Tag Archives: workshops

Awakened by The Big Sleep

It’s not often that the language in a novel prompts an actual smile, as distinct from the internal “nice one” moment of appreciation. There was a period, prior to a trip to the States, when I read Bill Bryson at night. His descriptions of small-town America made me laugh out loud. At other times authors such as Ian McEwan or Tim Winton will describe something so well my jaw drops. I’ll read these passages over and over, savouring the images used.

At present I’m reading Raymond Chandler’s The Big Sleep. It’s a detective novel, perhaps THE detective novel, hailed as the benchmark for crime fiction. And it’s fantastic.

What I’m enjoying most are the devil-may-care descriptions the narrator, private investigator Philip Marlowe, serves up like raw steaks. The imagery is so vivid it makes me grin.

A few samples follow. I could have chosen umpteen others. Page references are from the 2008 Penguin edition (introduced by Ian Rankin):

On a hothouse full of orchids: “The light had an unreal greenish colour, like light filtered through an aquarium tank. The plants filled the place, a forest of them, with nasty meaty leaves and stalks like the newly washed fingers of dead men.” (p6)

On a femme fatale: “She approached me with enough sex appeal to stampede a businessmens’ lunch and tilted her head to finger a stray but not very stray, tendril of softly glowing hair. Her smile was tentative, but could be persuaded to be nice.” (p23)

On an ingenue: “Dark silent mystified eyes stared at me solemnly, the doubt growing larger in them, creeping into them noiselessly, like a cat in long grass stalking a young blackbird.” (pp 170-171)

On emptiness: “It was raining again the next morning, a slanting grey rain like a swung curtain of crystal beads. I got up feeling sluggish and tired and stood looking out of the windows … I was as empty of life as a scarecrow’s pockets…” (p174)

On a sad laugh: “Then she laughed. It was almost a racking laugh. It shook her as the wind shakes a tree. I thought there was puzzlement in it, not exactly surprise, but as if a new idea had been added to something already known and it didn’t fit. Then I thought that was too much to get out of a laugh.” (p213) 🙂

It’s great stuff. As I try to explain to students in my writing workshops, good writing is fresh and adventurous. Unexpected images and word combinations make the reader sit up and think. When’s the last time you pondered the contents of a scarecrow’s pockets?

A sea of stories

During writing workshops I’ll sometimes ask students to sketch out a story in a handful of words. The point of the exercise is to show a story doesn’t need to be a 500- or 50,000-word epic. We can show a lot with a few well chosen words.

No matter how far I lower the word-limit, there are always a few students that don’t put pen to paper. “I can’t think of anything to write,” is the usual explanation.

I reply with questions. “What are the things you’re passionate about? Who do you barrack for? What’s your favourite TV show? What makes you angry? What moment were you really happy or sad? Why?”

The stories are always out there. It’s sometimes a matter of kicking down the fences and letting them out.

In the past 24 hours I’ve heard some (terrible) tales that would potentially make powerful stories:

– A 12-yo girl injured in a head on car accident that claims both her parents and an aunt and injures her grandmother. Four 20-something males were in the car that hit them. Where had they been? What happened?

– A mother of two who fled a violent marriage with her children, only to have a mental breakdown and be hospitalised. During the two weeks she is unwell her ex-husband applies for custody of the kids and gets it despite evidence of his violence. When she is discharged she faces a wait to get to court. Eventually she has the order overturned and regained custody – only to find her ex murdered the kids in the days before he had to hand them over (then killed himself). She now has a new partner and children but what a horror story.

– 40 people gunned down at a wedding in Turkey, apparently after a dispute between the families being ‘united’ by the nuptials.

These are obviously extreme examples but my point is there are stories everywhere, every day that can shock, move or inspire us. Whether it’s the old Chinese man collecting aluminium cans from bins and carrying them in bags on his bicycle handlebars or the young mum pushing a stroller and crying as she leaves a bank, stories are apparent to those who watch and listen.

Each character in this global drama has ups and downs that can be the basis for a narrative, even if that tale can slashed to a four-word tweet such as “Having a bad day.”

There should never be a moment when there’s nothing to write.


I’ve just finished a two-day booking for Booked Out at Emmanuel College in Warrnambool, a provincial city about 3.25 hours west of Melbourne.

When I departed mid-afternoon Tuesday, it was with a mix of excitement and trepidation. Excitement to be on a road trip through rugged volcanic country I hadn’t visited for a decade or so. Trepidation at how nearly 200 Year 9 students might respond to this far-from-established author. Concern over leaving my family behind when my wife had received unsettling news about her unemployment that morning – and her favourite colleague was laid off. Throw in a seasoning of other emotions after a lunch meeting discussing my latest manuscript with a generous children’s publishing mentor.

Driving solo into the sunset was a chance to listen to my choice of music (no kids’ demands) and enjoy being back in the bush. West of Colac, the landscape changes. It’s almost like travelling through the windswept heath-lands of the Bronte stories. I felt enlivened. The country boy in me clearly needs to get away from the city to defrag.

My brief for the college visit was to “inspire the kids in their writing” and lead practical sessions with seven Year 9 classes. Hmmmm. I’ve done plenty of public speaking over the years but workshops are still reasonably new for me. Year 9’s can be a tough bunch, too. Not quite ready to morph into Year 10 seriousness but often flexing their muscles after finally escaping junior school. My personal Year 9 recollections feature plenty of detentions, usually following over-exuberant smart-mouthed quips. (There was clearly no speed-limiter on my mouth back then… Some might argue it still fails me today.)

Anyway, first up was a talk to the entire year level. I guess I treated it as a chance to establish my bona fides pre-workshops – and hopefully show where a passion for reading and writing can take you. Some of the gags fell flat but maybe it’s tough to warm an audience at 9am on a frosty morning. I certainly don’t have the comedy training of an Andy Griffiths.

My workshops aimed to show that by applying a little forethought and planning to the basics of fiction (characters, voice, setting, plot), it becomes much easier to write a story. They seemed to work.

The students were great. Good listeners with a healthy serving of sass once the ice was broken. They came up with some sensational story sketches. I enjoyed watching their ideas emerge.

I don’t know what they learned or whether they approach writing or reading any differently now. I do know I’ll approach Year 9s differently. They reminded me that 15 is a fun age, even with the occasional detention. Thanks.