Category Archives: My writing

One week in – changing my writing challenge…

I set myself the challenge of not losing creativity during the working week by setting aside time every day to complete a writing exercise.  You can read the blog about this here.

One of my aims had been to post the results of the daily exercise into this blog.  However, after completing 4 exercises in a row about about opening lines, I realised that simply posting the outcome of the exercises is not going to make for very interesting content.

So I am going to have to be a little bit more creative.

Instead of simply posting the exercises into the blog, I am going to use them as a starting point to inspire short stories, which I will post instead.  I am still going to set aside the time and complete a new exercise every day, but I will use this as a starting point rather than as an aim in itself.

When I defined myself as an aspiring writer, I said I wanted to create finished stories, adopt writing routines, maintain my creativity, feel more comfortable in sharing my writing and work on improving my writing.

It seems to me that using the writing exercises from my writing challenge to create new characters and stories is a much better way for me to achieve those aims, rather than treating it like a homework exercise which I will complete and then forget about.  It will take me longer to create stories to post, but hopefully it will make for more interesting blog posts and it  be more beneficial to my writing in the long run.  Who knows, maybe one day I will be able to open the door on the host of characters who are currently tapping away, looking for a way out.

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Where were you last night?

The exercises that I’m completing in my writing challenge are still focused on beginnings.  Today, the exercise was to write from a given opening line.  Here is my effort – it is free written, totally unplanned and unedited:

“Where were you last night?”

I opened the fridge door and peered inside, buying some time.  That sounded casual enough, I thought, but I could hear the trap behind the words.

“Hannah?  I said, where were you last night?”

Definitely a hint of warning this time.  Sighing deeply, I straightened my back and came out of the fridge holding a shrivelled orange in one hand and an out of date yoghurt in the other.

“Why is there never any food in this house?” I asked, walking past her and sitting down at the table.  She didn’t reply this time, but the question hovered between us, choking the air like humidity before a storm.

I dug my fingernails into the orange rind, pulling out tiny chunks as a time and dropping them onto the glass table top.

“I think you know where I was,” I mumbled, staring down at my pickings.  She didn’t respond.  I looked up and she was staring at me, stony faced, no flicker of reaction at my words.

“What? No lecture?” I leaned backwards in my chair, folding my arms across my chest.  I reeked of orange.

“I told you what would happen if you went back there again,” she said quietly.  She stood up and walked towards the door.  Without turning back to look at me, she said “you can go and pack your bags now.”

She didn’t even slam the door when she left the room, or raise her voice.  I hurled the orange at her retreating back, tears pricking my eyes.  I think I hit her but she didn’t turn around.  My mother really was done with me this time.

Opening lines – the most important?

I love opening lines.  I love reading opening lines.  I love writing opening lines.  I love being given an opening line and freewriting from there.  It is the rest of the story after the opening lines that causes me problems!

When I browse for books in bookshops, I not only read the blurb at the back but I always read the first sentence.  If I want a book from the blurb, I will probably not reject it if the opening sentence doesn’t grab me.  But for anything I am 50/50 about, it comes down to that opening sentence – if it grabs me, I will buy it, if it doesn’t, it goes back on the shelf.

The first exercise in my writing challenge deals with beginnings which aim to make the reader feel that they are plunged right into the story.  The opening sentences that I have written are not related to any characters or stories that I already have in my head or my notebooks.  Some are semi-inspired by real life, some are from little kernels of ideas that I haven’t yet thought out how to develop, some are completely random.  However, my aim with all of them is to start in the middle of the action (even if I’m not quite sure what that action is yet!)

Here they are:-

  1. The only reason I had anything to do with Ray is because the library had flooded one Monday in June.
  2. The wave smashed into my stomach, knocking me over.  I was dragged under, eyes wide open, watching the shingle roll away from the shore.
  3. The last time I really knew myself was when we went for lunch with the little white dogs.
  4. I knew it was bad news as soon as he opened the door.
  5. The election was over and I failed to get a single vote.  I didn’t even vote for myself.
  6. My mind went blank as the curtains rose.
  7. It was only a week ago that Ellie and I liberated the turtle from the old man’s garden and already we’ve added a goldfish and a cat to our collection.
  8. My mother always said I would be ruined by my handbags in the end.
  9. In the prison, we were known as “Nelson’s ladies”.
  10. I didn’t think I was famous until the day that the photographer was waiting outside my Uncle’s house to capture a picture of me in my uniform.

Reading back over these, I think that 2 and 4 probably achieve the objective of starting right in the middle of the action the best, but out of the list, I am most interested in seeing where number 5 will go.

So that is my effort.  Here are some of my favourite first sentences from my bookshelves:-

Most days I wish I was a British pound coin instead of an African girl” (The Other Hand, Chris Cleeve)

My grandfather, the knife fighter, killed two Germans before he was eighteen” (City of Thieves, David Benioff)

My name was Salmon, like the fish; Susie first.  I was fourteen when I was murdered on December 6, 1973” (The Lovely Bones, Alice Sebold)

Things started to fall apart at home when my brother, Jaja, did not go to communion and Papa flung his heavy missal across the room and broke the figurines on the etagere” (Purple Hibiscus, Chimamanda Ngozi Adiche)

Any one of my favourite ever openings, on the strength of which I bought a book that I previously had no desire to read:-

If you really want to hear about it, the first thing you’ll probably want to know is where I was born,  and what my lousy childhood was like, and how my parents ere occupied and all before they had me, and all that David Copperfield kiind of crap, but I don’t feel like going into it, if you want to know the truth.” (The Catcher in the Rye, J. D. Salinger)

I was sold when I read that first sentence, just for the directness of it and the authenticity of the character’s voice.  After reading all of these opening lines, I knew that I was in good hands for the rest of the book.

The opening lines are the writer’s first chance to introduce the character and to create something engaging to make the reader want to read on.  To leave the reader with questions to which they need to find the answers.  To make the reader want to know the character better.  A story can’t rely on it’s opening line alone – the rest of the story needs to deliver what the opening line promises.  If the writer is able to achieve this, then as readers, we are in for a treat.

Inspiration, creativity and the 9-5

A few years ago, I participated in a writing course.  At the time I was working in family law, and when I told this to the group, one member commented that it must give me an extraordinary amount of source material for my writing.  After all, working in family law, I got to see the very best and the worst of people.  I heard stories of unimaginably horrific and abusive family situations.  I have been exposed to all of the hurt, anger and bitterness that is often the consequence of family breakdown.  I have been moved by incredible courage, strength, positivity in the face of adversity and love.  It definitely sounds like rich pickings for a writer, doesn’t it?

But I have never used my work as a source of inspiration.  Not once. Not even a little bit.

Part of the reason for that is a question of ethics.  People come to me and trust me with intimate details of their lives.  It would feel like a betrayal of that trust if I used their stories as a basis or inspiration for my own.

It’s more than that though.  After all, 99% of the time my writing is just for myself.  The other 1%, I may share it with a small group.  If I am writing something that no one else will ever see, why can I then not use my work to inspire a story?

The problem is that I just don’t feel creative when working.

Until that comment was made, it genuinely never crossed my mind that I could have source of inspiration in my 9-5.  I am a lawyer.  My job is to listen to problems and find solutions.  That is fine – it is the career that I chose for myself and it is one that I like to think I’m good at.  However, it is a challenging job, which can be mentally exhausting and I find it does sap  my creative energy.  I know that this must be down to work, because whenever I have a couple of days off, I can feel it coming back to me – characters and scenarios that I thought long abandoned pop back up and demand my attention.

I need to find a solution to this.

Between the hours of 9am and 5pm, I am a lawyer.  Achieving outcomes for my clients is the most important thing during that time.  However, I need to find a way to switch into creative mode from 5pm and not have to wait for a couple of days off before feeling able to pick up a pen.

My writing challenge.

One of the ways that I try to kick start my writing is using little writing exercises and prompts.  Every now and then I will trawl through the hundreds of books on creative writing on Amazon (which I suspect is just another form of procrastination!) and order something that I think will inspire me.  A few months ago, I purchased “What If? Writing Exercises for Fiction Writers” by Bernays and Painter.  I haven’t yet really made any use of it.

I am going to try to overcome the feeling of a lack of creativity by setting aside 30 minutes each day to get something, anything, down on a page using the writing exercises in this book as a guide.  In that way, much like Pavlov’s dogs, I am going to try to train my brain to switch into creative mode as soon as I leave the office.  To keep me focused on my goal, I will post the results of each exercise into this blog.  There are 83 in total, and I will do one each day (though the results may take longer to appear on here as I do prefer to write by hand).

I’m really looking forward to starting this challenge as I think if I can be disciplined enough to keep it up on stressful days when I’m tired and can’t be bothered, then this could really work for me.

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