Showing posts with label writing instruction. Show all posts
Showing posts with label writing instruction. Show all posts

23 July 2018

Why Workshops?


by Steve Liskow

I loved teaching. If it were still about interacting with the kids and helping them grow and develop--as opposed to getting them ready for a pointless standardized test that keeps getting dumbed down and is only used to gauge a teacher's performance instead of the kids it pretends to test--you'd still find me in the classroom, funky tie loose and sleeves rolled one turn below my elbows, 183 days a year. But it isn't and I'm not.

That's why I still conduct writing workshops. Sure, I get paid almost enough to cover my gas to and from the event, but the truth is I still have a major teaching jones. It took me a long time to learn this stuff, so I want to help other people learn from my mistakes.

When I turned in the key to my classroom for the 33rd time, I knew how to write a decent sentence and even a passable paragraph. But I didn't know how to tell a good story. That's harder than it sounds. You probably have at least one friend or relative who can mangle a knock-knock joke or put everyone to sleep telling about something that happened to them, don't you?

Once my writing collected enough form rejection letters to make the point, I went back to what my adviser on my sixth-year project (A novel, by coincidence) told me years before. He directed me to the paperback racks in the local drug store (If you're under about forty, you may have to Google those terms) and read the first chapter of ten or twelve books at random.

 "Don't read Austen and James and Conrad," he told me. "Read Arthur Hailey and Irving Wallace and Jacqueline Susanne and Mickey Spillane. Read Michener (He hated Michener). Figure out what they do in those first few pages that you don't. You don't have 'first-chapterness.'"

Plumbers, carpenters and electricians all train apprentices. So do doctors and teachers. People take dancing lessons, music lessons, golf lessons and painting lessons. We know that one-on-one training works. How do fish learn to swim and birds learn to fly? You can buy a bunch of books and read them, but a good writing workshop is even better.

Many writing conferences offer sessions by writers who are also excellent teachers. They may even feature a one-on-one manuscript critique. At the New England Crime Bake, Kate Flora analyzed an early version of my own Blood On The Tracks and turned problems into opportunities. At the Wesleyan Writers Conference, Chris Offutt looked at an even earlier draft of that same book.

When I met him over coffee (We both wanted beer, but we were on campus), he said, "You write excellent dialogue, and you probably know it. But that's both good and bad."

"How can that be?" I asked.

"Well," Offutt said, "it's good because it is good. But it's bad because you know it, so you try to make that dialogue do too much of the work. Have you ever done theater?"

At that time, I was acting, directing, producing or designing for four or five productions a year.

"You need to learn to write better exposition and description. Even plays aren't just the dialogue. The other stuff is the context that gives it meaning. And that's even truer in novels and stories."

My bookshelves sag under the weight of fifty or sixty books on writing, including a few on dialogue. None of them ever said that. The fifteen-minute chat helped more than all those books.

Now I pay it forward. I have five workshops scheduled through mid-November, and I'll share handouts with examples, both good and bad, and leave lots of time for people to experiment with them and ask questions. We do group activities, too: creating characters, punching up plots and premises, sharpening dialogue. Every time we encounter a problem (Which I often recognize in my own stuff, too) we figure out how to fix it. Mistakes are the best teachers I know, and I'm still learning every time I teach.

Most of the venues invite me back, which is great, but I don't do it for the money. Fortunately.

I do it because I still love it.

03 June 2013

Beginners


by Janice Law

Many years ago when I was a high school student, I innocently remarked to my art teacher that I would like to be an artist. I’ve always remembered his response: “Learn to be a painter then hope.”

No doubt today he would be pilloried for discouraging young creativity, but, of course, he was entirely correct. Art and that illusive thing, creativity, emerge out of craft and not out of thin air.

For this reason, and because I was largely self taught in both writing and painting, I’ve always been a bit suspicious of ‘creative’ writing courses. Twenty years plus teaching college students also convinced me that we go about teaching writing almost entirely backwards, emphasizing academic and research-oriented writing, which few people will ever do once they leave the ivy halls, and teaching the sort of professional writing most will do in business and journalism as an upper level speciality.

So what do my reservations about college writing courses have to do with mystery writing? Just this. If you are trying to write mysteries or their big cousins, thrillers, or their more distant relatives the romance or fantasy, first learn the basic functional professional writing style and then learn the formats of your chosen genre.

Sure, we all like to think our writing is stylish and that on good days we could channel Raymond Chandler or Fred Vargas or Kate Atkinson. But lets face it. Most genre writing relies on clean, straight-forward prose with fast moving verbs and only a judicious sprinkle of eye-catching adjectives.

It’s no secret that many highly successful genre writers move over from journalism or other professional writing where they learned to write clearly, grammatically cleanly, and concisely. They also learned something else which I spent almost two decades teaching humanities majors desperate for some practical advice: how to discover a writing format, how to analyze it, and how to copy it.

I realize the ‘C’ word is out of favor, but whether you are learning to construct a press release – always my publishing class’s first exercise – or the cliff-hanging save the world type thriller, you’ve got to master the form. Ideas are great, style is wonderful, but both need a container, and that container is the format, the form that readers expect.

Of course, it is a lot easier to teach someone how to write a press release – who, where, what, why, when, in the first graph, a couple of the now obligatory quotes, a brief elaboration of facts, plus contact info– than it is to write a novel or even a short story. But as with learning languages, learn one and the second is easier. In the case of writing, easier because the beginner is already looking for structure and has taken the first steps by learning to analyze one form.

And how is this done? Read, read, read, but read actively. That is, begin to pay attention not just to the story, in this case, but to how it was done, what the various ingredients are – action, dialogue, exposition– and in what proportions.

If one does that consistently, soon one realizes that there are only so many patterns. In our genre, these include the chase, the woman in jeopardy, the step-by-step investigation, the revenge plot, the caper, the sure thing gone wrong, and my own favorite, the so called ‘biter bit,’ where a bad guy is ‘hoist on his own petard’ as Shakespeare, that master of many genres, so aptly put it.

Unlike a lot of writers, I started first on novels and came to short stories later, but the process was still the same. In my case, I destroyed cheap paperbacks of several favorite writers – Eric Ambler, Raymond Chandler, and Dorothy Sayers, to be exact – by underlining dialogue, exposition and action in various colors, giving me a visual representation of the structures and making me read the novels ultra carefully.

Was this self education successful? Modestly. I am not a gifted plotter and, yes, structure is still a difficulty for me. Someone with a greater talent for plot structure, even if a less skillful writer, would do as well or probably better. But one plays the hand one is dealt.

One cannot acquire more talent or better ideas. But one can become a skillful enough writer to convey the ideas one does have and good enough at developing the structure of stories and novels to put them in.