Monday, 3 May 2010

Six things I learnt from Sophie King

Last Tuesday two writing friends and I tootled off to Stratford-upon-Avon's annual Literary Festival. Back in the dark days of February we'd booked our tickets for one of the Festival's events: "Writing workshop with Sophie King. How to use your memories to write fiction and non-fiction." At last the date had come around and I was so glad of the opportunity to see what I could learn from such a well published writer.

Sophie King is the author of five novels including The Supper Club and The Wedding Party, plus many short stories. Under her real name of Jane Bidder she has also had a very successful career in journalism and published several non-fiction books.

There were nine of us in the workshop and during the day we covered lots of ground with writing exercises and discussions. Now I've had time to reflect on it and sort out my pages of scrawled notes, here are six things I found particularly relevant to my own writing.

Treasure your memory. Without realizing it, we store away a huge fund of experiences, sensations and details. Tapping into our memories can enrich our writing and help us convey emotion. Asked to recall my first memory, I spoke about having a butterfly land on my foot when I was about three years old. I was so afraid of that butterfly that I screamed and screamed, as if it was the scariest thing to have happened in my young life. Perhaps it was the scariest thing. It certainly made a big impression. But now, as an adult, when I am writing about fear this is the kind of memory I can draw on to help me describe how fear actually feels. I could also use the butterfly incident to make a small scene in a novel, for instance if I wanted to change the mood of a happy, family afternoon into something darker.

Use the senses. We experience life through all five of our senses, but it's easy to concentrate on the visual and neglect the others. Our memories can provide details which bring a scene alive. To use my butterfly incident as an example again, I remember that my shoes were red, the butterfly was white, it was a warm summer's day in our garden at home. If I was using that memory in a piece of fiction I could really build up what it was like to be in that familiar, safe environment with the sounds and scents of the garden around me. Then when danger strikes (an innocent butterfly!) it would be even more of a shock by contrast.

Find the right trigger. Remembering our life's events is often a chain reaction. One memory sparks off another, and during the workshop I found myself thinking about incidents that I hadn't given a thought to in thirty years. Some triggers we discussed included Christmas, old films and music, the first time we did something new, or where we were when a big news story broke. Re-examining some of these memories may inspire a terrific idea, just waiting to be used. Photographs, letters and postcards can be great triggers for our memories too. Now I feel better about the bottom half of my filing cabinet being stuffed with memorabilia. I should put it into some sort of order, though. There are probably dozens of story ideas in there.

Write everything down. You can't always bring the right sort of memory to mind when you need it. And during the workshop, when I was asked to recall a funny event, I had something of a Hamlet moment. It's not as though my life's been empty of funny stories, but when put on the spot I just couldn't think of one. Of course when I got home I could have kicked myself. Why didn't I talk about such and such, and how could I forget about XYZ. It was like one of those occasions when you think of the perfect witty reply to someone's sarcastic comment, hours after it's too late to say it. We touched on how people can write their life stories, maybe organising events chronologically or in a 'Desert Island Discs' type format. But what I've thought since then is that I will try writing down my memories under themes, such as funny, sad, frightening, romantic. I think it would be a useful reference tool for my future writing.

There's more than one way to skin a sausage. Whenever I have an idea, I tend to ask myself how I can make it into a short story. But the workshop really showed me how the same memory can be used in several ways. Develop it one way and it may be a scene from a novel. Developed in another way, it could provide the theme for an article or even a non-fiction book. So how could my butterfly incident be non-fiction? Well, it would probably have taken me a week with an A4 pad of paper to see it, but Sophie King quickly spotted that it could be used to illustrate where phobias come from. One of the big advantages of having such an experienced writer leading the workshop was that she could give us many examples from her own fiction and non-fiction as to how to make best use of ideas. I think I could be much better at seeing alternative uses for my own ideas, particularly in non-fiction which I have not pursued much until now. We can all get into a comfort zone with our writing, as in any other area of life, but I do think it's good for us to try different things.

Write every day. I know we are told this all the time, but I also know how hard it can be. I often take a break from my writing when I am in between projects. But since I've been working on the novel again, I find it difficult to keep track of the threads of the story if I let a couple of days go by without looking at it. Even a quarter of an hour a day would help. It's not so much about what I can add to the word count in that time, but more to do with keeping the story simmering away in my mind. The workshop definitely reinforced that I must use bits of spare time constructively, rather than telling myself it's not worth starting if I only have fifteen minutes.

So, as you can see, I had a very thought provoking day in Stratford. I enjoyed it a lot, and everyone in the group was so generous in sharing their memories and ideas. It really fired up my motivation and I came away keen to put everything I'd learnt from the day into practice.

For more information about Sophie King and her work, please see her website.


Old Kitty said...


Wow. Thank you for these pointers. I especially like this headline "there's more than one way to skin a sausage"! :-)

They are all really good to remember too. I like how you use the butterfly incident to illustrate these and I'm trying to think of one too for myself that I could use to illustrate all these pointers.

And non-fiction writing for me is harder than it looks. I just finished this section of my writing course and it was quite difficult to keep a 2000 word piece of non-fiction interesting and lively. I'm still waiting for my tutor's report on it but I really don't have high hopes!

I'm off to check the wonderful Sophie King's website now.

p.s glad you had a great workshop and what a place to have it in!

Take care

HelenMHunt said...

That sounds really interesting. Glad you got so much out of it.

penandpaints said...

Hi Joanne

I'm glad you enjoyed the workshop and thanks for sharing the experience.
I am terrible at thinking on the spot, I'll have creative answers some time later, my excuse is 'I write, I don't talk!'

Joanna said...

This sounds like a really constructive day and thank you, Joanne, for sharing it with us. It brings home the importance of recalling tiny snippets of our lives and then letting them take shape in different ways. It just shows how a small memory can be enlarged like a favourite photograph. I used to think it was a drawback for me that I was enthusiastic about delving into the past all the time. I've never made many plans for the future and tend to dwell on 'old times' rather a lot. When I was little, my favourite pastime was asking my mother about how she lived when she was small. Now that I write, I can see how useful it is to draw an memories. But I need to make them more elastic, so that I can create different sorts of stories with them.

Joanne Fox said...

Thank you all for your comments. Yes Helen it was a very interesting day and I am really feeling the benefit of it now I have a few free days to concentrate on writing up some of those ideas from the workshop.

Old Kitty, I hope your tutor's report is helpful and maybe it will be better than you expect.

Pen and Paints - I think your excuse (about writing, not talking) is brilliant!

Joanna, I really love your idea about enlarging memories like photographs so we can look at them in more detail. Also being more 'elastic' in your use of memories - that's a good way to put it. I need to be more elastic myself.

bazza said...

Hi Joanne. This is a very useful post. Perhaps you could write a book on this subject!
I read a book by John Braine (author of Room At The Top) about writing novels. His top tip? Write what you know.

Joanne Fox said...

Thank you Bazza! I must look out for that book by John Braine.

Suzanne Jones said...

Some very good advice here. Thank you so much for sharing.


Laraine Eddington said...

You summarized your instruction well. I appreciate the helpful ideas.

Joanne Fox said...

Laraine I am so glad you visited. I enjoyed looking at your blog the other day but afterwards I couldn't remember how I'd come across it!