Friday, 19 November 2010

Your SCWBI workshop let me go wild!

I ran two writing workshops on last weekend's SCWBI Conference in Winchester and 53 people came, 17 in the morning and 36 in the afternoon!
So why did they come?
"It's great to do some writing after so much listening."
"We're always learning, aren't we?"
"Odd process writing isn't it?"
"Helped to shake the cobwebs off my pen and brain and get writing."

Martin ( here on the left) said something which struck me as so true. "We write under such constraints normally, focusing on the work in progress. Your workshop just let me go wild for a bit."

So what did we do over four hours on the Sunday, after a big party the night before and hours of networking, listening and taking notes on the Saturday?  Here is a taster with some great ideas for schools workshops.

GIVE YOUR PLOT A FACELIFT - Sunday morning session.
What if?   Step outside your comfort zone, let your imagination fly free and start 'what-iffing' - essential for helping to lift a sagging plot.
We did a writing exercise - What if the slipper fitted the second ugly sister?
That got everyone going - we got murder, alien transformation, humour and sheer disbelief. 
My idea was that Cinders would be relieved - "I didn't fancy that prince anyway, I want to marry Buttons."

Everyone wrote and wrote and wrote. Here is what Mo sent me -
"No, its my turn now," shrieked Gwendolyn and she pushed her older sister off the chair. She sat her bony bottom down and removed her own shoe. "Gimme that," she ordered the page as he knelt before her offering the delicate glass slipper. Cinderella watched from the shadows.
 Prince Insincerely Charming stood behind the page. He crossed his fingers behind his back and mumbled, "Please don't fit. Anyone but her." Then he decided to cross his toes as well and even his eyebrows to be sure.
Gwendolyn poked her big toe into the slipper and wedged in her foot. It wasn't budging. She took it off, spat in the shoe and stuck her foot back into it. It fit. "Just needed a bit of lubrication," she said.

Tina Lemon wrote this 
It fitted. Oh my God, it fitted. The girl looked at her feet, her eyes wide with surprise. The prince's eyes had also formed into a similar shape but it wasn't surprise that was displayed on his face - it was pure horror instead. He was kneeling down in front of this oddly-shaped girl, visibly shell-shocked. Slowly he looked up at this girl that was soon to be his wife.

Lovely contrasting pieces from these writers.


It was Mariam who pointed out that this would make a great workshop in schools.
And yes, any age group, from Year 1- Year 13, I think it would work brilliantly with all of them.
Let me know if you try it out and I'll put together another blog.
Two more ideas :
What if  - Baby Bear found Goldilocks on his computer and she says over his shoulder, "I've fixed the virus, you're back online BB."
What if - Shrek turned into a handsome Prince.


Phillipa Francis had some fun with dialogue.
'Do stand still child.'
'Your pardon, Mama.'
Georgina focused on the shell-backed sconce above the fireplace.Mama moved around the table putting pins in as she folded the torn hem.
'Wretched child - what possessed you to climb like a hoyden in your best dimity?'
"What a difference it makes," writes Phillipa, "if I put the dialogue in red. Fascinating."

Absolutely Phillipa - writing workshops are the place where you can give yourself permission to try out new things and GO WILD.

One of the things I love the most about running workshops is the time when I look round the room and everyone is writing and a wonderful silence descends over us. The quality of this silence which is a combination of work and a deep sense of peace reminds me of the libraries in the old days when the librarians ruled OK! and no-one ever spoke. For me that old library silence is only really recreated in the silence of a room full of focused writers. Extraordinary.


We had a lot of takers for this session. They kept coming and coming until we used up half the chairs in the lecture theatre. 

I like to use texts to demonstrate the points I make in a workshop. For this workshop I used two of my favourite writers - Morris Gleitzman  and Guy de Maupassant.
I also used some examples from my short story, Samir Hakkim's Healthy Eating Diary, in Give me Shelter, Francis Lincoln.

Using texts is the best way to show the craft and techniques of writing and helps to bring alive what can be very dry and dusty stuff otherwise. I would always use texts in  workshops in schools and of course with adults.

Action and dialogue are the keys to bringing your characters alive.
I used an extract from Two weeks with the Queen by Gleiztman to show dialogue, action, internal monologue and keeping your reader on their toes - the all important element of surprise. 
Every single line in your text must serve to take the plot forward. This includes every single element of your characters. Action and dialogue bring your characters alive much more acutely than pages of description.

Kathryn Evans wrote to me, "Thanks again for another inspiring workshop. I had a penny dropping moment during the session, there's something about your writing exercises, that safe and nurturing environment - it unblocks furred up writing arteries :O)"

How can you make sure you give everyone a chance to read out their work in a session of 36 participants?

It is very important to me that everyone who wants to read out and get some feedback has the chance to in my workshops. So fortunately  I had decided to focus on Pen Portraits in the huge afternoon session. As people would only have to write one sentence I was able to give everyone a chance to read out, making the session dynamic and enabling for all the writers.

I chose a pen portrait from Maupassant's wonderful story, 
'The Piece of String.'

All the aristocracy of the plough were eating at Mait'  Jourdain's, innkeeper and horse dealer, a sharp fellow who had made a great deal of money in his day.

The innkeeper only appears in these few lines and yet in our discussion we agreed that he had made his money from possible underhand ways, he was not wholly trustworthy and yet had a strong position in the community, commanded grudging respect, maybe even admiration from his peers.

Bringing alive the minor characters is just as important as enriching the major characters in our stories. 

I set the following writing exercise - Write a one sentence pen portrait of the man who sells Jack the beans ( from Jack and the Beanstalk.) We reminded each other of the story and then wrote. 
Here are some of the results.

The man's contorted body looked like a sack into which all his bones had been dumped in no particular order but his eyes glowed with certainty and a dark knowledge.
Christian Colussi.

The ancient man grinned, his golden tooth winking in the yellow lamplight as he pulled me into a shadowy corner and lifted his ragged sleeve, his gnarled hand unfurling, claw-like, to reveal the beans, gleaming like jewels in his sweaty palm. "They're magic," he whispered, his breath stale as five day old vomit.
Katie Dale.

The man saw the big, fact, juicy cow coming towards him like a large barrel of gold on four hooves, one of them with a rope around it held by a boy; his next victim.
Paolo Romeo.

"Thank you for a great workshop - I've ordered the Morris Gleitzman," wrote Paolo.

When the man spoke a ragged line of blackened stumps appeared in his mouth and Jack stood back to avoid the fetid smell of swamp gas.
Jo Franklin.
Beak nosed and leather skinned, the old man's eyes were everywhere but on Jack.
Kathryn Evans
Jack saw a patchwork of a man. His arms whirred like a windmill and his eyes glimmered like spells.
Phillipa Francis
His gaze reached out and pulled Jack towards him, every detail of the boy grasped in those strong blue eyes and hoarded inside his shaven skull.
Benjamin Scott
The man's pig-eyes glinted and pushing his hat back with blackened forefinger he beamed a gap-toothed smile at the approaching boy.
Nicky Schmidt

PEN PORTRAITS WOULD MAKE A GREAT WORKSHOP TO TAKE INTO SCHOOLS and using a story and characters that everyone is familiar with gives everyone the same starting point.

"It always amuses me," said Julienne Durber, "how so many people say they can't write under pressure and then come out with some really vibrant stuff."

It was great to work with so many talented SCWBI writers and it is good to see that the future of children's fiction is in such safe hands. HAPPY WRITING EVERYONE.


  1. This is brilliant Miriam. Thank you for takin ghte time to put this up. Very useful :)

  2. Thanks for this post - very useful stuff. You know that rich silence you spoke about? You get that in Quaker meeting as well. Libraries, writing workshops, Quaker meetings - interesting, eh?

  3. Yes Joan, great connection and such a special silence.

  4. I only wish I could have done both your workshops!

  5. Me too - what if...we could split ourselves into 2- or more...?

    Great blog, great workshop - thanks Miriam!

  6. Fab post, Miriam! The character workshop was great and gave me lots of ideas.

  7. Indeed, great workshop, Miriam! And yes, I ordered Two weeks with the Queen, read it in two days, smiled a lot (not allowed to laugh out loud on the Tube), and cried a little at the end (in a corner) :)

  8. Thanks for all your supportive comments, it means a lot to me that the workshops were helpful to all you wonderful writers.

  9. I'm going to settle down and spend a day working through this post. Thanks for sharing it with us all and I love your new Blog-style, by the way.

  10. I thoroughly enjoyed that day. Thanks Miriam!

  11. Your 'what-iffing' exercise was great, Miriam. I'll definitely be using it in the future when my brain fills with porridge and the plot just won't flow.

  12. Some good ideas. Particularly the pen portraits. (BTW You are allowed to laugh out loud on the tube.)

  13. Great article Miriam, the workshops sound fantastic, wish I could have made it along to one. I like Christian's description of the magic bean man as "a sack into which the bones of his body had been dropped in no particular order" Brilliant! Thanks for sharing a couple great ideas for school visits too.

  14. Look forward to having you another time, Dave, I always laugh out loud on the tube, Roger, glad to help you shift the porridge, Julienne.

  15. Thank you so much for taking the time to do this Miriam, it's so useful.Just reading the blog is inspiring, so what must the workshop have been like?


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