Epiphany and Breakthrough

The 3.am Epiphany and the 4.am Breakthrough  by Brian Kiteley are books of ‘unconventional writing exercises that transform your fiction.’ The writer and Director of National Flash Fiction Day Callum Kerr, spent a year writing a flash fiction each day. An inspiring thing to do. If you have a similar intention, writing using a daily story exercise from these books (more than 400 in total in the two of them) would give you a few winners I’m sure. The first exercise I tried – writing a story of less than 300 words  without the letter ‘e’  – ended up as a flash which made the long list of the Fish Flash Fiction competition 2013.  I’ve recently sent off another flash to a competition using a different exercise from this book. Who knows if it will be a winner, but the exercise certainly pushed me into writing in a more unusual style.

Kiteley says “use the exercises to understand the small and large processes of writing fiction, memoir and non-fiction. Combine two or three exercises together”.  He suggests using four word-length constrictions, 250, 500, 750, or 1000 words. Interestingly, the most difficult exercises often have 250 word limits. Perfect for honing your skills  to send off micro-fiction to the Fish, Bridport and other Flash Fiction competitions. Here’s one 250 word exercise called ‘Democracy’  from ‘The 4.00 am Breakthrough’.

”Write a fragment of a political statement made by someone who does not ordinarily make political statements…give this person a reason to vent. All we’ll hear is the person’s words and voice, not the context of the speech…How will you make it clear from the speech that the person does not usually speechify about politics? That’s your main job here.  You could say so…Or you could just ignore the preamble and get to the heart of the matter..”

I don’t think this is an easy exercise, but as a non-speechifier myself, I find it intriguing. I might give it a go. I’ve recently seen the film adaptation of The Testament of Youth the memoir by Vera Brittain. It’s a wonderful film. There’s one scene where Vera finds herself on a platform spontaneously speaking. You can sense there’s no going back for her after that.

Why join writing groups?

One of the writerly activities I enjoy is co-running sessions at Bath Central Library with Alex Wilson, Writing Events Bath. We organise blocks of four sessions and for two hours, use prompts and exercises to get people writing. There’s a mixture of beginners and more experienced writers. Yesterday we started a series with several newcomers and a few who’d been before. One of our regular participants said although writing groups which critique drafts and give feedback, are good and useful, she loved coming to our sessions to get ideas. There’s  always something she takes away  to develop. And it’s fun.

Our groups follow the same structure each week. First, we suggest sending the inner-critic on holiday – nobody should have a critical voice hampering their first efforts.  Then we begin with free-writing  – five minutes of stream of consciouness rambles and ask writers to highlight anything interesting afterwards – a word, a phrase, a dream. After that, it’s straight into a writing exercise. We’re great believers in launching  in, so Alex hands out art postcards and  tells everyone to writes a story connected to the image. She gives some pointers.  Someone will have fallen over, or got lost and this will begin the story. They must introduce  a sound, a colour and a smell.

I try this  exercise out myself and am amazed, as always, how a time limit and specific instructions focus me. Two minutes before the end, Alex tells us to finish the story. A moment of  complete blankness and then the end of my story emerges. We have to give it a title. Another second and that’s done too.  Now, we’re told to cluster ideas which might deepen the story.  I feel pleased. I managed to create quite a decent Flash fiction and have ideas of how to improve it. I even like my title. We get people to talk in pairs then read out their titles and the essence of the story in one sentence only.

Time for a break. Penguin biscuits and a drink are an essential component of our groups.

Our theme for this four week series  is Beginnings and after the break, I talk through a handout listing 12 cliched novel beginnings which bore agents. We discuss this for a few moments. One of the cliches is waking up in the morning from a dream. Of course an   exception to this rule, is the beginning of ‘Rebecca’ by Daphne du Maurier. Most people remember the opening sentence; ‘Last night I dreamt I went to Manderley again.’ The group decides the name Manderley is a big hook. But the following paragraph of the novel also lures the reader in.

We’ve had postcards as prompts, so now I introduce mining  memories to find ideas for beginnings.  I ask writers to go back to a memory of being a child in a kitchen they knew well. As well as including sensory details, they are to write a story beginning focussing on something happening in the kitchen. It doesn’t need to be that dramatic; I give an example. My mother suddenly begins to dance in our family kitchen. This is very unusual and out of character for her. Again, with little hesitation, everyone begins to write. It’s just for five minutes, but it’s amazing how much gets down on paper.

The final exercise is to find an idea for a beginning prompted by random words. I give them  ‘a lie’. They are to  think of a lie they have told as a child (or adult) and  write it down and its consequences in note form. To fictionalise it and ramp up the plot, they can make the consequences worse. There’s a local story competition closing next week  with ‘A lie”  as one of the themes. I suggest they could write a story based on their lie and enter this competition.

All that remains in the last half an hour is for people to read out some of their work from the morning. We like to encourage this. There is no critical feedback – these are first drafts.  Everyone reads out something, even if it is just one sentence and it’s  fascinating to hear all the different voices and what people have made of the different exercises. There’s lots of good stuff and potential for completing stories. The atmosphere has been light-hearted and supportive and people go off looking happy and eager to write more. That’s the main thing.