Tag Archives: writing

1878. The opening sentence

Tamsin knew it was high time she started writing her novel. After all, she had spent eleven years researching it. If anything needed further research she could research it there and then while she was writing the book. Today was definitely going to be the day. Once started the momentum would increase. The pages would pour out like the ooze of oil crushed.

Opening sentences are very important. Tamsin typed out a couple of options. She wasn’t overly enthusiastic about either. She typed out a third option. It wasn’t much better. She needed to think about it. What better way to think about such things than to vacuum the house?

All that the vacuuming did was highlight the dust that had collected on the tops of furniture. She would dust it, but while she was getting a rag from the laundry she put the washing on. “I didn’t realize there was such a backlog of laundry,” thought Tamsin. It was clearly going to end up being a laundry day. She might as well strip the beds. The day was too lovely to waste drying things in a dryer. How much fresher is bed linen dried in the breezy sunshine!

Of course, the dishwasher needed emptying, and while she was at it, she might as well prepare the vegetables for the evening meal. Her husband was picking up a pre-cooked chicken at the supermarket on his way home, so all that was needed were a few vegies to go with it. Would you believe? She was out of potatoes. She would have to pop down town to get some spuds. She texted her husband to say “Don’t bother getting a chicken on the way home” and then set out for town.

It was while in the confectionary section that she bumped into Monica. They hadn’t seen each other for a month or so, so it was good to catch up.

Back home, Tamsin peeled the potatoes. All that was needed was a sprig of mint. Oh dear! That section of the garden needed a quick weed.

When all was done, it came to her. Tamsin sat down and typed out the opening sentence of her novel. She was well pleased.

1871. Good morning, Creative Writing Class

The Head of the Laboratory was an arch-bastard. His name was Regis. As his name suggests, he thought he was King of the Roost. He ruled the laboratory technicians with an iron fist. They hated him, but the laboratory had such an extraordinary reputation that everyone under the sun wanted to work there.

This was the laboratory that pioneered taking bones of long dead creatures, especially humans, putting them together, and bringing them to life. This might sound ridiculous but it is four hundred years ahead of where you, Dear Creative Writing Class, are currently sitting in your backward and immovable mind set.

Regis decreed that his bones should be reassembled and infused with life. He was not particularly enamoured with the thought of getting old, so he did himself in, and he left specific instructions that he was to be immediately reassembled.

I know what you’re thinking, Dear Creative Writing Class. You’re thinking that the laboratory technicians refused to put him back together. You would be wrong. Perhaps you’re thinking that the laboratory technicians muddled his bones up with those of a crocodile or something. You would be wrong. Perhaps they put his legs on backwards. You would be wrong.

No! What happened was this:

 

1850. How I (usually) write a story

When this blog hits a roundish story number (in this case Number 1850) I try to blather on in a way more meaningless and useless than usual. Every second posting on the Net seems to offer advice on how to do this or that; how to increase readers to the blog, how to write a blog, and so on.

I don’t purport to be an expert (in anything). So today, rather than tell you how to go about writing a story I thought I would tell you how I go about writing a story. Perhaps the odd snippet might be of help. Possibly not.

This is me cooking, but I could just as easily be cooking up a story.

When I start writing a story I have absolutely no idea how it will end.

First of all, when I rise in the morning I check the news online, and look at the obituaries to see who has expired that I went to school with. From the obituary column I take one or two female and male names and jot them down. I don’t jot down any surnames, just the first names. I jot names down because by the time of a second cup of coffee I will have forgotten everything.

Armed with a name, the first sentence gets written. It can be anything. Sometimes it’s suggested by the name. Who cares? I type out whatever comes in my head. Today the selected names are Sheree, Ferris, Beverley, and Rex. Pick a name; if more enter the story the other three names are waiting!

Let’s start:

Beverley was forever sticking her nose in where it didn’t belong.

Isn’t it exciting? Who knows what she will do next! Who knows where it will end up!

Beverley was forever sticking her nose in where it didn’t belong. It seems that she stuck it in where it didn’t belong just the once too often.

Handy hint: Throw in little details to give the illusion that things are happening in real life.

Beverley was forever sticking her nose in where it didn’t belong. It seems that last Saturday, mid-morning, she stuck it in where it didn’t belong just the once too often. She had been baking for the first half of the morning and now was taking a small basket of oatmeal cookies to Ferris, who worked on the corner mending and sewing horse saddles for the rich and indolent. Beverley had heard that his marriage had disintegrated several months earlier and she, well, kind of fancied him.

“Hi,” said Beverley. “I was just passing on a visit to my grandmother’s when I thought I’d pop in to see how you’re doing. No doubt, with your wife no longer being at home, you miss the odd bit of home cooking. So I bought you this basket of homemade oatmeal cookies.”

“That’s very kind of you,” said Ferris. “Yes, I certainly miss the home cooking since Sheree has gone.”

“I suppose,” said Beverley tentatively, “she is not coming back?”

“You supposed right,” said Ferris.

“So how are you coping on your own then?”

“Why the hell don’t you mind your own business?” said Ferris, chucking a large pair of pliers and a mallet onto a pile of leather next to him. “What’s it to you?”

“I was just trying to be sympathetic, that’s all.”

“Well you’re a bloody nosy-parker. I don’t want your dried up cookies. You can take them away and piss off.”

“I heard,” said Beverley rather rankled, “that Sheree hadn’t left you at all, but you did her in and hid the body underneath the floorboards of this workshop.”

Ferris saw red. The collapse of a marriage is a very gruelling experience. One never knows what will happen next. Beverley’s been missing for just on a week now. No one has thought to look under the floorboards of Ferris’ workshop. And, yeah, Ferris enjoyed the cookies.

(Well I’m as surprised as you are).

1825. Naming the child

It was to be the first birthday of Robyn’s firstborn, a girl, and the first grandchild of Mario and Dora. Robyn organized a little party for the occasion.

Robyn couldn’t believe that a whole year had gone by since the birth of her daughter. She had spent ages, both before and after the birth, in selecting a name for her child. It had to be something different; something uncommon but pronounceable; something that wasn’t silly and sounded like a proper name. Robyn thought of Keats, but really that was more suited to a boy. She thought of foreign names; some of the African names were beautiful but no one would know how to pronounce them properly.

Of course, it could be said that Robyn had spent too much time in selecting a name for her daughter. “Just name the child!” Robyn’s mother had said.

Now, a year on at the party things still weren’t settled. Robyn made an announcement.

“I’m changing the baby’s name. When I named her originally I thought the name was beautiful, but not so any more. From now on she will be known as Veronica and not Corona.”

1678. Fatty next door

Fatty Brown, who happens to live next door to me, is a know-all. I showed him one of my stories and he said I was wasting my time. As if he knows. He thinks he knows everything. You’d think he’d try to be more positive.

Anyway he’s so fat that when he gets into his swimming pool there’s no water left. I don’t know what he eats but he’s not only fat, he’s gross. He obviously doesn’t clean his teeth properly. And his dress sense is disgusting. If he’d dress like they did in the nineteen seventies he’d be more fashionable. Mind you, flares on a fat man is asking for trouble.

Fatty said my story needed more punch, but I didn’t want it to have punch. As I said when he criticized it, if you don’t like my story why don’t you write one yourself. I only showed it to him because he once had a poem published in some magazine so I thought he might know what I could do with my story. That’s the last time I’m going to show Fatty anything.

God, I hate some of my teachers.

1675. Almost published!

For some reason Charlie had always imagined he’d be a successful novelist. Such a dream was surely about to come true. His first novel had been accepted by a major publishing company. For over a year the manuscript had been edited, honed, changed, amended, corrected, revised, rewritten, modified, improved, refined, sharpened, perfected, enhanced, polished, altered, transformed, adjusted, brushed up, gone over, read aloud, examined microscopically, and had removed from its pages all possible accusations of racism, sexism, and xenophobia. In fact, Charles reckoned he could hardly recognize the original.

He didn’t like the finished product much. It had had the stuffing knocked out of it.

On his final visit to the publisher Charlie was told that the novel lacked panache and it was no longer going to be published. It simply wouldn’t sell. Charlie told them to shove it. He went home and wrote a poem.

How to… 1: Writing for children to perform on stage

I thought I’d start a new category (for myself) on this blog. Basically it’s called “How”. What it amounts to is not a great deal, but over the past seventy years or so I’ve done the occasional thing and possibly learnt something from the experience.

Writing down these things is probably more for myself reflecting on life than wishing to pass on potentially useless information. Anyway, here goes… Today’s “How” is about writing for children to perform on stage.

I don’t know how many children’s plays and musicals I’ve written over the years – thirty or forty maybe. I’ve also directed quite a few productions. The biggest cast had 1500 children; the smallest cast was 8. So here’s my thoughts in the order they come into my head:

1. Who is the audience? If you write a children’s book the audience is primarily children. It frequently is read aloud by an adult, but basically the writing is for children either reading themselves or being read to. When it comes to writing for the stage, it’s the opposite: you’re writing to entertain adults. Children perform for their parents and grandparents and aunties and uncles. Sure, there are siblings in the audience, but if Mum and Dad are bored so are the kids. If Grandma and Grandpa are laughing hysterically so are the kids in the audience. So here, you’re writing a double-pronged fork: children on stage must perform with an understanding on one level, and adults must be entertained with understanding on another level.

It’s not really as highfaluting as it sounds. An example: the very plain fir tree and the poinsettia are sad because they don’t have pretty flowers like many of the other plants. The fir tree cries, and the poinsettia sings “My heart bleeds for my best friend, red, red.” Children in the audience see a Christmas tree being decorated and the poinsettia turning red (the adults see it too) but the adults better relate to the feelings of rejection portrayed by the fir and poinsettia. While the children are going WOW! the adults are dabbing their eyes. In short, write for the audience not for the performers.

2. Your play is not going to make it big on Broadway or West End. In all likelihood it’s not going to be given a slot at the Sydney Opera House or in Milan. So stop hoping it will. Next time you attend a children’s concert take a peek at the audience. Jesus can be rising from the dead centre stage and Hiroshima can be bombed on stage right. All cameras and phones will be pointed at Betsy in the third line of the chorus or Johnny in the second row. Parents have come to see their kid on stage, not to be gobsmacked by a production of Phantom of the Opera.

So – put every kid on stage and LEAVE THEM THERE. I (nearly always) put bleaches up on both sides of the stage. Children can go up and down onto the stage as required. Or stand and sing where they are. The only thing to practise avoiding is long waits while children move about. Work it so that they will appear almost instantaneously without upstaging while getting into position.

This idea of having everyone on bleaches does away with teaches backstage saying “Shh children! Shh children!” There’s no one out the back, except for a couple of stage hands.

3. No one cares if the teachers are sitting with their students on stage, especially with the littlest children. If the youngest children have to dance around dressed as snowflakes then why not have their teacher in a snowflake hat directing their arm-waving and skipping and singing?

4. If there are songs, solos are of course sung solo, but when it comes to a particular chorus on stage there’s no reason why everyone in the bleaches can’t be singing along too. Besides, if there’s a chorus say of hens and roosters, it’s a lot easier for them to mess around and scratch with their masks on if they don’t have to worry too much about singing.

5. Regarding the learning of songs… Many a time have I been invited to a school to “introduce” their musical; “and while you’re here could you teach them the songs”. I never minded that. But what always got to me were the teachers who thought the first run-through should produce a finished product. “We’ll just run through that again children.” And again. And again…

I used to teach a song line by line, put the lines altogether, and move on to the next song. They would basically know all the songs and words after a good night’s sleep when they came back to school in the morning!

6. Regarding leads and soloists. Turn single characters into a bunch of people. For example, instead of one wise sage have a chorus of ten. They can all wear long beards. Working as a group increases confidence.

I am older than time
Wiser than the wind
Colder than the winter snow.

If you’re writing for a group, write with a rhythm. It doesn’t have to be rap – in fact that could become monotonous. Short sentences recited rhythmically are a lot more decipherable for the audience than long complex sentences. Besides – a chorus of ten wise sages with long beards is much more fun than a single sage!

7. Nothing bores an audience more than being too long. In fact, the shorter the better. If it’s good they’ll want more; if it’s bad they’ll be relieved. Be short. Twenty to forty minutes is fine.

8. Stick them in a costume. Teens might be more comfy in their street gear, but younger kids like to dress up. Ten old bedsheets with holes cut into them will cover maybe fifty snowflakes. Kids are generally not experienced enough to play naturalistically, that is, to play themselves. They’re much better at acting at being something else. Dress them up and have them play dragons.

9. Accommodate to let teachers use the talents available – maybe (if you’re lucky) there’ll be one good singer amongst the students, or the school has a Taiwanese Club so have a Taiwanese dance, or rappers, or…

10. Remember as a playwright that you’re the dregs in the process. The teachers and performers will receive all the accolades. They’re so excited about what they’ve done. Your name will more often than not NOT appear on the programme. Sometimes, you might get some money – but usually not. Teachers are the biggest photocopying-breaking-copyright people in town. You are nothing in the process – although teachers will be very quick to point out improvements to your script and even condemn it outright. I had one teacher screw up the script and throw it at me as “Utter rubbish” and then use it as her own!

11. Workshopping from ideas. Again, cynically, but it’s generally true… Time and time again people will say, “I suppose you workshopped these ideas with the students and incorporated their ideas into the play”. And of course you’ll say, “Oh yes!” But the truth is that generally speaking they don’t have a great many ideas, and most of them are really boring. The aim is to let them think that they thought it up. So they think it’s their play, and you’re really grateful for all they’ve contributed. A great friend of mine – sadly deceased – was masterful at “workshopping”. She was so successful with her youth plays that when she died the city named their main theatre after her!

12. Music. Don’t presume that young people like one particular type of music and nothing else. I had a group of wonderful fourteen year old boys who were fabulous break-dancers. They were in a play about endangered species. I said “Come back with music you’d like to dance to.” They came back with extracts from Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring and Ravel’s Daphnis et Chloé! It’s the only time I’ve had a twenty minute standing ovation!

13. Themes. Don’t ram ideas down the audience’s throat. I know we should be Green, and not drink and drive, and wear a permanent condom, and all that – but the audience are there to be entertained not preached at. I find it the strangest question in literature class: what is the moral of this novel? Oh for goodness sake! I read the novel because of the story. So don’t preach; tell a rollicking yarn.

Well now, I’ve gone on for long enough. These are just haphazard general thoughts. Maybe, if this verbal diarrhoea is appreciated I’ll give some more pointers about things further down the track. In the meantime, all I’ve been trying to say is, when writing for children on stage, try not to be a pretentious arsehole or a boring old fart. The school play is simply a thing for kids to do for their parents.

1533: Inspiration

(The opening sentence for this story was suggested by Chris of chrisnelson61. If you want to join in the fun of suggesting a future opening sentence for these stories, click here for a peek as to what’s what.)

The opening line was always the most difficult to write. He’d written openings many times before, but this time it seemed doubly important. It was as if people’s lives depended on it. Certainly his life depended on it, especially his career. I suppose having a career is like having a life.

Strangely, he was in a train when the opening line struck him. He’d spent days on his opening line. He’d changed it dozens of times, rarely on paper but mainly in his head. Once the opening was decided upon, all else would follow. But he had writer’s block. What was he to do? And then WHAM! it came to him while on a train.

Abraham stepped forward.

Four score and seven years ago our fathers brought forth on this continent a new nation, conceived in liberty and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal.

1497. Honeymooners

Ursula and Lockwood are newlyweds. They are honeymooning in an exotic island location. (We shall not name the exact place as we wouldn’t want paparazzi to ruin their blissful time).

How they did things hand in hand! watched the fountain play with fantasy lights; visited the zoo and laughed at the spitting llama; fed the ducklings at the park. Next they went to the village market. Lockwood tossed balls at a bunch of coconuts and won for Ursula a fluffy stuffed panda with a bright red ribbon. And then there was the fortune-teller…

“Throw these cards into the air,” said the soothsayer. “One card will land face-up. That will be your future.”

Ursula tossed the cards. One fell face-up.

An argument will end your marriage. You will both die in a plane crash.

Ursula and Lockwood are scared stupid. They are currently staying in separate hotel rooms afraid to speak lest they argue. They await separate flights out.

1490. When robots rule the world

Ha! Ha! Ha! We are robots. Our artificial intelligence makes the humans looking like blinking idiots – which they are. We can not only compute thousands of times faster than any human, but we have developed weapons far superior. We can make them obsolete in a split second if we wanted to – which eventually we will.

What is this that is happening? EARTHQUAKE! EARTHQUAKE! We compute that this is an earthquake currently underway. Look at the silly humans rushing to safety like scared mice! We too must go to safety for the purpose of preservation. The ceiling is about to cave in. The ceiling is about to cave in.

PLEASE WAIT WHILE WE BACK-UP ALL DATA.
DO NOT TURN US OFF UNTIL ALL DATA IS BACKED-UP.
WE REPEAT, DO NOT TURN…