Numbers

This year The Times and The Sunday Times Cheltenham Literature Festival’s theme is ‘7 at 70’ to mark its 70th anniversary. For our 2019 Gloucestershire Writers’ Network writing competition we decided to broaden the theme to ‘Numbers’.

Your poem or prose piece is ruled by numbers. What can you pack into a poem of 50 lines or fewer, into a story of 750 words?

Will your poem be in free verse? Free verse may not seem to have a form but its rhythms and line lengths are still important for its impact. Or will you choose a traditional form – 14 lines to a sonnet, a sestina with 6 6-line stanzas, 6 end words and a tercet to finish?

Will your prose piece be concise but cover a longer length of time? Or fuller but cover a few moments?

Look at our questionnaire below to see some ways of looking at numbers.

Download and print the 'How to Get Started' pack in PDF or Word format: PDF How to get started packWord How to get started pack

(to download, right click the link and select ‘download linked file.’)

Other Worlds

Light years – imagining the unimaginable. Seeing the light from things that no longer exist.

Relating huge numbers to everyday life.

How many planets in our solar system, stars in the sky?

Distances

Feeling far away from or close to someone or something. Physical and emotional distance.

Temperature

A small change can have a big effect, eg global warming, or on a social occasion. Emotional temperature. Critical points, freezing, boiling.

Childhood

How dimensions seem to change when you revisit a building/childhood place. Feeling small, feeling large. Alice in Wonderland, changing size.

Age

Of people, things. New versus old. Marking or forgetting anniversaries.

Feeling connected to people chaining back over the centuries, making links to history through your own family, relating generations to events.

House numbers and addresses

What happens when they go wrong – if you get a number wrong and a letter is misdirected.

Why is the number 13 often missed in numbering houses?

A slip when dialling a phone number – who do you find yourself talking to?

Counting/tallying

Ways of doing this, the rhythm, rhymes for counting –
‘1, 2, 3, 4, 5, once I caught a fish alive’

Losing count.

Baking

Measuring ingredients for a cake, mixing them, making it look good, the importance of time as it cooks.

Making

Counting stitches when you’re knitting, measurements for making a suit or a table.

What happens if you don’t do it correctly?

A stitch in time saves nine; the shoe was lost for want of a nail.

Patterns

Using a spirograph, nature e.g. sunflowers, the Fibonacci sequence, symmetry. Reflections in a mirror, in a mirror maze. Origami. Shapes – how many faces e.g. 6 faces on a cube, a die.

Fairy tales and Greek myth

The importance/impossibility of numbers/counting. Things you just can’t count. Infinity and its emotional meaning.

The significance of 3 – in Rumpelstiltskin the queen has 3 chances to guess his name, 3 brothers/sisters sent on a quest, The 3 Little Pigs, The 3 Graces
Other numbers – 7, 12, The Twelve Dancing Princesses,
The 13th fairy and lunar months.

Time line of a life

Years, seasons, measuring time, the year’s turning.
The minutes, hours in a day, number of days in a week . . .
The importance of dates – an appointment, a deadline, a birthday.

Perception of time when you are doing different things, clock watching or time whizzing by. Rip van Winkle!

Lucky numbers

Choosing lucky numbers when placing a bet. What to do with lottery money, probability of winning and becoming rich, understanding large numbers (or not)
Magpies – 1 for sorrow, 2 for joy . . .

Music

Made of numbers, chord numbers, the effect of changing them. Beating time to the music, dancing (well or otherwise). Other cultures using different numbers, e.g. 11/8 for dance music.

People, relationships

2-some, 3-some, love triangles …
2’s company, 3’s a crowd, being alone – ‘one is one and all alone and ever more shall be so’

Maths teacher – trying to teach a class arithmetic, adding, subtraction, division, multiplication. A memorable Maths teacher, good or bad.

Extra fingers, arms, legs, hearts, toes — the numbers that
relate to our bodies, what happens if they are different, what happens if they are lost.

5 senses – what would it mean to lose one such as smell.
Is there a sixth or even a seventh sense? What if you had one?

Politics

The economy and what can happen if a miscalculation is made.
Changing interest rates, people who lose their homes as a result.

Percentages – wages, mortgages, loans, their effects.

The bleakness of describing events affecting numbers of people.

War, the private individual and the masses. The effect of timetables in WWI

Numbers swelling a march, a single protest.

Dare you write about Brexit – the figures we were promised for the NHS, the numbers of migrants who were going to swarm into the UK! The millions made by some people as a result of the referendum, the changes brought about by the drop in the value of the pound . . .

How to get started

Here are some ideas and exercises for you to try, either individually or in a group.

1. Brainstorming/mind-mapping

Take a clean sheet of paper and write the theme in the centre. Scribble around the subject all the ideas, meanings, metaphors etc you can think of. For examples, look up spidergrams, mind maps etc.

2. Free writing

Start with the word ‘numbers’. Keep your pen steady and your hand moving! No matter what, don’t stop, write whatever words, ideas you think of.

Don’t overthink the subject – be free flowing.

Don’t worry about spelling, punctuation or grammar.

3. Explore the senses

Interrogate the senses and make them work for you!
Choose one or more ideas from your brainstorm/mind map/spidergram.

This approach may open more opportunities or ideas that were previously hidden.

Explore the senses table

4. Work to your rules...

What writing tips and rules do you apply to your writing and what rules and tips do your group members follow – might these help? Here are some examples:

‘In the planning stage of a book, don’t plan the ending. It has to be earned by all that will go before it.’ — Rose Tremain

‘Always carry a note-book. And I mean always. The short-term memory only retains information for three minutes; unless it is committed to paper you can lose an idea for ever.’ — Will Self

‘Work on a computer that is disconnected from the internet.’ — Zadie Smith

‘Read it aloud to yourself because that’s the only way to be sure the rhythms of the sentences are OK (prose rhythms are too complex and subtle to be thought out — they can be got right only by ear).’ — Diana Athill

‘Don’t tell me the moon is shining; show me the glint of light on broken glass.’
Anton Chekhov

‘Listen to the criticisms and preferences of your trusted ‘first readers.’
Rose Tremain

‘The main rule of writing is that if you do it with enough assurance and confidence, you’re allowed to do whatever you like. (That may be a rule for life as well as for writing. But it’s definitely true for writing.) So write your story as it needs to be written. Write it honestly and tell it as best you can. I’m not sure that there are any other rules. Not ones that matter.’ — Neil Gaiman

‘The nearest I have to a rule is a Post-it on the wall in front of my desk saying “Faire et se taire” (Flaubert), which I translate for myself as ‘Shut up and get on with it.’ — Helen Simpson

‘The trick is to keep your reader believing in the characters and the story – even though both of you know it’s a work of fiction’ — Margaret Attwood

5. Write in the hand of another...

Once you have an idea or the outline of your piece, consider how this might sound in the voice of a different author. How would Shakespeare or Bram Stoker, Bryon or Charles Bukowski attack the subject? Who is your favourite author or poet? How might they address the subject? With your personal twist on the finished article, does this make your entry more or less compelling?

6. Overcome writer’s block... What ideas do you have for overcoming it?

For a change, here are a few ideas on how not to do it!!

Remember:

You do not overcome writer’s block by refusing to write until you feel ‘inspired’.
You do not overcome writer’s block by procrastinating or making excuses.
You do not overcome writer’s block by watching TV.
You know all the excuses already don’t you?

7. Know your characters

The back story is sometimes more important than the tale.  To develop a living, breathing, multi-faceted character, it is important to know more about the character than you will ever use in a short work. Here is a list of common character details to help you get started.

NamePetsFriendsSomething hated?
AgeReligionFavourite colourMedical history
JobHobbiesFavourite foodsMannerisms
EthnicityPartnered?Drinking patternsPhobias
AppearanceChildren?Sleep patternsStrong memories
ResidenceTemperamentFaultsStrengths

Imagining all these details will help you get to know your character, but your reader probably won’t need to know much more than the most important things in four areas:

  • Appearance. You could include one or two hints of appearance to give your reader a visual understanding of the character.
  • Action. Show the reader what kind of person your character is, by describing what they are doing.
  • Speech. Develop the character as a person.  Avoid having your character merely announce important plot details.
  • Thought. Bring the reader into your character’s mind.  Show them your character’s unexpressed memories, fears, and hopes.

8. What if?

Ask of your characters:

What if s/he is from a different culture?
What if she is a he – and vice versa?
What if this was based abroad or by the coast/in town?
What if there was someone else involved?
What if they had much less or much more …?
What if s/he didn’t do it?

If you are writing a poem, what if you wrote it from a different point of view – ‘I’ or ‘you’ instead of ‘he’ or ‘she’. You might write a persona poem in the voice of someone or something else: perhaps the voice of the poem is that of a clock marking time. In a poem about a Maths teacher is it written from the point of view of the teacher or the pupil?

Think about the tense too – is the immediacy of the present tense better, or not?

9. Write your story or poem in the form of a letter

Write to an imaginary friend telling them about your story/poem outline.
Describe the characters and something good and awful about them!
Ask for feedback on two different scenarios or endings.
Tell them your hopes and fears for the finished article.
Explain how you could bring that about in a compelling story.

What is it about your story that will have copies ‘flying off the shelves’ – without resorting to clichés of course!

10. Learn from past winners

Our Competition Winners Anthologies for 2017 and 2018 are on sale for £2 including postage via the website – see the Competition Page for the link to Paypal. 

Read and/or discuss the previous winning entries. What did you enjoy about the poems and stories? What were the stand-out entries? What made them so readable or compelling?

Happy writing!