Rose and the Panther — a Cautionary Tale of Workshops

As some of our readers will know, Sophie and I gave an editing workshop — complete with black  panther — at the RNA Conference in mid-July 2017. (Fantastic conference, by the way.)
About 70 people attended. That’s a lot — we normally limit our workshop numbers to 12!

sparklers in the hands of a loving couple

Our topic was editing to add Sparkle to our writing in order to hook and hold readers. Since we only had an hour, rather than our normal 2 full days, it was more of a twinkle.
But it was fun. And we hope that those who attended found it useful.

We certainly did. It taught us some salutary lessons which I’ll share in a moment.
First, let me introduce you to Rose…

Rose meets her Match…

One of the examples we used was the first meeting of a heroine, Rose, with her unnamed hero. Crucially, would it hook and hold a reader? This is the text that we gave the workshop:

twenties flapper woman dancing Charleston

Rose felt out of place and a bit scared, since she didn’t really know her companions very well and, when the men had had too much to drink, they had a nasty habit of pawing any woman they could lay their hands on. She glanced round helplessly, wondering whether there was any escape route but knowing, in her heart of hearts, that there would be none when, suddenly, she saw him – she had never seen him before, she was sure, and he stood out because he was quite alone, his immaculate white tie and tails fitted his panther-like body like a second skin and he was obviously in total control of all about him. He strolled nonchalantly across to her. “Dance with me,” he said.
(125 words)

Participants were invited to spend 5 minutes deciding what to change in green text #1 above so that it sparkled enough to grab a reader. We told participants it didn’t grab us. We admitted we’d written it. And we said it was OTT. What we didn’t say explicitly — mistake #1 — was that we had deliberately written it to be so dire that participants would tear it to shreds.

…and the workshop meets a Panther

Mistake #2 followed from mistake #1. Here it is:

panther with glowing eyes in the dark

Four minutes into the 5 minutes of thinking time, we put up this panther slide. We intended it to raise a laugh, or at least a giggle. It didn’t.

On a blog page like this, it may look OK, but on an enormous screen, it didn’t work well because the image isn’t high-resolution. (We learned what a sin that was during Janet Gover‘s informative conference session on manipulating images.)

And anyway, our participants were working away so hard that they probably didn’t even notice that a rather fuzzy animal image had appeared on the screen.

red oops! key on keyboard

Mistake #3 was to underestimate how kind RNA members can be, particularly at Conference and particularly when they’re invited to criticise the work of fellow authors. Basically, RNA members understand how devastating harsh criticism can be, so our participants tried to be really, really kind about that dire green text #1.

Oops, indeed. That wasn’t the plan at all.

Shoot the Panther?

When prompted by Sophie, participants did agree that there was quite a lot that could be taken out of green text #1. Once they got into the swing of it, suggestions really began to flow. That wasn’t surprising, considering how dull and wordy green text #1 is. By the time Sophie had finished taking contributions from the audience, we had cut large chunks of text and we had suggestions for improving much of the rest.

panther on the prowl

The panther was still hanging on by his claws, though. I strongly suspect it was RNA kindness again.

Sophie had admitted the panther was her idea and I think our author colleagues were too generous to tell her that her animal metaphor should have been shot at birth.
(If only we had told the audience that we were doubled up with laughter when we originally wrote it. I couldn’t read the panther passage without corpsing into giggles. Still can’t.)

Exit Panther

The revised green text we offered to our audience came sans panther, I’m delighted to say::

Rose looked at the dance floor and shivered. I don’t know where I am with these people, she thought.
     Over a drunken shoulder, she saw a commotion in the doorway. A new man had arrived.
     He was a stranger. Controlled. Mesmerising. And staring straight at her.
     Suddenly, Rose couldn’t breathe.

     A second later, he was there.
     “Dance with me,” he said.
(61 words)

Green text #2 is nowhere near perfect — and there’s never a right or perfect answer to our exercises anyway, because all readers are different — but we think it has enough sparkle to grab a reader a bit more than the first version.

The workshop produced interesting discussions about how this shorter version — less than half the length of the first one — could be improved. Opinions differed over Suddenly, for example, and over the omissions of the hero’s physical appearance and how he got from the doorway to Rose.
But no one wanted the return of the panther.

Lessons from the Libertà Panther

  1. If an example is deliberately dire and is intended to be torn to shreds, SAY SO explicitly
  2. Don’t use low-resolution images on slides. EVER. [Thank you, Janet Gover 😉 ]
  3. Don’t distract the audience with jokey slides when they’re working hard
  4. If something is intended to be a joke, make sure the audience knows it’s OK to laugh and that laughter won’t hurt the presenter’s feelings
  5. Never underestimate how kind and generous RNA members can be to fellow authors

panther at rest but alert with JOKE text

I shall create a Joke Flag for future workshops, to be waved vigorously at pantherly moments. Message — it’s OK to laugh, folks, if you find it funny. It’s OK to groan, too.

Considering Cliché: A Writer’s Unforgivable Sin?

The very first piece of advice that I remember anyone giving me about writing was, “Avoid cliché.” I was ten. I had to look up “cliché”. So now I have a question.

Dickens father of clicheA cliché is a word or phrase so worn out by overuse that it has deteriorated until it is meaningless. It may once have been striking. Today it is white noise.

The gentle reader ignores it. The ungentle critic berates the writer for laziness and lack of originality.

Dickens got away with “It is a far, far better thing I do, than I have ever done,” because he thought of it first. After that it became popular, then heard widely, then untouchable by any writer with pretensions to respectability.

Cliché, the Reader’s Friend?

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Pedantique-Ryter: Less is More. Or Is It Fewer?

Less? Or fewer? This Pedantique-Ryter post is dedicated to that Disgusted of Chelsea (no names, no pack drill) who had this exchange on Twitter recently, after shopping in Marks & Spencer:

exclamation mark in fire for less or fewerDisgusted of Chelsea:
My faith in @marksandspencer is shattered, I tell you, shattered. Their ad at checkout:
“Less worries. More sandcastles.” AAAARGGH.
Is there anything we can do to help?
Very kind but am in shock. Civilisation tottering.
Ideally change wording to “fewer worries” or “less worry”?
Probably not cost effective?
We’re sorry you don’t feel we’ve got our ad right.
We’ll share your comments with the team. Thanks
It’s like a needle under a nail to me.
Team could try Fowler’s Dictionary of Modern English Usage?

Civilisation tottering? Well, maybe DoC’s irony went a bit far there, but Pedantique-Ryter admits to feeling the needle under the nail, too.
Fewer? Less? Are they interchangeable? If not, how and when should they be used?
Read on to find out the Pedantique-Ryter answer. Continue reading

Magic Moment and Creative Chaos

Mysterious woman in magic moment

I’ve always been fascinated by the chemistry of the magic moment and the creative chaos out of which it so often emerges in works of the imagination. And I mean always.

Long before I analysed A-Level texts or read any of the learned works on story structure, I knew there was a point in my favourite fantasies where time seemed to slow. Everything became both more meaningful and more mysterious.

They were the places in the book which I re-read, again and again. The moments I went back to in the CD. The words I waited for, breathless, in the theatre.

 Amid Nonsense

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Collaborator and Writer, First Steps in Doing it Together


Collaborator with colleagueBy temperament, I’m one of nature’s collaborators. Show me a team and I’m spitting on my hands and doing my bit. With enthusiasm.

In my various day jobs, I’ve loved the sense of shared enterprise. OK, I could get a bit testy when we had meetings about meetings. But mostly interaction with other people buoyed me up when I was tired, focused me when I was floundering and made laugh a lot.

And I work a whole lot better than I do on my own.

…or Loner?

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Regency gowns: clean, alter, mend the damage

Imagine a Regency lady with a beautiful evening gown, like this one in grey silk with pink trimmings and grey gauze oversleeves. But — oh, dear — she’s ripped it, or perhaps something has been spilled on it. Who will repair the damage or clean off the stain? The lady herself? Continue reading

Repel the Night Tigers, Despatch from London

Hayley Mills repels night tigerThis blog is about ways I’ve found to repel the night tigers we’re facing in the UK right now.

Do you remember Pollyanna? She was the irritating kid who played the Glad Game, no matter how dire things were. When she wanted a doll but got crutches from a Christmas present Lucky Dip, her father told her to be glad she didn’t need them. What would he say about night tigers?

It’s been a bad time. Angry young men killing people, claiming the justification of their faith. Politicians politicking pointlessly but with some nasty campaign tactics. Horrible racist backlash in places. Furious partisan insults on social media. Vile.

Yet there are good people and great things in the world and some seriously funny ones, too. I’m hugging them close. Here’s how. Continue reading