Word Stabbing with Therese Lloyd

I remember doing this exercise when I was a little girl; back then I didn’t know it was a kind Therese Lloyd 2012of writing exercise of course, I was just having fun with words. But I figure a sense of play is still the essential component of any writing exercise even if I am a grownup now.

So before we begin, just to clarify, this exercise is completely lacking in sophistication; it’s the sort of thing that you can do prone and with one eye half open. But if you want to get something down on that glowering piece of paper (‘the piano crouched in the corner of the room with all its teeth bare’ as Nick Cave says), this’ll do it.


• Chose a collection of poems by a single poet (no anthologies)

• Open the book at any page

• Close your eyes

• With one hand, index finger pointed, make grand-ish gesticulations* in the air

• Then with your eyes still closed bring that finger down onto the open page

• Open your eyes … there is a word under that finger! Write down the word

• Repeat this twenty times, each time opening the book at any page

• Once you have your twenty words start writing a poem that uses all of those words as the structural foundation

Things to note:

If your finger hits a blank space on the page or an article, conjunction or preposition just chose the nearest interesting looking word (whatever you deem that to be) or flick open the book and repeat the process. Try to be as loose as possible though and don’t be put off by a word that you find ugly or out of your ken, and similarly don’t seek a word that you think might ‘fit’.

You can use the words in any order and as many times as you like and you can change the tense to fit.

The great thing about this exercise is once you start composing your poem you can shoot off in any direction you like, in fact, the more open you are to the possibilities the better; after-all, at this stage these are just twenty lone words with no meaning attached to them.

Although we’ve probably all done exercises like this at some point, what’s fun about this one is that you can still get the satisfaction of having written a poem but without dredging your soul for themes or images—the subject tends to emerge as you go along.

The other good thing about this exercise is the marvelous happy accidents that can occur. From Paterson by William Carlos Williams amongst the list of twenty words I picked was this little cluster; ‘old, unoccupied, clouds’, how lovely!

While it’s not essential that you use a single poet’s collection, I encourage it because it’s a novel way to get a sense of a specific poet’s lexicon. Doing this exercise with Wallace Stevens for example may yield a lot of shape, pink, voice, high, concentric etc, with Lyn Heijinian, burlap, bounded, realized, brick etc.

Have fun and remember, no one’s watching.

*not strictly necessary but lends a certain mysticism to the exercise; writers are part magician after-all.

Therese Lloyd’s poems have appeared in a number of print and online publications including Sport, Landfall, Hue & Cry, the AUP series New Zealand Poets in Performance, Jacket2 and Turbine. In 2007 she was awarded the Schaeffer Fellowship to spend a year attending the acclaimed Iowa Writer’s Workshop. Several cities later, she now lives in Paekakariki with her husband. Her debut collection Other Animals is published in March.


How to Silence the Fear

When I get struck by the Fear (you know – the fear that when you’re not writing, you’re wasting time; the fear that when you are writing, you’re wasting time), I need to do something practical, something physical, to fend it off. It’s similar to putting my contact lenses before making toast instead of pawing blindly through the kitchen. So I use the Pomodoro Technique [PDF], which I came across through Oliver Burkeman’s excellent Guardian series This Column Will Change Your Life. It’s the most unmiraculous way of tricking yourself into doing stuff. as a Bill Manhire simulacrum wrote here: “I am not an innovator, I will take my tricks from anywhere.” And the Pomodoro Technique is really just a slightly silly trick.

All you do is pick a task – any task, but in our case, writing, any writing – and set a timer for 25 minutes. It has to be 25 minutes. (The guy who came up with this idea in the 80s, an Italian named Francesco Cirillo, uses a kitchen timer that looks like a tomato, hence “pomodoro”.) Anyway, write until the timer rings. Stop for five minutes. Five minutes, no more, no less. Then repeat three more times. After that, you can have a longer break. Stretch, scratch, bring in the washing, or, my favourite, do a bit of vacant staring.

And, well – that’s it. This simple structuring of time creates the illusion of obligation. You must do the time. And the kitchen timer provides objective validation that you’ve done it. As Burkeman says, it’s almost embarrassing how easy it is to fool yourself. (Cirillo himself says that the first time he tried it was both helpful and humiliating.) “The ticking clock takes an internal desire to get something done and fools some part of the brain into thinking it’s external, that the clock must be obeyed,” says Burkeman. “Even the hokey language – Cirillo calls each 25-minute period a ‘pomodoro’ – helps, by making the time blocks seem like ‘things’, out in the world.” This appeals to me because before any piece of work becomes a poem, a story, a novel – at first, always, it is just a thing.

The other option, I guess, is to stop fluffing around with tomatoes and Just Do It. But setting yourself a small, specific task – something that involves the use of your limbs – is an oddly powerful way to silence the Fear. It is more manageable than making bloodless plans to “finish an essay, finish that editing job, write an application for money, write three poems”. We are so good at tricking ourselves out of doing things, we can respond with trickery to get ourselves to do them.

Ashleigh Young’s first collection of poetry, Magnificent Moon, will be launched at Unity Books, Wellington, this Thursday at 6pm. Ashleigh grew up in Te Kuiti and Wellington and has recently returned from two years in London where she was an editor at the Institute of Ismaili Studies. Her poems and essays have appeared in many print and online literary magazines, including Best New Zealand PoemsBooknotesHue & Cry,MetroSport and Turbine. She won the Adam Foundation Prize in 2009 for her manuscript essay collection Can You Tolerate This?, and her essay ‘Wolf Man’ won the Landfall Essay Competition the same year. She blogs at eyelashroaming.wordpress.com.

Photograph and poem – Kerry Hines

 Choose a photograph to work with – one which is unfamiliar to you, and which interests you and piques your curiosity in some way. There are no constraints on what kind of photograph you choose, but it must have been taken before you were born, and must have no direct personal associations for you – so you can’t, for example, choose something from a family album.

Look closely at the photograph for at least 5-10 minutes. Consider what you know and don’t know about the image, and what it is that attracts you to it. Stay curious, and be attentive. Hypothesise, speculate, notice. Set the photograph aside for a few days, then repeat this process. Feel free to make notes and to search out contextualising information about the photograph, but in addition to looking, not instead of it.

Then write a poem in response to the photograph that builds on (but does not make explicit) this experience of it. Your aim should be to write a poem that would surprise and interest the photograph, rather than telling it what it already knows. In particular:

  • avoid describing or paraphrasing the photograph, or otherwise trying to translate it into words;

  • steer clear of any reference to photographs or photography in the poem;

  • take care to avoid clichés and easy conclusions about the past.

Kerry Hines was the IIML’s first PhD student, and was recently awarded her doctorate for her thesis After the fact: poems, photographs, and regenerating histories. Kerry will present work from her project at the last Writers on Mondays session for the year at 12.15pm, Monday 8 October at the City Gallery, Wellington (note venue).

Working with an archive of nineteenth-centure photographs, Kerry Hines has written a compelling collection of poems that bring together text and image, fact and imagination; raising the question of how we look at and imagine our history. Kerry will discuss the archive and its creator, outline the origins and development of the work, and present a selection of the poems and photographs which form part of her creative writing PhD thesis. Chaired by Roger Blackley.

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.

The Rules from Kirsten McDougall

Kirsten Mc Dougall

Okay, I’m someone who hates wasting my reading time, so if you don’t like the idea of writing ‘rules’ don’t read any further (but do read rule 5).

Personally, I love/hate writing rules. It’s very appealing to think that if you follow The Rules then you will write The Book, but what a load of shite. It’s a bit like those magazines that give you 5 bullet-points for happiness. You should read any rules with a coarse grain of salt. Generally, I only apply the rules that fit with what I’m currently trying to do. I heard on the radio that this is pretty much what humans do – ask questions that support their preconceived answers. The other great thing about these rules, maybe aside from the one about double entendres, is that they can all be applied to running.

I’ve been taking my writing seriously for ten years now. Some days I think I’m getting the hang of it, and then I go and read a book like Prowlers (Maurice Gee’s masterpiece from 1987) and realise that I have neither the talent nor experience. So, until I do, I shall fall back on The Rules. Here are some of the good ones in no particular order, collected just for you.


Read your work aloud to yourself.

Kate Camp told me this years ago – basic good advice. You can hear the sound of your work better out loud. You’ll pick up clangers, repetitions and typos very quickly. You’ll hear your characters’ voices. Does that dialogue sound real or like what a character in a book might say?


Don’t give up your day job.

This one I’ve followed and ignored. You will not make money from writing. You will not be happy if you don’t write. It’s a bind and a constant frustration. The main thing is that if you want to write you must make time for it, regularly, whether it’s your day job or not. The time might be 5am (Nigel Cox) or right through the night (William Faulkner). Whatever. Just do it. (See how the running application works?!)


Rule 5. Every hour get up off your arse and move around for a few minutes.

Okay, this one is from my osteopath. This is probably the only rule anyone should follow. I’ll go further – always follow this rule.


‘Don’t be making time changes on your first page. Give your reader and character a chance to settle.’

This from the astonishing and terrifying Irish short fiction writer Claire Keegan. I sat in on a workshop she ran last year at Auckland Writers and Readers Festival, where she gave out a lot of rules. This was one of them. I’m currently testing it in my next novel, where I have a time change on the first page. I wrote the opening passage, then looked up on my wall and saw this rule. (I hang her rules on my study wall). She’s probably right. We’ll see.


Don’t quote songs.

This is practical advice. It takes an age for a music publisher to give copyright permission and you will need to pay for it. Unless David Bowie is a good friend, don’t use his lyrics in your work.


‘Do not make use of double entendres. Since your work is intended to be overtly erotic, you should only concern yourself with single entendres. If you happen to come across a double entrendre in one of your drafts, a handy trick is to divide it down the middle and move the second half to any section of your manuscript in which entendres may be lacking.’

This is taken from Seth Fried in an article on erotic fiction, read the full article here.

I love this rule for its mathematics. It’s not erotic fiction, but my novella Homefires had a double entendre joke in it. When I wondered aloud the wisdom of putting a joke in a story, Damien Wilkins (my MA teacher while I was writing Homefires) said that he’d read a story with a good joke in it. Well, it’s a good joke and I copy it here for your reading pleasure:

A man walks into a bar and asks the bartender for a double entendre. So the bartender gives him one.

In the future I’ll be using more entendres, double and single, halved and quartered, hung and drawn, in my work.


It’s a long, hard, slow game.

This gem from Gregory O’Brien. He was my first writing teacher back in the day when I thought I might be a poet. He’s talking about marathons. And writing. They’re kind of the same thing.


Write to amuse yourself.

Seriously, if it doesn’t amuse you then what’s the point? This is my litmus test. If the characters and the words on the page aren’t making their own electricity, then probably the scene and the words are dead. Discard and start again. Or find the one sentence that is alive and grow a new paragraph around that. Frances Wilson reviewing Hilary Mantel’s Bring up the Bodies in The Observer finished her review saying ‘Mantel, like Cromwell, seems not to mind if we are there or not: she is writing, as he was living, for herself alone, where they said… well, we should all aim to write as entertainingly as Mantel.’ Indeed, we should all aim to write as entertainingly as Hilary Mantel.


Kirsten McDougall’s first book The Invisible Rider was launched last weekend. She was a winner of The Long and the Short of It short story competition in 2011, in which her story ‘Clean hands save lives’ won first prize in the short section. You can catch her at next week’s Writers On Mondays with Gigi Fenster and Lawrence Patchett when they talk about “Blood and Money” on August 27th.  Full WOM programme details here.

Ideas? Search Me

Writers in my MA Scriptwriting class quickly find out they have to come up with a lot of ideas very quickly – sometimes on the spot. And not little ideas – big ideas that could make a feature film or full-length play. My hope is to make them aware (if they’re not already) that they are swimming in an ocean of potential stories – they don’t need to clutch at the first straw that comes floating past, rather they can endlessly make up ideas, audition them, make them compete against each other. It should always be a question of why this idea instead of all the others, what’s the imperative to write this one now?

Earlier this year, when sending the writers off to think up yet more ideas I took pity on them somewhat and produced the following cheat sheet they could use if they felt they were running dry. It’s a series of Google (or search engine of your choice) search terms – pairs of words. A lot of the pairs have got some kind of inbuilt tension, a friction between them, from which drama is likely to spring. The idea is that the real-life stories the search terms reel in from the net provide inspiration for fiction.

This is me trying to be modern – usually I just send idea-challenged writers back to the newspaper, that old-school and reliable compendium of human drama in all its forms.

To throw some arbitrariness into the mix – and prevent uncomfortable racking of uninspired brain – feel free to plug any of the two-word search terms below into Google and follow the results till you feel the tickling of a new idea …

Take what grabs you from the net stories these terms link to, and make your own story for a 30 minute theatre piece.

Search on …

Strange case

Bizarre incident

Family tensions

Desperate dilemma

Sibling rivals

Past haunts

Town divided

Passion proves

Feuding friends

Mystery unsolved

Lovers vow

Ken Duncum is The Michael Hirschfeld Director of Scriptwriting at the IIML. Ken will be  at the next Writers on Mondays with David O’Donnell at Circa. It’s said that, all going well, the playwright/director relationship can be ‘better than a marriage’.  Ken and David will talk about who does what and who did what in their world premiere production of West End Girls (running at Circa, 4 Aug-1 Sept). Where – if anywhere – are the creative divisions between writing a play and directing it? Are they two different things – or different phases of the same thing?