Wednesday, 28 July 2010

Creative Writing Course - Day 2 - Structure and the Game

Francesca Woodman -‘Eel Series, Roma, May-August 1977′
We began with reading today. Something not great but with structure. This is one of the most difficult things for ‘creative’ writers who, like many modern artists, think that creation should have no limits or rules which in many cases results in some uncontrollable Jackson Pollocky word vomit a hundred pages long.

So, we played a game at the end of the previous class. We all made three descriptions of a character, a place and an event on separate pieces of paper and then exchanged them randomly. The task was to build a story around those three, trying to have the Beginning, the Middle and the End. Starting with bare facts, deciding on the tone of the story and fictionalizing it.


Alternatively we could flick through a newspaper, find a bare-facts news story and build a fiction around it.

Here is what I got:

Character – Colin. He’s dark-haired, with a beard and a very small and fiddly pair of glasses, which he loses frequently. He enjoys spending time in second hand book shops and often goes to extreme lengths to locate them in the cities he visits, as he is a diplomat working for the Australian government.

Place – Lost and Found luggage, Bangkok Airport, Monsoon season, service stuff on strike

Event – Attacked by a dog helping a woman get into her car. It was the woman’s dog.

Another thing we had to try is to relate the task to our own memories and experiences. So, since I’ve never been to Bangkok, like my character, I did a big of research but also tried to remember what it feels like being stuck in the airport for hours. The thing that struck me while reading about Bangkok monsoon rains is the comment of one of the observers about red eels that swim up from the gutter when the water floods the streets. It was such a colourful detail that I decided to put it in the story.

“The Last Bag”

Colin scratched his short beard and looked for the hundredth time at the door that said, in wobbly letters ‘Lost and Found’. “Well, I’m definitely lost” he thought to himself wandering off.

It was hot, even with the wall of monsoon rain that filled the streets with murky water and red eels swimming up from the gutters. The airport was shut down due to strike, angry tourist now asleep on the benches or slouching by their bags with crumbled cups of coffee. Colin found a seat in an empty corner and was wiping his small glasses, while heat kept sliding of his face. They said the temperature should drop soon down to 25 degrees, if was November after all, but Colin wasn’t so hopeful. He didn’t mind the heat much but humidity is quite unpleasant when you are wearing a suit.

This was his third trip to the airport in a week – still patient and used to flying, Colin was looking for his one last lost bag. He stretched on the bench. The same thing happened before in Moscow. He had to wait for five hours and they didn’t have good coffee.

In the last two hours he did almost everything to distract himself: watched the wall of rain, watched the tourists, watched the news on his pocket PC. Now he was just watching the door – from his seat he could only see the word ‘Lost’ on it. Colin smiled. This trip wasn’t one of his diplomatic assignments. It was a sudden holiday place, probably because Amanda never liked Bangkok and now that they were not together, it seemed like a perfect place to go. “Perfect place and timing”, he thought.

Outside the air was a few degrees cooler from the rain, so he went out and stood under a big glass roof the new airport. Rain hit the ground with the force that made water bubble like some witch’s pot.
Suddenly, he saw Amanda.
The rational side said – she hates this place and she’s in Canberra now; emotional side, though Colin didn’t have much of an emotional side, turned his body left and walked it to the woman who was trying to get into the car.

She wasn’t Amanda, of course. Nothing similar, Colin saw now. She was carrying a load of luggage and a little ugly sausage dog, one of those that yap all the time, bite people by the legs and think everything belongs to them. The dog and the woman were both carrying the same sour expression that made them look alike.
“May I help?” Colin offered. The dog eyed him suspiciously. The woman seemed relieved and simply pointed at the luggage. Colin went to lift the bags, which was a bad idea from the dog’s point of view – it made a sprint of tiny sausage legs, bit his ankle violently and bravely ran back for cover. Colin cursed. The woman didn’t notice. The taxi drove off.

“So much for Aussie kindness” Colin thought and limped back inside to his window bench. His ankle wasn’t bleeding much, just red and swollen. He sat back and closed his eyes. Heat crept around him again, covered like a stuffy blanket and made him dizzy.

His thoughts swam around Amanda, then all the different people he saw in the airports before – women in black hijabs with expensive jewellery showing, American tourists who sometimes would confuse Australia with Austria and ask him about kangaroos in Vienna, kids playing on the floor of the airport while their parents reacted according to their nationality – with screams, looks or just indifference. They all swirled into a strange mixture of colours that moved through his dizziness like eels in grey rainy water. Colin thought that he must be having a reaction to the bite but it didn’t really bother him. The swirl of colour slowly turned into nothing. Then nothing turned into sleep.

- Map the story first using a pin-board with notes. So, if you start in the middle of the story you can create possible variants of ending.

- Compress your idea into a pitch line.

- If you are forced to write about smth, look at it sideways instead of full on and think – what experience it reflects in my own life, what have I experienced that’s like that?

- Give your audience smth they expect but not all. If you give too much – it’s a cliché, if too little – it’s confusing and the style is unrecognizable.

- Choose carefully where you start – often it’s too late or too early. Work out where the key moment is. Fiction writers often create the whole world and then map key moments, to decide later what is interesting about those moments.

*first image - Francesca Woodman -‘Eel Series, Roma, May-August 1977′

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