I love to go to writing workshops and have attended at least one each year for nearly two decades. Below is the advice I have found most helpful. Most of the instructors were excellent, some less so, but each provided a little jewel of wisdom.
1. A novel needs conflict, both external and internal. The external conflict drives the plot, the internal conflict provides the heart. It’s preferable if there is also a universal conflict. (Source: Ann Hood among others)
2. Always move toward greater complication. I like patterns, but when the writing is too matchy-matchy, too neat, too easily resolved, it becomes predictable and lacks tension. For example, if you have two points of view, you don’t always have to alternate between them. (Dana Spiotta)
3. Flip it/don’t land in the same place. This is related to #2. You’ll create tension if your fragment, scene, or chapter changes in emotional value. For example, if in one scene your protagonist breaks up with an old lover, in the next scene she should gain something, even if it’s finding a seat on the crowded train. (Ann Hood from Robert McKee)
4. Find an image and let it do more. My teacher in college, James Alan McPherson, used to talk about writing as jazz, and then he would riff himself in lecture, plucking images from disparate sources, somehow creating something coherent. Also see: objective correlative.
5. Be judicious with first-person point of view. It’s tricky, and some readers will despise you if you make mistakes in its use. When in doubt, default to third person unless the character has a unique voice. (Tony Early, Antonya Nelson)
6. Show kindness to your writing. Even that piece of crap you just wrote has something amazing in it (Lidia Yuknavitch). Of course Anne Lamott says much the same thing in Bird by Bird, about the kid by the fence, but Lidia reads everyone’s writing with such compassion, such delight in the possibility, that it makes you want to do the same thing with your own work.
7. Don’t make dialogue too neat. It’s not a tennis match where each speaker hits the conversational ball back and forth. People, especially in fiction, talk over each other, don’t listen, don’t speak in complete sentences. When I write dialogue, I write it the way we might actually speak, and then I cut out about half of it. (Bill Roorbach is especially good at this.)
8. Find a role model and map their work. In workshops early in my career, both Ann Hood and Rebecca McClanahan taught me to find an example of a writer succeeding at something I wanted to do in my writing, and to analyze it. I used to go through essays and mark sections in different colors to show scene, summary and musing.
9. Enjoy the process. In the end, that may be all I get out of writing. I may never publish these novels or even find an agent. I will certainly not get rich. But I have learned to love the writing itself and look forward to revision, to becoming better.
A few spaces remain for “Showing and Telling: Successfully Use Both Scene and Summary.” Join Kristin for this excellent class on Tuesday January 22 from 6 to 9 pm.
Kristin Donnalley Sherman lives in Charlotte, where she works as a writer, editor, and writing coach. She’s published both fiction and nonfiction, and is currently at work on two novels. Her work has appeared in Brevity, Barrelhouse, Silk Road, Main Street Rag, and Flashquake, and she has won or been a finalist in numerous contests, including Elizabeth Simpson Smith Short Fiction, the Writers Workshop Memoirs, the Reynolds Price Fiction, River Styx Micro-fiction, and the Press 53 Open Awards for Short Short Fiction.