I went to two fabulous workshops through Writers Victoria with Danielle Wood last weekend. Danielle is a Tasmanian writer – she has written a couple of collections of short stories for adults – Mothers Grimm and Rosie Little’s cautionary tales for girls – as well as an adult novel, The alphabet of light and dark and a biography, Housewife superstar, the very best of Marjorie Bligh. She has also written a trilogy for children with Heather Rose, under the pen name Angelica Banks. Finding Serendipity and A week without Tuesday are the first two books in this series for 8-12 year-olds – the third book is coming out next year.
Friday’s workshop in the Wheeler’s Centre in Little Lonsdale Street was called the Goldilocks Zone – trying to achieve the fine balance between showing and telling. Like many writers, I have heard numerous times the advice to show, not tell. As Anton Chekov said, ‘Don’t tell me the moon is shining; show me the glint of light on broken glass.’
BUT, Danielle taught us that there is a wide spectrum for showing (image-based, indirect writing) and telling (factual, direct writing) and neither one is good nor bad. It is the balance between the two, even if you err on one side or the other.
I am definitely a teller – I overwrite and in subsequent drafts, often delete that second sentence, because it says exactly what the first sentence did, just in a slightly different way. For me, it’s like trying out a few different ways to express the same thing and I need to do it in the first draft so I don’t forget it.
Danielle gave us a few writing exercises to focus separately on telling or showing, using one of our own short stories. Telling a story usually means a flat, boring sort of work while showing can leave the reader with no framework, no understanding of what the characters are actually doing. The last exercise focused on blending all the exercises together, using the best of telling and showing techniques. I was so happy with the piece I wrote around my Alice in Wonderland short story – definitely more telling but with considered, specific images to show the reader the scene. It seemed like a magic formula to me – I can still be a teller but with more evocative imagery! I also started to write a new short story – a good beginning to something worth working on. And I came up with a killer dark sentence for the beginning of another short story … no doubt I’ll be writing this one during the school holidays at the skate park …
For Sunday’s workshop, I drove down to the Mornington Pensinsula for a workshop on fairy tales. I am working on a collection of short stories for adults, loosely using motifs and symbols and stories from fairy tales as a starting point. I love the imagery of dark woods, three attempt quests, spinning wheels, straw and gold, red capes … the list goes on and on, and the ways to incorporate it into modern fiction is endless too.
I have written a short story based on Rumplestiltskin, and used that fairy tale for the writing exercises in Danielle’s class. Danielle taught us how to use our memories to write an emotional piece of work, create a mindmap to generate ideas for writing and use the architecture of fairy tales to create a structure for our writing. The strong imagery for me from Rumplestiltskin is the chaos of the straw surrounding the miller’s daughter, the impossibility of her task, and the order of the gold, spun neatly onto bobbins in the morning. My first Rumplestiltskin story was based on the idea of names but I’m planning to write at least another one now, using the idea of impossible tasks and turning chaos to order. There’s also the big theme of anxiety, of the miller’s daughter not being able to please the king … again, something to be explored these holidays while supervising kids at a park!
At the end of the class, Danielle asked us to fill in a survey about what we had written that day. She then gave each of us a personal assignment, based on the answers from our survey. I have been to many writing classes and I have never seen a presenter give individual assignments. It felt like a gift.
And then Danielle signed books for Miss 9 and me, as well as for a friend.
I drove home with fairy tale imagery floating through my head, to my own small castle with tired, happy children and a prince who had cooked roast lamb! Wonderful literary weekend!