatfeild, Laurie Lee.
We’re off to play the Story Club game! If you want to find out more about Louise’s writing, take a look at Angry Hen Press. And do let us know if you take the plunge into writing…