Learning to write – 200 words at a time

Vivien Horler

Mike Nicol

I have to write 200 words of description for my assignment for my writing course this week.

“Imagine that sunset that stunned you or catching a wave on an early morning surf or a tense hang-gliding moment, or an afternoon at a waterhole in the bush …” instructs Mike Nicol, top SA crime writer, biographer and memoir-writer who is running the course.

“Or something completely different: describe entering a foreign city for the first time; or moving into a new home; arriving at a holiday destination.”

In 200 words? It’s not easy. But it’s not meant to be.

In fact I have an MA in creative writing, and my thesis scored good marks, so why am I doing Mike’s course on Writing Reality – essentially narrative non-fiction writing?

Because as a friend briskly pointed out, a thesis is not a book. So I’ve been hoping to learn some skills, how to round out what I’ve written, how to make it live and breathe and connect to the reader.

Or as Nicol says:  “It’s all very well to want to write, but unless you learn the basics your best efforts are, nine out of 10 times, bound to fail.”

This goes of course for both fiction and non-fiction writing – and Nicol is currently running online courses on both. Basic techniques include working out a plot, developing characters, and learning how to write authentic dialogue.

I’m now on module 4 of the Writing Reality course, which is focused on writing “scenes”. As Nicol points out in the course material: “Scenes are the building blocks of any story and you need to be able to fill them with details so that the reader’s imagination can take over and ‘complete’ your story.”

Previous weekly modules have looked at how to tell stories, how to create and animate characters, and how to write about events. Modules still to come include a look at dialogue, research and voice.

Each module consists of extensive notes, selected reading and videos, and a weekly assignment Nicol gives feedback on.

And it’s being fun, interesting and challenging. My piece on character was not a great success, but last week’s piece, a brief description of an event, was better. As a journalist I know about deadlines and story lengths, but this one simply needed more than 200 words, and ended up being just over 300.

I expected a bollocking, but I got this instead: “To be absolutely honest I only noticed it was over the limit when I got to the end. Which means it felt like it was shorter, which means that I was well entertained.”

Well, that gave me a little glow.

Now for 200 words of description.  Oh dear.




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