Writing Exercise

Today I went to a writers’ workshop, put on by the NZSA and featuring some highly talented and lovely people. The first workshop I attended was hosted by Rachel McAlpine about rekindling one’s love of writing, and Write into Life. We listed the reasons why we weren’t as passionate about it as we once were and I left feeling inspired – so inspired in fact that I’ve switched my internet home page from Facebook into the NaNoWriMo page so that I can remain focused on my writing and not get distracted by US politics or memes.

Something weird happened between workshop 1 and workshop 2 in my head. I’m not sure precisely what, but I went from feeling inspired and excited and positive into feeling a bit of a moody fraud. It certainly wasn’t anything to do with the very talented and well-spoken Mandy Hager. All I can think that triggered it was the book I snatched a quick read of in the interval, Caraval. There was something about the book, which is beautifully written but had a quite twisty-turny plot at that point, that was unsettling my brain. It also didn’t help that the pen I had borrowed earlier, having forgotten my own, then ran out of ink and I had to borrow a pencil from the lovely lady sitting beside me (thanks Wendy!).

"Singing Home the Whale" by Mandy Hager is one of my 2014 Top Picks.

“Singing Home the Whale” by Mandy Hager was one of my 2014 Top Picks.

Anyhow, somewhere along the way, when Mandy Hager began speaking about the theme of the story and finding your character’s voice, my brain started to rebel against me and my, somewhat dubious, talents. I don’t purposely think of themes for my writing generally – the themes come after. Aroha’ Grand Adventure is a story about courage, determination, and dedication. Midsummer Knight’s Quest is about friendship, and how it can help you change and grow as a person (or goblin, or sentient being), and also has an environmental message. Fellowship of the Ringtails doesn’t really have a theme. I suppose one could argue that it’s kind of a David VS Goliath story. Or your typical “farm boy” (or “fishergirl”) is destined to rule the kingdom trope (not that she gets that far in book one). But it’s not something I ever sat down and planned before I began writing.


Anyway, we were asked to come up with a slogan about something we were passionate about and I couldn’t think of anything.


At all.

Eventually, after writing “I can’t do this” and “I’m too frivolous”,  I managed to scrawl down: “The environment must be treated better. Stop f**king it up” (and yes, I censored it in my notebook too, I’m that much of a prude).

But then I drew a stalemate when she suggested we then choose a character based on who the theme would affect the most. What was the theme? Which of the 1000s of ways we’re f**king up the environment should I choose? Should I take the easy, but far too predictable route and make the character a penguin caught in discarded netting. That’s not a bad plot for a picture book – but for anything longer it would fail miserably. And what about the other side of the story?

Eventually, through a long and convoluted thought process I somehow ended up with this:

The main character:

“Criminal, arrested for something petty, assigned to cleaning up a city park/area as community service. Along the way, befriends a homeless man – who at first she treats with cruel disdain until somehow he helps her to stop being such a petty middle-class girl with arrogant airs.” (followed up by “this is pretty cheesy and is bound to have been done. I probably ripped it off something“).

As you can see, aside from the mention of cleaning up the park, this is not about the theme I’ve given above – it’s a different theme: How everyone matters and how we all have our own stories.

This was not, by the way, answering the questionaire we had been given at all, which involved the MC’s family, political views and all manner of other things.  I wrote the questions all down for future reference though.

Then we were given a “fill in the gaps” writing exercise, which I started off faithfully following, and then, as per before, started veering off on a tangent. I’ll underline

the bits that were given to us.

It was a cold day. So cold that my fingers tingled numbly and I tugged my scarf tight around my neck. As the crowd entered the park they looked like the degenerates they were: hoodies, low-riding jeans, Doc Marten boots*. Not my kind of people at all. I could smell fresh mown grass, barely masking the stink of urine from the cement toilet block. And all around me mud and puddles and  piles of mown grass muck. The first thing that sprung to mind was why the hell am I here? It was only one tiny jar of nail polish/. Stupid. stupid decision. And plum wasn’t even my colour. That made me remember that the people here – boys mostly, and one girl with close cropped hair and a pierced nose* – were here for their crimes too. What had they done?

What are you staring at?” I barked at one boy – patched jeans, faded t-short. At my words he scowled, narrowed his eyes and stared at his feet.

[* I do realise I’m falling under the terrible influence of the stereotype. This was just a writing exercise. I hope you will forgive me.]

Needless to say, I didn’t volunteer to read out my words. But hey, at least I’m writing…

Now I’m wondering how I could use the above story seed to offer a twist on a fairy-tale for Shelley’s “Wish Upon a Southern Star” anthology. It is tempting to make the MC Goldilocks, sentenced to community service for her crimes, but not sure how I could tie in the beggar without either ruining the Bear family (perhaps her actions caused them to lose their home? and meant “baby” bear was kicked out onto the streets?) or bringing in a cross-over, which would disqualify the story from being in the anthology altogether.



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