“Write this down,” I said, feeling like a school teacher dictating the words of Sir Terry Pratchett:
“The first draft is just you telling yourself the story.”
I have been to a number of workshops over the years, and some have been good, many mediocre and some not so good. Just because you can write does not mean you can critique well or teach well, and I have always been conscious of that. So I only ran short sessions in a couple of workshops for a while and often questioned how useful they were. Especially as I am not too hot on writing on demand myself. Yes the exercises get the juices flowing, but what do they teach?
So when I set up a series of Paws Workshops for children I decided to really look closely at what would be the best and most interesting ways to learn something; and not cover the same old ground but find a new perspective. For children I found showing them what makes a good story work with the story arc as a blueprint, really helped direct their writing and came off curriculum too so was a different way of looking at things. We even had them acting in the manner of the word to illustrate showing and telling — describe how someone does something, don’t tell it. These workshops have been really successful, not that I do that many.
I was also asked to run a workshop after I won the Bath Short Story last year focussing on How To Write A Psychological Thriller and that was great as I could really look at one key genre and its expectations, while knowing that all of the principles for good writing apply to any genre but the short workshopping exercises were about creating a good premise for a thriller like this and then how to create tension.
Working them all hard, look at the concentration… oh and spot the supersize bookmarks!
Some time ago I also put together a more general workshop I did as part of a workshopping day with our writing group, but what I did on Saturday was another new workshop using some aspects of the others but switching the focus not so much on the nitty-gritty showing, telling, viewpoint, clichés (although we had that) but on how to think differently when we approach an edit and so what questions to ask. I put together a series of short writing exercises. The first was aimed at showing how we tend to write instinctively — which shows what our comfort zones are, asking do you know why you tend to use that voice or that tense and could you maybe try something else? That choice might work best for some stories, but all of them? Maybe not. I also created plot structures to work within as an illustration of how confining it can be when you already have a framework — which is exactly what you do when you edit a completed piece of work — hence sometimes the need to deconstruct to reconstruct. Something I have had to face with my edit of Isle of Pelicans recently.
We also looked at story arcs, themes, plots, structure etc and had an exercise to illustrate the importance of exposition (we told the antagonist’s story from the previous exercise) but then talked about how we are so tempted to tell a story with too much back story and the devices for trickling that in on a need-to-know basis.
On an aside the antagonist’s back story can be great fun because all evil has to come from somewhere (that’s if you have evil antagonists!) or as Stephen King puts it: “Before horror comes love.” I think the overall message is everyone has a story and what motivates action is important, builds reader empathy — but we don’t need all the details!
The final exercise was about how we write the dramatic moments — the climax of a story and how that’s when we usually (although these students were talented and didn’t!) tend to either gallop to the finish line or overload with the mind racing, heart pounding, adrenaline coursing through the veins clichés at this point.
The last section before the Q&A was the nitty-gritty stuff we usually see in workshops — and I also provided some copy editing notes that promoted quite a discussion on setting out dialogue and the different dashes!
Soon it was time to make our own dash! But the comments and the feedback since has been wonderful, so I think we can say it was a success and I want to do more of these. Yes workshops don’t work for all, some favour the more one to one approach, and if you’re new to writing it can be a little overwhelming and so might not work for you, but seems from the response it did work well!
The take-home message is that with the right feedback and supporting writer friends, writing does not have to be isolating.
I will be putting more information on my website soon and plan to offer workshops to writing groups for a set fee and happy to travel in the UK and also might arrange my own as one-offs or even a short course once I move back to Essex!
Email me if you think your writing group would be interested and we can talk fees and timings!