As part of my January clear-out, I sorted through the drawers of my desk. No matter how often I cull, they always fill up again so now it’s part of my New Year’s ritual. Anyway, amid the old receipts and cards, I came across my file of workshop notes. What at treat! I soon gave up my housekeeping and immersed myself in the file. I have notes on “emotional intensity,” “blogging,” “revisions,” “plotting – by character, by structure, by GMC . . .” I have notes on building character based on a flaw, on strengths, on birth sign/order, on secrets.” There are several workshops around editing, the writer’s journey, the hero’s journey and the romance heroine’s journey. In short, I have several textbooks worth of notes.
I always enjoy the workshops I attend. I love the vibe of sitting with other writers, cheering each other’s accomplishments, weeping with each other’s disappointments. The teachers I’ve encountered have all been sincere, learned, and enthusiastic. At the end of the workshop I’m fired up, sure that a tweak here and a tweak there will have my latest ms ready for an editor. Dreams of “best-selling” labels waft through my mind. I come home, renewed, restored, and refreshed. Within a week, I’ve chucked the workshop notes into a drawer and am slogging away at the writing in my usual fashion.
That pattern used to depress me. Why did I spend the time and money on a workshop if I wasn’t going to use the lessons learned? Why did I keep on in my old way, when there was this brand new way just begging to be used? Worse still, why couldn’t I make my ms fit the template given by the wise one leading the workshop? Through many trials and many tears, I’ve learned something. My work is my work.
No matter how brilliant my writer friend is, her process is not mine. No matter how much I envy the author who can produce a book a month, she’s not me. I have wasted many hours trying to make my story, my process, conform to someone else’s pattern, and it has been a waste of time. Just as our stories are individual, so is our method of getting to “the end.” Having finally come to terms with that fact, I now enjoy the workshops for the camaraderie, the insights and the day out. I no longer obsess over the lessons.
That’s not to say I disregard the lessons, I just incorporate the bits that work for me into my system. Looking over this pile of notes I find some common themes, themes that play in the back of my mind as I wrestle with the words in my story. One presenter used “why?” as the basis for plotting. Why did a character do something? i.e. Jane went to the store. “Why?” To get away from her mother-in-law. “Why?” Because her MIL scared her. “Why?” Because if her MIL prevailed, Jane would have to tell John her secret. Ah! Now we’re getting somewhere, all by asking “why?”
Similarly, another presenter says “so what?” So what if Jane tells John her secret? She may lose him. “So what?” John means everything to Jane. She can’t live without him. “So what?” If Jane can’t cope on her own, she’ll lose her job. “So what?” If she loses her job, she’ll lose custody of her daughter. See how a simple question, why or so what, can drive a story? We haven’t even talked about character yet.
Over time I’ve learned that I do better with these types of question/guides than I do with charts. In my workshop file are some beautiful charts for creating characters, creating scenes, developing plot, and organizing structure. But charts are too hard-edged for me. I never know which box to put an item in because scenes bleed over into characterization and characterization bleeds into plot, and plot bleeds into goal and . . .
Still, I keep the workshop notes. When I need a boost, I’ll read over a few. Somewhere in there, a phrase, a question, a marginal note will start my brain clicking away and I’m happily back into the wip. So, thanks to all the workshop presenters I’ve enjoyed, and thanks to all my fellow writers for building a community that embraces me and my process.