for writers and readers….

Would you fail this writing exercise?

writingWhat do you think of these opening lines…do they entice you to read on and find out more?

Councillor Brown was on time for the meeting to talk about installing a new noticeboard on the high street.

 In the darkened room, four excited children held their breath as he pushed the plug into the socket and flicked the switch and four children burst into tears when the Christmas tree failed to light up and their ears were assaulted by a barrage of foul language.

 There was nothing special about the place, its history, its present or its future, its architecture or its position, and above all, its people

Piles of reeds filled the wrack line at the base of the sand dunes.

Norbert Hume, aged 38 and a half, decided that today would be the perfect day for alphabetising the easy listening section of his record collection.

She sat reclining in the first class seat staring at the photograph of the two children thinking how unnatural they looked.

 The fire light illuminated the whole area but the danger managed to stay out of its rays.

The thing about the monstrosity that walked the verdant countryside by day, and stalked its shadowed fields by night, was that not only did it
belong to the very land it skulked – but the scape of greenery had been
its family’s legacy for generations.

You may have seen the short competition I ran on my Facebook page a month ago. I asked people to submit the worst opening to a novel. Instead of grabbing attention, it had to turn potential readers off. It had to ensure that the book was put back on the shelf as quickly as possible…

I got this exercise many years ago from the crime writer Peter Gutteridge and I have used it ever since as an icebreaker. One quality that all writers share – no matter what their ability or level of experience – is courage. It takes guts to read out in class and expose yourself to critical comment. The classroom has to be a place of safety and it’s my job as tutor to build that kind of atmosphere from week one, because if students haven’t got the freedom to make mistakes they won’t be able to take risks and meet new challenges.

That’s why I like using this exercise for the very first time we share work in class. When the results are read out there is laughter and animated discussion when it becomes clear that most opening lines open up interesting possibilities. And student after student fails the task. I imagine each one going home and telling a loved one that even when they tried they couldn’t write a bad paragraph…

Vanessa Gebbie’s submission was interesting.

There was nothing special about the place, its history, its present or its future, its architecture or its position, and above all, its people

If you don’t recognise her name, I should add that Vanessa is a prizewinning short story writer, poet and novelist.

This opening intrigues because we know how stories work. It’s part of our DNA. As soon as a toddler walks she dances. As soon as she can hold a stick of chalk she draws and as soon as she has words she wants stories and pretty soon she is making her own. So opening paragraphs like Vanessa’s tells us that something is about to happen in this not-very-special place to make it special. It reminds me of the opening to very first Harry Potter book:

Mr. and Mrs. Dursley, of number four, Privet Drive, were proud to say that they were perfectly normal, thank you very much. They were the last people you’d expect to be involved in anything strange or mysterious, because they just didn’t hold with such nonsense.

In my experience only two types of people actually succeed in this exercise: journalists who are true professionals and can write to order. You want 440 words on the Eastenders, you get 440 words on Eastenders. You want a bad opening paragraph… The other group are people who read a lot. They have acquired the instinctive ability to deconstruct the essential elements of story telling and when needed can then do the opposite…which underlines the old saying that there is only two ways to learn how to write: one is to write as much as you can and the other is to read as much as you can.

I didn’t judge the entries in this competition as it was a lucky dip but, oddly enough, the winner Nina in New York state also submitted the worst paragraph – the last one in the selection above – so she was destined to get a free copy of Back to Creative Writing School. Her overblown use of language, shaky grammar and complex sentence construction all add up to something less than compelling – just as Nina intended.

photo credit: mithop25 via photopin cc


2 comments on “Would you fail this writing exercise?

  1. Norah
    January 9, 2015

    It is true that writing takes courage, to expose yourself to ridicule as much as to hope for praise. The willingness to make mistakes and keep going, confidently, is definitely important for any student. This was an interesting exercise and fun passages to read.

    • bridget whelan
      January 9, 2015

      It works really well in the classroom – the barriers come down.

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This entry was posted on January 9, 2015 by in Muse and tagged , , .


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