The Unfamiliar Window – a prompt for practice

Since I’m feeling bouncy and full of energy today, despite a spring cold, I decided I’d post another exercise you can use to create your own practice. It’s the sudden sunshine after two weeks of constant rain, I think. The upsurge in vitamin D is obviously making me think anything is possible, including some energetic writing practice.

This one is another observation exercise, to jog us out of our ordinary ways of seeing. I realised how much we automatically filter out when I started taking walks with my son – he sees everything. His brain hasn’t yet started to ignore things he has seen before, things that are commonplace, and therefore he is overloaded with information and excitement just walking down the road. Sometimes it’s not so interesting (how many motorbikes I can find interesting in no way correlates to the number my son finds interesting), but sometimes he points out a flower I wouldn’t have noticed, or a heron stock still on the island in the park, or the dragon nests in the clouds. Invigorating.

Ado? No more:

Exercise: The Unfamiliar Window

  •  Describe the view in detail.

You can do this with a truly unfamiliar window, or one that is familiar, that you think you know inside out. The trick is to look with fresh eyes, and note every significant detail you can: the toys in a back garden, a window left open, people at the bus stop, the leaves (or otherwise) on the trees. Paint a true picture of what you see. Try and keep judgements out of the prose. 300 words.

As for the windows themselves, you can sit in front of them, take a photo, do a quick sketch, or  take some quick notes (this will end up being more of a remembered/imagined version but still useful).

Extension exercise: focus on one detail and expand its story. Now is the time to bring judgements into the prose. 300 words.

What Happened to your New Year Resolutions?

Somehow it’s almost March. Where, what, how etc etc… They were right, time does fly when you’re older.

And it’s about this time of year that you glance up and realise you’ve forgotten what you intended to change from last year to this.

I’m not necessarily talking about writing, although in a roundabout way it is about writing. Everything is, one way or another. But whatever it was you meant to do and haven’t, don’t throw yourself down a well of despair.

All you need to do is dust off the intentions and resolutions you forgot about and seeing if there’s new life in them. It’s easy for me. I just have to have a look at some old blog posts and see if I managed to fulfil any of the rash promises I might have made.

Remember that intention I had to get a new habit of daily writing for at least 66 days? No, I didn’t either, until a comment on the writer’s playground* made me think of it again.

Perhaps it’s because I hadn’t made it visible to myself. It’s ok for practices to languish in the computer until I want to read them again, because they don’t need the light of day to make them breathe. That happens when I read them. But if I want to keep that commitment to daily writing, then it helps to have something staring me in the face.

Something I can’t ignore or forget about.

Like a calendar on the wall.

The wall I see from my bed, perhaps. I get into and out of bed every day after all. I can’t ignore that wall.

And that’s what I’ve done. Trying again has a lot going for it.

So the motto of the post would be? Oh we don’t need mottos. We’re fallible. Just fail better next time, as Samuel Beckett would say.

*Members only, I’m afraid. But you could join, you know. We’re all very nice.

Creating your own practice

A common worry with practice is that it involves too many prompts and nudges from outside, and is therefore not legitimate Writing (see that capital W? Makes all the difference).

Firstly, it’s all legitimate. No one else is doing the writing, the idea generating, the sentence  construction. It’s all you.

Secondly, you can learn a lot from being pushed by something external to your own mind.

But, thirdly, if you generate your own ideas for practice you’ll quickly understand what interests you and where your preoccupations lie as a writer. It’s a shortcut to your unconscious.

So how do you go about it?

Well, the tutor who gave me the title for this blogsimply noted down things that interested her in a little notebook she carried around. Her practice was so advanced that she only needed a sentence or two to recreate a whole story about the trials of trying on clothes in a Marks & Spencer (a clothing store, for you non UK folk).

Image credit: Gary Hayes

But it could be anything – a building you like the look of. A person with luggage of unusual size. A row between serving staff in a restaurant. Anything that sets your writerly brain off with a train of questions – where is she going with that enormous case? To dispose of a body? Perhaps she’s stolen a grandmother clock that had been willed away from her by a vicious relative and she doesn’t have a car so she has to drag it across town, dismantled and crammed into a huge case which will obviously damage the clock beyond repair? But why does the clock mean so much to her?

Image Credit: cwgoodroe

You see, the best writing is simply paying really close attention and putting down into words what we all see, hear and feel, but let wash past us most of the time. This applies no matter what kind of writing you’re doing.

(Did you notice the bird? I didn’t at first.)

If you are always looking for things to note down for your practice, then you are always open to ideas, and you are always paying attention.

After you’ve started writing you might find that the mundane questions get replaced with something far more interesting. Or they might not. It doesn’t matter either way – you’ve paid attention. You’ve tried out the idea. Sometimes they have legs and sometimes they don’t.

Buy yourself a tiny notebook, or make notes on your electronic device of choice, and try this exercise next time you’re out:

Come Back with a Face

This is one of my own, and one I do most frequently. My preoccupation is people, obviously.

While you are out, make brief notes about the appearance of someone you find interesting.

For your practice, invent the life behind the face. This can be quite surprising, and lead you  a long way from where you started. Just remember not to tie the face to the place you see it, or you’ll be in too tight a corner.

(Indoor variation: search Flickr for ‘interesting face’.)

Image Credit: JakeBrewer

Happy Practicing!

5 things about Jackson Brodie

Of all the stories of writers who make it, my favourite is about Kate Atkinson. You know, how she wrote about the museum, and some cracking short stories and then turned all the expectation about the writing career she was going to have on its head by turning to crime fiction and inventing a detective.

As it happens Jackson Brodie was an afterthought, created to tie together the lives of some characters she was already exploring. This in itself is a brilliant example of how creativity springs from actually doing things, rather than waiting for ideas to arrive before you begin. So Kate moved easily from literary fiction into genre fiction (actually I’m not sure you’d be allowed to do it the other way around – the other name I can think of is Iain (M) Banks, but the Wasp Factory came first so it’s the same deal) and it’s been so successful the BBC had to get their hands on it.

I suspect there’s been some handwringing around the country as ladies bemoan the choice of Jason Isaacs, of the ‘oh he’s not my Jackson Brodie’ kind, but I wasn’t one of them. There’ll have been some more handwringing about favourite bits of the books being left out and wotnot too, but I don’t really do that either. Books, tv, and movies are different beasts. They have different conventions, and comparisons are unfair. The fullest and best Jackson Brodie experience is found in the books (obviously), so if you’re going to moan, just read the books again and forget about the telly. If you want. Personally I’m not forgetting Mr Isaacs at all.

But what is it that makes Jackson such a compelling character? Here are five things that helped make us passionate about Mr Brodie:

  1. He has a perfect name. Last name as a first name. Just the right number of syllables. The kind of name you can imagine screaming in frustration or lust. And no, you’d never shorten it to Jack. It’s familiar, but slightly unusual. It says he’s not scary weird, but he is not your normal bloke down the pub either. It’s the kind of name that makes you do a wee double-take, but not the kind of double take that Zebediah Pinkerton would make you do. It’s a succinct lesson in naming your characters – we make assumptions about names, and as a writer you might a well use that to your advantage.
  2. The tortured past that has screwed him up. The sister who drowned. It’s the humanising element of a man who is otherwise ex-military, ex-copper. No one feels particularly passionate about either of those, let’s be honest. But the idea that something so awful drove him to be both soldier and copper in an effort to fix it, and that neither of those things were the answer, makes him vulnerable, and therefore touchable. Without it he’s just a meathead.
  3. He has passion himself. Not just the loved up kind (tho you suspect that would be amazing) but the kind of passion that makes him stick with his clients, even if they’re not paying. It’s in the way he picks up the waifs and strays, and nurtures them, looks after them. The way he loves his daughter. The way he couldn’t stop being passionate about his work (and his past I expect) to the detriment of his marriage. He might not express it openly (and Kate is great at keeping a bit of mystery around him) but you know he cares. Can’t help himself. Who wouldn’t want to be on the receiving end of that?
  4. He’s got presence. Part of this is his physical body. He gets knocked about a bit, but he can handle himself, even if he doesn’t always come out on top. He’s not afraid of the teenagers on the corner, the lowlifes in the pub, the rude shop assistants – the idiots who infect our modern lives. He might be afraid of the fight but he wouldn’t walk away from it. Because Jackson is always going to fight for what is morally right (even if it falls outside the law). This is unnerving, unusual, and compelling. He makes the choices and fights the fights we wish we could. And he does it every time it’s asked of him.
  5. Lastly, and most importantly of all, Kate Atkinson thinks he’s great. She loves him. He is frustrating, and brilliant, and all of those things I’ve just mentioned, and she clearly enjoys writing every aspect of him. He’s capable, laconic, repressed, dogged. Real. And how much fun to write such a many-faceted person? If we are so passionate about him it’s because he’s written with passion, and with joy. If we’re going to learn anything from Jackson Brodie as writers, it’s that we have to love our main characters to write them well.

Think of those characters that stay with you, the ones you’re convinced you could bump into if only you turned the right corner. My guess is that those characters are the ones loved the most by their creators, flaws and all. If you as the writer cannot love your creation, then how will anyone else? More importantly, how will you stay engaged with the writing over the course of thousands of words?

Case Histories (paperback)
Case Histories – Series 1