In this section we share a selection of our writers’ weekly homework pieces and timed exercises. Homework is normally 300 – 600 words maximum, the timed exercises are completed in the workshop within 20 minutes.

Beautiful Lies an Anthology of New Writers

The best short stories should haunt you for days and weeks. They should startle you and make you want to read more by the same author. In this anthology of 35 new writers you’ll find refreshing, creative voices that will constantly surprise and delight. Most of the writers are published here for the first time in print. Online their work has appeared under the writing workshop banner of Bourne to Write, led by the writer and critic Roddy Phillips. As they were written in the Workshop many of the pieces share themes, lines and subject matter, yet each one is a unique and beautiful lie, just waiting to be brought to life… by you the reader.

Buy Beautiful Lies in paperback and kindle on amazon

Read a review of Beautiful Lies from the Ingenue magazine

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October

A GARDEN PATH STORY

For this week’s timed exercise I gave everyone the following sentences to work with:

The old man the boat.    The horse raced past the barn fell.   The girl told the story cried.  
We painted the wall with cracks.  
Cake in your mouth doesn’t cake on your face.   The man who hunts ducks out on weekends.  
The management plans to cut vacation days are rejected.

The florist sent the flowers was pleased.  Wherever John walks the dog chases him.

These are examples of Garden Path Sentences. A garden path sentence is a sentence with an ambiguous part, that leads the reader to initially assume a certain interpretation for the sentence, until they reach a point where the ambiguity is resolved and this initial interpretation is shown to be wrong.

There are of course Garden Path stories and novels, for example: Ambrose Bierce’s Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge, William Golding’s Pincher Martin,  Flann O’Brien’s The Third Policeman and Thurber’s The Secret Life of Walter Mitty.

For the homework I asked everyone to write a Garden Path Story.

Wish You Were Here by Stuart Carruthers

Read Stuart’s piece

Out of Luck by Miriam Silver

Read Miriam’s piece

Challenging Husbands Can Be Thrilling by Rosalyn Hurst

Read Rosalyn’s piece

Danny Boy by Catriona Millar

Read Catriona’s piece

Lady’s Fingers by Marion Umney

Read Marion’s piece

Just Press Send by Sandra Banks

Read Sandra’s piece

Your Number’s Up by Sho Botham

Read Sho’s piece

Last Night by Ivor John

Read Ivor’s piece

The Good Old Days by Sue Hitchcock

Read Sue’s piece

Garden Path Story by Fran Duffield

Read Fran’s piece

Management Speak by Martin Bourne

Read Martin’s piece

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MEMORY BELIEVES

For this week’s timed exercise I gave everyone the following name to work with:

Joe Christmas

Joe Christmas is one of the lead characters in William Faulkner’s 1932 novel Light in August. A landmark in American fiction, the novel explores Faulkner’s central theme: the nature of evil.

Joe Christmas – an orphan born on Christmas day is a man doomed,  deracinated and alone – wanders the Deep South in search of an identity, and a place in society. After killing Joanna Burden, his God-fearing lover, it becomes inevitable that he is pursued by a lynch-hungry mob. Yet after the sacrifice, there is new life, a determined ray of light in Faulkner’s complex and tragic world.

For the homework I asked our writers to use the novel’s most famous line:

Memory believes before knowing remembers.

Memory Believes Before Knowing Remembers by Jill Webb

Listen to Jill’s piece

Wheels Within Wheels by Richard Lewis

Read Richard’s piece

Memory Believes by Lauren Holstein

Read Lauren’s poem

Movement in the Trees by Mia Sundby

Read Mia’s piece

For Esme With Love & Squalor by Victoria Watson

Read Victoria’s piece

The Clocks Tick Backwards by Stuart Carruthers

Read Stuart’s piece

Memory Believes by Miriam Silver

Read Miriam’s piece

Memory Believes by Rosalyn Hurst

Read Rosalyn’s piece

Memories by Vera Gajic

Read Vera’s piece

Life’s a Beach by Sho Botham

Read Sho’s piece

Cold Comfort by MaryPat Campbell

Read MaryPat’s piece

Denmark Hill by Ivor John

Read Ivor’s piece

Margate by Sue Hitchcock

Read Sue’s piece

Joe Christmas – a timed exercise by Lauren Holstein

Read Lauren’s poem

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HOW TO DISAPPEAR

For this week’s timed exercise I asked everyone to open their piece with this line, but not to write from a human point of view.
There are many theories as to how we came to be, I’m not sure which one I believe.
This was an exercise in Personification and to some degree an origin story. The line opens Savannah Brown’s poem, Loving like an Existentialist. Watch the video here
Savannah Brown is a performance poet and we watched a video of her performing this poem. Brown is from Ohio but now lives in London. She self-published her first collection of poems Graffiti in 2016 when she was 20. The collection was a finalist in the Goodreads Choice Awards. I read from her latest novel, The Things We Don’t See, a beautifully written thriller published by Penguin.
“There’s a shadow in me that doesn’t waver. The eternal tar-dripped facet of my personhood. I could make myself whatever I wanted to be, were it not for the trauma
– a chameleon always outed by the shadow, marked by the same dark matter. I fight my way out. If I’m locked in, I jemmy the lock. If I’m lost in the woods, I draw a map.”
I asked you to use the title of the novel’s prologue for the title of your homework.

HOW TO DISAPPEAR

How to Disappear/Stay Safe by Victoria Watson

Read Victoria’s piece

Around the Houses by Saffron Swansborough

Read Saffron’s piece

How to Disappear by Lauren Holstein

Read Lauren’s piece

How Not to Disappear by Janie Reynolds

Read Janie’s piece

How to Disappear by Martin Bourne

Read Martin’s piece

How to Disappear by Stuart Carruthers

Read Stuart’s piece

How to Disappear by Mia Sundby

Read Mia’s piece

The Couple on the Train by Garf Collins

Read Garf’s piece

How to Disappear by Miriam Silver

Read Miriam’s piece

How to Disappear by Melody Bertucci

Read Melody’s piece

How to Disappear by MaryPat Campbell

Read MaryPat’s piece

How to Disappear by Sho Botham

Read Sho’s piece

The Invisible Man by Vera Gajic

Read Vera’s piece

Len Comes to Conyer by Sue Hitchcock

Read Sue’s piece

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September

NOW EVERYONE KNOWS

For this week’s timed exercise I asked everyone to open their piece with this line:

I think of myself as somebody not at home.

This is part of a quote from a 2019 interview with Zadie Smith for Marie Claire. When asked about whether living in the United States and England affects her writing, Smith responded, “I think of myself as somebody not at home. Not at home anywhere, not at home ever. But I think of that as a definition of a writer: somebody not at home, not comfortable in themselves in their supposed lives.”

On the subject of writing she says, “It comes out of reading of being a reader and wanting to create something like what I’ve read. And also it’s a way of experiencing time, like never missing any of it. Writing is partly a kind of stupidity, other people just live their lives and get on with it day by day, writing is a way of slowing it down and thinking what just happened? What did it mean? What was the point? I’m just a writer of life, of what I see around me and what I understand.”

I read an excerpt from Smith’s fifth novel Swing Time. Like all of Smith’s novels, Swing Time has brilliant things to say about race, class, and gender, but its most poignant comment is perhaps this. Given who we are, who we are told that we are not, and who we imagine we might become, how do we find our way home?
For the homework I asked everyone to use this quote from Swing Time as their opening line:

The body of the message was a single sentence: Now everyone knows who you really are.

Dysfunction by Ali Giles

Read Ali’s piece

You Gave Me The Answer by Jill Webb

Listen to Jill’s piece

Finding Home by Grant McFarlane

Listen to Grant’s piece

How is Your Lockdown Going? by Saffron Swansborough

Read Saffron’s piece

Betrayal by Sho Botham

Read Sho’s piece

September 26 by Sue Hitchcock

Read Sue’s piece

Everything You Know is Wrong by Stuart Carruthers

Read Stuart’s piece

I Am a Long Covid Statistic by Janie Reynolds

Read Janie’s piece

Who is my friend, who is my enemy? by Lesley Dawson

Read Lesley’s piece

The Message by Miriam Silver

Read Miriam’s piece

Now Everyone Knows by Ivor John

Read Ivor’s piece

Marie Antoinette by Lauren Holstein

Read Lauren’s piece

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THE ACHILLES HEEL

For this week’s timed exercise I asked everyone to use this line in their piece:

Uncle Ken, wise as he was, was hit by a car.

The line comes from Nicole Sealey’s poem ‘Medical History’. Read Nicole’s poem

In the poem, Sealey lists the speaker’s and their family’s medical history, creating a startling portrait of genealogy and the anxieties surrounding mortality that come with it.

I then read an excerpt from ‘On Immunity’ by Eula Biss, which was published in 2015.

‘The first story I ever heard about immunity was told to me by my father, a doctor, when I was very young. It was the myth of Achilles, whose mother tried to make him immortal.  She burned away his mortality with fire, in one telling of the story, and Achilles was left impervious to injury everywhere except his heel, where a poisoned arrow would eventually wound and kill him. In another telling, the infant Achilles was immersed in the River Styx, the river that divides the world from the underworld. His mother held her baby by his heel to dip him in the water, leaving, again, one fatal vulnerability.’

The subject for this week’s homework was the Achilles’ Heel.

Achilles Heel by Gill Hilton

Read Gill’s piece

A Bit of a Weakness by Jill Webb

Listen to Jill’s piece

The Achilles Heel by Fran Duffield

Read Fran’s piece

Annie’s Achilles Heel by Sue Hitchcock

Read Sue’s piece

First Meeting by Marion Umney

Read Marion’s piece

Achilles Wong-Side Up by Mia Sundby

Read Mia’s piece

The Moneyspinner by Martin Bourne

Read Martin’s piece

Mrs Tavistock by Victoria Watson

Read Victoria’s piece

Small Feet Big Shoes by Stuart Carruthers

Read Stuart’s piece

Achilles Heel by Miriam Silver

Read Miriam’s piece

Lily’s Achilles Heel by MaryPat Campbell

Read MaryPat’s piece

Dr Muffett’s Recommendation (2) by Ivor John

Read Ivor’s piece

Medical History by Lauren Holstein

Read Lauren’s piece

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REMIND MYSELF TO BREATHE

For this week’s timed exercise I gave everyone this opening line:

I wanted to write a story about a friend, but my mind turned to Emily.

This is the opening line of Death, Myth and Dreaming in Wuthering Heights by Nicholas Ashe Bateman Read it here

In the essay Bateman says, “For me, Emily Bronte’s wild and unknowable masterpiece is one of the most astounding pieces of worldbuilding that I know. I consider the entire work to be a spell that she cast in the ground around her, transforming Yorkshire and imbuing the soil with something else entirely, whipping her up in the wind and taking it all away. She hasn’t created a far off place, she’s remade the only one in which she has. That is one of the most profound creative acts that I can imagine, and the reverent dedication with which she accomplished it was something that inspired me daily over the years.”

It seems such an obvious thing to say but without the moors, the rocks and the heath, without the house, there is no Wuthering Heights, there is no novel as we know it. This is the profound effect of setting.

For the homework I asked everyone to think about using a very clear setting along with this line from Wuthering Heights:

I have to remind myself to breathe — almost to remind my heart to beat.

An Ending by Grant McFarlane

Listen to Grant’s piece

Enclosure by Saffron Swansborough

Read Saffron’s piece

Roma by Sue Hitchcock

Read Sue’s piece

Remember to Breathe by Catriona Millar

Read Catriona’s piece

The Family by Martin Bourne

Read Martin’s piece

The Will To Live – a true story by Janie Reynolds

Read Janie’s piece

The Woods by Victoria Watson

Read Victoria’s piece

The Devil’s Handshake is Reflective by Stuart Carruthers

Read Stuart’s piece

Erasure by Fran Duffield

Read Fran’s piece

Remember to Breathe by Miriam Silver

Read Miriam’s piece

Twenty Years Older by MaryPat Campbell

Read MaryPat’s piece

The Siege of Bethlehem by Lesley Dawson

Read Lesley’s piece

What I Wonder When I Wonder About September by Saffron Swansborough

Read Saffron’s piece

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WRITER’S BLOCK

For this week’s timed exercise I played a video clip featuring scenes from 53 feature films of writers struggling with their work. The timed exercise subject was Writer’s Block.

Watch the clip here

Writer’s block is a modern notion. It was little known by the early Romantic writers. In fact the term was coined in 1947 by Dr Edmund Bergler, a famous Austrian psychiatrist living in New York.  A better way of looking at it might be ‘creative inhibition’. But even then that’s just a catch-all for all manner of problems that probably have little do with your writing. We discussed how to address Writer’s Block – Read the Tip Sheet on Writer’s Block

For anyone familiar with Graeme Greene’s prolific output, it’s hard to believe that he could ever suffer from writer’s block. But, in his fifties, that’s precisely what happened—he faced a creative “blockage,” as he called it, that prevented him from seeing the development of a story or even, at times, its start. The dream journal proved to be his saviour. Dream journaling was a very special type of writing, Greene believed. No one but you sees your dreams. No one can sue you for libel for writing them down. No one can fact-check you or object to a fanciful turn of events.

In the foreword to “A World of My Own,” a selection of dream-journal entries that Greene selected, Yvonne Cloetta, Greene’s mistress of many years, quotes Greene telling a friend, “If one can remember an entire dream, the result is a sense of entertainment sufficiently marked to give one the illusion of being catapulted into a different world. One finds oneself remote from one’s conscious preoccupations.” In that freedom from conscious anxiety, Greene found the freedom to do what he otherwise couldn’t: write.

The title for the homework was The Dream Diary.

The Dream Diary by Ali Giles

Read Ali’s piece

Night Dream by Elda Abramson

Read Elda’s piece

The Dream Diary by Jill Webb

Listen to Jill’s piece

The American Dream by Janie Reynolds

Read Janie’s piece

Lily is Not Dead by Lauren Holstein

Read Lauren’s piece

Dr Muffett’s Recommendation by Ivor John

Read Ivor’s piece

Dream Diary by Victoria Watson

Read Victoria’s piece

I Got the Message Myself by Stuart Carruthers

Read Stuart’s piece

Dream On by Miriam Silver

Read Miriam’s piece

The Dream Diary by MaryPat Campbell

Read MaryPat’s piece

Lockdowns & Curfews by Lesley Dawson

Read Lesley’s piece

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Day to Day

For this week’s timed exercise I gave our writers a dialogue scene and asked them to give it context and setting. Read the dialogue scene

This is a highly effective way to write a scene that includes dialogue, used by writers like Chekhov and Hemingway to name just two. Writing the dialogue separately allows you to focus on speech without the distraction of setting, action or characterisation. These can all be added later. I’ve attached a pdf of some of Chekhov’s writing advice. Read Chekhov’s Advice on Writing

I asked our writers to use this line by Chekhov in their homework.

Any idiot can face a crisis; it’s this day-to-day living that wears you out. 

Learning to Swim by Ali Giles

Read Ali’s piece

What Crisis? by Sue Hitchcock

Read Sue’s piece

Esther by Elda Abramson

Read Elda’s piece

Slow Release by Marion Umney

Read Marion’s piece

Wearing Thin by Fran Duffield

Read Fran’s piece

The Ladder by Richard Lewis

Read Richard’s piece

Uninvited Friends by Mia Sundby

Read Mia’s piece

The Idiot Englishman by Martin Bourne

Read Martin’s piece

Coming Out by Ivor John

Read Ivor’s piece

The Scream by Victoria Watson

Read Victoria’s piece

Crying Angels Never Tell by Stuart Carruthers

Read Stuart’s piece

Misdemeanours by Miriam Silver

Read Miriam’s piece

In Times of Crisis by Vera Gajic

Read Vera’s piece

Kicking Off by Gill Hilton

Read Gill’s piece

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August

THE FANTASIST

For this week’s timed exercise I showed our writers the Excuse Creator and asked them to use some of the far fetched excuses in their piece. View the Excuse Creator 

This is an exercise in escapism. I read from the James Thurber short story, The Secret Life of Walter Mitty. The henpecked, daydreaming hero Walter Mitty is Thurber’s quintessential urban man. That story became Thurber’s best-known. It was first published in The New Yorker in 1939 and collected in My World—and Welcome to It (1942). A film version starring Danny Kaye was released in 1947, and another film adaptation, directed by and starring Ben Stiller, came out in 2013.

The story begins with its protagonist’s fearlessly leading a Navy crew through an aircraft takeoff amid near-hurricane conditions, only to reveal that the scene is merely his fantasy; in reality he is driving with his wife into town for their weekly errands.  Read it here

For the homework I asked everyone to write about a fantasist and use this line by Thurber, feel free to change the gender.

She wasn’t much to look at but she was something to think about.

We Are All Fantasists by Ali Giles

Read Ali’s piece

She Tells Sea Tales by Grant McFarlane

Listen to Grant’s piece

A Plain Man by Sue Hitchcock

Read Sue’s piece

A Merc & a Jag by Elda Abramson

Read Elda’s piece

Silver Silk by Marion Umney

Read Marion’s piece

Sally Burns by Janie Reynolds

Read Janie’s piece

Predators and Pets by Mia Sundby

Read Mia’s piece

From the Top Down by Martin Bourne

Read Martin’s piece

Balance by Rosalyn Hurst

Read Rosalyn’s piece

If Only by Stuart Carruthers

Read Stuart’s piece

People Have Always Trusted Me by Miriam Silver

Read Miriam’s piece

Excuses – a timed exercise by Scarlett Mcfarlane

Read Scarlett’s piece

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THE UNRELIABLE NARRATOR

For this week’s timed exercise I showed our writers the Magritte painting Not to be Reproduced(La reproduction interdite)

Screen Shot 2021-08-05 at 19.11.40.jpg

Commissioned in 1937 by poet and Magritte patron Edward James, the painting is considered a portrait of James although James’ face is not depicted. This painting was one of three produced by Magritte for the ballroom of James’ London home. The work depicts a man standing in front of a mirror, but whereas the book on the mantelpiece is reflected correctly, the man can see only the back of his head.The book on the mantel is a well-worn copy of Edgar Allan Poe’s The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym of Nantucket Poe was one of Magritte’s favorite authors and he made other references to the author and his work. The novel is a clue. Its hero like Magritte, is an unreliable narrator.

Writers employ different literary devices to create plot twists and conflicted characters. One of these devices is the unreliable narrator—a storyteller who withholds information, lies to, or misleads the reader, casting doubt on the narrative. Writers use this device to engage readers on a deeper level, forcing them to come to their own conclusions when the narrator’s point of view can’t be trusted. 

I read from Notes on a Scandal by Zoë Heller. From the outset, narrator Barbara’s acid tongue and confidence that she is the only one in a position to tell the sordid tale of an art teacher’s ill-judged affair with a pupil give the reader the nod that the perspective they are about to get on everyone involved is likely to be skewed.

I gave our writers this line from the novel to use anywhere in their homework and asked them to feature an unreliable narrator in their piece.

People have always trusted me with their secrets. But who do I trust with mine?

Harold by Elda Abramson

Read Elda’s piece

Confidences by Fran Duffield

Read Fran’s piece

Talking Foreign by Sue Hitchcock

Read Sue’s piece

I Know They’re Listening by Ivor John

Read Ivor’s piece

Trust by Vera Gajic

Read Vera’s piece

Trust by Rosalyn Hurst

Read Rosalyn’s piece

Masks – Haikus by Saffron Swansborough

Read Saffron’s piece

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IN TIMES OF CRISIS

For this week’s timed exercise I asked our writers to use this line from Jane Eyre in their piece.

Crying does not indicate that you are weak. Since birth, it has always been a sign that you are alive.

When Jane is ten or eleven, typhus runs rampant at Lowood, the charity school to which she has been consigned by her aunt, who despises her. Lowood is a bleak house; as Jane describes it, “semi-starvation and neglected colds had predisposed most of the pupils to receive infection; forty-five of the eighty girls lay ill at one time.”  The description of life at Lowood echoes the experience that Brontë and her sisters had at the Clergy Daughters’ School at Cowan Bridge. Both Maria and Elizabeth Bronte died after contracting tuberculosis at the school.

Maria is transformed in the novel into Jane’s closest friend Helen Burns, who is very ill. Jane sneaks into her room late at night to say goodbye and Helen dies in her arms.

Helen is not one of the typhus patients—she has long suffered from tuberculosis, and has already been isolated from the other girls. Brontë is at pains not to endorse any deliberate breach in social distancing, having the adult Jane, who narrates the book, remember that “by consumption I, in my ignorance, understood something mild, which time and care would be sure to alleviate.”

When Jane, the child, goes through the darkened school to where Helen is, guided by moonlight coming through the windows, there is a place she knows not to enter, filled as it is with schoolmates who have succumbed to the epidemic: an “odour of camphor and burnt vinegar warned me when I came near the fever room: and I passed its door quickly.”

I asked our writers to use this quote from Frank O’Hara in their homework:

In times of crisis, we must all decide again and again whom we love.

Lockdown by Grant McFarlane

Listen to Grant’s piece

Standing Six Feet One and Tall by Stuart Carruthers

Read Stuart’s piece

Going Up by Jill Webb

Listen to Jill’s piece

Those We Loved by Fran Duffield

Read Fran’s piece

Future Uncertain by Sue Hitchcock

Read Sue’s piece

Go Your Own Way by Ivor John

Read Ivor’s piece

The Masked Stranger by Richard Lewis

Read Richard’s piece

In Times of Crisis by Gill Hilton

Read Gill’s piece

In Times of Crisis by Miriam Silver

Read Miriam’s piece

Last Call by Janie Reynolds

Read Janie’s piece

Pandemic Blues by Lesley Dawson

Read Lesley’s piece

The Crying Workshop – a timed exercise by Sho Botham

Read Sho’s piece

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THE MASK

For this week’s timed exercise I asked our writers to open their piece with this line:
It seems increasingly likely that I really will undertake the expedition that has been preoccupying my imagination now for some days.

The line came from The Remains of the Day by Kazuo Ishiguro. In his 1989 Man Booker prize winning novel, Ishiguro creates a character for whom it’s a point of pride never to let his mask slip and admit the truth of his own emotions, even to himself. In the summer of 1956, an ageing butler goes on a motoring holiday to visit an old colleague. The journey becomes a chance to reflect on his past and the mistakes he made throughout his long career in servitude. Ishiguro slowly peels back the layers of masks the protagonist has been wearing to protect himself from hard truths.

Ultimately we get a picture of a man trying desperately to keep a lid on his emotions – and what a complete picture it is. The Remains of the Day does that most wonderful thing a work of literature can do: it makes you feel you hold a human life in your hands.  When you reach the end, it really does seem as if you’ve lost a friend – a laughably pompous, party-hat-refusing, stick-in-the-mud friend, but a good friend nonetheless. You want to give him a hug, except he’d be outraged. 

The title or subject for the homework was:  The Mask.

Lockdown Kernels by Saffron Swansborough

Read Saffron’s piece

Fallen Angel by Stuart Carruthers

Read Stuart’s piece

The Vacationers by Victoria Watson

Read Victoria’s piece

Saving Face by Janie Reynolds

Listen to Janie’s piece

The Mask by Fran Duffield

Read Fran’s piece

The Mask by Ivor John

Read Ivor’s piece

The Masked Stranger by Richard Lewis

Read Richard’s piece

The Mask by Gill Hilton

Read Gill’s piece

The Mask by Sho Botham

Read Sho’s piece

Harold by Vera Gajic

Read Vera’s piece

Masks by Rosalyn Hurst

Read Rosalyn’s piece

The Mask by Lesley Dawson

Read Lesley’s piece

………………………………………

JULY

TASTE

For this week’s timed exercise I asked our writers to use the following quote in their piece:
Egotist, n.  A person of low taste, more interested in himself than in me.

This is an entry from Ambrose Bierce’s Devil’s Dictionary. Read it Here

In fiction, the characters’ five senses are what allow us to get lost in the story. But few writers realise which of the five senses they lean on more heavily than others. As a writer, you will have a natural inclination toward one sense over the others. One sense that is often overlooked or undervalued is the sense of taste. Read it Here

A lot can be learned form food writers and restaurant critics. The first great food writer was Jean Anthelme Brillat-Savarin. Although he was not a chef, Brillat-Savarin has been one of the most influential food writers of all time. He is known for his 1825 book Physiologie du Goût  (translated variously into English as “The Physiology of Taste”, “The Philosopher in the Kitchen”, etc.) Read it Here

I gave our writers this quote from Brillat-Savarin to use in their homework and asked them to focus on using that neglected fifth sense – taste.

Long practice has taught me that one pleasure leads to another.

A Tasteful Ending by Grant Mcfarlane

Listen to Grant’s poem

Curry Love by Shevlyn Byroo

Read Shevlyn’s piece

The Yellow Rowing Boat by MaryPat Campbell

Read MaryPat’s piece

Funny Money by Martin Bourne

Read Martin’s piece

Autumn’s Overcoat by Stuart Carruthers

Read Stuart’s piece

Fleeting Pleasures by Fran Duffield

Read Fran’s piece

Atrocity Exhibition by Ivor John

Read Ivor’s piece

Jules & Julia by Vera Gajic

Read Vera’s piece

One Pleasure Leads to Another

by Richard Lewis

Read Richard’s piece

The Sweetest Pleasure by Mia Sundby

Read Mia’s piece

One Pleasure Leads to Another by Miriam Silver

Read Miriam’s piece

Mellow by Lauren Holstein

Read Lauren’s poem

A Secret Life by Lesley Dawson

Read Lesley’s piece

………………………………………

I’M IN LOVE WITH YOU

For this week’s timed exercise I showed our writers this image…

I then read from ‘Milk Fed’ Melissa Broder’s most recent novel. Pairing superlative emotional insight with unabashed vivid fantasy,  Melissa Broder tells a tale of appetites: of physical hunger, of sexual desire, of spiritual longing. Milk Fed is a tender and riotously funny meditation on love, certitude, and the question of what we are all being fed.

In an interview in the Rumpus, Melissa Broder speaks with Greg Mania about Milk Fed and her writing process.

“I’m still doing it the same way I’ve been doing it: dictating the first draft into my phone, three paragraphs per day, using Siri and Simplenote (free notes app). Don’t stop or proofread or think about it or change anything until the whole mass of clay has been thrown down—even if I see things are spelled wrong, or Siri is missing stuff (always). Just keep going. Encourage your own messiness. This part takes about nine months.” 

“Then begins the editorial process, the first round of which is just me trying to figure out what I was even saying half the time. Edit the whole thing over and over and over and over again. Treat it like a poem: every word intentional. Listen for rhythm. Nothing should stick out as shitty or like I’m trying to pass something off or arhythmic or like I’m lying to myself or the audience. When everything gets quiet, then I’m maybe done.”

I asked our writers to use this line from Melissa Broder anywhere in their homework:

I’m in love with you and you don’t want anything to do with me so I think we can make this work. 

They Always Get Back Together by Ali Giles

Read Ali’s piece

Heathcliff by MaryPat Campbell

Read MaryPat’s piece

It Hurts Too Much by Sho Botham

Read Sho’s piece

Number 9 by Martin Bourne

Read Martin’s piece

I’m in Love by Rosalyn Hurst

Read Rosalyn’s piece

Love Actually by Lesley Dawson

Read Lesley’s piece

Where Did the Fun Go? by Stuart Carruthers

Read Stuart’s piece

I’m in Love by Ivor John

Read Ivor’s piece

The Beauty by Richard Lewis

Read Richard’s piece

I’m in Love with You by Miriam Silver

Read Miriam’s piece

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A SECRET LIFE

For this week’s timed exercise I asked our writers to use this line in their piece:

We called it alimony.

With one caveat, I asked everyone to create a setting for the word ‘alimony’ outside of the usual divorce scenario.

The line came from a Southbank talk by John Le Carre where he refers to the payment made to agents in the field,  “We paid them a pittance and we called it alimony.”

Alimony – early 17th century (in the sense ‘nourishment, means of subsistence’): from Latin alimonia ‘nutriment’, from alere ‘nourish’.

I then read from A Perfect Spy by John le Carre. The novel starts by introducing the protagonist Magnus Pym and tracking his movements across  “a south Devon coastal town” on his way to a Victorian guesthouse, where he is addressed by the elderly landlady who says, “Why Mr. Canterbury, it’s you.” In this deft use of dialogue, LeCarré illustrates the essence of the classic writing technique “show, don’t tell,” revealing that Pym has a secret life, has visited the guesthouse before and is travelling under a pseudonym.

The subject for the homework was:  A Secret Life

Alimony by Karen Akroyd

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Futureproofing by Saffron Swansborough

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What I Would Say by Martin Bourne

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Silvia’s Garden Shed by Sho Botham

Listen to Sho’s piece

Aunt Elizabeth by Victoria Watson

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Secret Lives by Rosalyn Hurst

Read Rosalyn’s piece

A Dress To Die For by Garf Collins

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The Conquer Room by Stuart Carruthers

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A Sign of the Times by Gill Hilton

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A Secret Life by Fran Duffield

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Secrets by Miriam Silver

Read Miriam’s piece

………………………………………

MEMORY IS THE THING WE FORGET WITH

For this week’s timed exercise I gave our writers this sentence to use in their piece:

Ribbon, bell, emerald, stamp.

This line comes from The Memory Police by the Japanese writer Yoko Ogawa.

‘Ribbon, bell, emerald, stamp. The words that came from my mother’s mouth thrilled me, like the names of little girls from distant countries or new species of plants.’ A surreal, provocative fable about the power of memory and the trauma of loss the 1994 novel, has a dream-like tone influenced by Kafka. An English translation by Stephen Snyder was published in 2019.

The story follows a novelist on an island under the control of the Memory Police. An unknown force causes the people of the island to collectively ‘forget’ and lose their attachment to objects or concepts, e.g. hats, perfume, birds and ribbon. The Memory Police enforce the removal of these objects from the island, and of the people who continue to remember, such as the author’s mother. Some, who continue to remember, escape from the island or hide in safe houses to evade capture by the Police.

Ogawa’s weightless and unadorned prose weaves a world where memory is always associative; we remember not just the object itself but what it conjures. Birds are byways to flight, lightness, quickness, youth, song, mornings, twilights, migrations. They partake in stories, paintings, metaphors and myths. Each object that is disappeared takes layers of personal and shared knowledge with it. One of the inspirations for the novel was the Diary of Anne Frank.

I gave our writers this quote from Alexander Chase to use in their homework: Memory is the thing you forget with.

Memory by Karen Akroyd

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A Funny Hat by Sho Botham

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Billy by Victoria Watson

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Memory is the Thing by Rosalyn Hurst

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Memory Is What You Forget With by Lesley Dawson

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Jules & Julia by Vera Gajic

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The Stone Bears Your Name by Stuart Carruthers

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Going Back by Ivor John

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Memory is a Way of Forgetting by Richard Lewis

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I Must Write it Down by MaryPat Campbell

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Memory is the Thing you Forget with by Miriam Silver

Read Miriam’s piece

…………………………………………

A SIGN OF THE TIMES

For this week’s timed exercise I asked our writers to open your piece with this line:

When you are on the dancefloor there is nothing to do but dance.

This is a quote from Umberto Eco’s 2004 novel The Mysterious Flame of Queen Loana.

When book dealer Yambo suffers amnesia, he loses all sense of who he is, but retains memories of all the books, poems, songs, and movies he has ever experienced. To reclaim his identity, he retreats to the family home and rummages through old letters, photographs, and mementos stored in the attic. Yambo’s mind swirls with thoughts, and he struggles to retrieve the one memory that may be most sacred, that of Lila Saba, his first love. The novel is steeped in nostalgia and filled with vivid, sometimes wondrous imagery.

I then read and discussed Umberto’s 36 Rules for Writing Well – Read them here…

Aside from being an internationally acclaimed novelist, Umberto Eco was also a Semiologist. He made a wider audience aware of semiotics by various publications, most notably his novel The Name of the Rose, which includes (second to its plot) applied semiotic operations. Semiotics includes the study of signs and sign processes, indication, designation, likeness, analogy, allegory, metonymy, metaphor, symbolism, signification, and communication. Eco proposed that every cultural phenomenon may be studied as communication.

I gave everyone this title for their homework:  A Sign of the Times

A Sign of the Times by Victoria Watson

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A Sign of the Times by Lauren Holstein

Read Lauren’s poem

A Sign of the Times Haiku by Saffron Swansborough

Read Saffron’s poem

A Sign of the Times by Sho Botham

Listen to Sho’s piece

A Sign of the Times by Grant McFarlane

Listen to Grant’s piece

A Sign of the Times by Ali Giles

Listen to Ali’s piece read by Mia Sundby

An Eyebrow Raising Sign of the Times by Jill Webb 

Listen to Jill’s piece

A Sign of the Times by Karen Akroyd

Read Karen’s piece

Signs of the Times by Rosalyn Hurst

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A Sign of the Times by Lesley Dawson

Read Lesley’s piece

A Sign of the Times by Martin Bourne

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One Foot on the Ladder by Stuart Carruthers

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A Sign of the Times by Ivor John

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A Sign of the Times by Richard Lewis

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A Sign of the Times by MaryPat Campbell

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A Sign of the Times by Miriam Silver

Read Miriam’s piece

…………………………………………

JUNE

THE LOVER’S DICTIONARY

For this week’s timed exercise I asked everyone to open their piece with this line:

I wrote a good omelette… and ate a hot poem.

“I wrote a good omelet… and ate / a hot poem… after loving you,” writes Nikki Giovanni in her poem “I Wrote a Good Omelet.” The poet, whose seventy-eighth birthday was  just last week, describes going about various common tasks in strange and humorous ways, replacing, for example, “car” for “coat” in the phrase “drove my coat home” and “bed” for “hair” in “turned down my hair.” Through these playful reversals, Giovanni mimics the dizzying feeling of falling in love, as if the speaker is unable to focus on anything after being with their beloved.

In The Lover’s Dictionary David Levithan finds a fascinating way to tell us something about love. Told entirely through a series of dictionary entries, this modern love story is abstract, quirky, and so incredibly charming. The reader only receives brief windows into this romantic relationship, but it’s so interesting to see these small glimpses through the lens of different words. Levithan’s conceit is fascinating, and he completely pulls it off. For example:

acronym, n.“I remember the first time you signed an email with SWAK. I didn’t know what it meant. It sounded violent, like a slap connecting. … And the next time you wrote, ten minutes later, you explained.I loved the ridiculous image I got from that, of you leaning over your laptop,touching your lips gently to the screen, sealing your words to me before turning them into electricity. Now every time you SWAK me, the echo of that electricity remains.”

For the homework I asked our writers to emulate the treatment of The Lover’s Dictionary and break their story into a series of 5 or 6 word definitions. This would be an interesting way of working out what their story is actually about.

Love Letters by Saffron Swansborough

Read Saffron’s poem

The A – Z of Vital Signs by Ali Giles

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The Lover’s Dictionary by Victoria Watson

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The Alcoholic’s Dictionary by Grant McFarlane

Listen to Grant’s piece

My Time by Sho Botham

Read Sho’s piece

Margaret and Me by Gill Hilton

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ABC of Unrequited Love by Ivor John

Read Ivor’s piece

Four Seasons by Richard Lewis

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Five Words by MaryPat Campbell

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Reversals by Miriam Silver

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The Party Pooper by Lesley Dawson

Read Lesley’s piece

…………………………………………

WE CAN ONLY DIE IN THE FUTURE

For this week’s timed exercise I asked our writers to open their piece with this line:“Tell me things I won’t mind forgetting,” she said.

This is the first line of Amy Hempel’s short story, “The Cemetery Where Al Jolson Is Buried,” In Hempel’s first and most anthologised story, the narrator fails her terminally ill best friend, almost entirely in subtext. She visits the beachside hospital, bearing welcome, “useless” facts and jokes, but when an extra bed appears for her to stay the night, she panics and decides to go home. Hempel doesn’t give us the final goodbye, or the bad-news call, or any of the other obvious scenes a “maximalist” writer might dramatize. Instead, we get the tacit admission that the narrator bailed before the end, enrolling in a “Fear of Flying” class the same morning her friend is buried.

Hempel has said that the idea for “In the Cemetery Where Al Jolson Is Buried” was suggested to her by her teacher Gordon Lish, the fiction editor of Esquire in the 1970’s, in a fiction-writing workshop that she took at Columbia University. Lish told his students to write on their “most terrible, despicable secret, the thing you will never live down.”Hempel has said that she knew immediately what that secret was for her: “I failed my best friend at the moment when I absolutely couldn’t fail her, when she was dying.” Hempel, like her most admired writer, Anton Chekhov, knows that grief, by its very nature, resists ordinary attempts to articulate it. Grief cannot be talked about; it can only be objectified in efforts to avoid it.  Read In The Cemetery Where Al Jolson is Buried.

“My favorite compliment that I got from a writer early on, was someone saying to me, ‘You leave out all the right things’. That was wonderful to hear. To know you’ve given your reader credit for being able to understand without you having to say it.”

For the homework I asked our writers to use these two lines from Amy Hempel in order in their piece.I moved through the days like a severed head that finishes a sentence. We can only die in the future, I thought; right now we are always alive.

The Book of Life by Saffron Swansborough

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Hiding by Ali Giles

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Kir by Victoria Watson

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Severed Head by Mia Sundby

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Legs/Teenage Dreams by Lauren Holstein

Read Lauren’s poem

Woe is Me by Sho Botham

Read Sho’s piece

Death Bed by Janie Reynolds

Read Janie’s piece

Today I’m Alive by Ivor John

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Locked Down by Vera Gajic

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I Feel the Devil’s Love by Stuart Carruthers

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The Present Tense by Fran Duffield

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Big Sister by MaryPat Campbell

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Severed Head by Miriam Silver

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Missing Inaction by Martin Bourne

Read Martin’s piece

…………………………………………

A GOOD TURN

For this week’s timed exercise I showed our writers some photographs I had taken of a van that was parked near my house.

I asked everyone to write about the fictional owner of the van. 

I then read and discussed the Lady in the Van by Alan Bennett.  Miss Shepherd, or rather, Margaret Fairchild was born in 1911 in Hellingly in East Sussex. A gifted pianist, according to her brother in about 1932 the middle-class and well-spoken Margaret Fairchild studied at the École Normale de Musique de Paris in Paris under the virtuoso Alfred Cortot. She led a chequered life eventually ending up in Alan Bennett’s driveway where she lived for 15 years in a hand-painted yellow van. When she died in 1989 Bennett immortalised her in his diaries, which he later turned into a radio play, a novella and a film.  Read The Lady in the Van.

I gave our writers a quote from the novella to use it in their homework: One seldom was able to do her a good turn without some thoughts of strangulation.

The Slum, theMum and the Staycation by Saffron Swansborough

Read Saffron’s poem

The Neighbour by Jill Webb

 Listen to Jill’s piece 

Quid Pro Quo by Ali Giles

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Trouble Crossing by Richard Lewis

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Thanks for Nothing by Stuart Carruthers

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The Good Neighbour by Fran Duffield

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All Sorts by MaryPat Campbell

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The Earth Mother by Miriam Silver

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Good Turns and Strangulation by Mia Sundby

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Afternoon Tea with a Difference by Lesley Dawson

Read Lesley’s piece

…………………………………………

May

IT ALL STARTED WITH A DREAMFor this week’s timed exercise we discussed the idea that every story has two sides to it. With this in mind I asked everyone to write two contrasting viewpoints of the same story using this opening line:

She had an evil face, smoothed by hypocrisy; but her manners were excellent.

This line is from The Strange Case of Dr Jeckyl and Mr Hyde. Robert Louis Stevenson had long been fascinated with split personalities but couldn’t figure out how to write about them. Then one night he had a dream about Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. “In the small hours of one morning … I was awakened by cries of horror from Louis,” his wife Fanny said. “Thinking he had a nightmare, I awakened him. He said angrily: ‘Why did you wake me? I was dreaming a fine bogey tale.’” Stevenson later elaborated on the dream in an essay called “A Chapter On Dreams.”

The opening line of of this week’s homework was: It all started with a dream.

Queen of the Dance by Lauren Holstein

Read Lauren’s poem

Sweet Enough by Ali Giles

Listen to Ali’s piece read by Mia Sundby

Divebombing by Saffron Swansborough

Read Saffron’s poem

Roots by Victoria Watson

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Something I Don’t Know by Stuart Carruthers

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Starring Part by Grant McFarlane

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The Dream by Martin Bourne

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It all Started as a Dream by Miriam Silver

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In My Dreams by Vera Gajic

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Evil Face by Sandra Banks

Read Sandra’s piece

…………………………………………

NOTHING TRAVELS FASTERFor this week’s timed exercise I gave our writers this opening line:

Kettle, plug, fridge, milk, coffee. Yawn.

This was an exercise in Pace and the line came from The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. Instead of taking the readers through the whole process of making a cup of coffee,  Douglas Adams simply chose the words associated with the action, allowing readers to fill in the blanks.

The most important thing to keep in mind when you’re outlining your story and thinking about pacing is balance. A single story can’t and shouldn’t be all fast or all slow.

Instead, there should be a trade-off between the two. This provides variety, makes the story interesting, and keeps the readers hooked. Think about it as music: it’s the highs and lows combined that makes a song appealing to the ear. If it was made up of a single, flat note, it would be pretty boring, wouldn’t it? Read attached pdf on pacing your story.I read from The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy and asked you to open your homework with this line from Mostly Harmless, the fifth and final part of the Hitchhiker series: Nothing travels faster than the speed of light with the possible exception of bad news, which obeys its own special laws.

Travelling Light by Gill Hilton

Read Gill’s piece

The Lies, Deceptions & Falsehoods of Grief by Victoria Watson

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This is Not Here by Stuart Carruthers

Read Stuart’s piece

The Speed of Divorce by Grant McFarlane

Listen to Grant’s piece

Chinese Whispers by Jill Webb

Listen to Jill’s piece

Highly Strung by MaryPat Campbell

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Bad News by Sho Botham

Read Sho’s piece

Voiture en Panne by Martin Bourne

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Nothing Travels Faster by Miriam Silver

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Bad News by Fran Duffield

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Larkins by Catriona Millar

Read Catriona’s piece

…………………………………………

THE ALIBIFor this week’s timed exercise I asked you to use this scenario:

The Colonel has been found dead in the library, it looks like suicide. You are being interviewed by a detective. “When did you last see the colonel?” they ask. Are you the murderer?Agatha Christie considered the opening of her 1941 novel, The Body in the Library to be one of her best openings, it was certainly her favourite.

Mrs Bantry was dreaming. Her sweet peas had just taken a First at the flower show. The vicar, dressed in cassock and surplice, was giving out the prizes in church. His wife wandered past, dressed in a bathing suit, but, as is the blessed habit of dreams, this fact did not arouse the disapproval of the parish in the way it would assuredly have done in real life… Read Ronald Knox’s 10 Commandments for Detective Fiction 

I asked everyone to use this line from The Body in the Library anywhere in their homework piece:  No innocent person ever has an alibi. The title for the homework was:  The Alibi.

The Alibi by Gill Hilton

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The Alibi by Victoria Watson

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No Alibi by Lou Beckerman

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The Alibi by Stuart Carruthers

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The Alibi by Rosalyn Hurst

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The Alibi by Janie Reynolds

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The Alibi by MaryPat Campbell

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The Alibi by Sho Botham

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The Alibi Maker by Vera Gajic

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The Alibi by Ali Giles

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The Alibi by Miriam Silver

Read Miriam’s piece

The Alibi by Fran Duffield

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The Alibi by Karen Akroyd

Read Karen’s piece

The Alibi by Catriona Millar

Read Catriona’s piece

…………………………………………

THE SECRET NOTEBOOK

If your work doesn’t have trouble it may as well be a shopping list, unless of course there is a gun on your list or strychnine.  With this in mind I asked our writers to feature a shopping list for one of the following in their 20 minute timed exercise:

Poisoner     Burglar     Kidnapper      Pirate       Ghost      Murderer    Assassin Evil Mastermind

Following the death of Agatha Christie’s daughter, Rosalind, at the end of 2004, a remarkable secret was revealed. Unearthed among her affairs at the family home of Greenway were Agatha Christie’s secret notebooks, 78 handwritten volumes of notes, lists and drafts outlining all her plans for her many books, plays and stories. Mixed in with these literary traces there are telephone numbers, maps, shopping lists, doodles and aide-memoires demonstrating that Christie saw no difference between her life and her work.

The title for this week’s homework was:   The Secret Notebook.

I also asked everyone to use this line from The Thumb Mark of St Peter anywhere in their piece: Everyone is very much alike, really. But fortunately they don’t realise it.

The Secret Notebook by Victoria Watson

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The Secret Notebook by Grant McFarlane

Listen to Grant’s piece

The Secret Notebook by Stuart Carruthers

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The Secret Notebook by Richard Rewell

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The Secret Notebook by Sho Botham

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The Secret Notebook by Martin Bourne

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The Secret Notebook by Vera Gajic

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The Secret Notebook by Ali Giles

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The Secret Notebook by Miriam Silver

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The Secret Notebook by Sue Hitchcock

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The Secret Notebook by Lesley Dawson

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The Secret Notebook by Ivor John

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I Write the Letter by Karen Akroyd

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Grocery List – a timed exercise by Lauren Holstein

Read Lauren’s poem

Divided by Catriona Millar

Read Catriona’s piece