Two workshop attendees—Meredith Wadley-Suter and Catherine Szentkuti—share their workshop experiences in Fiction and Memoir/Non-Fiction at Autumn WriteCon, 2016.
A Journey of Discovery with Jason Donald (Fiction Workshop)
Drawing a large circle on a flip-chart in a room of fiction writers, Scottish novelist and short-story writer Jason Donald said, “Now we move up a level to the Hero’s journey.” His audience watched, rapt.
“Our hero goes from the known into the unknown.”
Welcome to WriteCon’s Fiction Masterclass. Welcome to the chance to get your writerly gears locked and wheels turning. Welcome to moving your ideas and material forward. The course participants, young and less-young, experienced and less-experienced, native and non-native English speakers, gathered on Saturday, November 5, at the Volkshaus in Zürich, for a morning of story-structure theory followed by an afternoon of hands-on editorial tips, for writing sharper prose.
For some, Donald offered new ideas. For others, he covered familiar material. Never mind which camp participants fell in: Pens scribbled, keyboards clicked, and photocopied materials shuffled. Hands rose. The questions bubbling forth revealed that he had lured each student into his and her own journey of discovery.
Sometimes, he told us, getting the story back into shape means cutting material—good material …
I arrived at the course considering myself to be well-familiar with story acts, arcs, and journeys. Guilt tickled at my conscience. Had I taken a chair from someone who might have benefited more from this topic? Within the first few minutes of introducing the story arc, however, Donald had me forgetting my guilt. He had his class enthralled. He created a scenario to illustrate story structure at work. Layering in examples from familiar novels, giving us the background of the concepts (and throwing in a bit C.G. Jung), he demonstrated his mastery of the material and enthusiasm for it. He increased its accessibility by encouraging us to connect the differing stages of theory to our own stories, plots, characters, and conflicts. For me, this accessibility was new. Was I sitting at the edge of my seat? Yes.
“I have these charts hanging above my desk,” he said, holding up the handouts illustrating the story arc and pointing to his flip-chart drawing. “When I get stuck or feel like I’m wandering, I look up to consult them.” Sometimes, he told us, getting the story back into shape means cutting material—good material, even. “It’s great writing. You hate to let go.” Heads in the room nodded. Save the material, he suggested. Use it someplace else. “I’ve used material I’ve cut to create short stories.”
After our lunch break, Donald sat in front of the class. “Now let’s go through your own work.” Out came laptops and hardcopy manuscripts. With Donald’s guidance and his worksheet of common prose pitfalls, we discarded our overused words and combed for filtering and information dumps—in prose and dialogue—that dragged on our story’s flow. “Sometimes,” he said, “you come across someone’s sentence that makes you say, Wow!” In pursuit of creating “wows” of our own, we followed an exercise.
We listed ten emotions explored in our story and ten physical things in its environment. We then exchanged lists with a partner. Pairing words from our partner’s list, each of us created sentences.
Personally, I’m a slow processor and lousy at writing prompts and in-class exercises (sorry, partner). Others produced inspiring results, though. Maybe I let the moment fall to the sidewalk, but it won’t be swept into a burn pile.
For those of you who realize you shouldn’t have let me grab your seat, you’ll be happy to know that Jason Donald organizes a spring writing retreat. Open to all writers, the retreat includes workshops, discussion groups, manuscript consultations, and salons. His guest writer is novelist and short-story writer Janice Galloway. The 2017 dates are May 29th to June 3rd. The venue is the Hornberg Hotel, Saanenmoser, Switzerland.
For more information, contact Jason Donald: [email protected].
Memoir and Non-Fiction with Lindsey Grant
Saturday 5th November was one of those relentlessly grey and wet days in Zürich. It was a perfect day to be inside so I was pleased to be heading to the Volkshaus for WriteCon’s writing workshop. Not sure whether to pick the Fiction or Memoir/Non-Fiction workshop, I had opted for the latter as I did not have a specific fiction project on the go and figured there would be plenty of useful content applicable for any genre.
I had been to a couple of music events at the Volkshaus but didn’t realise how many meeting and conference rooms were to be found up the wide, old staircase. After registration and name-tagging, all attendees congregated for coffee and a friendly chat and then we split into our respective groups. Nine of us trooped upstairs with our tutor Lindsey Grant at 9am and got started.
Lindsey Grant is a bright and engaging American published author and former program director for NaNoWriMo (National Novel Writing Month, which coincidentally is in November!). She began by showing us five very different books which all fall into the category of Memoir, including one about maps, one about being gluten-intolerant (the memorably titled Gluten is my Bitch) and Lindsey’s own book, Sleeps with Dogs: Tales of a Pet Nanny at the End of Her Leash, which became our case study for how to approach, plan and structure a piece of long-form non-fiction writing.
… memoir is different from autobiography in scope
Defining memoir was interesting for me. Lindsey explained how memoir is different from autobiography in scope: it is not a whole life but a particular time period or chunk of one’s life. It is also the intersection of the personal story with a subject or theme – for example, an interesting hobby or passion, such as how I spent my twenties learning to tango in Buenos Aires. This fictitious memoir might be about the history of dancing and the tango in particular, it might touch on the current popularity of TV shows like Strictly Come Dancing, it could also be about Argentinian culture and lifestyle, but bringing it all together is the ‘I’ and what the author thinks and feels.
One can dial up the content but what drives the memoir is the personal, by definition, and this also means that as readers we expect it to be a true story.
We did an illuminating, visual exercise called ‘Establishing the Scope of Your Story’. Lindsey provided a handout which analysed her memoir in a diagram, showing her two major themes: ‘a coming of age story’ and ‘dog walking exposé’ and each of these had five-six connected off-shoot topics, such as finding love, client demands, finances and Bay Area culture. It is important that such sub-topics relate to the overall theme, and that writing about them supports and develops the main narrative.
Have you thought about how suspense is created in a book? Or why you become engaged and care about the characters? These are things an author controls and creates quite intentionally. Lindsey calls it the ‘Angle of Revelation’, or the ‘how and when of the what’ which includes deciding what your reader knows, and when, and whether to structure your work chronologically or in a different sequence. What is the ‘inciting incident’ going to be in your book? What will change through the narrative and where will you begin? At the beginning, at the end or somewhere in the middle? Using small Post-it notes we listed events and then looked at how we could move them around to change the telling of the story.
Throughout the day we had plenty of time and opportunity to ask questions and make comments. With different levels of writing experience amongst the participants, we also talked about approaching publishers or agents, and the pros and cons of self-publishing. I thoroughly enjoyed this workshop: for me it was a whole new way to look at a narrative, examining important elements like character and theme, and breaking down structure and plot. Lindsey showed us how much useful planning can and should take place before one magical imaginative word is written.
WriteCon has been organizing writing courses, writers’ brunches, and panel discussions on writing and publishing—traditional and independent—since 2011. Great places to network, the events are attended by regular and new faces, beginning and experienced writers. Check out Making Tracks for other writers’ events and information about WriteCon 17, which will take place next October.