Sunday, May 22, 2011

Claire Keegan workshop

As part of this years Auckland Writers and Readers Festival (May 11-15) I attended a workshop run by multi-award winning Irish short story writer Claire Keegan. (She has published two collections of stories, Antarctica and Walk the Blue Fields, as well as the long short story, Foster.)

I found her teaching style stimulating, even bracing - it was obvious she didn't suffer fools or pander to the punters, and she definitely didn't like tricks, gimmicks, or shallowness - and good on her for all that. I was glad of her honesty and sincerity as well her intelligence and admired her ability to put a stake in the ground about writing fiction.

The workshop was entitled How Fiction Works and one of the things she empahasised was the importance/centrality of time, particularly as a way of thinking about structure. I'm still mulling over all the ideas she presented and the points she made but below are some of my (rough)notes from her comments and discussion about time.

Start by making an incision in time; mine this piece of time; consider and reconsider time

Before and after a story are often unstated

Not everything is told in a story so you need to choose what moments in time to show; let the reader join those moments into a whole

Think about what to include, what to leave out and how much silence there should be

In your second and third drafts think about whether you have chosen the right slice of time

The language of a story begins at a certain point of time

Write what happens over time through the point of view of a character - follow the gaze of the character and stay inside their vocabulary

Transitions in time follow the desire of the character, what she or he wants, doesn't want or has lost.

I like her phrase 'incision in time' very much and I'm finding it a helpful way to think about different possible points of entry, exploration and exit - much more helpful than being told to have a beginning middle and an end. This way of looking at story structure at least offers no pretence that beginnings, middles and endings are easy, obvious or transparent.

Keegan also spoke about 'show don't tell' in an interesting and fresh way:

Good writing works on the level of suggestion

Don't make statements - e.g. she was happy/sad - or analyse, summarise, tell anecdotes or make explanations

Take care of the person/character you are writing about; don't make a point of them, i.e. don't use them to make a point

The internal thoughts of a character follow the gaze of that character.

There was much else besides what I have just mentioned in the hour and a half workshop. It was a treat, and a steal at $40.
Congratulations to the organisers of the festival for re-instating the workshops.


  1. very helpful...thanks. I like the idea of 'taking care of my character' and not using the character to make a point or deliver a message!

  2. Glad you found it helpful,Kate. Will try and create some links to interviews with Claire keegan.

  3. Hi Kate, I think characters can reflect themes and issues we're grappling with as writers, as human beings, and in that sense can speak both for us and to us. And even 'through us.' A search to discover them, and ourselves, through connection, is a proper task. If the reader senses a message in the text for them, then that's their business. We shouldn't become messages salesmen. That's a different kind of storytelling.