6 Tips from Writing Workshops: Opening Lines, Content, & Revision

Monday, June 6, 2011

This weekend, I had the pleasure of attending an all-day set of writing workshops at Richard Hugo House in Seattle. Since I have been learning to beat writer's block, this day was a necessary shock to my system - an entire day of learning, writing, and revising is just what I needed!
And, because I believe in the power of sharing, I thought I would disclose some of the most valuable writing lessons I took away - specifically on openings, content, and revising.

1. First lines should be the seed from which the rest of the story flows. This tip came from the very first workshop I attended that day, appropriately entitled Story Seeds: Great Opening Lines and led by sci fi author Sonia Lyris. "Call me Ishmael," she read, "If it were 'call me Frank,' would you still read it?" Her kernel of wisdom was that if the first line didn't get the reader to march on to the second, it wasn't doing its job. If it doesn't have a hidden dramatic question (who, what, and why are very popular ones) But how to find that first line?

2. If you love it, steal it. If you hate it, make it better. The Story Seeds workshop progressed with Lyris throwing out famous lines and not-so-famous ones and the class responding with riffs and alterations. It was not "stealing" per se, but rather tracking what made the line work and finding how it could apply in your own writing. Lyris returned always to the dramatic question underlying the text: if the reader doesn't want to know anything more, they will not read on.

3. Structured exercises are your friends. The next workshop I attended was called Story in an Instant with Cara Diacanoff. She wrote up on a white board six prompts that we were supposed to answer in a couple of sentences. I didn't know what to expect at first - I have always been a fan of the "writer's process," so I approached the prompts cautiously. But, lo and behold, I became a convert! Her prompts - which had us envision the subtleties of two people who share a secret together (the prompts are all posted on Twitter #writeorama) - allowed us to shape the bare bones of a story: plot, character, detail, scene, etc. I was amazed at the creativity that I produced in just 50 minutes.

4. Embrace limits. If there is one thing that Story in an Instant taught me, it is that limits will help your writing. When listening to the prompts early on, I thought that they might stifle me by reducing my story to a certain form. Yet, while the limits of prompts were exact (there had to be two people, not one, for instance), their specificity allowed me to find creative toe-holds and advance my story much faster than I would had I been facing the limitless realm of free writing.

5. Revision is re-experiencing, not just tinkering with the words. Just before lunch, I took a class called From Vision to Re-Vision with Karin de Weille, who had us all write a short piece and then edit it, right then and there. As I am allergic to revision, this class pushed my boundaries a bit. When I got my words down, my inner critic was already shouting at me. But de Weille said something that I had never thought about in revision: it allows you to "do the same thing, but more," meaning that it allows you to re-experience the writing process in a different and even heightened way. With this view, I found that editing didn't seem as daunting, but more like an exploration into my own work.

6. Take a hard look at your verbs. The second most valuable lesson in de Weille's revision class was to really use your verbs to express that re-experienced vision. In our exercise, we had to connect an action with an emotion, and then go over the verbs we used to describe that action after the writing was done. If the verb was too bland (walk, for instance, instead of stomp), then it needed to be replaced. The teacher advised that we use the words to take us on a new journey, and if that new journey meant that you had to re-write an entire passage, so be it. That is always the bane of the revision process: cutting and re-writing things that just don't sound good. However, I believe that when you look at it from the stance of re-experiencing, it reverses the process so that you are re-writing, and then cutting, which is an entirely different (and more tasteful) animal.

Now, I leave it to you: got any magic bullet tips on writing and revising? Let me know in the comments!

All three of these fabulous teachers will be giving classes again at Hugo House in the summer and the fall, so look for their names over at the class registration site!

Check out some of my writing and writing tips, including 3 Ways I Beat Writer's Block to a Pulp.