Short Story Writing Workshop

[originally posted 2 Nov 2007 at LiveJournal]

Last Saturday I attended a workshop called “How to Write a Theme-based Short Story in Under 30 Days” given by freelance writer Paul Lima. I only learned about it a few days before the workshop and was delighted to get a seat. Sponsored by WEN (Writers & Editors Network), a west-Toronto writing group, it took place from 9:30-3:30 on Saturday, Oct 27 at a church in Mississauga, Ontario, near my home.

I’d taken a workshop with Paul once before, on the business of freelance writing, and it was excellent — filled with tips, tricks, methods, and common sense. I’ve also attended some of his sessions at Wordstock, an annual single-day conference for reporters, writers and editors sponsored by the Ryerson Journalism Alumni Association. Paul is one of those solid speakers who is gently no-nonsense with the ability to inspire others to get out and try things, with good advice on how to go about it.

The short story workshop couldn’t have come at a better time: I’ve been working on my first-ever serious story, one with a science fiction theme, and after a good start and an interesting idea I was stalled. On my own I’d determined that the reason I was stalled was that I really didn’t know where the story was going and it didn’t just spontaneously shout to me, “go here!” My muse apparently doesn’t work that way. I wish she did, but she’s been good to me overall and I’ll not take her to task for my own lack of planning.

I decided that, like it or not, I was going to have to work from a plot outline and know how the story develops and how it ends before I can make it work.

It came as no surprise to me then to hear Paul say that most writers fail to finish things because they get stalled without a plan. He strongly believes in plot-point outlining and doing some strong prep work before doing the actual writing. Things like thinking and brainstorming about your characters, plot, conflict, setting, and theme.

Similar to the advice listed in D.G. Jerz’s Short Stories: 10 Tips for Novice Creative Writers, Paul advised working with word association and clustering, and doing some freefall writing — a kind of stream-of-consciousness writing — if something catches your fancy during brainstorming and you want to explore it. He took us through some freefall writing exercises and I was surprised at some of writing fragments that came out of this. Most of the participants had workable story material embedded in their freeform and one of mine was unexpected and powerful. I read it to my wife, Marion, the evening after the workshop and she was still thinking about it the next morning. A gift from the muse, primed by the exercise. I hope to make use of this fragment in some future writing.

As you might infer from the title of the workshop, Paul is very organized in his approach to writing, and the “30 day” aspect of the workshop is not a gimmick, but rather a method by which a beginning writer can work out the plot and character elements, develop a plot outline, and work from plot point to plot point, in a scheduled fashion, until the first draft is complete. As Paul advised, the first draft will be shitty, but it’s easier to edit and revise a shitty draft than to edit nothing.

The wonderful thing about workshops like Paul’s is that they give a budding writer confidence, and a time-honoured methodology for success. Later, you might discard the method in favour of one of your own, but it gives you a way to successfully develop and complete a short story, and that’s a powerful confidence builder.

I’m not certain how far the outlining technique will work for me. From the time I first started writing essays in high school, then university, I worked without an outline and wrote the outline after the essay if one was required. For complex articles, like the kind I wrote for Here’s How! magazine on Internet social communities, I used rough outlines, and points I wanted to make certain I covered, but even there it was an organic mix, with many of the outline points coming out of the writing.

There is no right or wrong way to write, if the writing works. I’ve listened to several interviews with novelists who say they don’t outline — they just start writing and discover their plot and characters as they go. Some people can pull it off. I don’t think I’m one of them despite my natural aversion to outlining.

So I’ve given myself the assignment to start over with my story concept, and work a lot more on characters and plot before I start writing it again. I don’t mind starting over. The first attempt sucked, big time. First I’ll try it “by the books”. What I need to clear the first hurdle in my quest to become a fiction writer is some completed work. Once I have that, I might loosen up my approach to it. Or I might not.

The workshop helped me considerably and a side benefit is that I had the chance to meet other writers who are working on short fiction. I’ve become a member of WEN and look forward to the meetings. Overall, $89 (non-member fee for the workshop) was a great investment

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