Friday, July 24, 2020

Writing Workshop Contributions

Before diving into the third and possibly final piece about workshops, I would again like to remind people that these are, in fact, my personal takes on the process behind workshops, dredged up from my own experience base. Some messages people have thrown my way on FaceBook and via email have been quite enlightening, and have offered the opportunity for me to learn and grow from them. Other comments, well... maybe it is safest to say that those comments remind me of why it is important to be civil these days.

Now that we have gone over what a workshop should and shouldn't have in order to help a writer grow, this last discussion point is what you should bring to any workshop. This one can be particularly difficult at first, especially considering how exposed and vulnerable we may (and should) feel going in. It's very easy to insist that the first time we attend a new group, we sit back and try to get used to the flow of the other writers before diving into the main current. This has its merits, but this makes it easy to stay away from actually getting involved. Rather, I recommend the following, to be applied with as much or as little zeal necessary to feel comfortable.

Participate. Sometimes, just offering the slightest engagement with another writer can be an amazing relief. Just for a second, put yourself in the shoes of the other writer who contributes a piece, reads it, then the moderator asks for reviews and... silence. That silence is deadly. Seriously, writers die in that void of response. But if one person opens up with a simple statement such as, "I enjoyed the line about..." or "You described the character well..." then things can open up. Even if it's not a compliment, such as, "I was distracted between the mixed use of past and present tense," it gets things rolling. As long as your comment targets some aspect of the writing, you become engaged with the writer, and by that, with the group.

Be positive, constructive, or inquisitive. While past posts have discussed how other workshops can help and what doesn't help, becoming the embodiment of those features is another story. We will hear pieces that are poorly written, presented by people we do not get along with, or about subjects that set us off. This is where it gets difficult, but it is our job - duty, even - to push forward with something that can lift up our fellow writer. And if we can't bring ourselves to do this (which does happen), we can at least pose a question about some feature that stood out for better or worse. "Did you intend for this to be happy or tragic?" "Is this fiction or based on a true story?" "How do you want readers to respond to this piece?" Hopefully, the inquisitive approach can at least get some discussion flowing, and maybe reveal some aspect that helps you as a writer.

Wear their shoes. The rule to remember for all workshops and life in general is to take a moment and consider what it would be like to be on the other side of what you are about to do. If a political piece is setting you off, think about being a person who is about to be attacked for their beliefs when all they wanted to do was write. Worse yet, think about being another person in the workshop who wants to read a children's story but has to wait while two people start fighting about politics. It's rarely fun and it's never fair, so do you best to consider just how you would feel.

Hopefully, in the next few months more workshops will open up again and writers will start to gather in whatever capacity possible. And as they do, we should remember that they all carry a set of desires common among all writers - to create, to improve, and to be heard. In any workshop we should respect those desires in others, and also be respected in similar fashion. If we can find and apply those traits in a workshop, I guarantee it will be a positive experience.

Monday, July 20, 2020

Writer Workshop Warnings

Last week, I discussed some of the features that should be part of any writer's workshop. In short, they should be places where the writer can be open with their work and receive input that helps them build their craft. There are plenty of other aspects for good workshops, and many blogs post their own top ten lists (or fifteen or twenty or whatever). Individuals ultimately have to find those qualities that help them grow, and pursue those groups and writers. However, the flip-side of this is the idea of bad traits of writer workshops, and this is a far more complex discussion.

The difficult part about workshops with bad qualities is that the workshop can be good, but too often a negative trait becomes an undercurrent of an otherwise positive experience. In the cases where bad habits dominate, it's easy to just walk away. More often than not, however, it becomes a task like pulling weeds from the garden before they strangle the growth out of the other plants. Sometimes it's easiest to treat these negative elements as isolated situations, but other times we need to check and see if they are isolated, or if they quietly infiltrate the underpinnings of the group itself.

These are just my notes, and subject to criticism and counterargument. I would even offer you to take the opportunity and mention a few other qualities in the comments section, so everyone (including myself) can learn from them.

There is no I in workshop. Let me offer an example to explain this point. A few years ago, I brought a piece to review about the passing of my father. He had died several years earlier, so this was a reflective piece rather than something processing immediate grief. Anyway, I read the piece, then let the critiques come in. The first person mentioned how it reminded them of when their mother passed away. The next person talked about losing their brother. A few other people talked about recent losses, and everyone had a heartfelt conversation. In the end, however, nobody had actually talked about my writing, and I was offered nothing to improve my piece, which is kind of what I was going for.

Don't get me wrong - if someone's piece evokes personal memories, that's a sign of good writing. However, the focus should remain on that person's writing, and not wander toward group therapy. Personal reflections are fine, as long as the feedback ultimately discusses the work at hand. And every group may have a little drift toward the personal now and then, but the important part is that the group does not live in that area of self-interest. Otherwise, this is not a workshop, it is a group of people who would rather tell their story than critique yours. 

Opinion has its limits. This one is tricky, so hold on. In these days of partisan politics and strong personal opinions, one of the most difficult things to do is to critique a work based on its own merits rather than whether we agree with it. This can be daunting when someone writes a political or philosophical piece that goes against everything we believe in. We get this uncontrollable urge - triggered, as the kids say these days - to point out how an opinion is wrong, and invariably arguments start. Sometimes they don't stop.

If a workshop tends to go after content rather than writing, be careful. Having opinions is fine, and they should be safe in a writer's workshop. If the group is about Philosophy or PoliSci 101, that's different. Writing should be the emphasis regardless of subject, and groups that drift away from that with regularity might not be the most productive.

The next post will be about things you can bring to a workshop that can cure some of these pitfalls.

Friday, July 17, 2020

Signs of A Good Writing Workshop

Prior to all the changes from this year's COVID crisis, I was a regular attendee of several writing workshops, as well as the facilitator of my own. This may sound like overkill, but on average, it worked out to spending a couple of nights a week dedicating myself to what I love. Honestly, is that too much time to spend improving one's self? Maybe, maybe not. Fortunately, my schedule allowed for it and my will to improve drove me to this length to achieve such an end. I think this gives me enough experience to share why workshops are so important to developing ourselves as writers, and to offer what I find valuable enough to dedicate two nights a week to doing.

First, let's be clear. Not all workshops are great. Some may even be grating. I have been to bad ones, and I have no compunction about dropping them from my routine. This is not a judgment based on what they said about my writing but about how they went about the business of helping writers grow, and I stick by it. For the groups I still go to, I promise that these groups uphold a set of standards that allows writers of all kinds to flourish. Here are some of the important ones:

A safe place: More power to the writer who can be open about their feelings and place them on a page to be shared with acquaintances and yes, even strangers. Ask anyone who has attended group therapy or an AA meeting, and they will explain to you that their openness is directly connected to a feeling that they are protected from attack and more importantly from judgment. This kind of environment is conducive to the young writer exploring feelings with more depth and touching upon sensitive truths that are the hallmarks of quality storytelling. If the members of a workshop do not give you that sense that you can reveal yourself as a writer, maybe another group might be better.

This is not to say that there won't be criticism. The difference is that judgment is an external proclamation of right or wrong, while criticism is (at the best of times) the expression of a differing but equal opinion. A good, safe workshop should be one that despises judgment but values criticism. Consider the difference between someone saying, "That was wrong," (judgment) versus "I didn't connect with it" (opinion). Except when it comes to rules of grammar and punctuation, writing is never wrong. People, however, can express disagreement and even why they did not connect. As long as that opinion is not held above the writer, and the discussion is constructive, the result is better writing (and possibly a more astute reader as well).

A place of growth: A workshop is a place of building and rebuilding, and the literary workshop is no different. The mindset of the group should always be one of, "What can I gain from this session?" and/or "What can I offer to those looking for help?" Being positive is always beneficial, but that doesn't mean complimenting a train wreck. Rather, there is always benefit in offering a few notes on story structure, description, character consistency, etc., to help flesh out weaknesses. I talk (sometimes too much) about the art of description, sometimes as a way to note how someone needs more in their writing. This way they not only think about making their writing better, but being a better writer. In this, there is growth.

Now, in these days of COVID, writing workshops are fewer and those that are still active have gone virtual.  They still carry the same rules as above, but some of their weaknesses have shown up as well. Monday I will discuss some of the things to avoid when participating in a workshop, and some of the workshops to avoid.

Monday, July 13, 2020

Writing A Story Instead of A World

I took a little personal inventory this morning to prove a simple point. As I woke up, I noted how many things in my routine were different now that I lived in the COVID world. It was kind of depressing - I noted three things of substance that had changed before I had even made lunch, and that's not to mention all the little details that come with it. The news is thick with updates, while the sports page has almost vanished. Catching up with old friends now means finding out if they're safe and how stupid people might affect their lives. And of course, the ever-present mental note to have a nice clean mask next to the car keys so I always leave with both.

This is the world we live in and there's no denying it. However, how would we write about this world and make it believable? Would we include everything, creating a full and complete world that may seem totally alien to the reader, or do we just try and salt in the necessary details in order to remind our reader that they are not in Kansas anymore?  This is a very difficult balancing act to write about a new reality based on a bizarre version of where we once lived, so let's take it piece by piece.

In the P. D. James novel, The Children of Men, he writes a story where in the near future, people are no longer capable of having children. This fascinating concept immediately spawns a lot of ideas about how life would change - what happens to schools and teachers? How does depopulation affect the economy? What are the social impacts on a world that no longer has the joy of children or hope for the future? The mind reels with possibilities, and the book could've spent hundreds of pages just exploring those ideas. However, then it wouldn't be a book, it would be a pretty boring exploration of an alternate world without much story to go on.

Rather, James focuses on one character and one story line, isolating the fascinating alternate world to the senses of one man - Theo - and his struggles with life. His line of thinking becomes the reality, and all the different aspects of this new world become just details that fill in the life around him. James narrows the field of view and doesn't tell the story about the world. He tells Theo's story within the world.

Now let's look at my little COVID world. If I wrote a story about my day, I could spend all the time talking about the news, the phone calls I made that became wellness checkups on all those getting ill around us, and the regular "where's my mask" update. However, there's no story there. That's a person wandering through life. In the end, the story would still be a day where I needed to make a trip to a store to get a few pieces for my bicycle, and all the preparations I needed to go through and work around just to get the part that allowed me to go and ride away from people so I didn't have to wear my mask and for an hour I could feel like I was again in a normal world.

When we write about new and fascinating worlds, whether they be fantasy, sci-fi, dystopia or wherever, we need to remind ourselves that the world is not the story and shouldn't overwhelm the simple fact that a story is what the reader should be tied into. The adventure of our character through whatever world we create should be the focus, no matter how incredible the world may be. Readers will follow characters, and the world fills in the amazing sights and sounds around them.

Friday, July 10, 2020

Beyond Vanilla Words

Back in my days as an economist, my writing habits were - to put it simply - economical. Whatever we wrote would serve many purposes. Our policy was that any work should be used at least three times. A market piece would become an editorial or a commentary, and later feed into a report. A report to satisfy the regulators would also go to our counterparty managers, then to our subcustodian network people. As boring as this sounds, it meant getting as much mileage out of our work as possible. We should do that with the way we write as well.

Let's look at a simple sentence starting off a story: "I entered a dark room." The information going forward is basic: There's a room, it is dark, and I am now in it. A pretty vanilla sentence - not even French vanilla. Enough information to move forward, but there's not a lot of flavor in this ice cream, is there? The words don't have the power to carry forth any more interest than just what is there. They lack the oomph factor, so to speak, that makes writing stand out. Little tweaks can give it some oomph.

We'll start with the verb - "entered." Very vanilla. Just a plain old verb getting us into the room, and maybe that's enough. However, can we get more work out of it. First, is there information to be added that can help express the mood? Action stories might prefer something more aggressive such as "leapt," "ran," or "burst" to get the blood flowing, or "crept," "sneaked," or "eased" to build tension.

To be fair, "entered" might still be the verb of choice and that's not bad because it explains the action. We should then consider whether to use an adverb (which modifies the verb) to inform about the character's motives or intention. By entering the room eagerly, cautiously, or hesitantly, the description gives us a hint about the character's approach to this dark room. By adding one word, we create a whole new dimension, and "I bravely entered the dark room" tells us not just about the action but perhaps the person, and possibly about the room as well.

Oh yeah - the room. It's dark. Another very vanilla word that might just be enough to do the job, but let's explore, shall we? Dark is a common adjective (describing the noun), so we could do the same tricks we did with the adverbs. However, metaphors and simile might also be used, and again, maybe to go beyond just showing how dark the room is.

"I entered a room dark as a crypt." Well now we've shifted the mood by incorporating ideas of tombs and crypts, and a little intensity sneaks in. Keep in mind that this may ruin a fast-paced action piece - remember our adjectives? "I leapt into a room dark as a crypt" throws some mixed mood around, while "I cautiously sneaked into a room dark as a crypt" really tightens the focus to the mood. And don't forget to hone in on the character if possible. "I cautiously sneaked in a room as dark as my heart." Holy crap, that tells us something about the character that changes our opinion about him and what he might be doing sneaking around that dark room.

This kind of writing is economical in that not a lot of words are used, but we really escape from that vanilla range. Some call it economical, but I prefer high-powered because that's what the story becomes as your writing gains this quality. And hopefully, you will be writing more than reports for some executive VP - but it works with those too.

Monday, July 6, 2020

How Verbs Make or Break the Story

I have a friend whose every life event becomes a story. She can go to the store and come back with a ten-minute tale just about the produce section. These sweeping yarns have all the hype and energy you would want from a good edge-of-your-seat thriller, but the problem is that there isn't really any story underneath. For all the talk, the story ends with the purchase of two pounds of broccoli and little else, which is about as much of a letdown as, well, two pounds of broccoli.

This kind of oversell is not uncommon, especially with my friend (fortunately, she does not read this blog, so she'll never know.) As storytellers, it is our responsibility to provide the kind of story we are trying to sell, and not make it more than it is. This is called excessive drama, and I think we can all agree that these days we could all use a little less drama in our lives.

Don't get me wrong - I could tell a story about the time I got two pounds of broccoli that would be quite amusing and you would enjoy those ten minutes. However, it would carry the voice, tone, and mood that matched what the story had to offer, and not try to oversell with a bunch of unnecessary dramatics. Within the realm of storytelling, nothing can do a greater injustice to our story than the wrong verbs.

As a refresher, a verb relates to action - what is happening in the sentence. The most boring verb around is the verb "to be," which is most often used with terms like "I am walking," "They are walking," "You were walking" and so on. The people are all walking, but the verb is am/are/were (all forms of "to be"). This is like saying that people existed - boring already. Use of this is called the passive voice, and is a big no-no in writing. There are plenty of articles explaining the details, so I will let Google explain that while I explain a little about mood verbs.

So let's say my story starts with me going to the store. I won't say "I was walking to the store" because that "was" makes it boring. I can instead say, "I walked to the store." However, let's think if "walked" is even necessary. This provides information. I didn't drive, or cycle, or run - I walked. At this point I should ask myself whether my form of transportation to the store important? If I walked, then bought thirty pounds of stuff and had to lug them back two miles in those crappy plastic bags, walking is important. Maybe as I shop, I think about carrying stuff back. However, if my transportation isn't important, why burden the reader with excessive information?

"I went to the store." Ta-da! I am at the store without concerning the reader about unnecessary stuff. I can save the important verbs for the parts of the story that matter. In fact, if I use the interesting verbs exclusively for the dramatic parts of the story, the reader subconsciously collects this information and focuses on the most important elements. They become engaged with the story, and, as I have said many times in this space, engaging the reader is the most important responsibility of any writer.

Being overdramatic is the flip-side of verb use. "I put on my walking shoes and rushed to the store," would pack on the details, information, and active verbs, but if none of that is important to the story, it creates a false sense of urgency - drama - that ultimately disappoints the reader. They become burdened with every little point and the story - no matter how interesting it may be - gets lost in the writing.

Try examining a story that really draws you in, and see how the verb use works. You might be surprised to see just how cleverly they are used. And someday when I write the broccoli story, you will realize just how funny it was.