Writing workshop: Day 1

Several weeks ago, I attended a weekend long writing workshop at the local college, presided over by Gail Anderson-Dargatz (The Cure For Death By Lightning). It was a neat experience, to be sure, listening to the opinions of one of Canada’s most well known literary authors. However, after the two days, it turned out I knew most of the things we discussed, and I’m already doing things right in terms of getting my name out there, but I’m going to quickly cover some of the things we discussed. Here, I’ll copy down the meagre notes I took and add on to the ones that I found particularly relevant. Hopefully one of you will find it as helpful as I did!

The Home Landscape

Writing what you know

  • setting is a character
  • landscape helps shape the situation/plot the characters are involved in
    • ie: describing the countryside may give more depth to the experience
  • pretend you’re a blind cat
    • ie: experience what you’re writing to gain more for your characters, even if it’s embarrassing
    • engage the senses more and really let the emotions with them come out in writing
  • life doesn’t have structure
  • things don’t have to be probable, just possible
  • don’t limit yourself with facts
  • fiction interviewing isn’t learning what did happen, but what could happen
    • learn someone else’s story (if it’s relevant to your plot) but don’t retell it in your manuscript; mould those experiences with others you have heard of to make a unique experience for your characters

Because I write fantasy and Gail is a literary fiction author, the home landscape segment wasn’t as relevant for me. I don’t write about the Okanagan, because I create worlds in which my characters live. However, this is a good theme to keep in mind whatever genre you happen to write. People are more comfortable writing what they know, because getting research can be hard. In Purity, the two main settings are London and rural Romanian, neither of which I’ve visited in my lifetime so far. I try to avoid detailing the setting unless I’ve studied pictures, because I don’t know from firsthand experience what these places look like. Yet in Changeling and Of the Arbour, I’m more at home describing the trees and rivers, because I can picture the lovely place in which I live as a basis for their settings. Putting your own experiences into the novel is also a good idea, but don’t copy them to the letter. Leave some wiggle room for your characters to experience them for themsevles.

Writing a Novel

The basics

  • novels are a magical jigsaw puzzle
    • they are constantly changing in order to make the pieces fit together in the best way
  • be flexible
  • building blocks of fiction:
    • scenes
      • action and dialogue
    • narrative summary
      • transitions
    • exposition
    • description
  • scenes move story along in the “now” for the reader
  • transition is a bridge that connects scenes
  • exposition is description in which things are explained
  • description engages senses and builds setting and character
  • info dumps are bad; they confuse the reader with too much information, no matter how interesting the writer may find it
  • objective correlative can be a useful tool, in which the environment is a reflection of emotion in a scene for the character
    • ie: rain when sad
  • confession can be good character development, if used properly
  • contrasting traits of characters builds likability
  • overuse of flashbacks is very bad
  • start with a big picture, and work off it as you go

I didn’t take very many notes, or at least many useful notes, for the novel writing section because a lot of what she talked about I already knew. Not to toot my own horn, but I have been at this for a very long time, and have apparently been teaching myself the proper way of novel writing through trial and infinite error. However, there are a few things I’d like to point out, because of my own very strong opinion of them.

Info dumps

These are bad. Bad bad bad. I try to avoid them as much as possible, because of my own bad experiences as a reader. The author may be completely immersed in what they’re doing – which is great, obviously – to the point that they go on for paragraphs and sometimes even pages about – well, about anything, really. But this can get tedious as a reader. My main traumatic experience with this was when I had to read Lord of the Flies by William Golding in my English class. After hearing about such a classic book, I was looking forward to reading it, but found myself completely disappointed. Read it once, now I hate it, because of Golding’s rambling about nothing. The reader is piled with information about the setting  – about the ravaging of the scar and how pink the rocks are – when it is irrelevant to the plot in every way. Obviously Golding was excited about what he was doing, and wanted to paint a pretty picture about the setting, but it was brutal to read. Pages-long textwalls of information that didn’t matter; I ended up skipping them to find dialogue, to read this and answer the mandatory questions for my class. When I handed in one of theses sheets, my teacher looked at it, at me, then said, “You didn’t read it, did you?”

My desk was right next to his, so there was no point lying. I admitted that I didn’t like the book, but my answers were all right so it didn’t matter. Huzzah for the education system: as long as you get it right, who cares if you learned anything?

overuse of flashbacks

Warning: This will be a rant about A Song of Ice and Fire. If you’re a rabid fanboy and can’t take criticism, turn away now. I personally adore the Game of Thrones HBO program, but I’ve had a hard time with the books, mainly because of George R R Martin’s writing style, and not the content.

Okay. So. I did try to read A Game of Thrones a few months back, but I had to quit and give it a breather, primarily because of GRRM’s complete overuse of flashbacks. I only got to the part where Ned and Robert are hunting while on the King’s Road south to King’s Landing; I had to give up after that. Why? Because in the middle of a conversation with Robert, Ned gets distracted by memory and goes into a pages’ long flashback about his dear sister and the wartime when Aerys Targaryen was offed in favour of Robert. Reading this and the ridiculous exposition GRRM included, I completely forgot that we were in the present until Robert asked Ned a question. It wasn’t the first time I had endured one of these flashbacks, but it was the breaking point for me.

Flashbacks every once in a while can be all right, but they are generally fickle creatures that should be left alone unless used by a brilliant hand.


So this was day one of the writing workshop. Day two was writing YA and kid lit (which I didn’t attend) and promoting and publishing your novel (which I did attend). I’ll wrap up day two in the next week or so.

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