MASTERCLASS by Denise Leppard
As our regulars to the HW site will know, I was a freelance magazine writer for many years, and I’ve been published over 500 times, serials, novelettes, articles and short stories in particular. I’ve been running HW for the last 14 or 15 years, along with the rest of our writers writing plays and monologues and sketches and pieces to be performed at our Showcase public presentations.
This idea for this MASTERCLASS came about in this way:
In our meetings, we generally have one or two writing exercises, which we call our Ten Minute Teasers. Basically I give out a title or an idea, and they have ten minutes to write what they like, and then read it back to the group. These exercises sometimes frighten beginners out of their wits. We had one lady who almost burst into tears, having turned up at the writing group with no pen, or writing pad, and was totally unprepared to have to write anything. She never came back, sadly. Sometimes absolute beginners who join our group discover that they have talent and aptitude for writing never before suspected.
Everyone soon finds out that these teasers do in fact do their job – not only “tease” ideas and storylines out of the writers, but also get them used to writing off the cuff at a moment’s notice. I honestly haven’t had anyone ever declare that they have got writer’s block, and I do feel that these teasers are the reason why. Many of the results are taken away by individual writers and worked on at home and turned into very creditable pieces. Some, of course, bearing little resemblance to the ten minute exercise read out in class!
This is where the idea for this master class comes in. I don’t often join in with the writing exercises because that is when I go out to the kitchen and make tea for everyone. But a few weeks ago, I did join in. I’d given them a title STOP THIEF, and a glimmer of an idea hit me, based on a true incident from many years ago (more about this at the end). So I wrote my bit and read it out, and we moved on to other things. Ray took his idea home and turned it into a piece which is somewhere on this site, also entitled STOP THIEF. Then, efficient Website Manager he is, he asked me if he could have my piece to put on the site. This is where everything became more involved. Professional pride wouldn’t let me send off what I had written off the cuff without reviewing it, editing it, and doing all those things to it that time and experience as a published writer had become second nature to me.
Reviewing and editing your work – why?
It has to be said that most beginners don’t see the point in editing their work. To some, “finished” is the last full stop of the first draft. Too many start off by thinking their every word is precious (yes we’ve all heard about not murdering our darlings) and must not be discarded or altered.
However I did rewrite that first draft, and edit it, and review it, and make all sorts of improvements, and when I looked at the first draft, it had grown from 200 words to nearly 2,000. But this is bearing in mind that I did not have a deadline, or an editor breathing down my neck with a length and content restriction. (This is one good thing about not writing for publication: you are your own judge – see below about writing purely for your own pleasure). But I did wonder if there was a practical message in there, in the process it had gone through, which might be of help to other writers who haven’t got a clue about expanding and developing their own ideas.
When you are writing to professional standards and editorial requirements you soon realise that nothing is sacrosanct.That some editor is more likely to cut out what you think are your best bits and even make changes that make you want to pull your hair out – so, if you want to get published, you give him what he wants, not what you want. You soon learn that it‘s more satisfying to edit it yourself than have someone else do it.
Writing for your own pleasure:
However, if you are writing for yourself rather than for publication – and we have had plenty of those very happy souls in our group in the past – then you can write what you darn well like and that’s nobody’s business but your own. You can tell me that’s what you want to write, and I can go bury my head and my advice with it! Why follow editorial requirements if there is no need? Why follow the “rules“? Why not just enjoy the process and forget writing for publication. Give your ideas free rein and waffle and burble to your heart’s content …
However that remark shows that I know there will be deficiencies in the piece that you have written purely for your own enjoyment that will stop it being suitable for publication. So: edit.
Writing for publication
My job as leader of HW is to bring writers up to a publishable standard and that means adopting a professional approach to their work. A mantra might be: Don’t be too easily pleased with your work. That is fatal.
Second and third thoughts improve your work; so never underestimate the value of constant editing, re reading, reviewing, putting the piece to one side for a few weeks and coming back to it with a fresh eye. If you haven’t got a deadline, there is no need to hurry this process; take your time.
As an example: Over the past year or so, HW have begun to meet monthly instead of weekly. This has meant that they have more time to work on their pieces between meetings, instead of weekly deadlines they are now monthly (even if some of them admit to writing up their stories during the weekend before our meetings.. In some cases, the night before …. ) However, what remains clear to me, is that in general their standard of work and the polish on their pieces has improved considerably. The more work they have done on their pieces, it shows.
What follows is the first version, written and read out in class, and not edited at all. This is as it came straight from my pen barely twelve minutes old. I worked on this over two or three weeks, continually tweaking and changing and adding and deleting, until I arrived at Version 2, what I felt was the best I could do, the best way of presenting the story and developing the characters and storyline. What I hope you the reader and budding writer will be able to see, is how you can take a simple idea and by refining it, turn into something more adventurous and professional.
In between the two versions, is a resume of the kind of work I did on it and the reasons why I made the improvements and changes. This is the way I learned to work, when being guided by editors and even though I don’t write professionally now, it is how I always will edit and present my work. Every word has to count. I learned on the hoof, sometimes the hard way. I hope that by reading the first version, then what I did with it, you will understand how most professionals work, and the reasons behind the lessons I personally try to help beginners learn in editing their own work.
STOP THIEF Version 1. Written as a ten minute teaser. Unexpurgated!
I’d like a pound for every time I’ve heard that lately. But it’s a cry from the past, in the neighbourhood we live in. There was once, when I was a boy, always someone dipping in someone else’s pocket or doing a bit of help – yourself in the chemist.
I suppose in those days gone by it used to be cry that stopped the culprit in his tracks. No police or mobile phones to call for help, everyone used to be galvanised into action and chase the offender – a small boy with a picked purse, a handful of apples, a tube of glue lifted from the supermarket
A cry that would stop a thief in his tracks aware that everyone would be looking for him, hounding him, and hurling him to the ground.
Then the cells, striking fear into his heart, the dirt, the damp, the squalor. And then the court case. A fine if you were lucky. Prison if you were not
It’s different now of course. Nobody takes much notice of that hysterical cry that echoes round the neighbourhood. Nobody wants to get involved in case they get punched in the face or come off worse
Stop Thief Stop Thief
But nobody takes any notice. Except perhaps me and Bert sat on our usual bench in the park overlooking high street where we can see everything.
A dozen times a day we hear it, and old Bert, sighing as he sips from his can of lager, says every time
“One of these days I’m going to break into that flipping pet shop and strangle that sodding parrot.” 278 words.
Editing the first version
Hmm. It took a great effort of will to copy that from my notebook and not make changes for you to read here as I went along. There are bits of it that make my teeth grate. There were no editorial requirements to guide me – but professional standards still apply. And this was one reason why I eventually discarded the word limit and decided to make a better job of a longer version. The glimmer of an idea was there – but for me, that first version didn’t go far enough.
I always tell my writers to (a) know who they are writing for and (b) decide on the word length before they start dependent on editorial requirements. Each decides the way the content is handled. Length dictates the way the story develops and how much you spend on the introduction, middle and end.
1, the original was an anecdote written to be read out to a small group of 6 or so other writers.
- Length was decided by how long I’d got – 10 minutes!
In Rewriting I aimed for:
A story to be read aloud to an audience at one of our Showcase productions
Length: about 1,500.
3 CONTENT – well a darn sight more developed and finished than it is in the first version.
How I edited it
- First thing I decided was that Bert and Fred needed to have their characters expanded. This meant they would have more dialogue between them – in the original there was only one line from Bert, the punch line.
2. This character development led to deciding what sort of past lives they had had and to introducing other characters who had peopled their history – this was relevant to the “stop thief” theme. I had a lot of fun giving them nicknames that suited their particular criminal tendencies. When you give yourself enough time, you can do these things that add to the reader’s enjoyment. These other characters weren’t just padding, they became important as Bert and Fred started their search for the Voice and they began to wonder if any of their past colleagues could be watching them and causing mischief.
- I was only half way through the new version when I realised that the punch line, the denouement regarding the parrot, was not going to be good enough. So I had to delete the pet shop, To facilitate the new ending, I introduced one more speaking character, Pete the Petticoat, with his own history of petty crime.
4. Before long, I had the new form of the piece in my mind; I already had the general outline from the first draft, but now I knew what I had to put into it, and how the changes would help the story develop.
5. Every time I went back to work on it, I discovered new ways to make it interesting, or how to better express a certain point and to add humour. As it became a little more involved, I introduced anecdotes that described other characters who peopled Bert and Fred’s past.
6. Once the first draft completed, it was not FINISHED, my friends. Far from it. It was then a case of going back over it in a general edit – many many times, if you must know, to tidy up loose ends, check spellings and paragraph breaks, and in particular to delete everything that seemed to be unnecessary. The more you do of this kind of thing, the easier it gets. At one point the story was 2,800. What follows is now about 2100 , so that’s how much I pared away, not only in the interests of economy but mainly to ensure that the thing flowed without too much extraneous (and self indulgent) waffle. Yes, even professional writers can write self congratulatory waffle …..
I hope you enjoy the finished version; it’s quite an undemanding story but I think it would be enjoyable to one of our audiences.
STOP THIEF! By Denise Leppard – the FINAL VERSION.
Very loosely based on a true story!
“Blimey!” said Bert in a panic as the raucous cry hurtled over the neighbourhood. “We’ve been nabbed. Make a run for it, Fred!”
“Hold yer horses!” I warned. “We ain’t doing anything. Just sitting here on our park bench, enjoying the sunshine.”
“We been rumbled,” he argued. “Somebody must’ve seen me lifting them oranges from the market stall.”
“That was hours ago,” I pointed out. “Besides, we’ve eaten ‘em. Where’s the evidence? No, look – there just ain’t nobody taking no notice of us at all.”
And that was true, at any rate. Everyone was going about their business. Nobody looking at two old dossers with their cans of lager, slouching on the park bench. Or apparently taking any notice of whoever had yelled that spine chilling accusation.
But it took Bert a long time to settle down. It did me too come to that, bringing back old memories. It shocked me and Bert to the core.. Him with his three cans of nicked Carlsberg smelling of oranges, and me with the rolls and cheese that fell off the shelf into my hands in the local deli. People just don’t shout STOP THIEF these days.
When I was a boy there was always someone dipping in someone’s pocket or lifting a pound of sausages from the butcher, or helping themselves from the market stalls. You soon learned to keep an eye out for the shoppers, and passers-by, as well as the shop keepers and traders.
Ok. I admit I done my bit of half hinching. I came from a big family, and a poor one. Dad was unable to work due to the lung condition he had picked up in the war, and Mum did her best, but without our entrepreneurial efforts on the streets, we would all have starved. We weren’t the only ones at it, either. In our neighbourhood the only things we had in plenty were poverty and hunger. Me and Bert Wilkins became quite skilful, working as a team, and we earned the honour of our own monickers from our particular gang of soul mates. Fert and Bred they called us, and it meant we were good, and we belonged with the best, like Mick the Motor. Diamond Mary and Black Market Henry – – but that’s another story.
Sometimes, when you knew you’d been rumbled, when that shout of “STOP THIEF” rung out behind you, your best bet was to drop what you’d picked up and run for it. I was pretty fast, and Bert was faster, so we usually managed to get away. There were no mobile phones in them days, so unless there was a copper on the spot, all the street gangs and a few concerned citizens used to be galvanised into action and chase the offender, all yelling at the tops of their voices. Half of em, so I recall, having been as guilty as we were of the same kind of thing at one time or another. Give me the fuzz any day; being kicked in a muddy alleyway by a group of citizen thugs all out for sport rather than vengeance was a terrible price to pay .
It didn’t matter to them whether it was a small boy with a picked purse, or an apple, or a tube of glue nicked from the stationers shoved down his pants. Or even, as once happened, an elderly tealeaf who nicked a table and three chairs from a second hall stall stuck em on a wheelbarrow, also nicked, and nearly got away with it. He nearly earned his own soubriquet of Wheelbarrow Willie, but he dropped out of favour as he was always getting caught. Even if they didn’t catch you, someone could have recognised you, and sometimes, days after, or even weeks, when you were wandering down the street minding your own business, the cry would go up, and they’d be after you again. .
I was lucky, perhaps, because I moved on from street crime to, let’s say, more productive ways of making ends meet, mostly after dark and in other people’s houses. But though I could take a beating now and again, I did know enough to fear arrest and incarceration. We all knew that one or two of the police were evil, the cells were terrible, the smell, the damp, and the squalor worse, so that even your day in court seemed like heaven. You got a fine if you were lucky. Prison if you were not. In a previous generation it would have been deportation, or hanging.
So that voice from the past brought back memories we hadn’t thought about for years.
Bert opined: “Somebody who knows us must be watching us, Fred. ” So we spent the next few days on tenterhooks, looking over our shoulders. And being extra careful in our daily activities, though going straight was a little difficult, especially on benefits. Then just as we began to relax, it happened again.
That evening, I was wandering under the arches on the way to get my fish and chips for Friday supper from Fishy Bowler’s. So when I heard that cry again, I jumped and nearly ran, so ingrained were my responses. . Nobody else seemed to take much notice at the cry. Perhaps it was drowned out by the evening traffic.
STOP THIEF! STOP THIEF!
But I wasn’t imagining it. It struck me to the core. My flesh crawled. I had a feeling somebody might be hiding in one of the alleyways between the shops. But I didn’t see anybody.
Me and Bert both heard it again a day or so later, we was on our usual bench in the park, chucking chips at the birds, drinking the cans Bert had lifted from the corner shop, more cautiously than usual, it has to be said. Then that cry, and we sat in growing uneasiness as the memories reached out and touched us. It had been a long time ago, but someone might have remembered what we used to get up to. This could be their idea of a joke.
The call came again with a cackle of laughter.
That was a new one, that was. And it actually made me angry . Someone was definitely playing games with us. And if they wanted to play hide and seek, well fine. We’d just have to go and root them out.
So we began a determined prowl round the neighbourhood, listening out for the voice and trying to track it down. Under the railway arches, down the alleyways and into the back gardens …. It always seemed to come from the small parade of shops just past the arches, but we never saw no one. No lurking individuals. Nobody we recognised.
Bert thought it might be Jack the Picket, who had been the local fence, quite successfully at one time till he went into local politics and got religion. He always had it in for what the called the amateurs who he said brought the profession into disrepute, and so was usually first to put the boot in when someone got nobbled. He was eventually elected Mayor and put crime behind him. On the other hand, it could have been one of the Bowler brothers, who had never stopped being active in the streets, so to speak, though they had ended up more prosperous than us – no park benches and soup kitchens for them these days. Fishy Bowler had ended up running the aforementioned fish and chip shop, with a sideline in poached salmon, and I don’t mean the cooked variety; and his brother Pete the Petticoat had done quite well keeping ferrets, which was a change from his original speciality of taking ladies underwear from clothes lines. (not for his own use, he used to insist, his wife used to sell everything down their market stall.) But as I say, he come off the washing lines and went into ferrets years ago. Though some say that’s just a front for something white and powdery and quite illegal which accounts for him being referred to in specific circles as Pete the Powder.
We narrowed the source of the voice down to an undistinguished and run down terraced house in between a bookies and a Polish supermarket. There was a rough notice on the front door that said: “Ferrets, round the back.”
“I wonder.” Bert said thoughtfully, looking up at the half open windows .
We stood on the other side of the road for some time before the cry came again.
And , as if to add insult to injury, that burst of laughter. It seemed to come directly from the house we were watching.
We were furious by then. The git was probably hiding behind the curtain, killing himself with laughter.
“Come on,” Bert said, hefting his half empty can of Carlsberg like a baseball bat. He always was the leader, and me the follower, so I trod in his footsteps across the road, and round the back. The back door was open.
It was all quiet in there. Filthy, of course, and with a strong and distinct smell of substances that you wouldn’t by any stretch of the imagination relate to ferrets.
“Bastard’s out the back,” Bert snarled as we heard a creak, a door opened and a little bent up fellow came in preceded by a whiff of something aromatic and illegal. He didn’t look like either of the Bowler brothers as they used to be. Two thirds the size and twice as skinny.
“Sorry mates,” he said in a wheezy voice. “I’m a bit out of ferret at the moment. Can you come back tomorrer?” we immediately recognised the voice. Pete in the flesh, or rather, skin and bone
“It aint that what we come for,” Bert growled. We all stopped and stared at each other. I suppose we are all wizened and crooked and but he looked worse than we do.
“Well bugger me, if it aint Fert and Bred,” he croaked, and . “What brings you two to this neck of this woods? Don’t tell me you want to buy a ferret.”
“You know bleeding well why we’re here,” Bert said taking a step forward. “We’re going to put a stop to your little game.”
“What little game?” the old fellow seemed mystified. “I bin going straight for years. Well, apart from the ferret, but that’s only a hobby, you know.”
“You know what we mean,” I told him nastily. “Shouting at us out of your window..”
“Me? What the bleeding ell would I want to shout at you two for? I hardly recognised you anyway. Didn’t even know you was still alive.”
“So you say, “Bert took another step forward, hefting his can of beer, and Pete took a step back, nervously.
“Look, I aint got much cash, but you’re welcome boys, if only for old times sake ..” he trembled.
“We don’t want your cash. We want you to stop doing it.” I almost shouted. “You’re driving us round the bend.”
He almost had me convinced, he looked so mystified, but as Bert took another step towards him, we heard clear as day from the room behind him.
“Who’s that?” Bert was enraged. “Is it that pillock of your brother doing it?”
Pete’s face was a picture. “There aint nobody in there,” he said, and then after a pause: “Well, except Rodney.”
“Who the bleeding hell is Rodney?” I asked.
“It’s me parrot,” he said.
And then after a few moments total silence, he added: “Have a look if you don’t believe me.”
I followed Bert in cautiously just in case it was a trick. But it wasn’t. Sat on a perch by the open window, was an enormous red and green parrot, shitting copiously on the carpet. AS we stood, disbelieving, it tossed its head at Bert, and cackled STOP THIEF.
“Bleeding useless thing,” Pete said disconsolately. “Some bloke sold it to me a few weeks back. Part exchange. It never says anything except STOP THIEF It was driving him mad. Now it’s driving me mad.”
He looked at us hopefully.
“I don’t suppose either of you want it?” he asked.
“No we bleeding don’t,” Bert said, already looking mightily relieved, and drank from his can, then by way of a peace offering, offered it to Pete.
“I shouldn’t,” Pete said but did.
We stood around looking at each other for a bit, then Pete went and opened up his side board and brought out a bottle of Scotch and a pack of cards. Bert got out a packet of sausage rolls he’d put in his pocket earlier that day, and I found a couple of Mars bars I’d been saving for a special occasion. This was it. We all sat down at the table and looked at each other.
STOP THIEF yelled the bird.
A very special occasion indeed.
As for that True Story: When I was a child, we used to live in Chatham, Kent, near Luton Arches, and I was often up and down the road to the library that was close by. And many a time I worried by the sound of someone shouting HELP!. Eventually we tracked it down to the Pet Shop that used to be in the parade of shops under the Arches. A parrot shouting his head off.