Thursday, 10 January 2019

Ways to open a story

January opens the new year... how about exploring ways to open stories? Of course an opening is only relevant to the story that follows, and every piece your students have written so far has an opening. Still, once you have stimulated some story ideas you can have students practice openings with this bossy exercise I call Imperative Opening. But first, a list:

Some Ways to Open a Story

  • Dialogue
  • Setting -- geography or weather
  • Setting -- interior
  • Monologue, first person
  • Character description, third person
  • Characters in action
Imperative Opening Exercise 
Prepare the above list as a handout. Give students a stimulus (ideas below) or get them to have a story in mind, then give them the handout -- which is also a taskslip. Go round and tick one opening on each person's list -- a different one for each student. (Repeat the cycle for however many students you have.)

Instructions: With your story in mind, write an opening in the mode I've ticked, about half a page long. Remember to bubble first (my word for jot or list ideas) to help you expand and gather your thoughts.

After reading out and discussing the effects of the different openings you can extend the exercise by doing a new round of ticks. Like an absolute monarch you are imperatively forcing students to stretch themselves into devising a different manner of opening with the same story in mind. Or you can generously let them choose their own option from the list. When they moan, say: Yes, you must stick with the same story, the better to explore the effect! Further reading out and discussion follow of course.

Imperative Opening is in Section 3 VI, Craft: Storytelling Devices. It's Exercise 70 in Creative Writing: the Matrix paperback. It's Exercise 65 in Creative Writing: the Quick Matrix ebook.

Story stimulus exercises Above I promised you some starters if your students haven't yet got a few stories in mind. There are loads in the Craft section of the Matrix books -- Character's Journey, Opening with an Ending, Rainbow Tale, Agony Letter, Character Profile. See Exercises in the Labels list of this blog. There's always the trusty Postcard method: give each student an interesting picture postcard for story stimulus.

'It was a dark and stormy night...'? Maybe not. I wish you a bright and sunny season of teaching creative writing.

Monday, 10 September 2018


'I'm not happy when I'm writing, but I'm more unhappy when I'm not.'
Who said that? The answer is Fannie Hurst, but the point is: Quote-match, a great way to get your class mixing and mingling. And groaning and laughing. And raising questions and discussions about writing -- this early in the year that's good fodder for your class planning.

Type, cut out and paste on index cards, or simply print out and cut in strips, quotes from writers on writing. Sources? The above is from W.O.W. Writers on Writing, selected and complied by Jon Winokur. Or go to Goodreads quotes on writing -- if you are not a member, join! Goodreads is a good thing.

You distribute the quotes (how-to tips below) and the task for your class is to Find the person who has the same quote you've been given. Task ideas: the pair agree or disagree with the quote (three reasons why), reinvent the quote, what did the speaker's spouse say, brainstorm a story... 

General Guidelines for All Pairing Exercises

  • Keep the pair devices in two separate identical sets to give out on opposite sides of the room, doing a quick count to check your numbers, so your distribution will get people moving and mixing as they search for their match.
  • Be sure to explain the task before they rise -- you'll never be able to shout over the noise once the happy chatter begins.
  • Stroll about, dropping the match-cards randomly at people's places. As they find each other, write task-point reminders on the board. Some students do not fully heed or remember verbal instructions.
  • Watch the clock. Allow about 10 minutes for the paired task. Give a countdown at two minutes, then one minute, reminding pairs to cover the task points.
  • What if your numbers are uneven? Have a third match-quote up your sleeve. Designate one pair as a threesome, the 'odd' one finding his or her way to the matching quote. This is also a solution for a late-arriving student. The trio just have to make do with the time allotted.
  • When time's up the pairs report to the group at large. Or you may have them write for 5-10 minutes as an individual exercise. I have students return to their original seats for the whole-group work, so partners may be across the room, not adjacent -- it's less routine, sharpens attention.
Variations on matching: famous quotes, proverbs or sayings. If your group is widely read and confident you could leave out the attribution and have pairs guess the author of the quote, but generally I feel it's best to keep simply to the quote itself as the focus.

Quote-match is in Section II, Stimulus: Sparking the Writer, Exercise 43, in Creative Writing: the Matrix paperback. In Creative Writing: the Quick Matrix ebook it's Exercise 37.
Listen out to the discussion and you'll get the measure of your writers' woes, worries and joys to help you plan and nurture your class.

And here's one to wish you well for the term: 'The best time for planning a book is while you're doing the dishes.' -- Agatha Christie.

Wednesday, 16 August 2017

Stone Writing

I said stone, not stoned! Here is a stimulus exercise I love to teach. A good one for early in the start of a new term because it's a bit mystifying, but always gets results. What's more, it makes use of those mementos from your holidays if, like me, you can't resist picking up stones or shells when out in nature. 

Stone Writing
So, out walking or in a gem shop or natural history museum, collect a small boxful of semi-precious stones in their wondrous variety of colours, textures and patterns. Add stripey, sparkly or textured stones picked up at the seashore and rocky streams. Or run a variation on this, using seashells.

Find a good container, say of rattan or woven grasses for an elemental feel, or of velvet or lacquer, associating with valuable treasures. Proffer the container, letting students choose one of nature’s objects, then contemplate, bubble (my word for brainstorming on paper) and write for 10 minutes -- whatever comes to mind.

This usually brings excellent freewheeling results. Some spontaneously go the non-fiction way of science or nature, others go into memoir mode, others into fiction. Another time you can prompt them if you wish, for instance:

  • Where has this been?

  • What does your stone remind you of?

  • Who found, or who treasures this natural item, and why?

  • If it could talk (or if it had a smell, or if it was once a person)
Stone Writing is in Section II, Stimulus: Sparking the Writer, Exercise 19, in Creative Writing: the Matrix paperback. In Creative Writing: the Quick Matrix e-book it's also #19. If you and your students are really really beginners exercises 5 - 9 are the sparking essentials. 

The whole academic year of planning lies ahead. Enjoy! And remember there are teaching ideas and exercises in the archived posts here -- scroll the Labels list, a treasure trove. Note, too, the final section of the Matrix book (both e and print) is called Running the Course. Combines with Section I: Nurture -- A Safe Place in which to Grow to get you up and, well, running. And writing. 

Wednesday, 3 May 2017

Character Challenge

Spring into Summer, wheee! And more demand from your creative writing students, whether it's a new class or the rag-tag end of your year. This character writing exercise is fun AND enlightening.

Characterization Challenge
Prepare a set of word cards, each with a single character trait. Explain before you distribute one to each student:

We want to bring characters alive by showing them to the reader. The following descriptions are excellent character traits, BUT, how would the reader know without being told in a summary word by you that a person is like this?

Without using the word or phrase on the card, write a half page showing a character with this trait -- include dialogue, make it a scene. Afterwards we'll read out and see if the class can determine the original trait.

Words for the cards: vain; shy; laid back; needs to be centre of attention; brave; a poseur; principled; cynical about life; scatter-brained; ambitious... (Tutor, go on and add as many as you need).

Reading out usually includes lots of laughter as a troupe of exaggerated characters peoples the room, and each writer gets the fun of playing quiz master to his/her character sketch.

Characterization Challenge is in Section III, Craft. In Creative Writing; the Matrix paperback it's Exercise 74. In Creative Writing: the Quick Matrix e-book it's Exercise 70. It follows a Mini-Lecture: Characterization which includes a handout and explains the importance of SHOWING over telling.

Got a short-course summer school coming up? As well as the Matrix books there are more teaching ideas and exercises in the archived posts of this blog. Just scroll down the Labels list and call up Exercises or Class Planning.

Happy teaching, happy creating! I'll be back before September start of term, happy summer,

Sunday, 1 January 2017

Hyper-Awareness Writing

New Year, new lessons to plan. Where can you take your writers, and yourself? Try writing with the 8 senses. And then follow with an exercise. The senses are an absolutely essential element of creative writing, and a review of them plugs into almost any writing stimulus, any writing level.
Ask students to call out the senses. Write them on the whiteboard as they do so. The obvious come first, and then I add three others I've identified. As a demonstration I like to halt everything for a whole long minute for Sound, so we all listen: the hum of a computer, talk in the corridor, drone of a plane, a distant siren, one's own breathing... Invite your students to stretch their senses, along the lines of:

Sound – peel off layers of sound

Taste – temperature and feel of food in the mouth, nuances, memories (and as smell)

Smell – familiar, unknown, indescribable (new combinations of familiar)

Sight – panorama, close-up, middle distance; above, below; colour, texture, shape, pattern; straight, curved, angular; banish the word beautiful – what kind of beautiful?

Touch – feel under fingertips, soles of feet, bottom; hot/cold, rough/smooth; things that touch you (breeze, raindrops, rim of glass); things you touch (yak's coat, palm trunk, kelim rug)

Kinetic – body position:  awkward, comfy, stretched, cramped, turned, straight...

Inner/visceral – body organs, gut reactions:  churning stomach, tight throat, full bladder, scratchy eyes, prickling scalp, gooseflesh, genitals responding (or not)
Time – night/day, evening; light, shadow (Monet's cathedral); time creeps, time whizzes
The above is Mini-Lecture 2 from the Stimulus section of Creative Writing: the Matrix. Now for an exercise. This is Hyper-Awareness (surprise) which is number 12 in the paperback book and number 13 in the Quick Matrix ebook.
After introducing 8 Senses, before a break (coffee or lunch) instruct students to be hyper-aware of all senses, but no other instructions.  On return to class, give one of these writing exercises.
  • Sheer observation Bubble and write, describing the café break, using as many of the senses as richly as possible.
  • Character-based in two stages.  Tutor, don’t reveal the second stage til the first is written.  Stage 1. Describe the café break as seen by a character who has just had a row with a lover – a paragraph or half-page.  Stage 2.  Same break, same character, but he/she has just declared love and learned it was mutual. Describe the break experience.
Read out and enjoy the sensations. Hope you'll be revelling in rich writing all term!
PS To help you through the term there are loads of other teaching ideas and exercises in the archived blog posts here. See the Labels list. I'll be back after spring break.

Tuesday, 30 August 2016

Life Listing Exercise

Back to school! Start of the new year! Got to plan a wonderful series of creative writing classes. Try starting with an exercise that works wonders for both timid newbies and experienced writers and also can lead to further inspiration and production.

This is a particularly good way to get students into their own private store of writing sparks.  In two stages, the process stirs, then stirs again, allowing the writer to discover more to say than he or she thought possible.

Stage 1.  List six objects you remember from childhood.  (Someone will ask, I usually say under the age of ten).  Give 5 minutes for this; if some get only to three or four that’s fine. 

Stage 2.  Sit back, study the list.  Choose one to write on, the one that speaks to you most at this moment.  Another time it might be another one, but right now, choose one and start writing.  You might want to bubble first, or maybe it’s ready to come flowing out, just write.  A paragraph is fine, more if you want to.  Allow 10, 15 or even 20 minutes for this.

What’s the point?  These can be left as riffs only, or they can be a springboard to evocative short stories, poems or plays.  Students are often amazed at the excellence of their own and their classmates’ pieces.

From the Stimulus section, Life Listing is exercise 7 in paperback and 8 in ebook versions of Creative Writing; the Matirx/the Quick Matrix. Beyond that there are other exercises not in either book here in this blogsite. Just scroll to the Labels list and call up Exercises. Happy teaching -- and writing -- see you later in the year.

ONLY £7.00
Special half-price reduction, on Amazon, click here. Paperback only for UK distribution.
 Quick Matrix ebook is £2.99 available everywhere.

Tuesday, 19 April 2016

Reviving rant exercise

Summer term -- revving up? Or running out of steam? Or some of each? Here's some fuel and some news.

NEWS first: on my Paxton Publishing website I used to post a termly freebie extract exercise from Creative Writing the Matrix (or Quick Matrix in ebook). But that site has now morphed into a more pukka independent author-publisher website. It features the two Matrix books and the 9th May 2016 publication of The Extraordinary Dr Epstein paperback. click here to have a look. It's pretty, with photos of the Chiswick House and Gardens famous camellias and magical glass house. Gardener par excellence Joseph Paxton is my inspiration.

So... I will now put the termly freebie exercise extracts here on this blogsite. Starting with...

This is a short, energy-filled exercise that requires absolutely no preparation on your part. Have students list five pet peeves, things that really bug them, like people who litter, marketing phone calls etc. Or tell them to list household chores you loathe. Then direct students to choose one, and let rip in a rant, pen on paper (much more freeing than fingers on keyboard). Encourage them to be as wild and exaggerated as they like. If you wish, start them off: I can't stand people who... OR I really hate it when...  

What's the point? This is great fun for letting off steam. And when read out, good for laughter in class. There's a lot of power in the negative. The extremes could also be the basis for a neurotic, eccentric or weird character.

The Rant is exercise 36 in paperback and 38 in ebook; PS you can see lots more on Amazon's Look Inside feature here. The print book, with 116 exercises and lectures, is available only in the UK. The ebook, worldwide. Besides that, there are loads of exercises not in either book here in this blogsite. Just scroll down to the blog archive and call up Exercises on the Labels list. Have a good end-of-year and a happy creative summer. See you in September -- early enough for prepping.