Taking Memoir Writing to the Next Level

For some time now, I’ve been feeling that I’d love to give more in-depth writing workshops. I have given such writing workshops in the past, but I want to make it more of a feature of my work. I want to take a group of enthusiastic writers to the next level. Just over two weeks ago, with the help of just such a group of enthusiastic writers, I achieved that ambition. I gave a memoir-writing workshop which gave the writers the space to create a full-length story and get feedback on it within a few hours. The writers created their magic in this building.

 

Edmund Rice Heritage Centre
The Edmund Rice Heritage Centre, where these stories were created.

 

This story would explore the role of point of view in shaping stories. In other words, the point of view you choose to tell the story from shapes the atmosphere of the story, and changes your view of the characters in it. The writers would tell the story of a small but significant injustice that they experienced when they were young.

We all have them. The time we were promised sweets but never got them. Or we saved up to buy something, only to find that the shopkeeper had sold it on. As a twist, the writers would tell the story from the viewpoint of the character who committed this injustice.

Building the Story

The writers started by brainstorming the small injustices they’d experienced. They came up with a list of three, and then whittled that down to one. They then took the time to get to know the person who committed the injustice by doing a character sketch. This is a profile of a character, where you give details like their name, age, location, family, and secrets about them that no-one else knows, The writers would be aware of some of the details, but could use their imaginations to fill in the gaps.

Every story needs a structure. This story would follow that timeless template: the three-act structure, with a beginning, middle and end. I devised a set of questions based on the three-act structure. Answering these questions would help them gather the facts of the story and put them in order. Once they’d answered those questions, they could then flesh out the facts to make a full-length story.

The Finished Product

The writers ended up with remarkably accomplished first drafts, well structured, with rounded, sympathetic characters. Some of them had not actually written before, but rose to the challenge beautifully. They were also generous in giving feedback to each other. Most of all, they found that they gained a new perspective on events in their lives, and were able to empathise with their former adversaries.

Do you have a small but significant injustice from your childhood that you could mine for stories? Try writing about it from the viewpoint of the other person. You may be surprised at the results.

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Journey Through the Senses Writing Workshop

Recently, I gave one of my favourite types of creative writing workshop, for one of my favourite organisations. The workshop was my Journey Through the Senses beginners’ workshop. And the organisation was Waterford Libraries. I gave the workshop in one of their busiest libraries, in Ardkeen.

Objects of Affection

This workshop uses the senses to trigger emotions and memories, which in turn can lead to ideas for stories. It’s a nice gentle introduction to writing for beginners. After some icebreakers, I distributed some quirky objects I’ve picked up along my travels: a ladybird whose wings open to reveal a watch, a jade stone, a wooden perfume bottle from Bulgaria.

The participants then wrote the life stories of these objects.  They used the feel and the look of the objects to help them imagine what those lives might have been, what adventures they had and how they came to be there. Some people didn’t like the objects they were given, but I told them that sensations you don’t like can provide just as much inspiration for writing as beautiful ones. The important thing is to evoke a strong reaction.

A Taste of Oranges

We then moved on to one of my favourite exercises, which I’ve written about on this blog before, A Taste of Oranges. Oranges challenge all five of the senses, and people have to let go of their inhibitions about eating such a messy fruit in front of other people. The participants had to describe the oranges using all five of their senses (this orange looks/this orange feels). Eating the orange was an optional extra.

Oranges
Oranges work all of a writer’s senses.

Once the senses are triggered, I like to expand the activity. After they’d worked their senses with the oranges, I asked the participants to write about a meal that was memorable for a particular reason, which triggered some hilarious and poignant tales.

Musical Moments

I decided to do this activity on a whim, as I don’t normally do it, even though music is integral to my own writing practise. When you do activities, you don’t know which ones will work out. The other activities had gone smoothly, but I was still waiting for that ‘foom’ moment when the group takes off. It came with this activity.

I played a piece of music (Apache by The Shadows), and the participants had to write the names of a person, a colour and a place that the music made them think of. They then wove those three words into a short story. The resulting stories took us on voyages to different parts of the world, and prompted lots of lively reminiscences.

How do you incorporate the senses in your writing? Are you drawn to beautiful sensations, or to more troubling ones? If you’re a workshop facilitator, do you do activities based on the senses?

Why It’s Important to Get Feedback for your Content

Last week, I got feedback from a client. Nothing new about that, you might think. I certainly get regular feedback from workshop participants and people I help with writing their books. But I don’t tend to get it from business clients. Often, they’re so busy that they don’t have time to properly read through what’s been written. They may even have practically forgotten that they asked you to write content. They just send you payment.

Of course, payment is welcome, but getting feedback reassures me that the content I’ve delivered meets their needs. Business clients think in terms of results, so it’s important for me to explain to them that the content-creation process involves several drafts and a bit of back and forth between client and content creator.

copywriting image
Take time to give feedback to your copywriter.

 

The client who gave me the feedback instinctively understood that. He’s a graphic and web designer, so he has a similar creative process. He took the time to give me detailed feedback on the first draft of some content I’d written for a tourism website he was developing. The process was a little squirm-inducing; it’s hard to fight the urge to defend your work. But I also found it hugely beneficial. Here’s why.

I discovered what I was doing right.

When delivering feedback, it’s best to begin with the good stuff. A spoonful of sugar helps the medicine go down. If you know which content works for your client, you can keep delivering it. It was good to know that most of what I had written was in line with the client wanted, so I was on the right track.

I was able to deliver the client’s message more accurately.

The client wanted me to emphasise the facilities and amenities that were available to people visiting this tourist attraction. There is a lot of history and heritage in the area, but I held back on writing about it for fear of sounding too Googlish. The client supplied me with resources I could use to get more of a feel for the area and write about it in a more vivid way. The feedback enabled me to get the client’s core message across more effectively.

I got the tone right.

Getting the tone of a company right takes a little time, because you need to become familiar with their philosophy and how they operate. I believe I had achieved a warm, welcoming tone, but the client felt I was still erring on the side of sales talk, so I used their feedback to create more of an impression of warmth and cosiness, and of a special experience.

Have you ever received feedback that you found beneficial? How was it delivered to you? And how did it improve the standard of your work overall?

Why Writing Is Like The Salmon Season

When salmon are breeding, they must travel thousands of miles to their breeding grounds in the Sargasso Sea. The journey is arduous, and along the way, thousands of salmon fall away. Only the strongest make it to the Sargasso Sea.

Salmon Season
Writing a book is like the salmon’s journey to the Sargasso Sea, long and brutal.

The process of becoming a published writer is a lot like that. It’s a long process and it can be brutal, and there are a lot of hurdles to be jumped.

First, you have to actually start the book. How often have you been at social gatherings and heard people say, ‘I’d love to write a book?’ For many people, the desire to write a book has never gone beyond idle conversation. So if you commit to putting pen to paper, you’re already ahead of the game.

But the writing of the book can be overwhelming for people. It’s easy to get bogged down in your story, with its many plot twists and its cast of character. And some people never make it out of that maze. They abandon their book halfway through.

When you do finish your book, it’s quite right that you should congratulate yourself. But your journey is not over yet. Now it’s time to find an audience for your book. And the main way to achieve it is through publishing. Whether you self-publish or look for a traditional publisher, publishing is tough.

If you self-publish, all the work of a publisher falls to you – publishing, cover design, editing, printing and promotion. And finding a traditional publisher can be like looking for a needle in a haystack. This is the stage that really separates the minnows from the big fish. It involves at least as much work as the actual writing of the book, if not more. If you get through it, the rewards can be great.

But your work isn’t over. If you really want to establish yourself as a writer, you have to make the journey again and again. Each book will be a new journey, but if you have the inventiveness to keep coming up with new ideas and the faith to act on them, you’ll truly establish yourself as an author – and you may even make a living from it.

So what are the qualities that will get you through these hurdles to the Sargasso Sea that is the life of a published author? I believe there is a holy trinity of qualities – talent, hunger and discipline. If you display those qualities, they’ll help you over those hurdles. And in the end, it’s what you want that matters. Maybe the simple writing of the book is enough for you. Or maybe your writing ambitions simply lie elsewhere.

Whatever route you choose to reach the Sargasso Sea of publishing, good luck. If you have reached it, what qualities or resources helped you on your journey?

How to Run a Great Children’s Writing Camp

For the first time in over two years, I ran a children’s creative writing camp. After such a long gap, the prospect of this camp was quite a challenge. Especially since I had changed the format of the camp. Previously, I had run the camp in five two-hour sessions. But this year, I decided to run a three-day camp, with each session lasting 3.5 hours. Feedback from parents told me that this would be much more convenient for working parents.

The thought of holding children’s attention for that long, and indeed keeping up my own energy levels, was quite daunting. What’s more, the children who enrolled were a mix of ages and abilities. Three of them were boys, and my experience with them was more limited, as it’s usually girls who show more interest in the writing camps I run.

Here are three things I did to help me overcome these challenges.

Prepared Well

I spent a lot of time thinking about ways to hold the children’s attention. As well as my usual writing activities, I thought of word games and picture based activities that would offer a bit of variety and hold their attention. I also had to think about what we would do during the break, rain or shine. In the end, I didn’t need the extra activities. Since the length of time for the camp was more or less the same as in my previous camps, I had enough material with my main writing activities to last for the entire camp. And the children’s concentration never flagged.

Asserted Authority

This is the most challenging aspect of running children’s camps for me. You’re not the children’s teacher or parent, so you can’t discipline them. But you’re also not their friend. Creating a warm, trusting relationship and giving clear instructions for activities wards off a lot of issues. But when issues did arise during this camp, I made it clear what I didn’t like and how I wanted the children to behave, I also took any actions which I felt would be in the best interests of the group. As a result, I felt more in control, and the children didn’t step outside the boundaries.

Set Concrete Tasks

This group of children responded better to activities that had a clear outcome at the end. The more whimsical activities went down less well because they couldn’t see the purpose of them. The boys in particular were more likely to switch on if there was a clear end in sight. As a result, when it came to writing a full-length story on the last day, they were very focused, and you could see their skills starting to come together, they began to see why we had been doing all these activities, and took pride in the end result.

Children's Summer Writing Camp 2017
Children at writing camp hard at work creating stories.

 

Outcome of Camp

Dare I say it, this was my most successful children’s creative writing camp. Much of the credit for this goes to the ten lovely children who came to the camp. They were open, creative, kind and respectful to each other. The children not only wrote their own original stories, but read them in front of an audience of their parents. They may have forgotten about it all by now, but I can only hope a little seed of creativity was planted, which will bear fruit in later life.

If you run a children’s activity, what do you do to make it fun and fulfilling for them? If you’re a parent, what benefits do you hope your children will gain from attending a camp?

The Thrill of the Spoken Word

Last Saturday, I was delighted to play a small part in Modwordsfest, Waterford’s first-ever spoken words festival. I’ve become very drawn to spoken word in recent times. It’s hard to know how to define it, but I would describe it as any piece of literature that is spoken rather than written. That means either you write a piece that is designed to be performed, or you write no script at all – you just perform the piece off the cuff at an event. Spoken word can be poetry or prose, fictional or true- it just needs to be spoken.

Spoken word helps me to reconcile the part of my personality that loves to reflect and write and the part that loves to perform. For the Modwordsfest reading, I decided to go pure mad and perform a piece I’d written, but without a script. I’d already read it at another spoken word event, so it was fresh in my head. When it came to my turn, I just went for it.

And I have to admit, it was a headrush. The challenges of a muffling microphone and the sounds of a band playing on the street all disappeared as I spun my story, about the ups and downs of finding a good hairdresser. The crowd laughed in all the right places, and people passing by stopped to have a look. My inner diva was truly satisfied.

Here’s a pic of me reading. Have you ever tried spoken word yourself? How was the experience for you?

Reading at Modwordsfest - Derek Flynn
Reading in The Book Centre, Waterford, for Modwordsfest. Photo Credit: Derek Flynn

The Challenges of Running Children’s Writing Camps

I’m giving a children’s writing camp this summer and I’m looking forward to it. It’s been about two years since I gave a writers’ camp to children, and in that time, I’ve gathered lots of ideas for working more effectively with children, and I’m dying to put these into practise. Working with children brings lots of challenges, and careful preparation will ensure I can rise to those challenges.

 

Here’s a flavour of the kinds of challenges I’ll be dealing with.

child writing
Writing with children: a joy and a challenge

Condensing five days into three days

I always gave five-day writing camps before, lasting two hours each. But on the suggestion of fellow writer and mother Orla Shanaghy, a great promotor of my camps, I’ve adjusted the format to a three-day camp with longer sessions. I’m hoping this will be more convenient for working mothers. But it does mean I’ll need to hold children’s attention for longer. Other writer-mothers on a Facebook group I run suggested things like adding drawing activities, word games and lots of breaks. I’m confident that if I act on their suggestions, the time will fly.

Dealing with personalities

From previous experience, I’ve found that there are two extremes of personality I need to deal with in children’s writing camps. One is the loud child who is brilliant at distracting everyone else with their lively wit and imagination. The other is the shy child who regards reading aloud as the equivalent of swallowing nails. For the loud child, boredom may be a factor, so I’ll keep the workshop moving and give them tasks to do. And for the quieter ones, I aim to make the atmosphere as warm as welcoming as possible, so they’ll realise that reading aloud isn’t so awful after all.

Managing volunteers

When you run a children’s writing camp, you must have other adults available for health and safety reasons. These people play a very valuable role, but they’re a responsibility too. My main responsibility to them is to make it clear what I’d like them to do, so they’re not just sitting there. They’ll have lots of practical things to do, like hand out writing materials and take children to the bathroom. But they play a creative role too, helping children who are quieter or work more slowly. Essentially, they’re a second pair of eyes and hands.

Have you ever run a children’s camp of any kind? What challenges have you come across and how have you dealt with them?