Hooked on good fiction writing

7th October 2005 at 01:00
Top authors have been inspiring young writers with expert tips in a week of practical workshops, reports Miranda Fettes.

What do you see? What do you hear? What do you smell? What do you feel?" asks novelist and short story writer Bernard MacLaverty. "I want you to use four senses: touch, smell, sight, sound."

The S4 English class at Douglas Ewart High can see the white-haired author of Grace Notes, Cal and Lamb, at the front of the room, peering over his spectacles and gesticulating with passion, doling out his tips of the trade in a thick Belfast accent, as a bell rings in the corridor. But he wants the pupils to dig into their imaginations to produce a few lines of fiction rather than a description of the scene before them.

MacLaverty is one of 10 authors - two each day for a week - giving writing workshops at the school in Newton Stewart, Dumfries and Galloway, in association with the Wigtown Book Festival seven miles away. Each workshop lasts an hour and 50 minutes.

The room goes silent except for the sound of pens scribbling on paper and the gentle tapping of rain on the window panes.

MacLaverty tours the room, reading the pupils' creations. "This is the way you build up a picture, from your senses," he tells the class. "You are showing something and not telling it."

One of the pupils asks where he gets his inspiration. "If there was an inspiration shop that you could go to, it would be great, but it doesn't work like that," he smiles. "Inspiration is reaching out and grabbing anything that flits past."

A former English teacher, MacLaverty, 63, says he was once discussing the definition of fiction with a class. "One girl said: 'Sir, it's made up truth' and I think that's brilliant," he says.

Pupil James Wallace responded well to MacLaverty's words of wisdom. "It helped me a lot because I enjoy writing stories, so it gave me some tips, like the difference between showing and telling," he says. "I hadn't thought of that before."

English teacher Gillian Barclay, who was instrumental in setting up the author workshops together with Liz Niven of Create, the creative education arts team at Dumfries and Galloway Council's education department, is pleased with the pupils' response.

"It's fantastic for them to get an opportunity to meet an author, particularly when they've read two of his short stories," she says. "He gave them a simple task and they all managed to write something instantly.

It's tremendous letting them see that anybody can write and a child just needs the right stimulus."

Along the corridor, Alan Bissett is entertaining an S5 class. "The only thing I was ever any good at was English," he tells the Higher English pupils. "I'm useless at everything else."

He talks about structure. "It's not very sexy, but it's kind of important."

Bissett, author of Boy Racer and The Incredible Adam Spark and a tutor on Glasgow University's creative writing MPhil course, tells the class about the importance of a hook.

"Get a hook and stick it right in the reader's cheek and reel them in.

There needs to be something that makes us want to read on. You've got to seduce the reader. Give the reader just enough to get them hooked. You don't want to take all your clothes off in the first paragraph."

Bissett, who is 29, gets lots of laughs from his audience, not least from the teacher, Anne Rowe. Apart from the delivery, which is more stand-up comic than teacher, there are similarities between his and MacLaverty's guidance.

"If your story's set in the Victorian era, how are you going to tell us without telling us that it's set in the Victorian era?" he asks.

"If Deborah in the chip shop has given away her baby, how are you going to let us know?

"You can let us know all sorts of stuff without telling us and that's much more interesting."

Both authors emphasise the importance of repeated redrafting. "I had to write 150,000 words to get a book of 60,000," says Bissett. "It's discipline. You just have to cut and cut and cut.

"It's like mining. You've got to get through all this sludge and rock until you get what you're looking for."

MacLaverty, meanwhile, tells his S4 class: "You have to rewrite and rewrite and rewrite and keep cutting until you end up with just what is necessary."

Bissett emphasises the importance of some kind of conflict or drama to hold the interest of the reader. Ultimately, he says, a story needs a resolution, which usually involves some kind of moral choice for the central character. "Does the character do the right thing or the wrong thing?" he asks. "Are they damned or redeemed?

"Almost all stories follow this structure but you don't notice it. You can, of course, change all these rules but you have to learn them first."

Ms Rowe found the workshop "terrific" and plans to study one of Bissett's novels with the class.

"To get people writing is such an important skill," she says. "It's reaffirmed that I'm teaching along the right lines. They want to be entertained."

MacLaverty and Bissett's workshops both comprised a reading, writing exercise, talk and questions. Other authors giving prose and poetry workshops during the writers' week at Douglas Ewart High included Janet Paisley, Cathy Cassidy, Hamish MacDonald and performance poet Kokumo Rocks, catering for all levels, from S1 to S6.

"It's to give the kids an appreciation of the written word and it makes it more exciting for the kids to have a personality there," says John Robertson, the project manager of Wigtown Book Town Company.

"The idea is that it should lead them into more creativity. It's engaging with them so that a book festival is not just seen as something for old folks."

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