The second of our six workshops began with some group reflections on the experience of the ‘Story Spine’ assignment inspired by the first session. I’d found it pretty challenging and incredibly useful as a writer unused to precision planning; it also had the unexpected consequence of helping me to weed out ideas that weren’t going anywhere and/or didn’t work with a plot driven framework. The story I eventually sent to SJ was my fourth attempt and although I wasn’t overly happy with the results (writing is hard, who knew?) I could hand it in knowing that the process itself had taught me so much – and I’ll no doubt continue to learn from it, pending SJ’s feedback.
This session was to focus on a more ‘modern’ way of writing, an aim reflected in our pre-set reading of Angela Readman’s winning entry from the 2013 Costa Short Story Award, The Keeper of the Jackalopes – an exemplar of memorable imagery, compelling narrative structure and inventive use of language. We started by listing some of the striking images she creates and were spoilt for choice from the get-go. As previously, the group came up with some great and varied examples. Personal favourites included the stand-out image of the Jackalope itself (a mythical creature and ‘portmanteau of Jackrabbit and Antelope’ – thank you, Wikipedia); a totally fresh take on sunset (“The sun slots down between the silver trailers like a coin in a machine”); and a quiet, perfectly observed description of a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it interaction (“The man wraps his handshake around his folder full of forms”).
We then moved on to look at the drivers of the story – the ‘Story Engine’ – what moves the story forward and keeps you reading. These were not dissimilar to the ‘stakes’ or key events that we looked at in the Chekov story in Week 1, except here the emphasis was on small (or smaller) conflicts: ‘ordinary’, internal and relationship-based conflicts that focus more on how people change. There were many levels to this and we discussed themes of survival, grief and coming of age, both metaphorical and literal, with some taxidermy-based double entendre in the mix (!) in-keeping with the optimistic ending.
The second half of the session looked at the language itself and how the writer shows us the characters and their worlds. ‘Show don’t tell’ is a well-known adage and not one I’ve always achieved so I was relieved to hear SJ say that sometimes it’s okay to tell – I was already mentally dismantling the comparatively spare prose I’d submitted for critique and where this could be improved by ‘showing’. Just as well then that The Keeper of the Jackalopes is something of a masterclass. Sometimes you are presented with an image that expresses something through and about the characters (“Guess folks like hot tubs more than loyalty”) and at other times the writer ‘shows’ through the unexpected pairing of an emotional experience and a familiar action (“The silence stretches between them like cheese on that pizza, thinning, fit to snap”). She contrasts phrases as beautifully simplistic and evocative as “… just a girl and her dad watching Gladiators every night” with more ornate descriptions: “Winter is around the corner, watching their every move with its silvery eye”. We touched on the question of “How much is too much?” when ‘showing’ and using expressive language but each example we came up with seemed to justify the means and work in service of the story.
We finished the evening off with a 3-part exercise, spending around 10 minutes on each section. First SJ invited us to visualise an object, image or place from childhood, to see it as you did, then to try to describe it so that someone else would be able to visualise it. Then we were asked to write a character who related to the image in some way and to think about a key relationship in their life. Finally we returned to the original image and wrote about how they/the character see it differently as an adult. I found this exercise surprising complex, partly because I was using autobiographical material which was both helpful (in terms of coming up with the idea and visualising it vividly) and not (because I found myself getting stuck in a well-worn personal narrative around this image which felt like it was getting in the way of me being more adventurous and experimental – something I’m becoming increasingly aware of in my writing generally). It’s helped me decide how I’m going to approach this month’s homework, by starting with a fictional scenario, playing with language and description for its own sake and allowing autobiographical details to sneak in later, as and when they occur to me.
I’ve also come away wondering how I might put together what I’ve learned about structure from Week 1 and what I’ve learned about language from Week 2. But before starting my story I’ve set myself an additional challenge: to get into the habit of dreaming up (and writing down) original phrasing and language as it applies to my everyday encounters and observations. And to remember that sometimes telling is okay, too.
Monica Dickson is a short fiction writer from Leeds. Her work has appeared in Salomé, Firewords, The Cabinet of Heed, Riggwelter, Ellipsis, Spelk, Dear Damsels and elsewhere. She tweets @Mon_Dickson and blogs at https://writingandthelike.wordpress.com/.