Philip Brewer's Writing Progress


Friday, 08 June 2001

Successful writing today. Not a huge amount in words, but I wrote one entire scene and it was the one that had the least amount of detail in my outline. I'm very pleased with it. I think I built up the tension nicely, relieved it, and then zapped them with a surprise. And I used a great image that scares me, and I hope at least a few other people.

That brings the word count to 5330. I stopped there because I realized that the next scene is the first one with the villain and I decided that I didn't know enough about him. So I paused to do the thing with the chakras that Steve had talked about. That took up the rest of my writing time, but I think it helped and I'm in a position now to push on through to the end tomorrow.

Critiques take a lot of time. We've been taking about four hours of class time each day to do four critiques. Add to that two or even three hours in the evening preparing to do critiques, and it basically adds up to a full work day just on that part of the workshop.

It is getting a bit better. The critiques are going a bit faster in class. I'm also getting better at doing them. I can now read a 2000-3000 word story and do a critique that I'm happy with in about half an hour. I was spending an hour per story a week ago.

I sure hope this skill will transfer to being able to see structural problems in my own work. I have some reasons to think that it will. I've learned a whole lot about analyzing what a story is really about at multiple levels. That was something that I never really got in my high school English classes (and I only took one college class that was at all on topic). But it is helpful--maybe essential--to be able to describe a story, if you're going to be able to say why it doesn't work and suggest how to fix it.

I'm kind of pleased with myself for (suddenly) being able to do this. For example, I described one story as a "story of a broken man who is healed." And the flaw with the story (in my mind) was that the man wasn't broken enough, so we weren't affected enough when he was healed. Once you see it that way it is, if not easy to fix, at least easy to think about how it might be fixed.

Of course, there's not just one way to see a story. That same story might have been described as the "story of a man who learns that the truth about himself is more complicated than he had realized." At the most trivial level it was the the "story of a man who had his hopes raised and then dashed." I don't think either of those takes on the story would have been helpful for fixing the flaws in the story, though. So getting better at the story analysis is a useful skill for learning how to improve stories. (That's probably obvious, but I find I still have lingering traces of the meme that all views of the meaning of a story are equally valid.)

It is really interesting to see the different takes different people have on a story. Some stories get pretty uniform reactions. Others are viewed very differently by different people. Those tend to be the more interesting ones.

These days (I've heard), students of literature claim authorial intent is meaningless and that you should just analyze purely from the text. Anybody who thinks that should attend a writing workshop and learn better. It is very instructive to read stories where the author's intent has not been fully expressed, to read between the lines to tweeze out what that intent might have been, and then to think about how the story might be restructured to make that intent more manifest.

Steve repeated a point that he had made before, that all these tools he's been teaching us are mostly not for use in the initial writing stage. He compared the process to driving a car: if you're driving along okay, just keep driving. It's when the car breaks down that you need to know how to use the tools. "Write from your heart. All these tools are for when that fails."

He suggested a few practical tips for learning to write types of scenes that you don't feel you have the skills to write. One was to rent videos with really well-done scenes, watch the scenes a few times, and then write them several times, from all the different points of view in the scene. He also suggested a model for certain kinds of human interactions, especially between males and females: the beauty-power axis (women trade beauty for power). (Note: he didn't recommend it as a way to behave. He just pointed out that relationships structured that way will tend to ring true, because everyone has seen relationships like that.) You can also (much more rarely) see relationships where powerful women associate with beautiful men, and (often) relationships for people trade power for power or beauty for beauty.

I see I've used the word "suggested" a lot, but most of what Steve said was like that. These ideas worked for him. He asked that we consider them, and then take what we can use and discard what doesn't work for us.

He talked a bit about kinds of science fiction and fantasy stories (almost everything else he has discussed would be no different for any kind of story). But sf stories in particular revolve around one of three questions:

These questions can be used to come up with story ideas, but they can also help you get it right. If you don't know what kind of story you've got, you can leave out crucial bits or emphasize the wrong things. (For example, I tend to think of my story that got critiqued as an "If only" (there was this food plant) whereas it probably works much better as an "If globalization goes on" story.)

John, Corie, Amy, and I went to the gym after class. John speculated about the impact it might have on people twenty years from now if it happens to turn out that we four become big name (but very different) writers. When it comes up some time we all went to the gym together fans will say "Wow! Isn't that amazing--those four, together." You could almost hear a St. Crispin's Day speech coming together in his head.

I ran on the track (just for a half mile as a warmup because it is much too nice of a day to run indoors) and then lifted weights. Nnedi was there lifting as well. I got a pretty good workout this time.

We had a cookout to say goodbye to Steve. Much fun was had by all (and much beer consumed by a few (but nobody under 21)). After that we all went inside and played Mafia. Steve sat in for two games, then acted as Narrator for a third game.

So, now I completely understand the attraction of Mafia. It's a great game. And I can assure you that I am not in the least bit biased by having been on the winning team all three times. The first game I was a villager and we wiped out the Mafia in record time--it was a huge win. The second game I was Mafia. I got killed near the end, but the I was avenged by my compatriots. The third game I was the Commandant. I made some lucky (or shrewd) guesses and identified two out of the three Mafiosi fairly early. I took a chance and came out as Commandant and fingered both of them. It was a tough sell, but I managed to convince enough people and we villagers won again--even though the surviving Mafia fingered people other than me in a vain effort to discredit me. It was great.

[Added 2001-12-02: It occurred to me that someone searching for the names of our little band wouldn't be able to find this page, because I didn't include everyone's full name, so I'm adding them here: Amy Beth Forbes, John Gonzalez, Nnedimma Nkemdili Okorafor, Corie Ralston, and me, Philip Brewer.]


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