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.