Snowstorm – Ken Duncum

Ken Duncum
I do this at the first class of every year. It’s a good ice-breaker in itself, and leads to homework which is then the first writing read in class.
I cut up lots of strips of paper – and label three boxes CHARACTERS, LOCATIONS, CONVERSATIONS.
I then dump 200 strips of paper on the table and tell my (10) class members to write an invented character on each strip and put it in the CHARACTER box while saying it out loud.
Characters are briefly named rather than described at length – e.g. lovestruck teenager, seasick pirate, the last woman in the world . . .
When 200 characters have been invented, declaimed aloud and stowed in their box, I dump another 100 strips on the table and we set about inventing locations in the same way – heaven, a treehouse, a sleazy bar . . .
When that’s done, it’s on to ‘things a conversation could be about’. These might be subjects like ‘the existence of God’ or ‘the price of fish’, or could be snippets of lines such as ‘Why don’t you love me?’ or ‘That’s the stupidest haircut I’ve ever seen’ (though that last one probably wouldn’t fit on a strip).
Once that’s done, I give the contents of each box a stir, then each writer has to pick (without looking) two characters out of the CHARACTER box, a location from the LOCATION box and a conversation topic out of the CONVERSATION box.
They read out what they’ve got – e.g. a lovestruck teenager and the last woman in the world in a treehouse talking about that’s the stupidest haircut I’ve ever seen.

Homework is then to write that scene as a script – could be film or theatre – of about three minutes’ duration (no longer) and bring copies for everyone to the next week’s class.
The following week we read them out loud in class.
It’s a good way to start that process because it’s an arbitrary (and kind of silly) exercise, rather than a piece of writing dear to the writer’s heart. Very often the inventiveness of how the writer tackles their task is truly admirable – and sometimes writers have gone on to develop their short homework script into something ‘real’.


Extract from The Exercise Book from VUP.

Ken Duncum is The Michael Hirschfeld Director of Scriptwriting at the IIML. Ken will be at the next Writers on Mondays with the Masters scriptwriting students at Circa Theatre, September 24th 12.15pm, introducing the latest crop of emerging talent. Full WOM programme details here.


True Stories as told by Damien Wilkins

Damien Wilkins, photo by Greta Wilkins

I use this exercise in the first few weeks of the MA workshop. By this time we might have done a few exercises which centre around autobiographical writing. This one frees us from the burden of confession and asks us to enter and create other lives. Newspaper photographs, which are often stagey and awkward, can be great prompts for story. Once you have a face and a few facts, it’s addictive to start reading and writing against the grain. Lawrence Patchett’s wonderful stories about 19th Century NZ are a form of this kind of approach – alternate histories made from real sources.

The other reason I like using the exercise is to remind people about the great Mavis Gallant. Her Collected Stories is almost 900 pages and essential. ‘The Moslem Wife’ is a favourite but once you have that one in your system, there’s nothing to do but push on.

True Stories
‘A journalism student in Germany once told me she was bothered by the fact that the most plain and simple and ordinary news stories could conceal an important falsehood. She gave me an example, say, a couple celebrating their seventieth wedding anniversary. They will sit holding hands for the photographer and they’ve had their ups and downs over the years, but the marriage has been a happy one. The reporter can only repeat what they say. But what if the truth is that they positively hate each other? In that case the whole interview is a lie. I told her that if she wanted to publish the lie perceived behind the interview, she had to write fiction.’
– Mavis Gallant, Paris Review, Winter 1999
Choose a photograph from the newspaper and write a piece of fiction that imagines the lie behind the official truth.

Extract from The Exercise Book from VUP.

In 2013 Damien became the Director of the IIML, having taught in the Masters programme since 2004. He’s the author of numerous books, including six novels. His latest novel Max Gate is published this October.

Performance Tips

Bill Manhire

There are many tricks that I have used repeatedly throughout my career to date, and others that I have done only really as one-offs. I am happy in a show to perform effects from either category, in fact I like to mix them up a little. Generally I prefer to use the term ‘effects’ in preference to a word like ‘tricks’, but in the following I will use them interchangeably. A lot of what I say will also apply to most psychic routines and how we lead our lives in general.

•    Let me start with this which will seem odd advice, but it comes from many years on the road and I will offer it anyway: Never let sailors tie knots. Think about that statement and you will soon see that I am right.

•    It is good to make up a programme which has opening, closing, and intermediate effects. Variety is generally a good thing, and order and selection can always be varied for different occasions and conditions. Five well-executed tricks may be better than 25 ordinary ones and could well stay in the audience’s mind a lot longer.

•    Sometimes people will come up after a show or a single trick and say, ‘How did you do it?’ It is no help either to you or them to tell them – they will be disappointed while you will just lose their respect and perhaps an opportunity of future work. In such circumstances it is best to say something like, ‘Can you keep a secret?’ and if they say yes, reply, ‘So can I!’

•    If a trick fails. If a trick fails, just say, ‘The real magician will be here shortly.’ This usually produces a laugh, and a degree of goodwill which can actually be quite helpful to the rest of your performance.

•    Levitation without apparatus. You cannot go past the Balducci Levitation which if you hunt around you can just get off the net.

•    Misdirection is the only way forward. (This is a thought you can revisit many times.)

•    Of course a whole book could be written about misdirection. Another way of making this point is to say that sleight-of-hand is important but is not the be-all and end-all. Work on your patter.

•    You may sometimes find yourself performing in strange venues, such as bare, draughty halls. I once found myself performing at a Lotto outlet, another time at an RSA. You may also have to eat unusual meals with members of community fundraising committees.

•    A sense of vocation. Of course you will make very little money compared to dentists and others. But that is a choice you must make. You do this work because you love it.

•    Even so, I am still sometimes asked: Why do it? Well, if you are lucky, you are creating memories. These are precious. You will be remembered for the overall magic you have brought into people’s lives. Magic is the poetry of the stage. Be on your guard, however, as there can also be a lot of alcohol and drug addiction in this business.

•    After a while, some magicians start to ‘walk through’ their performances, so you must find ways of maintaining your enthusiasm for what you do. Remember, there may be a young boy out there in the audience who himself aspires to be a magician. That boy could have been you once or me.

•    Volunteers. If you get a volunteer up on stage, start by saying, ‘What’s your name, sir?’ If they answer, for example, ‘Bob,’ you then say, ‘Sorry?’ They will say, ‘Bob,’ again, at which point you say, ‘No I heard you, I’m just sorry.’

•    ‘Horses for courses’. What works well in a place like Christchurch will not necessarily go down in Masterton. That said, The Severed Head of Patrick D. Evans is a popular effect which needs little preparation and has made money for me in recent years.

•    Sometimes magicians divide along a line as to whether they belong to the apparatus school or the non-apparatus school. I myself am happy with both. I am not an innovator, I will take my tricks from anywhere. Nevertheless I have always put in the hard yards beforehand.

•    Once I was approached after a show by a beautiful woman who said she wanted to learn my secrets. We talked excitedly all through the night and spent many subsequent weeks and months together. In my heart I dedicate each new show to her. When I am developing new tricks, I often wonder, would she be fooled by this one.

•    Television. Magic on television is not magic. There is no substitute for a live performance of Satan’s Scissors or The Floating Arab. Mostly I prefer the conversational style of presentation, but a more dramatic routine is not without its advantages.

•    Magical ‘teams’. These are a contradiction in terms. A magician works alone, or with an assistant.

•    Likewise feminist magicians. I once sat through a whole show by Fat Girls Walking Slowly and, if I can deal with the subject by putting it this way, I have to admit I was distinctly unimpressed. My note on ‘magical teams’ above is also relevant here.

•    It is important to be neatly dressed, but it is not a good idea to overdo it, especially if you are working with children. For a few years I tried wearing raven’s wings but they were not a great success and I would not recommend them.

•    Of course you need a good name. Blitz the Magician was a good one, likewise Houdini and The Great Benyon. Dave the Wizard I would rule out, but something like Alakazam would be fine. That said, David Blaine could hardly be more famous, so it is hard to give the best advice in this area.

•    While I am on this subject here is a timely quote from David Blaine for all aspiring magicians. ‘Don’t let anybody tell you what to do. When you are doing something you love, it’s easier to succeed at it than doing something you don’t.’

•    This will sound old-fashioned, but a wand is very useful and most audience members expect one.

•    Remember, a good magician is always more than a mere publicity hound. Constant practice and hard work and personal sacrifice are necessary. Sometimes, though, everything will just come together without you even thinking about it and then there is nothing like it. It is truly magical.

•    Finally remember there is always a next level. Getting to the next level inevitably involves more hard work but I think you can do it. In fact, I will be there, in my white cape, waiting for you.


This extract, written by Bill Manhire, is from from The Exercise Book, available in all good book stores or online from VUP.
Bill will be appearing next week, September 3rd, at Writers On Mondays in the event Songs of My Life. The publication of his career-view Selected Poems is the perfect opportunity to profile this major figure in our literature. In his retirement year from Victoria University, it might also be time to lay to rest rumours of warm slippers and the fireside chair. The five-time winner of the New Zealand Book Award for Poetry will read and discuss his work with Damien Wilkins.  Full WOM programme details here.

Famous People, with Lawrence Patchett.

Lawrence PatchettWhen I opened The Exercise Book I went straight to Gavin McGibbon’s ‘Famous Person’ exercise. There were two reasons for this: firstly, Gavin’s thinking on story has had a strong influence on my work, not so much through direct advice but more through the atmosphere of story nous that seems to surround scriptwriters from the IIML. Secondly, I was attracted to the title of this exercise because many of my stories touch on—trade on, mess with and manipulate—famous people and famous lives.

The exercise involves taking a famous person and having them fall into or opt for a very different way of life—Albert Einstein becomes a boxer, John Key joins a gang. Without forcing some easy transition, the writer has to tell the story of this ‘gigantic change’, in such a way that it seems convincing and natural, and we believe it every step of the way.

The final step is to scratch out the name of the famous person and substitute another, made-up name, this new person becoming the protagonist of your story, script, or novel.

This appeals to me because it forces the character to go on a journey that takes them far, far away from their existing sense of themselves. As they leave their comfort zone, the character is forced to ask themselves: Who am I? How do I become my opposite?

This is a recipe for BIG story ideas, because it’s forcing the deepest kind of character analysis and character change. It’s asking the character to leave the place where they know everything, and step into the borderland where they know nothing. You can’t help but generate big stories out of that journey.

And perhaps I’m attracted to the test that is posed in this exercise because it’s analogous to a test that I often ask of the famous people who populate my stories: What is this character’s worst nightmare? What happens when he or she is forced to confront it?

I find that when my stories don’t have a clear vision of this nightmare, and the character’s journey towards it, the character and their motivations remain foggy, the central conflicts never arrive, and the story quickly dies on the page. In this graveyard lie many good ideas for stories about famous people (well, I thought they were good at the time): Billy Corgan wakes up in an Ashburton apple-orchard; Norm Kirk is kidnapped by students.

These seemed to be cute ideas for stories, but never got beyond that territory of idea to becoming a testing problem for characters. It would not be a nightmare for Norm Kirk to be kidnapped by students (they probably all voted for him in the first place!), and Billy Corgan’s ‘poetic’ ego would probably cope quite well with semi-rural solitude, using the time to write yet more anguished lyrics about the toe-staring grunge-rock lifestyle. These characters have not been forced to go through Gavin’s ‘gigantic change’, so we remain trapped in our existing understanding about them. Norm Kirk is friendly with young folk from the left—who knew?! Billy Corgan (creatively) mopes a lot? Ditto. No new and previously unknown aspect of the famous person’s character is brought into the light. There is no cataclysmic change, no nightmare, and no story.

Conversely, when characters can articulate that nightmare and come face to face with it, they can begin to deal with it, and by the time they have finished doing that, they’ve often changed considerably, or perceived a need to change. Not quite into their opposite, perhaps, but at least into someone who can glimpse that other—opposite—version of themselves.

Lawrence Patchett’s first story collection, I Got his Blood on Me: Frontier Tales is published by VUP and will be launched by Laurence Fearnley at Unity Books, Wellington on Thursday 7 June, 6pm.

Radical Revision by Helen Heath

Helen HeathIn 2005 Nick Twemlow and Robyn Schiff led a one-day poetry workshop at the IIML. The workshop explored the possibilities of the revision process. I was lucky to be one of the eight workshop participants. One of the things we explored was how some poems start life in free verse but can express themselves better in a form. I brought along a fragment which wasn’t anything much and I didn’t really know what to do with it. The fragment was:
0 = Empty
1 = Mother
2 = Love
3 = Child
4 = Magic

What, we discussed in class, is this trying to do? How can numbers be assigned words? How do we find meaning from this? This funny little scrap was trying to work things out; perhaps it was really an equation? And so with the idea of an equation as form I went on to create the final poem.

I guess from this I learned that form expresses content but also that form does not need to be a traditional poetic form. Also to have the courage to take an idea and follow its internal logic, blow it out to its furthest extent, its biggest possibility.

Another version of Radical Revision can be found in The Exercise Book, available in all good book stores or online from VUP.

Helen Heath’s first collection of poetry – Graft – was published this month by VUP. She is currently working toward her PhD Creative Writing at the IIML. Her research project explores how science is represented in poetry. She is using this research to write poems about the intersect between people and technology. Helen won the inaugural ScienceTeller Poetry Award in 2011 for her poem ‘Making Tea in the Universe’.

Repetition by Lynn Davidson

Poets weren’t always writers. Like musicians, they were originally performers as well who created invisible worlds out of sound.
– Dana Gioia

When something is repeated in a poem, the repetition opens possibilities for meaning. It could be that we want an idea or feeling to escalate in importance. It could be we want to create a sense of incantation or chant. Repetition creates a certain rhythm in a poem. It intensifies meaning and creates a sort of gathering of forces – a forward momentum. Sometimes when we repeat something over and over, its original meaning seems to disappear. What is left? What could it mean now?
Look at ‘Homage to Kenneth Koch’, written as a group poem by students and originally published in Mutes and Earthquakes. The repetition of ‘I used to’ and ‘but now’ suggests stories about lives – some of them sad, some funny, some mysterious. Notice how including concrete details keeps the poem lively and visual. We can imaginatively engage with the ‘soft white room’ and singing of apple trees. In the poem, one thing or action ‘speaks’ to the other – e.g. ‘I used to stutter sound/ but now I stutter whole words’ and ‘I used to know nothing/ but now I am deceived’. The connections are not random – they make a kind of sense together.
Write a poem in the style of ‘Homage to Kenneth Koch’ using ‘I used to’ followed by ‘but now I’ all the way through the poem. The poem can be written individually or as a group. Either way, when you have finished the first draft it’s interesting to consider the arrangement of the poem. What is the best image to open the poem? Maybe go for an ending that is unexpected. Think about surprising your reader.
Don’t worry too much about getting things right in the first instance. Just write. Let your instincts take you where they want to. Then look at the poem. Is there a link between each admission of what used to be and what is now?

Homage to Kenneth Koch

I used to tear, but now I crumble.
I used to dream about clouds
but now I live inside them.
I used to care for what they say
But now I’ve resigned.
I used to do my bit for society
But Herbie refuses to go
to any more slack do’s at Plunket.
I used to stutter sound
but now I stutter whole words.
I used to climb walls and sing of apple trees
but now I sit in the middle
of a soft white room.
I used to grow my hair
but now I wear it short.
I used to be young but now I avoid time.
I used to know nothing
but now I am deceived.
I used to, to, to . . . But now?
I used to hop-scotch and skip
but now I’m inert.
I used to be brilliant, but now I’m cured.

Extract from The Exercise Book, available in all good book stores or online from VUP.

Lynn Davidson’s most recent book Common Land was launched this month. She  is the author of three previous collections of poetry, How to live by the sea, Tender and Mary Shelley’s Window, and a novel, Ghost Net. Her poetry has been included in Big Weather, poems of Wellington, The Best of Sport Magazine, The Best of Best New Zealand Poems and PN Review. In 2003 she was awarded the Louis Johnson Writer’s Bursary and in 2011 was Visiting Artist at Massey University where she is currently working towards her PhD.

You can see Lynn read this Sunday at ‘Poems on the Vine’ at the Gladstone Vineyard with Helen Heath and Michael Harlow. The MC will be local Wairarapa poet Pat White.
For tickets or further information, contact Hedleys Bookshop. 150 Queen Street, Masterton. Ph: (06) 378-2875. Email:

Window on the World

Photo credit Gregory Crow.

I know I didn’t make this exercise up, and there are lots of different versions out there, but here’s my take on it.

1. ‘Free write’ for ten minutes – don’t take your pen off the page, don’t judge what you are writing, don’t edit it, don’t even read it. Keep your pen moving and writing until the full ten minutes is up (it can help to set a timer).

2. Take a sheet of paper – preferably an old newspaper or magazine with a good amount of text in it, but you can also use a blank sheet of A4.

3. Cut a small square out of the sheet – about 2 x 4 inches (5 x 10 cm).

4. Take this ‘window’ and place it on top of your page of free writing. The empty frame will automatically select a square of your own text and cover the rest.

5. The words that the frame selects could be the first draft of a poem already, or they could be the beginning of one. Or perhaps when you read them they prompt you towards another idea or direction.

6. The frame doesn’t need to be made out of newspaper or a magazine, but sometimes it’s nice to have the option of incorporating that text into early drafts of a poem.

7. Try making either one long poem from this starting point, or three shorter poems that are somehow related or connected to each other.

Hinemoana Baker

Extract from The Exercise Book, available in all good book stores or online from VUP.

Read more about Hinemoana on her website.