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We are limited in our travel, limited by time and space. We are creatures of the body. Speculative fiction – the kinds of stories that allow us to fly and flit and move through dimensions – give us the feeling of freedom in space. But outside of spec fic, we can only be in one place at one time. I hate that. But I love writing and I love imagining. Even in the writing of non-fiction – even in the writing of journalism – we are imagining. We inhabit place (and memory) with imaginative gifts, recalling sights and sounds and senses – but even when recalling, we are bringing our own odd visions to what we recall.

How about we work with that? How about we work with our odd visions, let them loose, let them guide us? How would that be?

We have a writing exercise today. If you feel you don’t have space for it today, that’s fine – tuck it away for the moment that you do have space.

Today, I invite you to describe a place – a location in your novel, or in your memoir, or a place from your ‘invented memory’ – and make it your own. This is a chance to practice ‘ditching the perfectionist’ – and it’s a chance to give voice to your own oddball vision.

Step one – choose a location. Think of a place – eg a hotel room, a café, a shop, a police station, a theatre… choose one. Just one.

This exercise is about describing the place in concrete terms and it’s also about letting yourself find your way to the description. Sometimes, you might feel that you need to describe the whole café, the whole hotel room, the whole police station, and get it architecturally correct. That can be a bit overwhelming. I want to give you permission (I mean, you can give yourself permission – I hope you will! – but if you need extra permission, I’m giving it to you) to pick and choose, to begin where you are and build from there.

So I encourage you to describe this place, to play

So, the four elements which form the cornerstones of this description are:

Small. Zoom into the most minute element in the space. The raindrop, the carpet fibre, the dustmites (as long as they aren’t talking dustmites or dustmites engaged in any narrative-type activity). Don’t use the word small, minute, tiny, wee, little etc. Show the minuteness through context.

Large. As above. Think spires, pylons, mountains through the windows, clouds… once I had someone do this exercise and they zoomed down through the centre of the building to the pylons and then to the centre of the earth. Brilliant. He has since won a BAFTA.

Odd. This is the thing which locates the setting precisely – not just any old boardroom, but the boardroom of your imagination, the one with the rusty typewriter covered with an American flag in the corner. Not just any nineteenth-century Yorkshire kitchen but the one over-run by dogs. Place something odd, something unexpected, in your setting. This is an important element – it’s about, as I said, precision, but it’s also about playfulness and giving full and glorious rein to your imagination. As is –

‘Wrong’. This is the most important element. It’s the element which most pertains to the heart of writing fiction. Or indeed, of any art. Unlike the above, this is about how you describe what is in the setting. It’s the one moment in this description that you are allowed to step into simile or metaphor. Primarily, this is about, as Kenneth Slessor would have it, being able to “undo, loosen your bubbles” (oh, he was my first love, Slessor). It’s about taking risks, the wonderful and necessary risk of being wrong. Not just the risk of being wrong, but the importance, actually of being wrong. What I mean is this: if you avoid being wrong, you end up being only half-right. I mean, you end up being safe. Okay. Mediocre. You avoid fabulous risk. And the wonderful thing about risk in writing is that no-one gets hurt. No bones get broken and, in most cases, marriages do not get destroyed.

So this element is about allowing yourself to describe something ‘wrongly’. To grab at the first image that comes to mind, that bubbles up, and not to worry about it being right. The floor as flat as an eye. The table was ridiculous in its fat squatness. The sky ‘Like a patient etherised upon a table’. The line from Elliot’s Lovesong of J Alfred Prufrock is logically wrong (where are the cables, the legs of the table, the face of the patient? It’s nonsense) – but spectacularly right, of course: the flatness, the deadness, the asleepness of the sky – and the comatose life of the poor narrator of the poem – all caught elegantly in that one line. What often happens, actually, is that in allowing yourself to be wrong – that is, to stop requiring yourself to be right – you become free to listen to your instinct. And instinct is where the best bit of writing happens, in my opinion. So, allow yourself a line or two of wrong description. Be ridiculous. Be playful. Be wrong.

Today’s prompt is…


Everything was broken