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Workshop Wisdom

Okay, “wisdom” might be an overstatement.  But at Penguicon this year, it occurred to me that I’ve been doing writing workshops for a long time.  As a participant, I’ve done creative writing class discussions, the Writers of the Future workshop in ‘99, Critters, and then several years with a local group until they dissolved.  Eventually, I started cofacilitating workshops, helping to run them at ConFusion, ConClave, and now Penguicon, among others.

That’s a lot of fiction feedback, and after a while, you start to notice patterns.  I figured it might be helpful to list some of the more common feedback I’ve given and received over the years.  Like all “rules,” some of these can be bent.  Others can be broken.  Our job is to learn them well enough to know when and how.

Begin at the beginning.  I don’t know how many times I’ve read a story, and it takes several pages or chapters before things start moving.  As a writer, my first drafts often include a lot of brainstorming at the beginning.  I’m laying down backstory, trying to figure everything out, but the story doesn’t get moving until later.  As a general rule, your story doesn’t start with your hero getting up, making breakfast, and brushing his teeth.  It starts with the werejaguar that carjacks him on the way to work.

Your protagonist must protag.  Your protagonist wants something.  The story is about how she tries to accomplish that goal, struggling and eventually failing or succeeding.  If your protagonist sits around, passively describing what’s happening while never taking part in the action, you might want to consider either making her an active participant in her own story or else switching to another protagonist.

Who are you? Why am I against this wall? Why won’t my arms move? Where’s Buttercup?  It’s one thing to toss your readers into a scene, but you also need to orient them.  Where are we, and why should readers care?  I’ve learned that at the start of any scene, chapter, or story, I need to answer most or all of the following questions: Who is the POV character?  Who else is here?  Where are we?  How much time has passed since the last scene?  What’s going on?

Meet the twins, Bweryang and Bob.  Names are important.  Make sure yours are culturally consistent.  Unless you’re deliberately going for humor, your ogres named Grok, Flargh, and Kandi are going to throw me right out of the story.  Also make sure your names aren’t going to resonate with other culturally popular names.  Your story about OB/GYN medical droids where the head ‘bot is named O.B.1?  Yeah, that’s not gonna work.

The mysterious man and his mysterious quest.  As authors, we want to build suspense.  What better way than by keeping secrets from the reader?  Hide everyone’s horrible pasts, their true motivations, even their names!  You’d be amazed how many workshop stories don’t give the character’s name until well into the tale.  The problem is, it’s hard to care about someone we know nothing about (not to mention the convolutions the writer had to go through to keep things hidden).  I still find myself hiding too much in my early drafts.  But the more I share, the more the reader can empathize and get invested in the story.

I think I took a wrong turn at Albuquerque.  A lot of early drafts meander, until the reader starts to wonder if the author knows where the story’s going.  One character is on a quest to rescue his cat, but then it turns into a story about the veterinarian, and suddenly we’re preaching about animal rights, and in the end the vet’s kid wrecks the truck.  Lots of action, but totally disconnected.  For me, what’s helped is to boil each book, story, chapter, or scene into a single sentence to help me focus.

A certain point of view?  I’d say at least half the workshop stories I read have point of view trouble.  Sometimes it’s minor.  We’re in third person limited PoV, staying strictly within the mind of our protagonist, and then there’s a paragraph that tells us what some random character is thinking.  Other times it’s messier, jumping from one person’s head to another with no rhyme or reason, and no indication of when or why we’ve switched perspectives.

Prologues.  Prologues are not a requirement of fantasy novels.  The fantasy police will not break down your door and taser you if you fail to include one.  If you do decide to use a prologue, know why.  What does the prologue accomplish that you couldn’t do with a regular old chapter?  I’d say less than 20% of the prologues I read in workshops really help the stories.  Is this the most effective way to give your readers whatever info you want them to have?  If you want to give the full history of your world, great.  But you might be better off waiting until it’s relevant to the story rather than opening with 8 pages of infodumping.  (See also Begin at the beginning.)

That’s what I was able to come up with off the top of my head.  I hope it’s helpful.  I’m sure there are more, and I’m happy to hear other tidbits from folks.

Mirrored from Jim C. Hines.



( 41 comments — Leave a comment )
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Jun. 7th, 2009 01:26 am (UTC)
Ah yes, the cinematic movie opening of the protag driving his car on the highway, stopping at the toll plaza, driving across the bridge, into the city... all this so the filmmaker can have something interesting to watch while the opening credits roll.

I've watched too many movies and fall into that one when I'm brainstorming the opening of a new story. (sigh)

Ooh, look! A train going the other way!

Dr. Phil
Jun. 7th, 2009 01:31 am (UTC)
Well, Jim, you clearly did not Orkish history back far enough age, or you'd know that "Kandi" is a perfectly legitimate Orkish name. I'm so disappointed.

Nice summary.
Jun. 7th, 2009 01:33 am (UTC)
Ah, but just because something is true doesn't mean it's believable :-)

A few years back, Lansing was full of billboards advertising "Lawless for Judge," but if I tried to name a judicial candidate Lawless in a story, I'd be smacked by my readers.
(no subject) - shekkara - Jun. 7th, 2009 01:53 am (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - mmegaera - Jun. 7th, 2009 02:01 am (UTC) - Expand
Jun. 7th, 2009 02:27 am (UTC)
Having taught creative writing to undergraduates, I've got to say your classic textbook advice is, quite literally, classic textbook advice. :)

Your local community college could benefit from your experience, in your copious spare time, of course.

Jun. 7th, 2009 12:30 pm (UTC)
Thanks :-) I actually contacted the local community college a while back, but got no reasponse. As the kids get older, I may follow up and try again. I miss teaching sometimes.
Jun. 7th, 2009 02:37 am (UTC)
Great advice. Thanks!
(Although I got a kick out of O.B.-1.)
Jun. 7th, 2009 02:48 am (UTC)
Help me,O.B.-1, you're my only hope.
Jun. 7th, 2009 02:51 am (UTC)
In real life, by the way, the most unlikely names appear. Our dermatologist is named Dr. Rashliegh. I've had students with the following names: Jim Bagg, Lacey Sheets, Dusty Rhodes (and his brother, Rocky), and Season Dees (which sounds like a bad report card).
Jun. 7th, 2009 04:09 am (UTC)
I once got William Riker to sign an environental petition. I said 'Will Riker??' & he said 'You darn Trekkie, you.'
(no subject) - catvalente - Jun. 7th, 2009 05:23 pm (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - comrade_cat - Jun. 7th, 2009 06:49 pm (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - catvalente - Jun. 7th, 2009 07:13 pm (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - mouseferatu - Jun. 7th, 2009 04:20 am (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - jimhines - Jun. 7th, 2009 12:32 pm (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - catvalente - Jun. 7th, 2009 05:24 pm (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - clarentine - Jun. 7th, 2009 01:14 pm (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - rarelylynne - Jun. 7th, 2009 03:50 pm (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - aj_writers - Jun. 7th, 2009 06:04 pm (UTC) - Expand
Jun. 7th, 2009 05:34 am (UTC)
Keeping things historically accurate. If you don't know anything about the times of King Arthur except that hot chicks ran around mostly naked and painted blue in battle, you might want to reconsider doing historical fiction in that period.
Jun. 7th, 2009 09:00 am (UTC)
Begin at the beginning.

The other way to say that is "Start as close to the end as possible."
Jun. 7th, 2009 09:33 am (UTC)
Workshop Wisdom
The GP y Mother uses is called , and I'm genuinely not making this up, Dr De'ath (spelled exacftly like that).

I laughed for an entire day when I found out, and I still chuckle everytime anyone mentions him.
Jun. 7th, 2009 12:58 pm (UTC)
Nice, Jim -- Mind if I share that with my classes next semester?
Jun. 7th, 2009 01:02 pm (UTC)
Not at all! Please be my guest.
Jun. 7th, 2009 02:27 pm (UTC)
"The mysterious man and his mysterious quest. As authors, we want to build suspense. What better way than by keeping secrets from the reader?"

I go around and around with my critters on that, sometimes. I think a better way to build suspense is to name the thing that you don't want to happen, then worry it's going to happen, then show it starting to happen, etc.

If the readers doesn't know about it, how can the readers worry about it? I like to tell them, so they can dread it. That's suspense.
Jun. 7th, 2009 02:30 pm (UTC)
Exactly. Sure, you lose the "Surprise, he's a werewolf!" factor, but you gain many chapters of "Oh crap, he's a werewolf ... are they going to figure it out before he eats their puppy?"

I still struggle with this one a lot. This is going to be one of the big changes for draft three of Red Hood, in fact :-)
(no subject) - margaret_y - Jun. 7th, 2009 03:36 pm (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - catvalente - Jun. 7th, 2009 05:26 pm (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - jimhines - Jun. 7th, 2009 05:28 pm (UTC) - Expand
(Deleted comment)
Jun. 7th, 2009 08:23 pm (UTC)
No grounding details, no sensory details.

Exactly, gah! I recently gave up on a series of books because of the lack of details. I was really frustrated. It was a good story but I couldn't see any of it, not even the main character.
Jun. 7th, 2009 02:51 pm (UTC)
Great advice, succintly put. Who are you, and what have you done with Jim? (tee hee...oooooohhh noooooo...don't sic the goblins on me AGAIN)

I had a gym teacher once whose name was (seriously) Candy B. Sweet. Needless to say--she wasn't.
Jun. 7th, 2009 02:52 pm (UTC)
BTW--I'm swiping this to print out and post by my computer, hope you don't mind. I'll pay you in bad puns, as per our usual arrangement.
Jun. 7th, 2009 02:57 pm (UTC)

:) ~GoGo
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Jim C. Hines


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