Posts Tagged ‘creative writing’

If you haven’t found it yet, go check out Brainpickings, particularly, for those of you studying Hamlet, this article about Kurt Vonnegut and the shape of stories, which contains an interesting summary and evaluation of the play. Brainpickings can also help you to find unique related texts and give you interesting insights into genre, ways of thinking, and creative writing.

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One of the comments that students often receive on their creative writing pieces for Paper 1 Section II is, “show, don’t tell.” Consequently, one of the most common questions I receive as both a teacher and a tutor is, “how do I do that?” This is a tough one so I’m going to leave the answer to an expert.

Mary Kole is a literary manager and writer and she not only knows her stuff, she can also explain it in a straightforward manner.

Check out her post on When to Tell instead of Show. (Hint: have your copy of Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone handy to check out the examples she gives in more detail). Then read her other showing vs telling posts (links in first post).

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from master of the art, Kurt Vonnegut [with additional HSC specific comments from me].

  1.  Use the time of a total stranger [for you, this is the marker] in such a way that he or she will not feel the time was wasted.
  2. Give the reader at least one character he or she can root for.
  3. Every character should want something, even if it is only a glass of water. [In the AoS, your character should want some type of belonging, or not belonging].
  4. Every sentence must do one of two things-reveal character or advance the action. [Even descriptions of setting should do this in some way].
  5. Start as close to the end as possible. [Short stories should be short, and you only have 40 minutes for an AoS or 60 minutes for an Extension creative in an exam; also, a non-linear structure can be a good idea].
  6. Be a Sadist. no matter how sweet and innocent your leading characters, make awful things happen to them-in order that the reader may see what they are made of.
  7. Write to please just one person. If you open a window and make love the world, so to speak, your story will get pneumonia. [Keep the marker in mind here, they may not be your ideal audience but they are the one that matters in the HSC].
  8. Give your readers as much information as possible as soon as possible. To hell with suspense. Readers should have such complete understanding of what is going on, where and why, that they could finish the story themselve, should cockroaches eat the last few pages. [To do this, I advocate setting up a central metaphor or motif that carries your story from the title to the conclusion].

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A reading journal is a useful tool for all students and an essential one for student undertaking Extension 1 and Extension 2. Here are some suggestions to get you started:

Read Widely this includes reading fiction and non-fiction, newspaper and journal articles, blogs, short stories, novels, and poetry. It also includes viewing films and television, looking at paintings and photographs, and listening to music. Let each text lead you to the next one. For example, reading a Neil Gaiman novel might lead you to reading his graphic novels and picture books, you might also find the music of Amanda Palmer, his wife and, through their Twitter feeds, the novels, music, and films they admire. If you’re stuck, Amazon Lists and GoodReads might help.
Explore Form and Genre one of the complaints that I’ve heard repeatedly from the Extension 2 co-ordinators at school is that students are intending to write a short story but all they read is novels. Acknowledge that textual forms differ in their structure, not just their length. Here’s a list of short story writers I recommend: Archie Weller, Roald Dahl, Isaac Asimov, O. Henry, Saki, William Gibson, Arthur C. Clarke, Joanne Harris, Philip K. Dick, Brian Caswell, Tim Winton, Nam Le, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, Angela Carter, Chinua Achebe, Graham Greene, Henry Lawson, and Susannah Clarke. Similarly, if you’re writing free form poetry or putting together a short film, make sure the form and genre within which you’re working is a focus of your reading and viewing.
Make Predictions Don’t read passively; be active. If you think you’ve worked out whodunnit, write your idea in your reading journal; if you think you know what will (or should) happen next, write it down. This is particularly important if you’re doing a genre study. Make predictions based on your knowledge of the genre and highlight texts that subvert the conventions.
Make Connections Connections between texts are at the heart of HSC English, whether they be thematic (Belonging, History and Memory, Conflicting Perspectives), chronological (Texts in Time, Exploring Connections, Romanticism, After the Bomb, Navigating the Global) or generic (Crime Fiction, Science Fiction, Life Writing). While reading, look out for connections between what you’re reading and other texts you have read or studied. Don’t limit yourself to what you’re reading for – an article about Life Writing could become a related text for History and Memory. Look out for connections between what you’re reading and your own experiences as well. Note these down.
Respond Creatively Your reading journal shouldn’t just be a series of “I read this and this is what I thought about it.” Rewrite endings, use interesting quotes as stimulus for poems, short stories, and other short pieces, draw diagrams and pictures, find images to illustrate ideas; argue with your texts, put their characters (or authors) on trial – interrogate them. Write what you feel as well as what you think. Try this exercise to get you started: choose a text then, using each of the five senses, describe it: what does it look, smell, taste, sound, feel like?
Respond Analytically Your reading journal is another opportunity to practise your structure response writing. Using the key ideas in the syllabus for your course/module/elective, compose structured integrated paragraphs using the texts you’re currently reading. Writing explications (linear explanations of techniques and meanings) is another good strategy for engaging analytically with texts.

Avoid Recounting This list was originally going to be divided into dos and don’ts but there’s really only one don’t: don’t recount the plot of what you’re reading. There are two reasons for this. The first is that it’s boring. Plot recounts are boring to write and even more boring to read. The second reason is that it’s a bad habit. If you practise recounting the plot in your journal, chances are you’ll replicate that practice in your responses and exams.


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Creative writing remains a key aspect of the HSC English exam, I think, because teachers and educational administrators fear that students will do no creative writing unless it is assessed. That said, writing a story for the Area of Study is not like other creative writing. Like the other sections of Paper 1 and Paper 2, there are boxes to tick and hoops to jump through. Here is a checklist of the skills you need to showcase and the elements you need to include.

  1. A message about belonging. Your story needs to be more than just about the theme of belonging, it needs to have a message or a moral, almost like a thesis statement for an essay. The difference between a theme and a message is the difference between a statement of fact and a statement of opinion; for example, “belonging” is a theme; but “people can choose where to belong” is a message. If you’re struggling to make the message clear in your story, you can have your character reflect on what s/he has learned about belonging; however, the best way to do it is through
  2. Character development. This needs to be shown through the protagonist’s choices and actions. The audience must be able to see that the protagonist’s sense of belonging, or at least their perception of it, is different at the end of the story from what it was at the beginning. To do this you need a clear
  3. Structure. The one I suggest is a three act structure (similar to a film).
    1. In Act 1 we are introduced to setting and character; we see the protagonist’s everyday normal world and we find out about their sense of belonging or not belonging.
    2. At the beginning of Act 2, something happens to draw the protagonist out of that world or to make him/her look at it differently. This is the challenge to their sense of belonging/not belonging. We also see their response to this challenge.
    3.  Act 3 is the resolution. Some possible resolutions include the protagonist finding a new sense of belonging, having their sense of belonging reinforced, realising that they belonged all along, or realising that it’s ok to not belong. No matter how good your character or structure, it won’t get you the marks unless you also
  4. Use the stimulus, address the question. The stimulus, whether a quote or an image, needs to be central to your story; don’t just refer to it at the beginning and then ignore it as you get on with regurgitating your memorised narrative. You also need to be aware of the question. Sometimes the instruction is to write about a particular aspect of belonging or to write in a particular textual form. You must also
  5. Include literary techniques (but don’t overdo them). Dialogue is a common short story technique and there should be some in your story, particularly in action moments. Starting with dialogue generally isn’t a good plan and don’t overdo the “tags,” screamed Mrs Langford tucking her hair behind her ear as she turned once again to write on the whiteboard. One technique I rarely see, which you should be in a position to use, is literary allusion. You’re studying at least four texts (not including related texts) and you’ve no doubt read others. It’s ok to say someone feels as outcast as a replicant on Earth or as sad as a Danish prince. Some other techniques that I’ve seen used effectively are metaphors and similes (used sparingly to reinforce key ideas or images), sensory imagery (what does belonging smell, taste, sound, or feel like?) and extended metaphors or motifs; which should be introduced in your
  6. Title. The title should be short. It should foreshadow and it should intrigue. It’s ok to come up with a title as you write and add it last.

Don’t try to do too much in your story. Too many characters, too many events, too large a time span, or to many ideas will derail your story and ruin your time management. Simpler is better.

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I found this exercise in the Writing Challenges podcast, which is published by Warwick University. I have adapted it for the specific needs of creative writing in the Area of Study.

Step 1: pick up a Belonging print text. This could be your core text, one of your related texts, a text from a Section I practice or a print stimulus from Section II.

Step 2: close your eyes and point to a word. Copy out the phrase in which the word appears, starting two or three words before and continuing two or three words after. You now have a phrase that is five to seven words in length.

Step 3: using this phrase as a starting point, write for five minutes. Don’t think, don’t plan, don’t worry about spelling, grammar, and punctuation, just write.

Step 4: read over what you have written. Then read it, word for word, backwards. Choose a phrase that, backwards, has one of the following characteristics:

  • it has energy;
  • it creates a strong image;
  • it has never been written before in English;

and underline it. The phrase needs to make some sort of sense. When I did this activity, the phrase I ended up with was, “better plan clock the like” – so I wrote a story about someone called Clock who needed a plan.

Step 5: write a short story that incorporates your phrase. It might be something a character says, or become a description of a place. Try to limit your writing to no more than 40 minutes.

Bonus creative writing tip: The Bronte sisters used to write sitting together in a small room. Each day became a competition to see who could write the most and who could write the best story. Try doing the above exercise with a study buddy and swapping phrases.

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The ETA has very helpfully put together a list of aspects of belonging. The list includes:

belonging through place

belonging through kinship

belonging through shared experience

belonging through shared culture

belonging through global networks

belonging through textual engagement

To this list my students added belonging through shared purpose, as this helped them to include many of their own experiences, including their experience of the HSC English classroom, to their resources for this study.

Remember to think outside the obvious as well. Belonging is also a word for a piece of property.

Please do not think that these are the only aspects of belonging you can refer to in your responses. They are a useful starting place but you must develop your own theses about belonging based on your own experience and texts. You can use these aspects in three main ways:

Section I: a common one mark question early in the first part of Paper One is “what aspect or type of belonging is represented or portrayed in this text? The ETA list can often supply you with an answer. For example, the poem “We Are Going” by Oodgeroo Noonuccal portrays belonging through place (more specifically, the connection between Indigenous Australians and country) and the loss of that belonging due to white settlement.

Section II: I mentioned in my last post that it is important for creative responses to have a thesis. The ETA list can help you to develop one. Which type of belonging does your character long to experience? Does he/she achieve it? How does the character feel about the outcome? For example, one of my students composed a lovely story about a gap year student feeling out of place in a remote African village but coming to terms with his isolation through a kinship ceremony, which made him feel connected to the tribe. His thesis was that one type of belonging could overcome a sense of not belonging.

Section III: when approaching your core and related texts, a good first question to ask is: which aspect of belonging (or not belonging) is portrayed here? For example, Emily Dickinson’s poetry often conveys the poet’s lack of shared experience and perspective with the people around her and her kinship with nature. Peter Skrzynecki’s poetry delves into the displacement felt by immigrants as well as their connection to their homeland and to those who have shared their experiences.

Remember when exploring ideas of belonging that NOT belonging is always implied as well. In a later post I will explore various forms of and words for not belonging to assist students in making their responses more fluent and elegant.

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Step Two: Write

The only way to get better at writing is to write. Preparatory writing for HSC English falls into four main categories: notes, personal responses, analytical responses, creative responses.

a. Notes. This includes annotations and notes on your texts (this should, ideally, be done during the second reading), summaries of chapters, poems, acts and brief records of class discussions and teacher talk. Notes can be in any form that works for you. Try lists, flow charts, mind maps, colour coding, illustrations etc.

b. Personal responses. Before you take detailed notes on the techniques in your texts or attempt an analytical response you need to clear up in your own mind what you think about the text. A personal responses is just that: personal. Try to compose personal responses in full sentences as I have often found some gems in my own personal responses which I have then been able to use in an analytical or creative response. If you’re having trouble getting started with a personal response consider the following prompts:

did you like the text? do you think you were the intended audience?

did anything in the text connect with your own life or experience?

were there any phrases or words that you found clever, funny, jarring…?

did you understand what the composer was trying to achieve?

c. Analytical responses. Practice questions abound and are easy to find online. Your teacher will no doubt also be plying you with questions to work on. If you do get stuck, google your module focus and quotes. eg. Belonging Quotes. The results can be used as inspiration for writing your own questions, theses and creative responses. They can also help you to clarify your own ideas about the focus of the module. Writing a practice analytical response doesn’t always mean sitting down and banging out a handwritten essay in a strictly timed forty minutes, although you should certainly do this as often as possible before the Trial HSC. Other useful exercises are:

write five thesis statements addressing five different questions in ten minutes.

write the introduction, making sure you attack the question explicitly, clearly state your thesis and introduce your texts in a meaningful way.

write a page in ten minutes.

write one body paragraph, attacking the question through one of your texts. Give yourself five to ten minutes to do this.

d. Creative responses. These don’t just have to be about Belonging. Composing a creative response for a module can help you to approach it from a different angle. For example, an exercise where you write a dialogue between Roy Batty from Blade Runner and Frankenstein’s Creature can help you to delve more deeply into the characters and develop empathy for them.

Some other ideas to try

put a quote about belonging (or history and memory, or conflicting perspectives) into the mouth of a character as a starting point.

recount an experience of your own that relates to one of the themes or scenes in your text.

use your shared knowledge of texts to engage the reader. eg. “No one would look at me, I felt just like Frankenstein’s creature.”

write a piece of fanfiction for one of your texts.

In the HSC your creative response needs a thesis so practice making a point in your creative writing. The best works make the reader think and reconsider their views.

When you have finished a piece of writing, creative or analytical, ask your teacher to look at it and give you some feedback, either written or during a short chat. If your teacher is swamped, ask a parent, older sibling or friend to read it. Then–now this is the hard part–take in the criticism and have another go. Your writing and your marks will love you for it.

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All three of my texts end with a relationship being firmly established. In P&P and B&P, this relationship is a marriage and this has been the goal, if not of the female leads then at least of their mothers, all along. Bridget ends up with her Darcy but, in the modern western tradition (begun, I think in Four Weddings and a Funeral), they are not married. In fact, they have not yet reached the committed stage of “moving in”. The values portrayed by this are clear: women need men, preferably men of high social status and great intelligence and it is up to the women to somehow catch these men regardless of the obvious initial indifference of both parties.

What if we changed the ending of on of the texts? The cultural pressure in both P&P and B&P towards marriage is perhaps too great to be disregarded but I think we can work with Bridget.

‘Come on,’ said Mark Darcy.

‘What?’ I said.

‘Don’t say “what”, Bridget, say “pardon”,’ hissed Mum.

‘Mrs Jones,’ said Mark firmly, ‘I am taking Bridget away to celebrate what is left of the Baby Jesus’s birthday.’

I took a big breath and grasped Mark Darcy’s proffered hand. Then I shook it firmly. ‘Thank you for all your help Mr Darcy but I’m afraid I have other plans.’ I smiled as both Mark and Mum gaped at me in astonishment.

Outside in the snow Jude, (no-longer-Vile) Richard, Shazza and Tom were waiting by the mini. ‘Come the fuck on,’ called Tom as I squeezed into the back of the tiny car.

Tuesday December 26

9st something, alcohol units lost count at twelve, cigarettes 0 (but one fat cigar), calories outnumbered by warm festive thoughts.

10am Woke in a hotel room in Paris. Little bit hungover but secure in the knowledge that Daniel, Mark, Julio and well-meaning but interfering parents are an ocean (well, a channel) away.

11am At itty bitty bistro on Left Bank with best friends. Have finally realised the secret to happiness, and it is with deep regret, rage and an overwhelming sense of defeat that I have to put it into the most cliche words in the English language: Be yourself and surround yourself with people who love you.

Next post: how does Bridget represent all five Bennet sisters?

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Storytelling is a socially acceptable form of lying in which the author (liar) and the reader collude in order to create a safe place for the story (or lie) to flourish. The reader, although aware of the tale’s fiction, willingly participates in its propagation, often retelling it to other willing marks. According to Virginia Woolf’s Orlando, this retelling is inevitable:

For once the disease of reading has laid upon the system, it weakens it so that it falls an easy prey to that other scourge which dwells in the inkpot and festers in the quill. The wretch takes to writing.

Although, in truth, stories are lies, they are also – through the fact of the conspiracy which exists between authors and readers – important cultural artefacts that reveal a deeper truth about the nature of culture and how it is constructed.

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