Tagged: Writers’ Workshop

Plotting Workshop

The Writers’ Workshop Getting Publishing Day was great fun. It was good to see some old faces and meet plenty of friendly new ones. I saw some really accomplished writing, a lot of it already at a publishable standard. With the right breaks and a good dose of luck, some of these books could be on the way to finding an agent and publisher – and let’s not forget we can create some of our own luck, too.

It was the first time I’d taught a workshop on plotting in an hour-long slot (though I realise we ran over by fifteen minutes, sorry!). In other contexts I’ve been able to assign reading beforehand, so we’d all be able to discuss the same stories together, but yesterday I fell back on examples such as Pride and Prejudice and The Hobbit. I emphasised that plot is best regarded as a verb rather than a noun: though inspired twists never hurt, plot is not some clever thing we have to conjure up – instead, plotting is an active process that brings together other aspects of craft such as characterisation, structure, narration.

Character is especially important: what are your character’s deepest yearnings, and how might they come into conflict with those of other characters? And how are the events of the book character-building?

I don’t dwell too much on what might be seen as the jargon of structure, but it can be useful to think about inciting incidents and reversals of fortune mounting tension towards a climax as a connected sequence of events. Most of all: don’t be boring! (The only rule in writing.)

I read the opening of Notes On A Scandal not only as an example of a strong narrative voice plotting away but also to point out how Zoe Heller chose to put what might be regarded as the most dramatic revelations of her story right into the first paragraph: the first sentence, in fact! So much about plotting is about the ways a writer chooses to handle time.

And those choices, I suggested, are best handled in drafting. Though some writers, especially more experienced ones, work from detailed plans, I propose that beginning novelists might regard the process of creating a first draft as an active part of plotting. By all means work from an outline – you’ll need one – but be free and easy with yourself in your first draft. Let yourself see what comes up. Have fun, be playful. Perhaps write bits off to the side to see how a different point of view or scene might work. Maybe even write notes to yourself in scenes at challenging points, e.g., ‘I need to work out a way to get A to do B to C in this scene here’ – reaching the end might give you the perspective on what B needs to be.

And when you finish that draft, print it off, and read it through, perhaps making a few notes as you go but mostly just reading through for the experience of reading (using a different typeface can help to make things look different).

Then ask yourself: what plotting can I create from what I have here?

And then – the most important thing I have to say – take that print-out, sit it beside you on your desk, push back your shoulders, and type it out again into a new document.

Terry Pratchett once said something along the lines of the first draft being the writer just telling herself the story. The second and subsequent drafts are there to work out the best way to tell – plot – that story, which might of course change along the way. And liberating yourself from your attachments is much easier when you’re not just tinkering with existing words on a screen. In the golden olden days a writer used to clatter out second drafts on a typewriter or redo them by hand. Some writers even put the print-outs in a drawer and never refer to them again, and write the new draft wholly afresh. You know the story, don’t you?!

To help with reading your draft, I also distributed a plotting analysis worksheet, and suggested that writers complete it in different ways, e.g., with reference to: a favourite book of childhood (done from memory); a book you’ve recently read and admired in a genre you’re working in (done with close reading of that book); and for drafts of your own work-in-progress (again, done from memory at least to start – what you contain within you is most important).

I shall be running an expanded version of this workshop as a plotting masterclass at the York Festival of Writing on 8 September.

Here are some other resources from my site on self-editing and revising.

And here are other links to further information on plotting, as well as quotes offering thought-provoking opinions:

* Dramatic Structure (including Freytag’s Triangle)

* Michael Hauge, ‘The Five Key Turning Points Of All Successful Screenplays’

* Ronald Tobias, 20 Master Plots – for a checklist of the 20 plots, follow the link here

* The site of Christopher Vogler, author of The Writer’s Journey (follow the link Hero’s Journey on the left-hand side), plus Vogler on YouTube talking about the Hero’s Journey and discussing it using the example of The Matrix

* From my own blog: Tell Me A Story and A Book Is Not A Film

* Online Etymology Dictionary

* Someone asked for a good recommendation on grammar – I always suggest Constance Hale’s Sin and Syntax.

* EM Forster defined story as ‘a narrative of events arranged in their time-sequence’: The king died, and then the queen died. And plot as ‘also a narrative of events, the emphasis falling on causality’: The king died, and then the queen died of grief.

* Ursula Le Guin on change as the driver of plot:

Conflict is one kind of behavior. There are others, equally important in any human life, such as relating, finding, losing, bearing, discovering, parting, changing. Change is the universal aspect of all these sources of story. Story is something moving, something happening, something or somebody changing.

* Stephen King on plot in On Writing:

I distrust plot for two reasons: first, because our lives are largely plotless, even when you add in all our reasonable precautions and careful planning; and second, because I believe plotting and the spontaneity of real creation aren’t compatible. It’s best that I be as clear about this as I can – I want you to understand that my basic belief about the making of stories is that they pretty much make themselves. The job of a writer is to give them a place to grow (and to transcribe them, of course) …

Stories are relics, part of an undiscovered pre-existing world. The writer’s job is to use the tools in his or her toolbox to get as much of each one out of the ground as possible. Sometimes the fossil you uncover is small; a seashell. Sometimes it’s enormous, a Tyrannosaurus Rex with all those gigantic ribs and grinning teeth. Either way, short story or thousand-page whopper of a novel, the techniques of excavation remain basically the same.

Plot is … the writer’s jackhammer. You can liberate a fossil from hard ground with a jackhammer, no argument there, but you are going to break almost as much stuff as it liberates. It’s clumsy, mechanical, anticreative. Plot is, I think, the good writer’s last resort, and the dullard’s last choice. The story which results from it is apt to feel artificial and laboured.

I lean more heavily on intuition, and have been able to do that because my books tend to be based on situation rather than story … The situation comes first …

A strong enough situation renders the whole question of plot moot, which is fine with me. The most interesting situations can usually be expressed as a What-if question:

What if vampires invaded a small New England village? (‘Salem’s Lot)

What if a policeman in a remote Nevada town went berserk and started killing everyone in sight? (Desperation)

What if a cleaning woman suspected of a murder she got away with (her husband) fell under suspicion for a murder she did not commit (her employer)? (Dolores Claiborne)

* And some of the books whose plots I often find myself discussing:

* Zoe Heller, Notes On A Scandal – read the opening chapter here
* Sarah Waters, Fingersmith (Best. Plot. Ever.)
* Annie Proulx, Brokeback Mountain
* JRR Tolkien, The Hobbit and The Lord Of The Rings
* Nina Stibbe, Man At The Helm
* Christos Tsiolkas, The Slap
* George RR Martin, Game Of Thrones
* Angela Carter, ‘The Werewolf’
* Paula Hawkins, The Girl On The Train
* Kent Haruf, Our Souls At Night
* Jack Kerouac, On The Road
* Jane Austen, Pride And Prejudice
* Mark Twain, Huckleberry Finn
* Gustave Flaubert, Madame Bovary

Getting Published Day 2015: Voice Workshop And Book Doctoring

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On Saturday I took part in the Getting Published Day at Regents College, London. As always, with Writers’ Workshop events, it was a lot of fun: meeting writers, making friends, talking books, having a laugh. Good spirits all round. I led a seminar on voice and also did some book doctoring, and I’m posting some follow-up notes on both below.

Book Doctoring

I read some good samples this time, and made various editorial suggestions for further drafts: tightening and brightening the prose style and voice; avoiding too much explanation that gets in the way; worrying not so much about fashions in writing but instead writing a book so good that it stands out as a timeless story (though some agents or editors might tell you otherwise); thinking about the narrative focus and the dramatic stakes (and the dramatic focus and the narrative stakes); not being too subtle; considering the single outstanding thing that this book might be, and trying to make that thing stand out on every page, every line (an impossible feat, I know, but it’s the striving that matters).

Oh, and importantly: paginate your manuscripts, even for short submissions such as the ones we used on Saturday. Do follow any specific guidelines, of course. But page numbers are probably essential for any reader – pages get printed, dropped, jumbled, need referring to consistently (there were a few places where I wanted to refer to something on, e.g., page 3, but I had to write in the page numbers myself first). A lack of pagination can seem a bit sloppy or thoughtless. And hey, if it’s your unpaginated manuscript that gets knocked off the edge of a desk, maybe it won’t get read.

In short: be professional by making life easy for your readers.

Reading recommendations included 20 Master Plots by Ronald Tobias, Sin and Syntax by Constance Hale, On Writing by Stephen King, and The Writer’s Journey by Christopher Vogler. I also recommended the Writers’ Workshop online course on self-editing your novel taught by Debi Alper and Emma Darwin several times a year; it could be a structured and informative way to guide your book through another draft.

And if a book doctor session leaves you a bit confused or frazzled, you might find it useful to read an earlier post on working with feedback on your writing.

Voice Workshop

Find Your Voice is one of the great myths of creative writing; you have a voice already, so let’s find ways to turn it into writing. That’s the idea – I’ve put some notes into another post: Voice Workshop.

Till the next time?

Thanks again to the lovely people of the Writers’ Workshop for inviting me along (yes, that is a plug too, but I like and trust them a lot). And also thanks to all the writers I met – it’s a real pleasure to share in other people’s inspiration and creativity, and to listen to their stories.

And maybe I’ll see some of you at one of the London Literary Salons run by the Writers’ Workshop at Waterstones Piccadilly over the coming months? I’m co-teaching one on revising and editing with Debi Alper on 31 July.

 

York Festival of Writing 2014

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Just back from the York Festival of Writing. Well, I came back on Sunday, but I’m still decompressing on Thursday, all afizz with emails and Twitter and words and ideas.

The only thing that I really don’t like about York is the fact that you don’t get chance to spend time with the dozens of wonderful souls you meet. A fleeting hello to Ruby whom I met two years ago and now see daily on Twitter, someone else who told me her sentences had improved, a fantasy writer with a very rich new landscape, a few shy people I’m sorry I had no chance to speak to, lots and lots and lots of new faces and voices and writing. A dirndl, Buzz Lightyear, many dogs, survivors, and heroes. I need Hermione Granger’s time-turner, except I want it for socialising rather than swotting.

I did meet Matt Haig (and very much look forward to reading his forthcoming memoir), and it was fantastic to hear Antonia Hodgson’s keynote speech, full of daydreams and resilience, both of which writers need in abundance (far too many of the former and not enough of the latter, as far as my own writing is concerned, I realise). Antonia’s tale about a prison guard (involving one of her authors, not her …) brought pricks of tears to my eyes.

The best story of the festival though involved the racism directed towards blue vibrators by sex professionals. It’s one of those real-world tales that proves that truth is stranger.

Lots more, but there’s only so much a mind and a blog post can hold. What I can remember of links and the things I failed to squeeze into various workshops are described below.

But before I go: thanks SO much to Writers’ Workshop and all who dwell there. They really care, and given the scale of the event I never fail to be impressed by their organisation and friendliness, and their ability to attract participants who’re both practical and inspiring whether they’re presenting or coming along as delegates. The Writers’ Workshop really is the best at what it does, and it is an honour to be asked to take part in their events. Thank you.

 

TELL ME A STORY: THE ART OF NARRATING: MINI-COURSE

It’s all about the voice, darlings. Take any dull material and wrap a sexy voice around it, and that’s going to be an improvement.

This was a great group that really warmed up (I think I was rambling a bit at the start – sorry). A lot to cover, and I didn’t get through it all, but the room was smart and responded to the readings in meaningful ways, and I also ended up talking some about plotting (not plot), which is a particular passion of mine.

The exercise on voice began with Elaine Kingett’s ‘How To Be A Writer’, which was in turn inspired by Lorrie Moore’s ‘How To Become A Writer’. In another screen, I am penning my own (it might be a bit TMI and ranty, but I might post it once I’m done).

I also used the opening of Zoë Heller’s Notes On A Scandal.

And thank you, peeps, for allowing me to indulge my inner Julie Walters via my outer Alan Bennett. Put another bar on.

And here is the original blog post that was a starting point for this workshop: Tell Me A Story.

 

SHOWING AND TELLING AND STORYTELLING: WORKSHOP

We have to show as well as tell in our writing, but Show Don’t Tell is a myth that needs busting; we need to storytell.

Here is a link to Ernest Hemingway’s ‘Hills Like White Elephants’. In all our discussion of what takes place in the opening (nothing, but lots too), we never got round to mentioning that the story expands into a particular dramatic situation – one that also never gets explicitly discussed within that story. Showing, not telling.

We listened to the start of ‘Brokeback Mountain’, which as far as I am concerned is one of *the* great pieces of fiction, and (note) only takes 10,000 words or so to work its magic. Showing and telling and storytelling.

While we are on the subject, let me share Annie Proulx’s splendidly hatering write-up of the Oscars the year that Crash (a film I really hater too) won Best Motion Picture over Brokeback Mountain. Fantastic example of voice and tone.

 

HISTORICAL FICTION: GENRE PANEL

Emma Darwin, who chaired this panel, is remarkably eloquent and inspiring and brainy, but unlike many other brainy people I know she can translate brainy into words the rest of us understand and relate to. She really has such a wide range of knowledge too.

Some things that came up: it’s still all about the voice. And character. No such thing as rules. Legal matters aren’t always clear-cut but involve degrees of risk. Have you thought of writing nonfiction? And we all love Sarah Waters (my fave is Fingersmith). I also recommended Kate Grenville’s Searching For The Secret River (to read after The Secret River). I perhaps should have made my recommended read Game Of Thrones.

A question I wish I’d myself asked the editor (Sophie Orme) and agent (Jamie Coleman) – who both seem very bright and brainy too, but I’ve just spent less time in their company so can’t gush so much – is perhaps a question that could be posed to other agents and in-house editors, and booksellers too. Fashions come and go within genres and without, and a few things I read as book doctor this year felt very much in the vein of historical blockbusters I read in my youth such as Gone With The Wind or The Far Pavilions or the blockbusters of Ken Follett or Edward Rutherford. And I wondered if my points of reference were old-fashioned? Whither the historical blockbuster? Where or how does that sort of book get placed in the market and with readers now, relative to, e.g., reading group fiction (which, I know, is quite a vague name for a wide-reaching description). I think I need to do a bit more research myself, and maybe I’ll blog on that one day.

Perhaps too that is an answer for writers to find themselves, for sometimes it is in making something new that something successful and exciting is created.

 

THE FOUR ELEMENTS OF CREATIVITY

This is the third time I’ve run a workshop on this topic at York, and this year I actually passed my tarot cards around for the first time. I have fun with this topic, stretching ourselves beyond words and the conscious mind. For it is in reaching towards the ineffable and delving into the unconscious that we make writing not only instinctive as a process but whole as an outcome.

I never got the name of the writer who cleverly identified the characters of The Wind in the Willows with the four elements: Mole as earth, Rat as water, Toad as fire, Badger as air (think I got that right – but correct me if I’m wrong). Yes, we can draw on the four elements for archetypes too.

The piece I used in class to illustrate the use of the elements is ‘The Colonel’ by Carolyn Forché. I did register a few doubts in the room when I said that writing (probably all writing) has a purpose, even a political purpose, relating that to Fire. Entertainment is a purpose, and that can be – perhaps even emphatically is – political (think carnival, think subversive). Is there a piece of writing that isn’t political? If you’re not changing the world with your writing, are you just reinforcing the status quo? ‘Discuss.’ No answers to that one, but exploring that matter in the work can make the writing bold.

Also, we listened to the piece first, without reading the words. For writing is a bodily experience in that way too: it might be invisible, but the spoken word is a material thing (Earth), and generating spoken words is a somatic practice too.

 

BOOK DOCTOR ONE-TO-ONES

A few common things that came up this year:

* I found myself suggesting to several people who were writing fiction that they might try nonfiction for their content, and vice-versa. Oh dear – I hope I’ve not derailed anyone. But usually projects were at early stages, and in that case I assume most anything is available for discussion, and there were reasons to put these ideas out there. But don’t blame the editor! There are any number of complications in this area (legal, ethical, aesthetic), and it’s something you have to tussle with sometimes.

* And you can’t have it all.

* Prose style and voice are often what define literary fiction. It’s all about the voice. It’s all in the telling.

* Less can be more.

* In fiction (and narrative nonfiction), establishing a mood and impression is often more important than explaining things. (Less can be more.)

The books on writing I recommended most are: On Writing, by Stephen King; Steering The Craft, by Ursula Le Guin (which is going for silly prices online in the UK, suddenly – are my recommendations outstripping the supply?! we need a British publisher!); and Sin And Syntax, by Constance Hale.

 

AND

Lots of other things to say and follow up, but they need separate posts. Look out for: integrating feedback (especially when it seems contradictory); agents, and how to address them (however you like?), and whether they need photos (no); different types of editing; when is a poem not a poem; the small press option. Etc., etc., etc.

I’m also thinking of starting a regular/weekly agony uncle/problem page about writing and publishing: watch this space (or the menu above).

Thanks again to the Writers’ Workshop, and it was lovely to spend time with everyone there.

Cheers!
Andrew