Novella-in-Flash Writing Prompt #6 – ‘Automatic Writing’

I’m very glad this month to welcome poet and fiction writer Robin Thomas to this blog. Robin is the author of Margot and the Strange Objects (Ad Hoc Fiction, 2022), which arrives in the world on 25th March, and here he shares a writing prompt based on his process for that book…

“My forthcoming novella-in-flash Margot and the Strange Objects (Ad Hoc Fiction, 2022) had an unusual genesis: a couple of years ago my wife and I were watching an interview with Phillip Pullman in which he mentioned that he wrote, as a matter of course, a certain number of words a day. My wife suggested that I do the same. I thought I would try and settled for 400 words as my target.

“In poetry workshops, the facilitator often asks the attendees to start the day with a piece of automatic writing – the rules are ‘just write, don’t think, write as quickly as you can.’ The purpose of this is twofold – (1) to get the juices flowing, get into the habit of writing, warm the muscles and (2) to get material directly from the unconscious, involving the conscious faculties as little as possible. What you generally find is that about 70% of what you write is nonsense, but the remaining 30% contains useful material. I decided to use this principle, at least to begin with, for my daily 400 words.

Robin Thomas reading from his poetry collection Momentary Turmoil (2019)

“The paragraph below, with a lot of intervening tidying up and smoothing, is in essence as I wrote it on that first day, and became the first paragraph of my novella:

and then unexpectedly, Aunt Edith died. Margot loved her dearly and was grateful to be remembered in the old lady’s will. It wasn’t so much the money, a few hundred pounds, but nearly all the objects that the Aunt had collected in her travels and years of teaching. She had taught The History of Strange Objects at the local comprehensive school and comprehensive indeed was the collection of objects she had left. It was as if, along with the objects themselves, the aunt had left an injunction to continue the journey she had been on all throughout her life. There were sassing forks, nodality meters, spark diminishers, ferret radios, bath-o-pulsars, stoods, mirage flexors, stalling horse rings and many other objects besides. What would Margot do with such a collection?  Where was the space to put them? One thing was certain – she would not part with any of them. While she sat perplexed, turning the solicitor’s letter this way and that in her hands, a small folded note fell out – it was from her aunt! Margot’s heart began to thump and she opened the note with delight. To hear her aunt’s voice even only in written form, and for the last time, made her start, and she looked round, as if her aunt were somewhere in the room. ‘My dearest Margot,’ began the note which went on to speak of their mutual feelings and thanked Margot for being so kind and loving always. That done, the note spelt out some instructions – these followed, the surprising result might be the return of the aunt to life!

“Out of this brain dump came the main theme of a quest, with a young girl as the protagonist. It also led me to the title: ‘Margot and the Strange Objects’ and indicated the tone of what was to follow – broadly comic (the names of the ‘strange objects’ are all fictional and rather jokey), although I didn’t realise this until later.”

Exercise: ‘Automatic Writing’

“Write a certain number of words over seven days using ‘automatic writing’ as above. This means: don’t think, just write, don’t revise, don’t check, don’t censor yourself, trust yourself and above all, write quickly.  I would suggest somewhere between 100 and 500 words daily.  (If you set yourself too high a goal, you might find that you give up.)

“I would also suggest that initially you don’t read on a given day what you wrote on the day before. 

“On day eight review what you have written and see if it either (1) contains suggestive sentences or phrases which send you off in a particular direction or (2) is already looking like something that might suggest a story line. Though a lot of it will probably be nonsense I suspect you will find something there.

“Keep going each day, it will probably tell you when it’s time to stop – it might end up as a novella-in-flash or perhaps a modern War and Peace (remember that Joyce’s plan for Ulysses was originally as a short story to be included in Dubliners!).  

“By ‘keep going’ I mean that you might (1) go on with the ‘automatic writing’ approach after that eighth day, perhaps checking from time to time that you are going in a direction that makes some sense, or you might now switch to (2) a more conventional way forward, making plans, drawing diagrams and so on. If this is to be your approach you will probably want consciously to identify characters and situations that can be developed, perhaps along the following lines…”

How I moved forward from that first day’s writing:

“Margot in the paragraph quoted above seemed already to be involved in a quest to find out more about the ‘strange objects’ and what she ought to do with them. Instinctively, I wanted to write more about this quest. I felt compelled to describe the nature of the ‘strange objects’. My writing hand unconsciously wondered: what kind of person is Margot? Does she want to combine her efforts with those of some others? Who would they be? Would they be cooperative or would they have a mix of approaches (would some have their own ideas about the objects and not want to follow the instructions for example). Would Margot be low level comedy, would it be surreal or absurd, would it become more serious, perhaps ending up as a murder mystery or political satire? I wondered what the instructions might be in the note that fell out of the solicitor’s letter. Would I disclose them now or later or bit by bit? Would there emerge a sub plot or plots, if so I thought about letting them run in parallel with the main plot but engaging with it later on – and in fact, this is what I decided to do.”


“Whichever method of keeping going you adopt, you may well find that something useful develops, one in which you use the conscious and unconscious parts of your mind working together. 

“My motto, at least in the early stages of any writing is ‘don’t overthink’. And one more important point: have fun! This might be the opportunity for you to explore your own sense of humour, of the ridiculous or absurd – the unconscious parts of our brains sometimes seem to have more fun than the conscious parts!”

About the Author:

Robin Thomas completed the MA in Writing Poetry at Kingston University in 2012. He has published poetry books with Eyewear A Fury of Yellow (2016), Cinnamon Press Momentary Turmoil (2018) and A Distant Hum (2021) and Dempsey and Windle Cafferty’s Truck (2021). 

Margot and the Strange Objects (Ad Hoc Fiction, 2022) is his first Novella-in-flash. He currently has two more simmering away.

You can pre-order Robin’s book here (with a 25% discount before 25th March):

Margot and the Strange Objects, by Robin Thomas (Ad Hoc Fiction, 2022)

More about Michael Loveday’s Novella-in-Flash mentoring:

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