About six years ago, I would have said you couldn’t teach anyone to write, in the creative sense. Then chance landed me with the second-year Creative Writing subject in my University’s then English department. After teaching that twice, and once adding the 3rd year follow-up- alas, axed almost immediately – I’ve changed my take to, you can teach anyone with some aptitude how to write better. And, further, you can show people how to become both capable of and comfortable with putting their own words on paper, even if they have almost no aptitude and/or have never tried to do it before.
Our Creative Writing course allowed almost half a year to develop or hone these skills. Even weekend writing workshops are much more of a pressure-cooker. One advantage is that everyone in the workshop wants to be there, and has paid good money to do so. This cuts the tail of people taking the course as a last choice, or because they expect a soft option, and assures much better motivation. All the same, when the then-president of Writers in Townsville and I cooked up the idea of a fantasy writing weekend, I did wonder how it would go. Would anyone be interested in a genre writing workshop? Would it be possible to teach any writing without the C. Writing course basics: getting words on paper, then progressing leisurely through vocab. and grammar, to setting, character, dialogue and narrative construction exercises? Most important of all, would anyone be able to DO it, if people came to literally learn to write fantasy, who had never tried it before?
Well, said I, quoting a character from one of my favourite authors, Lois Bujold, let’s see what happens. My predecessor established the basic structure of the C. Writing course: centrally, it was hands-on. People were expected to write on the spot, right there in the lecture room. Right now. So I assembled four sessions worth of topics about fantasy, as far as possible from the writer’s point of view . Twelve people signed up, a few less than we’d hoped, but it was Wet season in NQ, and out-of-towners were probably put off by the recent floods. Saturday morning, we all gathered in the local library meeting room, and off we went.
My own weekend workshops have intensified the C. Writing course’s cumulative effect: that is, whatever you write in the first exercise you tend to develop over the two days. Course and workshops usually start with an invaluable exercise also passed on by my predecessor: Write down a vivid personal memory. And it starts at another square one by imposing a time limit on the exercise.
This actually allows the presenter to estimate and keep in view the limits of a session, so you don’t include impossible amounts of material, or let yourself gab too long. It also hits would-be writers up-front with the acid test of the “real” world – writing to a deadline, not just as fancy takes you, or more often, as fancy does not.
Usually, a workshop will contain at least one person who finds this difficult, if not impossible, at least at first. Someone may also boggle at the basic next step, which is having everyone read out what they wrote. The fantasy workshop started with some unthreatening exercises: defining the genre by “fuzzy set,” to use Brian Attebery’s term. That is, having people write down 5 texts they considered fantasy, then counting “votes.” No surprise, equal top were Harry Potter and The Lord of the Rings.
From there we moved to making lists of high fantasy “icons” – settings, characters, “McGuffins” like magic rings, storylines. Finally, the first “real” writing exercise took up what I consider a basic but critical element in fantasy: creating a setting that had some non-real element, such as the famous Narnia lamp-post in the wood full of snow.
I was very happy when everyone read out versions of such a setting, detailed or brief. Readback also has twofold advantages: the presenter can offer advice or comments on the fly, and everyone gets some idea of other options. Our settings included one classic desert, one classic forest, one savannah – with wyverns – two water-worlds, and a magician’s laboratory.
From there, we added proper names, suitable to a secondary world. Then we expanded right up to a map of the actual “world” or region – which allowed a lot of pithy world-building advice about climate, seasons, etc, not to mention social basics like, if it’s a city, how big is it, is there a class structure, what does it produce and trade? Then, using the lists of icons as one source, those who hadn’t begun with characters began adding inhabitants.
By then the third effect of the cumulative and readback options had appeared: as everyone’s work developed, everyone else grew more and more interested in hearing it. By Saturday afternoon, I was nearly exhausted from timekeeping, organising, and critiquing on the fly – but I was also very happy, because not only had the workshoppers found they could write using the established fantasy tropes, they were writing lots, and they wanted to go on – even after official closing time.
Sunday, everyone turned up despite another downpour that could have threatened some people with cut roads. This time I tried a wholly new experiment: almost everyone now had a scene, a social and physical background, characters, a “McGuffin,” and interactions at the point of becoming narrative. So after a brief session on fantasy story arcs, I turned them loose: for almost all of the three hours they could plan the story, develop “character icebergs” – the background and history of characters – plot settings, or just keep “real” writing from where they were.
This turned out almost the best part of the workshop. Given a bit of extra time, and now used to writing “on demand,” one person laid out the entire story that had developed around her setting. Others developed characters or wrote on. Best of all, everybody apparently had fun.
Fun dominated the last session, when we moved to contemporary/urban fantasy and “paranormal romance.” Real giggles started with descriptions of the alpha-male vampire or werewolf romance hero – from men’s as well as women’s perspective. And some interesting confirmations of gendered writing appeared too: the women’s descriptions, as someone pointed out, always began with the hero’s eyes and face. The men’s descriptions started with the muscles or the clothes, and sometimes moved to… well.
That session closed over time as well. The workshop as a whole exceeded my hopes as well as my wildest expectations: everyone was able to write, everyone could use the genre staples, everyone could build on the bases we laid down. Best of all, it seemed, everyone had “serious fun” -that is, real enjoyment from a fairly testing scenario, of writing under pressure, in a genre not perhaps familiar, and developing the written piece at length.
The best result of all showed up in the “testimonials” – the two or three sentence feedback I asked people to give me, not least for this blog. Three commented how useful they found the practical exercises. But three also commented, in one case, “after six months of writer’s block I now have a short story and outline for a novel.”
A second added, “This has helped me unblock my writer’s block.”
And the third wrote in the Thankyou card:
“I got 800 words out of yesterday’s exercises. Best writing day in ages.”
The release of writing blocks was not something I’d even expected from the workshop. But as a sometimes 200 words-a-day outputter, I found that last comment the best outcome of the lot.