Tag Archive | learning

Workshops to Learn

wpaI’ve been teaching various writing workshops–and taking them, too–for a number of years online, and I’ll be starting a new workshop on Writing Women’s Fiction next week. Over that time, I’ve found a number of things help some folks learn more than others–and I’ve experienced that as a student. So how can you get the most from any workshop? Here are some tips.

1-Make time to participate. This is so important. Yes, life can get in the way–and I’ve lurked my way through a few workshops. The workshops where I’ve been passive, I’ve never really absorbed the lessons–they didn’t stick. Or I filed the lessons and never really got to them. When I’ve taught, the writers who do the assignments do learn–I can see it in the work.

2-Stay on topic. There are so many things to learn about the craft of writing–viewpoint control, pacing, dialogue, when to use narrative, punctuation, and more. If you try to tackle everything at once, you end up with scattered efforts and not really getting a firm control of one specific thing. Focus also help you refine your skills–you may have some skills, but really working on a technique will improve anyone’s writing. I often see writers who get distracted–by ideas and by other topics. Resist this urge and start developing the discipline that will also help you focus on your stories.

3-Ask questions. This is another way to participate. Try and give some thought to your questions so they are clearly framed–it can be difficult to make yourself understood in just text, but you may spark a discussion that leads to new ideas for you.

4-Respect the teacher and the class. I’ve taught workshops where it seems like one person is ready to dive in and take over the class. This is frustrating to me. I want to encourage interaction, but if someone is hijacking the workshop and taking it off topic it means I have to spend more time pulling the workshop back on track instead of teaching and working with others. Think about what you post before you post. It’s fine to give a few comments, but do not treat the workshop as if it’s Facebook where any comment can be posted.

5-Respect your work. You want to develop the habit of always reading your work aloud before you share it with anyone else. This is particularly important if you are writing new work for specific assignments. Proof your work, then proof it again. A few typos is not bad, but a lot of them makes it seem as if you don’t really care about your own work–and as if you don’t respect your writing. Make every piece of writing as good as you can–work hard to master all the basic techniques such as verb tense, commas, dialogue punctuation, and capitalization.

6-Write specifically for the workshop. This goes back to the participation issue. Yes, you can copy and paste parts of any manuscript for any workshop assignment, but you’ll probably learn more by doing work specifically for the workshop. This also has the benefit of getting you writing. To do this, look carefully at your schedule when you plan to take a workshop. If you sign up for any workshop, clear a few other things off your calendar and set aside specific time to both read lessons and do assignments.

7-Schedule your workshop time. I’ve always gotten more by setting aside specific time for workshops–this is both for teaching them and taking them. For me, it’s best to do this in the morning when I’m fresh. I can sit down with my coffee, review notes, read and do some work. At the end of the day, it can be tough for me to focus and sometimes I’m tired enough I just want to sit and read–or stare at a movie if I’m really brain dead from a tough day. That’s when I’ll push things off. So get your workshop time allotted and set in stone. Workshops usually only last a few weeks–Writing for Women’s Fiction is only six weeks, and that’s a huge topic to cover in that short time, so you want to carve out time for getting the maximum learning.

8-Have fun–and try new things. You learn more when you’re relaxed and willing to experiment. Workshops are a safe place to try out new things. Never written first person–give it a go. Want to try present tense verbs. Okay. I generally end up reassuring everyone at some point there are no grades–there’s no right or wrong. There’s writing that works, and stuff that doesn’t work so well–and workshops are a place to go splat because you’ll learn more from stretching your writing muscles.

9-Discard what doesn’t work. In any workshop, if you come out with one or two new tools, you’ve gotten great value from that workshop. But remember–in every workshop, the teacher is sharing what works for her. This tool may not fit your hand. Maybe it’s too advanced a technique and you’re not ready for it–or maybe it’s not the way you work. That’s okay. Just trying something different will improve your skills. Never, ever feel it’s your fault if something isn’t really clicking for you–it’s not the teacher’s fault either. There’s no one right way to write.

10-Be open to new things. While we all have our writing habits, go into any workshop willing to learn. Yes, be critical. But also try even the things where you’re not sure if they’ll work for you. Maybe a workshop about plotting puts down guidelines for so much structure it kills your impulse to write. That’s okay. Look at the guidelines you can use and take them into your tool box. Maybe a workshop about dialogue gives you one great idea, but the rest of it is stuff you already know. Cool! Celebrate that one great idea–that’s the value you got from the workshop.

The great thing about writing is that there is always something new to learn. That’s why I teach–I get as much from the workshops I teach as any student. And I’m really looking forward to this new workshop on Writing Women’s Fiction. It should be fun!


Reading Like a Writer

Another writer posted a question the other day to a loop I follow about chapter lengths.  It got me to thinking about how I’d learned where to break chapters from Elizabeth Daly, a fabulous mystery writer, who wrote back in the 40’s (you really have to love stories where everyone stops for civilized cocktails at five).  And that started me thinking about other writers I’ve learned from.

From Georgette Heyer and Catherine Coulter, they taught me about writing dialogue that has the same sharp sparkle as champagne (we’re talking the good stuff, not Cold Duck).

Jayne Ann Krentz and Nora Roberts taught me the importance of likeable main characters. Nora also taught me how to handle viewpoint transitions, and a dozen other things.

Dick Frances gave me great lessons in fast openings with strong hooks that pull you into empathy with the main character and a story that never lets up.

Dan Brown taught me about pacing–and that you really can make all that research into facinating stuff.

Loretta Chase taught me how great narrative can be, that if you work at your writing, you can hold the reader’s attention for anything.

From Susan Elizabeth Phillips I have great lessons on making even unlikeable characters into sympathetic characters–a very hard trick to pull off. And Jane Austen taught me that character flaws can make the entire story.

Connie Brockway taught me that funny is good, a lesson I keep forgetting until I go back to re-read her books.

From CJ Barry I learned about how good SF and Romance are when you mix them with a skilled hand and keep the tension going in both.

There’s lessons from Tate Hallaway and Libby Bray and Melissa Marr and Mary Stewart in how to mix magic and story and make it wonderful and not too complicated (or so crazy it makes no sense). And Jessica Davis Stein taught me in Coyote Dream how all the work to make a good book great is worth it (she wrote and rewrote that book six times from scratch and it shows in all the beautiful craft).

Fantasy writers Ray Bradbury taught me about lyrical prose, and Edgar Rice Burroughs taught how to keep a reader turning the page no matter what–and that writers improve as they write. While western writer Ernest Haycox taught me about strong characters and even stronger, clean, lean prose.

The list goes on and on and on–so does the bookshelves. I’ve learned from the books I don’t like as well–taking them apart has taught me to edit my own work, and it’s shown me mistakes I want to avoid.

Which all goes to show you need to be a reader to be a writer. And it all goes into the pot to influence your work.

All this means, too, that once you start writing, you start reading differently. You stop at great prose and take it apart. You find a passage and you ask, “How did she do that?” and so you study it and figure it out so you can use that trick, too. You become a critical reader, but the very best still make you stop reading and become part of the story so that you have to go back later and figure it out.

So who are you reading today who is giving you new lessons and ideas?