I’ve only experienced a writer’s workshop once in my life, as part of the SFF Online Writing Workshop Synopsis Focus Group, which was focused on something most writers don’t think about until they’ve finished a book that can actually be submitted to places. Which I had only finished crappy drafts of back then; still, it didn’t stop me from going to the class, so it ended up becoming a “brainstorm an entire book plot in private” exercise. Still useful, but I’d kind of broken the rules. (Here’s what I learned regardless, if you’re curious.)
Cat Rambo’s F&SF workshop is thus the first time I’ve taken a workshop directly relevant to my current stage in my writing career. I’m currently in the throes of a story that became a novelette, then a novella, but not because I knew what I was doing—the scope was out of my range of writing, which thinks in tiny, 1000-word chunks. I couldn’t, I learned painfully, build a story out of that.
And it was definitely the first workshop where I saw everybody, and they could see me. We used a Google+ hangout. That was a bit mind-blowing all by itself to me, but we could interact in real time—something not possible in the OWW synopsis focus group, which communicated via mailing list.
We introduced ourselves: what we liked to read, what we liked to write, two things we hoped to get out of the class. Everyone’s answer was a little different, though plot and structure was commonly mentioned.
Then we talked about stories from a starting point: character-driven versus plot-driven stories, external and internal arcs, and setting up a story from the very first paragraph. Aiiiiii.
We also talked about writing in general: getting motivated enough to write. In Cat’s opinion, there is no such thing as writer’s block, and she suggested a couple ways to defeat it. A daily word quota is one way, as is planning out beforehand what you’re going to write about. Another was timed writing exercises: write for 15 minutes given a prompt, not deleting and not editing (a perfect use for Write or Die).
She then gave us such a time writing exercise: write for 3 minutes with the prompt “When Death’s clowns came for me….” The other students pretty much wrote directly from the prompt, because their minds didn’t freeze up and go wibble. Some of them even wrote completed scenes. I did not do either of these; instead, I wrote up some Brenda Starr dialogue between multiple people (definitely more than two) about the incredulity of Death having clowns. Here’s what I wrote:
“Death has clowns.”
“Everybody dies. EveryTHING dies. Why not clowns?”
“They’re kind of… morbid, you know? I mean, Death in the flesh—the skeleton I mean—is scary enough. To send in clowns is just cruel. What do they look like? Do they have, like, shiny black noses and plain makeup and black custard pies?”
“Nevertheless, sometimes one must send in the clowns, so to speak.”
“When I become Death, I’m not going to have clowns.”
“Yeah. That’s weak.”
“When do you send in the clowns, anyways?”
The Death of Ratsborough Way drew his skeletal head up, and put his hand to his chest. “Politicians, mostly.”
“Well, that makes sense.”
“Aren’t clowns and politicians kind of overlapping categories?”
“How dare you say that about Cicero’s art!”
“Nobody asked you, Cenipheus.”
Some said it was funny, and I’m glad, because I think it kind of paled in comparison to the rest of the entries. My mind drifts, as it always does these days, to the concept of the gods.
We also talked about the Milford method of critique (which you can read about in Introduction II of the most recent Turkey City Lexicon), which we’re going to apply each week to two stories the students have written and guuuuuuuh I volunteered, but only because I had a short story ready.
Writers are supposed to be afraid, aren’t they? If that’s so, I’m doing just fine.
We went around at some point and read out our 2-3 sentences describing the story we would write for the workshop explicitly. Mine is going to be hard to accomplish, because I don’t know yet what the Terrible Woman Down There is going to do to my protagonists, but it won’t be very nice.
Now for next week, we have some reading assignments to do: find a first paragraph of a short story or even novel that we found interesting/intriguing/blew our minds; read the Turkey City Lexicon; watch a Kurt Vonnegut video about story shapes); and write the first three paragraphs of our short story. Good thing that perfection is not needed, because I’m so going to need help.