Monday night marked the kickoff of the 8-week YA writing workshop I’m leading for the Quebec Writers’ Federation.
I opened the class with a reference to this Ira Glass video I love, about storytelling, and how our amazing taste mingles with our aspirations to both guide our work and inspire self-doubt.
These videos (there are four in total) are like a soothing nerve tonic, even to the experienced artist.
Writing Exercise – Mind Maps
In On Writing, Stephen King says
“There is no Idea Dump, no Story Central, no Island of the Buried Bestsellers; good story ideas seem to come quite literally from nowhere, sailing at you right out of the empty sky: two previously unrelated ideas come together and make something new under the sun. Your job isn’t to find these ideas, but to recognize them when they show up.”
It’s my conviction that most of us have more ideas than we know what to do with. Because we don’t know what to do with them, we let our minds get evasive. We don’t write ideas down, or we tell ourselves they probably aren’t worth pursuing, or we start a project, and when the going gets tough, we bail on the idea. Or we get stuck on one idea, and devote ourselves fanatically, letting all our other ideas woosh past us through space as we toil away trying to make something of that first thought, like we have something to prove through our loyalty.
I have a solution! We must devote more time to noting, pondering and exploring ideas for the sheer pleasure of it. We must forcefully set aside the anxiety that tells us we have to make something of an idea, and spend more time hanging out with our ideas, lounging around the house in our PJs with our ideas, sitting on the couch with them until they believe we’re comfortable having them there in the room, no big deal. Through time and familiarity, BFF ideas will emerge naturally.
Step 1: Carry a notebook and a pen at all times. (Or your phone with a nice note-taking app if you’re like me.) See something cool? Think something profound? Write it down! Do not stop to question whether you will think it’s cool or profound later. That is what later is for, and you will get there eventually. For now, just enjoy the jolt. Enjoy it in ink.
Step 2: Mind-mapping This is the exercise we did in our first workshop session. This one is for learning to see the ideas we already have, but for some reason aren’t 100% aware of. They’re like lizards, some of these ideas. They sit there soaking up sun and blending in with the boring rock they’re perched on. You have to relax your mind and let it wander. Only then, out of the corner of your mind’s eye, can you start to see the lizards for the rocks.
This is where the map comes in. Get ready to wander and meander and discover as you go.
- Get out the biggest sheet of blank paper you can find, and your favourite pens. (Or use an app like iThoughts if you’re like me).
- Write your first heading or idea in the middle of the page. (It could be the title of your novel, or the name of a character, or on really good days, just “ideas!”)
- You’re highly likely to then have at least one thought connected to that first heading. Draw a line from your first heading, and write down your next idea.
- As ideas sprout more ideas, write them down in this fashion, letting them branch out like a tree, or great crazy bush, or out-of-control galactic map.
- Do not pause to narrow down your ideas, edit, or focus in any way. Do not force yourself to choose one path or option. Write them all down. (This is particularly good when you’re trying to work out a plot, and need to consider all the possible options.)
- Feel free to turn the page around as you work, use colours, or drawings… whatever keeps the ideas flowing.
It should look like this, only messier:
I suspect this exercise will be difficult at first for some. Our way of life conditions us to work toward results, so a task like this, with no particular destination, can be uncomfortable– like meditation, or yoga, or just trying to jog in a lower heart rate zone than usual. If this is you, I can’t tell you to work harder at it, just to keep doing it, regardless of the immediate outcome.
YA is such a vast reading umbrella (I would never call it a genre. It contains many genres.), with room for many different tastes and interests. Rather than assign one text for everyone to read, each participant contributed a list of three-to-five beloved YA books, or books they remembered loving as teens.
The resulting list is as diverse and varied as I had hoped. These are the books we’ll be drawing on for analyses of voice, character, plot, setting and all that other good stuff, throughout the workshop. I’ve compiled them into a handy Goodreads list that will no doubt grow as the session continues.
The first rule of good writing is READ, READ, READ, so I hope everyone will select an unfamiliar title or two to curl up with as the fall weather conspires to create ideal reading vibes all around us. HINT, HINT!
Workshop participants, these are the dates you agreed to (except for you, Yael. I assigned you the last open date.) I look forward to reading your work!
October 10 – Maria
October 17 – Christine
October 24 – Helen
October 31 – Melissa
November 7 – Stephenie
November 14- Darcy
November 21- Yael
The guidelines again: 10-15 pages of a short story or chapter of a novel-in-progress, double-spaced, single sided. You can email them to me (firstname.lastname@example.org) and I’ll distribute them to the group.
Lost your course outline? Can’t find those critique guidelines? NO PROBLEM. Here you go:
Workshop Outline & Critique Guidelines
Homework for Week 2!
Next week, we’ll be discussing voice, and therefore also character and point-of-view.
Participants, please choose one of the books on your list, and have a look through it, and re-familiarize yourself with it. Have a think about character and voice. We’ll be using this in the workshop, so it’s important to come prepared.
Note: you need a specific book for this one. No generalizing. No hazy book memories. Read up!