Monthly Archives: January 2012

Ground rules

Someone has pointed out that I should clarify a few issues, if this blog is to work as a forum.

1. Writing exercises. Feel free to suggest exercises for the benefit of others. If they are your own original exercises, say so. If you got them from somewhere else, make sure you (and I) won’t be breaching copyright or annoying anyone if you post them here. I imagine most teachers won’t mind having one of their exercises cited occasionally, if you acknowledge them (and encourage other users of this blog to buy their books). A link to their book or blog would be helpful. But please don’t get us into trouble by posting material without appropriate permission.

If you use an exercise you found on this blog, for example in your own teaching, please do acknowledge the person who posted it. And if you’d like to encourage your students to visit this blog and join the conversation here, they’d be very welcome!

2. Your own writing. You’ll notice I’m not posting examples of my own writing, even my own responses to the challenge exercises. This is because many competitions and journals frown on material that’s already been published elsewhere, including on writers’ forums or blogs. If you do want to post samples of your own writing as “Comments”, feel free, but be aware of that reality.

That’s it – short post tonight! Let me know if you’re finding the posts a bit long – I can always break them into installments if that will give you a better blog-reading experience 🙂 Happy writing!


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Grab the reader

“But why?” I wailed. “Why won’t you read my book?”

My thirteen year-old son shrugged. “It just doesn’t grab me.”

I’ve drafted my first-ever children’s book, and I’m cajoling every child of my acquaintance to read it and tell me what they think. My very helpful nieces have done so, without the need for emotional blackmail, bribery or threats (thank you, Rhiannon and Briley!) But my own kids haven’t made it past the first three pages. Which is a pretty big red flag.

Every “How-to-Write-a-Book” book gives the same advice – grab the reader on the first page. Once she’s hooked, maybe you can let the pressure off a bit (unless you’re Matthew Reilly). But it’s fatal to let the reader get a few pages in and give up, because nothing exciting or intriguing has happened to “grab” her.

I’ve always been a bit skeptical about this advice. Many of the books I love start with paragraphs of description – of a place, or a character – a bit of mood-setting, some information, even a philosophical rant. But I recognise, firstly, that such openings tend to be associated with older works (my editor friend Helena Bond has pointed out that most Georgette Heyer books begin with description rather than action or dialogue). And even a low-key opening must offer the reader something she wants, some promise she’s keen to see fulfilled.

I’m having a quick look at a random selection of books lying around my house at the moment, and the various techniques authors use to hook us in.

Teaser – a sneak peak at story’s climax

Twilight by Stephenie Meyer (shut up, I’m loving it) begins with a scene you know must be from the climax – then goes back and narrates the events leading up to it. First line: “I’d never given much thought to how I would die – though I’d had reason enough in the last few months – but even if I had, I would not have imagined it like this.” That’s a grabber.

Similarly, Miranda Darling begins The Siren’s Sting with a dramatic event involving two characters, then starts the main story some time earlier. The protagonist is not one of the characters we’ve briefly glimpsed in the prologue, so the tension that pulls us into the story initially is the desire to know who these two people are, when the protagonist will meet them, and what the opening scene will turn out to mean in the larger context of the story.

Prologue – events that occur before the main story begins, and cast a shadow

An Imaginary Life by David Malouf, my favourite book ever, starts with a brief prologue introducing the two main characters on a kind of mythic level – appropriate for a book narrated by a poet. I remember being intrigued and wooed by the style, the mood and the mystery.

Blanche d’Alpuget’s Turtle Beach is somewhat similar, beginning with a brief “Part One”/prologue referring to events which occur before the main story begins. The promise is that the significance of these events will be unfolded over the course of the story. Evelyn Waugh does the same in Brideshead Revisited. Kim Wilkins does it in The Resurrectionists, but in this case the Prologue occurs only a short time before the main story starts, and is the immediate catalyst for it.

Keri Hulme, in The Bone People, uses her prologue to introduce her main characters, but very cryptically. You know you’ll have to go back and re-read it, once you figure out what’s going on.

Danielle Wood’s The Alphabet of Light and Dark introduces her protagonist as a child, seventeen years before the story begins, and her second main character as a young man three years before the story begins. At this stage we have no idea whether they know each other. Some of the expectation, therefore, is about when and how they’ll encounter each other story and what will be the result.

Prologue-Epilogue frame – start with events that occur after the story has finished

David Malouf’s Johnno starts with a Prologue in which the narrator is going through his father’s effects after his death. The narrator finds a photograph, which triggers memories of his friend Johnno. The story proper explores the history of that relationship. What sucks me in on the first page is the situation – a man describing his father, his father’s death, his own reaction. It’s a situation at once so common and so unique, of course I care and of course I want to read more about it.

Beginning at the beginning – origin stories

Annie Proulx’ Accordion Crimes begins with an unnamed instrument-maker creating the accordion of the title. What grabs me is the close focalisation, the instrument-maker’s intense concentration and passion, and the rich vivid sensory depiction of details. The lacquer on the instrument is “gleaming like wet sap”. The maker is someone who hears harmonies “in the groan of hinges”. The promise of this opening is that the writer has constructed her story with the same fanatical care and attention to detail as the instrument-maker creating the accordion, with which we are about to pass a hundred years.


Terry Pratchett’s Jingo, of course, starts with a character who has a silly name, doing something intricately pointless but exquisitely linguistically funny. Solid Jackson is fishing for Curious Squid, “so called because, as well as being squid, they were curious”. Okay, I’m hooked.

Anansi Boys, by Neil Gaiman, begins with a “sublime to ridiculous” first page. There’s a kind of Biblical invocation, in which all of creation is sung into existence, before the narrator tells us chattily “There are other things you can do with songs. They do not only make worlds or recreate existence. Fat Charlie Nancy’s father, for example, was simply using them to have what he hoped and expected would be a marvellous night out”. Of course, as well as being slightly and pleasantly confused, we are now intensely curious about both Fat Charlie Nancy and his father.

A powerful emotion

William Golding’s The Spire opens with the protagonist laughing for joy – out loud, immoderately, and in the face of his companion’s misgivings. The imagery is also startling and initially confusing – “God the Father was exploding in his face with a glory of sunlight through painted glass”. We read on, gathering up the hints as the author drops them, desperate to know why a Dean in his cathedral just before Matins can’t help laughing uproariously with excitement. So it’s not just the expressed emotion that grabs us, but curiosity about its cause.

Instant drama

Tim Winton’s Breath begins with the first person narrator in an ambulance; he’s a paramedic rushing to an emergency, lights flashing and sirens blaring. As if that wasn’t exciting enough, he’s in a conflict with the young woman who’s driving, and we know we’re going to hear more about that. Grabbed. Cloudstreet is different – it’s more like The Spire, with lyricism and joyful energy sucking us in first. But the sense of imminent danger cuts in very quickly too – someone is rushing towards the river, someone who shouldn’t be. In Cloudstreet we know we won’t find out till the end what happens to this person – and that’s a lot of reading! – but the language and the characters are going to take us there.

Northern Lights, by Philip Pullman, starts with someone sneaking around trying not to get caught. We’re told that she’s accompanied by her daemon, and we quickly realise she’s a child. Yes, I want to know what she’s up to. The single word “daemon” alerts me to the fact that she’s not in my world – from the start I’m working hard to compare and contrast her world with mine, reach some comprehension of her world in time and space as I know it. She’s grabbed me.

Intriguing characters

Wuthering Heights begins with an interesting juxtaposition – a first-person narrator jauntily describing himself as a misanthrope and rejoicing that he has come to live in such a bleak, unpeopled corner of England. He immediately embroils himself in an edgy social encounter with his landlord, Heathcliff, “a man who seemed even more exaggeratedly reserved than myself”. There’s a delightful energy about Lockwood’s determination to inflict his company on Heathcliff, who so patently doesn’t want it, that we read on to see what will fall out.

Begin with dialogue

Another technique, recommended by Craig Bolland from the School of Creative Writing at QUT, is beginning with dialogue. I didn’t find an example in my random book-snatching, but I think it’s a good way to hook the reader straight into the relationship between two characters.

A writing exercise? Write the opening paragraphs of your next ten stories (hypothetically!) Each opening paragraph should aim to use a different technique for “grabbing” the reader:

1. A sneak peak of the story’s climax, which is yet to come

2. An event that occurs before the main story begins, and promises to influence the main story

3. An event that occurs after the main story ends, and promises to be meaningful once the main story has been told

4. Begin the story “starting at the very beginning”, with a strong sense that this moment will have far-reaching effects

5. Start with humour

6. Start with a strong emotion

7. Start with instant drama/trouble/conflict, through which we are introduced to the characters

8. Start with an intriguing character

9. Begin with dialogue

10. Start with something that is consciously none of the above – maybe a piece of scene-setting. How can you “grab” the reader through this opening? What can you promise her, how can you intrigue her, what can you do to make her want to keep reading?

Good luck – let me know how you get on!

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Colouring In

Describe that sky!

My writing buddy Kathy has blogged an interesting post about using colours in your writing. She expressed a concern that she tends to use colour-words too much (I don’t think she does). But it got me thinking about my own love of colour, and the relationship between colours and words. My first novel is called Blue : that says something right there 🙂

Maybe I’m a lazy reader – maybe my imagination doesn’t create scenes from the written word as actively as someone else’s might – but I need the writer to supply colour-words to help bring a scene visually alive. Kathy quotes from J.M. Coetzee: Through a window he glimpses the Shaw’s backyard: an apple tree dropping wormridden fruit, rampant weeds, an area fenced in with galvanized-iron sheets, wooden pallets, old tyres, where chickens scratch around… I can see it, but do you know, more vividly I can smell it. I wonder what difference colour-words might have made to my imagined sensory experience of this scene: an apple tree dropping brown worm-ridden fruit, rampant bitter-green weeds, an area fenced with galvanized-iron sheets rusting at the edges, wooden pallets, old tyres, where dirty white hens scratch around…

I’m currently reading The Siren’s Sting, by Miranda Darling, in which the author works hard to show us what her protagonist is seeing: The strange light of storm weather had turned the lagoon an opaque shade of jade green and fingers of red now shot out from an invisible setting sun…The palazzo just opposite was painted a deep rust red, with green shutters and green and white striped poles marking its water door... She was shown to her room, a small golden chamber with red velvet curtains overlooking a busy canal… While I also appreciate the author’s diligence in filling in the other senses – she tells us about the sound of heavy rain in the street, the feel of damp evening air on her protagonist’s face, and evokes the aromas of meals in various Mediterranean restaurants – it’s the colours that bring the story to life for me.

I’m often frustrated in the search for the perfect word for a colour. How, without becoming tedious, do you describe the exact colour of wet sand-flats at low tide just after the sunset pinks and oranges have faded but before it’s dark? The colour of the eastern horizon at that moment? The exact shade of deepening blue half-way up the sky, where the evening star is beginning to shine? We probably all envision/remember those colours slightly differently. If I want the reader to see a moment as my protagonist sees it, do I go hunting for obscure terms that are meant to describe a precise hue but probably don’t for every reader (bisque, aquamarine, brown madder)? Do I go all Taubmans and try to evoke that colour in the reader’s mind by describing something else in the world (Bell Pepper, Hot Frog, Lime Leaf, Honeydew, for shades of green)? Or do I try to mix words like you mix paints (blue-green water, apricot-brown sand, seaweed that’s greenish gold shading into orange with flecks of lemon yellow)?

How do you handle colour as a writer (and experience it as a reader)? I’d be keen to hear other people’s thoughts.

And just so this post contains some exercises:

1. Find a passage you’ve written, that contains visual description. Have you used any colour words? What happens if you take them all out? Put more in? Work at making the colour words more precisely descriptive? Stick to the simplest colour words possible (red, blue, green)?

2. Write a para or two describing a scene but without using actual colours – instead try to evoke lights and shades, as if the scene were a black-and-white photograph

3. Write a short scene between two characters, without using any colour words. Then see where you can add visual detail, including colour. Does this pull the scene in any different direction?

4. Play with synaesthesia – using words from one sensory modality to describe something in another. Particularly try this with colour words – a green breeze, the white hammering of rain


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[Spoiler alert: DON’T read this post if you haven’t yet read Ian McEwan’s Atonement. I wouldn’t want to be responsible for ruining Atonement for anyone. Go and read it now. Go on. You’ll thank me.]

Here’s a technique I find really fascinating. I’ve only seen it used a few times, and have been unable to discover any proper term for it, so I gave it my own name: relego. I’m thinking of it as Latin for “need to re-read”.

Etymology 1

From re- (“again”) + legō (“choose, gather”).


(Classical) IPA: /ˈre.le.ɡoː/


present active relegō

•I gather, collect again, recover.
•I travel, traverse or sail over or through again.
•I go over or go through again in reading, speech, thought, read, relate or recite again, revise, recount

Relego refers to a technique which has the following steps:

•A scene in which the writer carefully leads the reader to think he/she knows what is going on in the story; that he/she has been given sufficient information to grasp the meaning of events – “bomb”
•A scene which throws a completely different light on the earlier scene, and thus gives a different meaning to events that have occurred in the   interim (and even earlier) – “trigger”
•The reader is forced to return to the earlier scene and re-read it (even to re-read the whole book) in order to comprehend the newly-revealed meaning
To qualify as relego, what happens can’t be just a shelved idea being unshelved,  or something foreshadowed that comes up again or pays off. It’s not just a “twist”, it’s a particular kind of twist. It’s not just “that’s not where I thought we were going” but “that’s not where I thought we were”.
Some variations:
•The protagonist knows what’s really going on but the reader doesn’t
•The protagonist starts to realise what’s going on just before the reader does, or vice versa
•The reader and the protagonist find out together
The best example I know of this is in Ian McEwan’s Atonement. He does it less dramatically though no less effectively in The Child In Time. In film, some examples include The Sixth Sense, The Crying Game and The Others – relego is what makes you say “What???? I have to watch the whole film over again”. There’s also a good example in YA fiction, in K.M. Peyton’s Pennington’s Seventeenth Summer.
The acts of writing and reading are a dance between writer and reader. Relego is a kind of joke the writer plays on the reader – part of the dance, the relationship, the interaction, the seduction. The satisfaction for the reader lies somewhere in the intimacy of sharing this joke with the writer – being his/her willing victim. The emotional charge and the moral message are worth the embarrassment of having been duped. Essentially relego is a comic technique even where the comedy is dark (eg. The Child in Time, The Crying Game); even where it is cataclysmically so (Atonement, The Others).
How does McEwan do it?
• Viewpoint – intimate 3rd person narration, so we cannot know more than the character knows
• Vision – details plus the meaning attributed to them by the character (eg. “he… shifted into her sight line, which she was too tired or indifferent to adjust”; The Child In Time)
• Velocity – use pace to skip over the moment, keep the reader from reading too closely, encourage them to believe they’ve “got the gist” of what the moment means eg. we’re focussed on whether or not Edward will give Stephen a lift, not on his off-hand question about when Stephen last saw Julie (The Child In Time)
• Vocabulary – word choice, connotations eg. Stephen attributes “indifference” to the beggar girl, Edward’s “that figures” is the kind of vague thing people say without meaning anything (The Child In Time)
•Under-specification, so long as it’s not obvious that something’s missing eg. we don’t know what Julie says to Stephen on the phone but in the next chapter we see him heading towards her so we assume she offered reconciliation, and we think that’s all that’s happening (The Child In Time)
•Exploit readers’ unconscious assumptions about society, narratives eg. we assume society won’t simply allow a child to die of cold, so that’s not our first interpretation of what we’re seeing (The Child In Time). We assume that in 3rd person intimate POV the character we follow is “real” and any proposed alternative version of the character pursuing a different course of action must be “imaginary”, so we’re misled by the “ghostly Briony” who heads back to the hospital (Atonement)
Can we try this at home?
Sure we can.

1. Write a short scene that appears to mean one thing but actually means another. Not just ambiguous (could mean one thing or the other), but actively misleading. Some of the above points may help. This is the “bomb”.

2. Write a short scene to occur later in the story, which will make the reader say “What the…???” and rush back to re-read the bomb. This is the trigger.

3. When you re-read the bomb, imagine the experience of the reader coming back to re-read this after the trigger. How can you strengthen it – ensure the reader strikes her forehead dramatically and thinks “how could I have missed that?” – without giving the game away on the first reading.

4. Without having to write the whole story, think about what impact the triggered bomb may have – what did the reader think was going on? How has the triggered bomb changed the meaning of subsequent events?

Happy experimenting!


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Space and Distance – some writing exercises

The Josephine Ulrick Literature Prize is closing soon, and I’ve been reading the Judges’ Comments from the past few years. I’m struck by their interest in the “spaces” and “distances” within a story. The distance between two characters whose backgrounds and trajectories are too disparate to allow them more than a brief connection (Felicity Castagna’s “Next”). The distance between the protagonist’s understanding of her situation, and the reader’s (Krissy Kneen’s “Steeple Chase”). And the idea that these spaces are full of forces (attraction, repulsion, compulsion, momentum) and resonances, as the narrator of Catherine Harris’ “The Real Thing” explicitly attests.

I’ve been studying Creative Writing for a year, and there hasn’t been a lot of emphasis on how to work with space and distance between characters or viewpoints within a story. So I’ve made up some exercises for myself. I’ll be delighted if you try them too, and post your results and/or discoveries. And if you have any exercises to suggest, for the benefit of other readers, please do put them forward – I love the idea of writers experimenting together. Most of the exercises below will require several paras and might even lead to a whole story; some might only yield a para or two, but it’s all fun and stretches the writing muscles!

1. An exercise in parallel lines and the space between 2 characters. Establish 2 characters in the same place. Variations: a. they’re strangers, versus they know each other. b. Take each character’s POV in turn, versus use one character’s POV, then repeat the exercise from the other character’s POV (thanks to Trent Jamieson for the latter exercise). c. The two characters never notice each other yet each one’s situation bounces off the other in a way that’s satisfying for the reader, versus the two characters notice each other but only fleetingly, versus some key moment occurs between the two characters, versus they come into some interaction which leads to the story’s conclusion. We may be left expecting them to have further contact, or not

2. An exercise in triangles. Have 2 characters interact and establish the space/distance between them, then a third character enters and transforms that space/changes that distance

3. An exercise in the emotional charge of space. Establish a space between 2 characters, then an event, utterance or action changes the meaning of that space from positively-charged to negatively-charged, or vice versa. Variations: the change comes from one of the characters, versus the change comes from something outside the two characters

4. An exercise in motion. Establish 2 characters in motion who try to stop and connect. Variations: they succeeed, versus they are helplessly carried on past their separate trajectories

5. Another exercise in motion. Establish 2 characters as stuck, with dead space between them, then a. bring the space alive, and/or b. put one or both characters in motion

6. An exercise in interaction. Establish 2 characters who have different understandings of the space/distance between them. As a result of their actions/interaction, this space/distance changes

7. Another exercise in triangles. Create a space between 2 characters and an object, and have the fate of the object alter the space between the characters

8. An exercise in characters in places. Establish a physical place or space. Have a character come into it and establish a relationship with it. Then another character arrives and alters this relationship

9. An exercise in confined spaces. Put 2 characters in a confined space and have them develop a relationship defined by the space. Variations: a. they’re in the space willingly, versus against their will. b. They know each other beforehand, versus they don’t. c. They feel the same way about the space and their situation (positive or negative), versus they don’t

10. An exercise in isolation. One character wants to be alone/distant, the other tries to penetrate that aloneness/bridge that distance

11. An exercise in temporal space. Establish 2 characters waiting for something

12. An exercise in strange/foreign/alien spaces. Have 2 characters interact differently with a space which is strange/foreign/alien to both of them

13. An exercise in manipulating the distance between characters. Have 2 characters move from extreme distance to extreme closeness and back again (or the other way round)

14. An exercise in irony. Have 2 characters be most distant when they seem closest, and/or vice versa

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