Introduction to Writing Fiction: Lesson 4 – Creative Workshop

Currently I am writing in the dark because the last light bulb on the chandelier in my dining room has decided to stop burning its much-needed light at the time I need it most. My work zone in my house is my beloved dining room; I’m here pretty much always because I get to sit in a place that has a beautiful distance between the fridge, kettle and biscuit drawer. This is my study space, eating space, browsing space and writing space. So yes, it’s pretty comfortable. I even have a mini-radiator to keep me warm, since no one in my household can seem to figure out how to activate the radiators from the mains. Yes, I live in a house full of women.

As a writer, sharing your work takes a lot of courage. I wrote about four different chapters before I decided to submit the one I did to Jen (who teaches the classes), and even then in hindsight I wasn’t satisfied with what I had sent to her. As a creative, your work will always be subjected to the eyes of others (unless you choose never to share your work, but all creatives want recognition, they just do). As I mentioned in my last post, this lesson would be an opportunity to share our work (whatever we had so far produced in the writing project we plan to submit at the end of this course), with the rest of the class and for Jen to provide us with individual feedback. I wasn’t that nervous, because I’m relatively confident and she said she would read people’s submissions anonymously (phew). OK, so below is the first draft of the first chapter of a potential novel that I may or may not be working on….

Democracy is an illusion. The year is 3031 and I live in fear. My kind don’t have a say in anything, and recently things are starting to look much worse. Today the government made the final call for my kind to go and register our abilities. I still haven’t decided what I want to do. I put the kettle on and looked out of my small kitchen window. The sky was a smudged blue and grey flecked with bits of pink and orange, and I could see the darkness slowly creeping over the heads of trees in the distance. I looked over to my next-door neighbour’s garden where two of her youngest children were playing on the monkey gym that I had helped her build over a year ago. I wonder if she would let me see them or babysit them again if she knew what I was. I heard my front door open and turned around to find my best friend, Skander Blue, at the entrance taking off his jacket. Skander usually turned up unannounced and was the only person who knew my secret, apart from my mother and sister. He was tall, pale and tubby. He had a handsome face, although the roundness of it and the few extra chins hanging from the bottom sometimes made it difficult to fully appreciate it. I forced a smile as he entered my tiny kitchen and gave me a hug before going over to the cupboard to pull out some mugs.

“So, have you decided yet?” he said, responding to the question that was floating around in my head. He always had a knack of knowing what others were feeling or even thinking. Women’s intuition he called it.

“Nope. I was hoping you could decide for me.” I said with another strained smile.

“Well, what does your mother think?” he said, handing me a hot mug of creamy tea.

“She’s completely against it. Said she’s lived long enough to see how people like me are treated once it’s out in the open. She doesn’t want that kind of life for me.” I stared at Skander’s face, willing him to give me some sense of direction.

“Look, the way I see it, if you don’t register, the punishment is severe if you’re caught and you’re over the age of sixteen. And I heard on the news this morning that they’ve decided to include a confidentiality clause to make sure more, you know, mutants come forward, which means no one else but the government will know.” He had whispered the word ‘mutants’ and his eyes had shifted guiltily when he’d said it. I sighed. Even my best friend was afraid.

“So you think I should register.”

“I think you have to make a decision soon. The deadline is midday tomorrow and you’re seventeen. You’ve got away with it for a year – frankly I’m not sure how considering the number of detectors they’ve set up around the city – but next year they’re going to start installing detectors in every piece of technological device that enters the city, and I’m not sure how you’d get around that.”

“I don’t really have a choice do I.” I said putting my mug down. I hadn’t touched the tea. I turned away from him and looked out of the window again. The sky was settling to a beautiful blood pink and black as the sun slowly started to come down.

“Will you come with me?” I asked, even though I knew what his answer would be. Skandar walked over and put his mug down next to mine. He took my shoulders and turned me around to face him.

“I’ll be here first thing. 9am tomorrow. It’s going to be okay.” He squeezed my shoulders and kissed the top of my head. He was only a year older than me but sometimes it felt like he was much older. I said goodbye and watched him out the door and then returned to staring out of the window. This was my favourite spot in the house for gathering my thoughts. The window let in enough light to let me feel that there was some ray of hope.

The whole lesson I was just pretty much waiting for Jen to read my piece, and typically, my piece was like third to last to be read out. As nerve racking as getting feedback is, I always find it immensely useful in developing and improving my work. As you can see, it has elements of sci-fi and dystopia to it. I do love dystopia a little too much, mainly because I think it reflects many of the issues that society currently faces, but also because being in a constant melancholy and being cynical about everything is a side-effect of studying at Cambridge. So it’s easy for me to get lost in dystopian fiction, because essentially it is so easy to get lost in and wallow in all things that are wrong with the world, and through fiction, feel somewhat foolishly empowered by the notion that you might actually be able to do something about it.

# I've been to the year 3031, not much has changed but we have superpowers #
# I’ve been to the year 3031… not much has changed but we have a new dictator… and you’re great-great-granddaughter… is probably gonna diee # (Apologies, Hunger Games reflex)

So the specific feedback I received, and I’ve received this before by the way, is to SLOW DOWN. Jen’s advice was that because my story is set in a fantasy world, I really need to honour that in my prose by slowing down a bit and diving into the details. I need to take my time and develop the culture of fear a mutant would have living in a society where even her own friends didn’t trust her. I got similar feedback from a literary agent that I met back in April 2015 for a different story I wrote. Basically, I just tend to jump the gun and go straight into the action – too much too soon – but it’s really important to set the scene and build the world, especially if it’s a new one, in order to put the character in context so the reader can be transported to this world and slowly become invested in it. New worlds demand to be explained and introducing readers to a whole new world requires a lot of work – I need to show this to my reader – what is the world like in 3031? What do the people eat? Look like? What do they do? What is their day-to-day life like? Flesh this out.

I also used dialogue as an exposition tool and Jen pointed out that that’s not how characters who are familiar with the world that they live in and with each other, would normally speak to one another. Dialogue has two functions a) to reveal character or b) to move the plot forward. If the dialogue you’re writing does not fulfill one of these criteria, re-read and re-write. Jen’s feedback: some of the dialogue in my piece becomes too pedantic and can be seen as an explanation of events that can be read as exposition. I need to go over this and see if it fits one of the two functions of dialogue above.

It's harder than you think.
It’s harder than you think.

Someone in the class also mentioned something about the concept of the Mutant Registration Act that had been used in the past in many Marvel Comics, such as X-Men. I was not really familiar with this, so it’s useful that it came up, as obviously I do not want to be accused of plagiarism later down the line. People are right you know, when they say there are no original stories left, just different ways of telling them. Gah. Jen followed on from this conversation and said that you want to be derivative and not imitative in your work – which is very useful advice for those out there who are inspired by others works, but perhaps a little worried of reflecting things to closely in their own work.

They got there first.
They got there first…boo.

A woman in the class – this made me laugh out loud btw – made a comment about my description of Skander’s chins. She said that as a youngin’ his chins would probably be cushioned against is neck rather than hanging from his neck – the latter made her a picture an old man and she said that the description wasn’t really fitting for an 18 year old. I was just really surprised that someone listened so closely to my piece being read out (even though she didn’t know it was by me)! It’s really a personal preference, but I appreciated the insight nonetheless and will be making the suggested update to tubby Skander (I wasn’t kidding when I said my novel is about a tubby white guy.)

Two other useful comments from Jen: 1) don’t repeat things in different ways i.e. I don’t need to say that “Skander usually turned up unannounced” as this can be inferred by the reader from his actions. This according to Jen, is a good case for show, don’t tell. As readers we can deduce by the nonchalance with which he strolled in without knocking and removing his coat, that he often does this. Her advice: don’t spoon feed your readers, trust them a bit, they’ll pay attention and draw conclusions for themselves. Her second point is to be mindful of clichéd statements and seek to avoid these – i.e. “ray of hope” – is something we’ve read too many times. Her advice: the sentiment that I was trying to express is a beautiful one and I should think of a way of making that my own. It’s what makes writing fun and challenging and the result is interesting and refreshing for readers.

Overall, Jen’s feedback was that this is a “promising start – opening line and the one that follows it are strong statements that can only intrigue the reader and press on and find out why… overall a good start to what promises to be an entertaining story.” 🙂

The following are the nuggets of wisdom that came up throughout the lesson regarding writing good fiction:

Description and dialogue

  • If you go straight into action and don’t set atmosphere, no one cares about what’s happening.
  • SHOW, DON’T TELL – this is pretty much Jen’s no.1 rule e.g. anxiety can by shown through body language, quickened pulse etc.
  • There needs to be a balance between description and dialogue i.e. when description is long, action needs to complement/balance this.
  • Writing effective dialogue involves bearing in mind the following:
    • Dialogue has two functions, a) reveal character and b) to move the plot forward.
    • Dialogue is not a script – the way people speak in real life is not what you writing; anything your character’s say should be with intent and purpose, everything else can be done via exposition.
    • You don’t need to do all the work – trust that the reader has a level of intelligence to surmise the rest of what you are not saying.
    • Think about: what needs dialogue, what can be shown and what can be inferred.

Sentences

  • Every sentence should have intention and purpose; this helps to avoid clunk.
  • Don’t repeat synonyms/adjectives; again, this helps to avoid clunky writing. Be mindful of repetition in general – edit!!
  • Avoid too much unnecessary detail – you don’t want your writing to become pedantic.
  • Avoid clichéd statements at all costs! e.g. ‘His life changed forever.’ Sentences such as these lose meaning because they’ve been used so many times; the writer is simply seen as being lazy. Part of the fun of writing is saying these sentiments in new and interesting ways.
  • There are two types of writers:
    • Those who write too much – need to go back and cut
    • Those who write too little – go back and add more

Characters

  • Characters need motivation and personal investment! What is their emotional investment in the cause that they are a part of? Insert little bits of a character’s history to expose their motivations throughout the story.
  • This feedback came up in the lesson because someone had written about a character getting hit and getting bruised immediate. Writers should not: when you get hit, you do not bruise immediately – you would get hurt/feel pain, but you would not bruise instantly. This type of attention to detail is key – little inconsistencies like this you want to avoid – trust in your reader – make sure description is accurate.
  • Eccentric characters – pull back a little bit and pace it out.

Prep for next lesson: well I signed up to NaNoWriMo so hoping to get a real move on fleshing out the first three chapters of this story. I have been discussing a lot of my ideas with my baby sis and it all seems to be gaining a lot more clarity in my head. A lot of things have changed since this draft above, but it’s definitely all for the better.

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