Upcoming WriteWords Creative Writing Workshops

In a fit of organisational zeal last week, I organised a tonne of creative writing workshops that will see me through the summer. Good-quality, reasonably priced venues in my area are hard to come by, and I wanted to pounce on my favourite venue, the Coastguard Cultural Centre in Tramore, Co. Waterford, before the slots are all gone. So, I’ve set up three workshops for the coming months in the Coastguard.

The Coastguard Cultural Centre in Tramore, Co. Waterford, an ideal venue for creative writing workshops.

Here’s what you can expect from the WriteWords creative writing workshop stable in the coming months.

Easter Children’s Writing Camp

This camp will be happening over two afternoons in the second week of the Easter holidays, when parents are beginning to tear their hair out wondering what to do with their offspring. My camps are all for children aged 8-12, the perfect age to start writing, before inhibitions kick in. They’ll have great fun travelling to lands of their own making, creating characters with magical powers and making up stories that could go absolutely anywhere. It’s happening at the Coastguard Cultural Centre on Tuesday 23 and Wednesday 24 April, from 1-4pm. The price of the camp is €40.

Memoir Writing Workshop for Adults

Following the success of my last memoir writing workshop for adults in Tramore, I’m doing another one on Sunday 12 May. Like the last workshop, it will be a chance for you to tell the story of your life. A lot of people find that they’re drowning in material from their lives and don’t know where to start. This workshop will give you a structure that will help you shape your ideas. We’ll also take a journey through the senses, to explore how the senses trigger memories and emotions. If this sounds interesting to you, it’s happening on Sunday 12 May from 10.30am to 3.30pm in the Coastguard in Tramore. The cost is €50.

Summer Children’s Writing Camp

In the long and hopefully hot month of August, I will be giving a children’s summer writing camp, and I’ll be going back to my usual format of a three-day camp. As well as learning the techniques of story, they’ll come away with their own completed story, which gives them a real feeling of accomplishment. The camp will happen on three mornings, on August 6, 7 and 8, again in the Coastguard. What can I say? It’s a venue that has everything. The cost of this camp will be €60, and it will run from 9.30am to 1pm each day.

If you’re living in the Waterford area and you’d like to book one of these workshops for yourself or your children, you can email derbhile@writewordseditorial.ie or call 051 386 250. And if you’d like to find out more about the workshops WriteWords offers, check out our Writing Workshops page. B��

How to Write a Cracking Reader’s Report

In case any of you were longing for a blog entry from me last week, I was on holidays. On my return, I was delighted to discover a lovely new project waiting for me in my inbox, in which I get paid to read. It’s a reader’s report for an author who has finished a memoir and wants to find out whether it is ready for publication.

A reader’s report is a curious beast, as it crosses the line between writing and editing. It’s a comprehensive critique of a novel, a memoir or a short story collection, with editorial suggestions that authors can apply immediately, either to complete their writing project or to polish it up for publication.

How The Report Is Compiled

I start by reading through the author’s story almost as if I were a casual reader, letting the words sink in. But I take notes along the way, making observations that I can later turn into recommendations. After I’ve finished, it’s time to get down to brass tacks and start giving my verdict on the story. I’ll always start with the strong points in the story, to encourage authors and give them a feeling of confidence. Then I compile a set of recommendations, which I divide into different sections.

The most important sections are the ones that deal with the building blocks of story: character, setting and plot. I help them to flesh out their characters and pay attention to how their characters interact. I encourage them to draw on the senses to create a strong sense of place for readers. Finally, I advise them on ways to pace their plot and ensure the plot holds the reader’s interests. 

Finer Details of Story

I then go into the finer details of story. The point of view a story is told from can shape how the story develops. I advise them on how to achieve a consistent point of view and how to make seamless changes in viewpoint. I’ll advise them on whether their dialogue reads the way people would speak and show them how to lay it out correctly. A reader’s report is more about giving broad editorial suggestions than editing an author’s language or tweaking the layout. However, if I notice recurring language or layout errors, I will flag these to the author.

Reader’s reports steer authors through the maze of their ideas.

These editorial suggestions usually apply to both fiction and memoir, because authors are using many of the same storytelling skills and are taking a creative approach to writing about their lives. However, for memoir writers, libel can be an issue, so I give general advice on material that could be libellous and suggest they contact a good libel solicitor.

Why Reader’s Reports Work

For all reader’s reports, I will then give a conclusion, summarising my recommendations and giving authors suggestions on how to further develop their stories. Some may need to flesh out the story to make it long enough for publishing. Others may need to work on the building blocks of story to make the story more convincing. Some lucky authors are more or less ready to go, with just a few suggestions from me to take them over the finishing line.

For me, creating reader’s reports is very satisfying, as it gives me a chance to help other writers achieve their writing dreams. For the authors, my hope is that the reader’s report will guide them through the maze of writing a book and help them over the finish line. If they’re getting ready to report, my reader’s reports will give them access to an objective view that they can use to help them decide if they will publish. If you’d like to find out more about how a reader’s report can help you achieve your writing goals, check out the WriteWords writing consultancy services.

Create Powerful Stories From Your Own Life

A couple of years ago, I gave a series of one-day memoir writing workshops, which gave people a chance to write about their lives. The workshops were a success, so I decided to revive them.

I was delighted to discover that interest in memoir writing was still as strong as ever, and the workshop soon filled up. On a Sunday morning, ten women gathered in a beautiful, sunny room to begin unlocking their memories and turning those memories into stories.

This writing workshop aimed to show the participants that their daily lives contained all the material they needed for stories. It would also show them that they only needed to record their lives with one small story at a time, event by event. This would take away that sense of drowning in story that often paralyses people and stops them from writing.

Building Stories

We began with the building blocks of story, which I’ve discussed in previous blog posts. After warm-ups, we did one exercise to cover each of the three building blocks: plot, character and setting. For plot, the participants recorded a small but significant injustice that happened to them when they were young. Everyone has a story like this – a time when they were promised a prize that wasn’t delivered, or when they were left out of a family occasion. Small incidents that sear themselves into your memory. Recording them makes for vivid stories.

Then we moved to character, and the participants did a character sketch, a sort of portrait in words of someone significant in their lives. They wrote CV type details like their name, age and address, described their appearance, and gave more personal details, like their hobbies, jobs, and family circumstances. The most important part of the sketch was the character’s secret past, a detail about them that was unusual or wasn’t known to the general public. This detail often forms the basis for rich stories.

Finally, we discussed setting, the time and the place where a story happens, and the characters wrote about rooms in their houses that meant a lot to them. I asked them to write about their bedrooms, as people often have a strong relationship with their bedroom, but they could write about any room that they were attached to. They wrote about what the room looked like, sounded like and smelled like, and most importantly, how it made them feel.

Journey Through the Senses

After lunch, it was time for a journey through the senses. With memories of good food still in their minds, the participants captured the taste of oranges, which can be a challenging fruit, and recorded a memory of a meal which was either horrible or delicious.

Oranges work all of a writer’s senses.

Then they told the life stories of unusual objects. I gave each of them an object from my collection of weird treasures, and they imagined where it came from, what adventures it had had and how it came to be here. This exercise was the hit of the day, producing vivid stories packed with event and emotion.

Finally, we travelled through soundscapes, recording the sounds we loved and despised, and listening to a piece of music which produced mixed reactions. The participants were asked to pick five words that came to mind when they heard the music. I deliberately pick pieces of music that aren’t easy on the ear, based on the fact that uncomfortable sensations produce writing that is just as eloquent as that produced by beautiful sensations.

If you feel you’d like to record your own memories through story and you’d like to be included in an upcoming memoir workshop, send me an email on derbhile@writewordseditorial.ie and I’ll add you to my newsletter mailing list. 00

How to Deliver a Supercalifragilistic Creative Writing Workshop for Kids

This week, I gave a creative writing workshop in a primary school. Not that unusual, you might think, but schools can be a hard nut to crack. They have tight budgets and don’t want to burden parents any more than they have to. But this workshop came about in the loveliest and most unexpected way.

I was chatting to my local librarian, a wonderfully dynamic woman called Tracy McEneaney, and she happened to mention that a school had been in touch asking if the library knew of anyone who gave creative writing workshops in schools. Tracy suggested I give her a quote and she would pass it on to the school. Within hours of sending in my quote, I was booked to give two workshops at that school, to two classes of children aged eight and nine.

Challenges of Delivering a Creative Writing Workshop

Immediately, I was faced with two challenges. One was that the workshops were only three days away. The other is that each of the workshops was to last just one hour. But I had a ready supply of activities which were more or less guaranteed to work. And an hour was enough to give the children an introduction to writing skills.

I usually like to have children complete a story within the timeframe of a creative writing workshop, and that wasn’t going to be possible on this occasion. But when you’re delivering a workshop in a school, you’re dealing with children of all abilities, so it’s more important to design your workshop in a way that gives every child a chance to take part.

The Ingredients of Story

I began by introducing the children to the story hat. This is a hat I bring to every workshop and it looks quite eccentric, so it’s a great way of breaking the ice. They all hat a chance to look at the hat and try it on, and then they wrote a story in a sentence about the hat, beginning with, ‘This hat is…’

This got us off to a flying start, and it was now time to introduce the three ingredients of story. The first of these is character, and I availed of the classroom’s interactive whiteboard for the character activity. I put a picture of a strange-looking old man on the computer screen, and got the children to create a portrait of this man in words. They gave him a name, an age, and a place to live. And they gave him a superpower which made him stand out from the crowd.

My magical storytelling hat, picture taken by moi.

The second ingredient was setting. Children love writing activities relating to setting, and this activity was a big hit, particularly with the second group of children I worked with. I got them to imagine what would happen if an alien landed in their classroom. That alien would never have seen Earth before. What would it see? What would it hear? The children drew the alien and the classroom, and wrote words in a speech bubble, imagining what the alien would say when it landed in their classroom.

Time was pretty tight, but we were able to squeeze in the third ingredient, plot. I did an activity called What If, based on the idea that many stories begin when a writer asks what if. The children were asked to write down three things they would do if they were invisible. Needless to say, they envisaged all kinds of mayhem.

The Delights of Writing in Schools

These two groups of children were among the most responsive I have ever worked with. My requests to share their writing were met with a forest of hands. They not only ran with every prompt I gave them; they added their own twists to it. And the ideas they came up with were creative, inventive, and hilariously funny. I left the classroom on a high which lasted for about two days, and I still feel a warm glow when I think about it.

I’ve developed an appetite for giving creative writing workshops in schools now, so if you happen to work in a school in the Waterford/Tipperary area and you like the sound of the workshops I offer, drop me an email on derbhile@writewordseditorial.ie.

Want to Write About Your Life?

When I tell people I give creative writing classes, one of the most frequent comments I get is. “Really? I’ve always wanted to write my life story.” There is a great hunger in people to set their experiences down on paper and record their lives for themselves, for their children and for the wider world. That’s why when I was submitting a proposal for my next creative writing workshop in Dungarvan, Co. Waterford, I chose to deliver a memoir-writing workshop Write About Your Life.

The goal of the workshop will be to help people put a shape on the stories they want to tell. Writing about your life can be overwhelming. How do you sift through a lifetime of memories and pick out the most important one? The workshop will help people create a filter for those memories and focus on specific ones. A lot of the techniques of fiction work well in memoir-writing, so people will learn how to use plot, character and setting to bring their memories to life.

Here’s a flavour of the activities the participants will be doing in the workshop.

Writing About Characters

All of our lives are shaped by the people around us, for better or worse. Those people are usually our family, but they can be friends, teachers or local community figures as well. People will write a character sketch about a person who meant a lot to them, and do other activities that will help them get to know their characters better and bring them to life. They’ll also explore the connections between themselves and the people in their lives by drawing up their family tree.

family-tree
Exploring our connections with the people in our lives

Writing About Place

People have a huge attachment to the places where they grew up, even if their relationship with that place is sometimes troubling. The aim of the activities connected to setting will be to help participants see the places in their lives with new eyes and find the extraordinary within the ordinary. Participants will write about rooms in their homes that they have a deep attachment to, such as the kitchen or bedroom. They’ll also imagine that they’re aliens who have just landed in front of their childhood home. To the alien, this will be a strange sight, and they will write a report about what they see and hear to send to the mothership.

Writing About Events

Our lives may not make the news, but they’re still full of events that provide rich materials for stories. Some are life-changing; others are small yet significant. Participants will write about events in their life as if they were news, which will give them a sense of the power of their own story. They’ll also do activities that will show them how interactions between themselves and the other people in their lives can form the basis for stories.

How have you approached writing about your own life? Have you used time period or theme as a basis for it? If you’re a creative writing tutor, what activities do you do to help people shape their stories?

Christmas Writing Workshop for Children

I’m delighted that after a gap of a couple of years, I’m giving a Christmas themed writing workshop for children. Christmas is a time for stories, and this workshop will give children a chance to write their own stories. Have you ever noticed that a lot of Christmas stories are about unlikely heroes: a grumpy Santa Claus, a disruptive elf, a seemingly nerdy child who prevents his family home from being robbed?

The Christmas story the children in this workshop tell features an unlikely hero, an elf who’s clumsy, and who the other elves laugh at. But this elf has a secret power, so when the treasure that gives Santa his magic is stolen, only this elf can save Christmas for all the boys and girls in the world. The children will build this story step by step, and by the end of the two-hour workshop, they’ll have completed their story?

Here are the steps we’ll be taking.

The Warm-Up: This part won’t have anything to do with either Christmas or storytelling, but it’s necessary for building bonds and getting in the mood. I will do activities that have been very successful in other workshops, which will make the children laugh and help them get into the right frame of mind for writing.

What If: A lot of great stories start when the writer asks what if? The children will imagine three things they would do in the event that different unlikely Christmas events may happen: for example, if Christmas were cancelled. Some of the scenarios will relate to the upcoming story, such as what they would do if they got control of Santa’s sleigh.

Character Sketch: Every story has a central character, and this activity will get the children thinking about theirs. They’ll receive a picture of the hapless elf and come up with a bio for them, using different headings laid out on a page. The most important aspect of this character is their special power. This is what will drive the success of the story.

christmas-elf
The elf at the centre of the children’s Christmas story.

Creating a Country: Stories also need a world for the characters to live in. This workshop is for 8-12 year olds, and this age group loves world-building, the power that comes with creating your own country. In this case, the children will imagine that Santa’s workshop has relocated to a magical Christmas land of their own making.

Story Spine: The previous activities helped the children come up with the ingredients for their story. The story spine will help them put those ingredients together. In a story spine, you are given a set of sentences with blank spaces, and you fill in the blank spaces to create the structure for a story. The children will use the information from the previous activities to fill in the blank spaces.

Writing the Story: With the story spine, the story is more or less complete, but the children can also use it to expand the story, to add flesh to the basic details. Most children come away with a one-page story, complete with little pictures to add colour.

What’s your favourite Christmas story? And have you ever written a Christmas story of your own?

What I Hope for My Creative Writing Participants

Tonight, I’ll be manning a table at an enrolment night for people who want to do night classes at Colaiste Chathail Naofa, the further education college in Dungarvan in south-east Ireland. I’m giving an eight-week creative writing course as part of their night class programme, and after the success of the class I gave there last year, I’m looking forward to getting stuck in again.

colaiste-chathail-naofa
The college where I’ll be giving my workshop. Taken from the Colaiste Chathail Naofa website.

Each of the participants who sign up will have their own hopes for what the class will offer them, and contrary to popular opinion, these don’t always include getting published. But here are my three hopes for the participants, if I’m lucky enough to get the numbers for a class.

1.      That they’ll learn how stories are put together

Each class will cover a different aspect of storytelling. As well as the core techniques like character, setting and plot, participants will learn how to tell a story from a particular point of view, how to use the senses to create vivid description and how a story’s theme can influence its structure. Some people are bookworms and enjoy seeing how their favourite writers put together books. Others will use the techniques to add depth to the stories they’re writing.

2.      That they’ll write their own stories

This course is aimed at people who have never written before. It’s important that a course has a solid outcome, a tangible result of their efforts. In this case, I hope the outcome will be a complete story, created by the participants. As the weeks unfold, I hope they’ll grow in confidence and that they’ll achieve that outcome. Some people come in with an idea already and some find that the course activities trigger an idea.

3. That they’ll realise they have something special to say

This is the true power of creative writing. It helps people to see that they have their own unique voice, and that they have a story to tell which other people will want to hear. Exploring that story and bringing it to life gives people a real sense of satisfaction and confidence. Even if they never look at the story they wrote again, or write another word, the participants will have the satisfaction of knowing they told their own story, and that it was heard.

What reason did you have for going to creative writing classes? Were your hopes realised? If you give creative writing classes, what hopes do you have for your participants?  

 

 This course is aimed at people who have never written before. It’s important that a course has a solid outcome, a tangible result of their efforts. In this case, I hope the outcome will be a complete story, created by the participants. As the weeks unfold, I hope they’ll grow in confidence and that they’ll achieve that outcome. Some people come in with an idea already and some find that the course activities trigger an idea.

3.      That they realise they have something valuable to say

This is the true power of creative writing. It helps people to see that they have their own unique voice, and that they have a story to tell which other people will want to hear. Exploring that story and bringing it to life gives people a real sense of satisfaction and confidence. Even if they never look at the story they wrote again, or write another word, the participants will have the satisfaction of knowing they told their own story, and that it was heard.

Why did you start going to creative writing classes? Were your hopes realised? If you give creative writing classes, what hopes do you have for your participants?  

 

Teenage Writing Workshop in Waterford Library

It’s workshop season again, and to celebrate that, I’m resurrecting this blog. The first workshop on the horizon is for teenagers at Waterford Central Library. I was asked to do it as part of a programme of children’s events to celebrate Culture Night on 16 September. I had approached the library about doing workshops for younger children and adults, and those will come to pass, but first, they’ve asked me to help teenagers put a story together in 90 minutes.

Waterford Central Library
Pic from http://www.librarybuildings.info. Waterford Central Library

 

The prospect makes me gulp slightly. Trying to reach teenagers through their hormonal fog can be a bit of a challenge. The workshop is on a Friday, straight after school, when they’re probably a bit tired and fed up with being told what to do by adults all week long. Luckily, I have access to a teenager, and to get an insight into what might hold their attention, I put him on the spot and asked him straight out. He suggested that teenagers like near-future stories where the world is almost the same, but not quite.

I had been considering the possibility of devising a near-future dystopian story, so it was good to have my instincts confirmed. I also know that superhero stories are always a winner, especially with younger people. So I am devising a story set in a near-future world which is recognisable, but something vital is missing that needs to be retrieved. The teenagers will create an unlikely superhero tasked with retrieving that missing ingredient, invent the world where the action happens and decide how their hero will succeed in their mission.

After warm-ups to get rid of the post-school cobwebs, it will be time to get down to business, with activities to come up with the character, setting and plot for the story.

What If: I sense that teenagers are more driven by plot than character when they read, so we’ll start with the plot. Many great stories start with the question “what if?” I will give the teenagers three what-if scenarios, related to the upcoming story, and they will come up with three things they would do in each circumstance. For example: what if you were transported to another time?

Character Sketch: I will give the teenagers a picture of a “geeky” superhero and they will write a profile of the character they see in the picture. They will fill in the profile under various headings, such as name, age and family background. The most important heading is “Secret Power,” in which the teenagers will identify the superhero power that will help the character succeed in their task.

Report from the Future: Characters need a world to inhabit, and the teenagers will imagine they have been transported into the future world where their story will be set. They send back a report about this world, describing what they see and experience. I will guide them towards describing a world where everything looks nearly the same, but there is something missing, something that is needed to make the world a better place.

Story Spine: When the teenagers have done the activities, they will use the information they have gathered to fill in a story spine. A story spine provides a structure for a story. It consists of a series of sentences with blank spaces. The writer fills in those spaces to decide what will be included in the story. You could say it’s the bones of a story. If time allows, the participants will add flesh to those bones and write a full-length story.

By the end of the workshop, the teenagers will have created their very own story. And if I play my cards right and grab their interest, I will be rewarded by their humour, their inventiveness and their imagination.

Do you facilitate creative writing workshops for teenagers, or write books for teenagers? What do you do to hold their attention?

The Storytime Express Comes to Waterford

You’d be surprised how quickly you can put a story together. Of course, to bring it to publishing standard takes months or even years, but the basic idea can emerge in a matter of hours. I give a workshop for beginning writers to help them kickstart their stories, and after just two hours, they come out with the first draft of a story. I’ll be giving that workshop for an upcoming writing festival, Waterford Writers’ Weekend. I call it The Storytime Express. Due to the demands of the schedule, it’ll be three hours instead of two, but that will give the participants some much needed breathing space.

Overall, I hope the workshop will give people the confidence to start writing and the power to tell their own story. I also want them to feel that sense of accomplishment that comes from producing a complete piece of writing that is their own creation. At the very least, they’ll come out with a story plan that they can develop in their own time.

Building the Story

After some icebreaking activities, we’ll start to build the story by creating a character, setting and plot. They’ll be given a picture of a strange looking old man and be asked to create a character for him. Then they’ll sell a destination, writing a brochure blub for a place with a wacky name. Finally, they’ll be given a headline and will write the story behind the headline. These activities will form the ingredients for their story.

Maurice Murgatroyd
The unlikely hero of our express story.

 

Planning the Story

After a well-earned break, it’ll be time to combine those ingredients together to make the story. The template I have devised for the story is that a valuable treasure has been stolen and the old man is the unlikely choice to get it back. It’s your classic quest narrative. I will outline that template with a story spine, which is a series of sentences with blank spaces for you to fill in. They’ll use the information from the three previous activities to complete the story spine.wr

Writing the Story

Now it’s time to add flesh to the skeleton of the story and to create a story with a beginning, middle and end. Depending on time, the participants spend the rest of the session writing the story. If they finish reasonably quickly, we’ll spend the last 10-15 minutes hearing the stories, and enjoying the surprise of the participants at how creative they can be in a short space of time.

 

If anyone reading this blog is in the Waterford area and likes the sound of this workshop, it’s on Saturday 7 May at Greyfriars Gallery from 10am-1pm. Visit the website for details on how to book.

My New Writing Bible

I’m suspicious of writing guides. Most of them are either how-to books, which take a writing-by-numbers approach to the craft of writing, or they’re wafty, spiritual guides that reek of incense. I have found some amid the dross that stand out and that I’ve paid homage to. Recently, I hit on one which I already feel will be the touchstone guide for the rest of my life. Lots of people had mentioned Anne Lamott’s Bird by Bird to me over the years, and I decided to act on their enthusiastic recommendations.

Turns out they were right to sing its praises. It’s just the right mix of earthy and inspirational. It performs the rare feat of making me laugh, and on almost every page, I pump my fist in recognition. It’s like talking to a slightly wiser, slightly smutty friend, with all the comfort that that brings. But it does a great deal more than that. It dispenses nuggets of wisdom that you can carry through into your writing process.

Bird By Bird

Book cover originally from Anchor Books.

Here are a few gems I have mined so far.

Listen to your broccoli

There’s a little voice inside all of us that tells us what’s true, and if we follow it, we’ll know exactly what to do. But it can be hard to hear that voice amid the chatter of voices inside and outside our heads. When we do hear it, we don’t always trust that it’s right, but if we take time to listen to it, we’ll have the tools we need to write our stories. Lamott calls this voice your broccoli, based on the idea that broccoli is a vegetable we may resist, but it’s good for us.

Relax your writing muscle

 

When a part of us is hurt, our muscles tighten to protect us. When Lamott had her tonsils out, she was still in immense pain a week later. Rather than give her more painkillers, the nurse told her to chew gum. She took the advice and felt a terrible ripping sensation, but then the pain was gone. Similarly, you need to relax our writing muscle, and the only way to do that is by writing. If you’re willing to endure the ripping sensation, the words will flow.

Put your characters first

Plots are sexy, and they make bestsellers. If you’re a character-driven writer, you may feel that your story may be overshadowed. Lamott recommends letting your characters speak. Listen to what they say, and as they develop, they will provide you with the details of your plot. Handled right, a plot based on psychological warfare between characters can really sizzle.

In a way, Lamott isn’t telling us anything we don’t already know. She’s simply reminds us that we have the tools we need for writing success within us, and that the only person we need to listen to is ourselves. She tells us this in a way that resonates, that helps us understand these truths not just with our rational minds, but with our hearts, where it really matters.

Have you read Bird by Bird? Did it make you pump your fist too, or did you feel it reeked of incense? Are there any other guides that you use as a touchstone?