Spinning a 20 minute yarn
When was the last time you sat down, made a story up and wrote it down for the fun of it? I’m guessing school. That’s the case with me – I can count the number of fictional stories I’ve written since then on one hand.
Somewhere along the way, one of the easier and more stimulating exercises at school totally dropped out of my life. As children we’re reared on stories, but we stop exercising our imaginations when we become adults and just let Hollywood and other people’s books take over. And yet anyone can do it. I’ve done it myself.
A guy I know called Johnny Lake has started a blog at 20minstory.blogspot.co.uk. I’ve now written three stories for him. Like the Reader’s Digest 100-word story, the 20-minute story gives you a strict brief – in this case, a time limit to pen a tale. It could be about anything – his aim is just to get people scribbling. For some it’s a memoir, others fiction, others an elongated joke. For example, there’s a great story on there about a rockabilly obsessed with cutting off old-fashioned telephone handsets from red phone boxes.
It took me a few weeks of thinking about it in idle moments to chase an idea around. I felt that if I just sat down and wrote, it might not be too good – the thinking was important.
Guilt and procrastination
As each week passed, I kept feeling guilty and thinking, I must write that story I promised. But I found it’s not as easy as just recounting an opinion or experience as a journalist – especially when you’ve only got 20 minutes to complete it. To make something up and finish it in that time, you need to have the idea. And you also need 20 minutes uninterrupted (not as easy as it sounds when you have no attention span).
Eventually I found the idea and the moment. I picked up my iPad in bed in South Wales and wrote about the weather I might encounter driving through the Brecon Beacons, across the country to the Yorkshire moors, and on to Northumberland – some stunningly rugged countryside, which at the time was in the grip of rainstorms, floods and snow threats.
I thought about those exciting and unstoppable TV images of old stone bridges being washed away by the fury of swollen rivers, and set my story in the mind of a guy who goes hunting for wild and reckless weather, explaining why he loves it so much and how the charge of nature makes him feel truly vulnerable and mortal.
I finished it in 18 minutes and sent it off to the site. Johnny published it and I linked to it on my social media. People read it and gave me feedback. I hope it inspired others to give it a go. Since then, I’ve written another about fear and fantasy in the face of potential terrorism on the London tube, and another about meeting Quentin Tarantino’s parents on a plane many years ago.
Practice and let your imagination run wild
It feels good to be writing something for no other reason than the fun and the challenge of it. I’ve been lucky to have some great jobs, but something I’d really like to do is become a fiction writer – maybe crime fiction, maybe something a little more real. The 20-minute story is an opportunity to try a different discipline and see my ideas sitting alongside other writers’.
The deadline helped to clarify what I was writing – it felt like being ordered to get on with it and make something up on the spot. In all three of the stories, I haven’t gone back and edited anything. I’ve written the first page of a book about my life in publishing and music many times, but in this case I’m actually able to finish a story. Completing it gives me some satisfaction, whereas so much of what I do goes unfinished.
All you have to do is write the first words and you’re away.