Thursday, June 21, 2012

Practicing story

I'm teaching this week, the one really intensive workshop I do all year, at the West Texas A & M Writers Academy.

Usually when I do a workshop it's a day-long interactive lecture  that I give to a large class - sixty to several hundred people - in which I review the Three-Act, Eight Sequence Structure and other general film writing techniques that are invaluable for authors, and then start with Act I and go through all the story elements I talk about here and in the workbooks, one sequence at a time.

Which is a great overview, and I answer a lot of individual questions and use lots of examples, but it's by necessity a very general class.

At the Writers Academy,  the class size is limited to fifteen people and we can go through everyone's stories one sequence at a time.  I love being able to be hands-on (at least, for a limited time!)  and it's really remarkable to see writers at very different levels and at very different points in the writing process pull their ideas into coherent, complete and exciting story outlines in just five days. 

At first you can see some people in the class are so focused on their own stories that they don't pay any attention to the other writers as they talk about their stories - they just scribble notes on their own stories until it's their turn to talk.  But by the third day or so it's starting to sink in that listening to OTHER people's stories, and brainstorming to solve SOMEONE ELSE'S story problem, is actually helping them become better writers.  And you can see the lightbulbs go on - that it doesn't matter that other people in the class are writing in different genres - that story structure applies across the board, and comparing stories in different genres actually gives you a better understanding of your own genre.

I hope that the class shows people that to get good at telling stories you have to actively practice story structure, spitballing story problems, comparing story solutions.  I hope it shows people that you have to fall in love with - not just writing, but STORY.

There's something about creativity that craves company, and feeds off the creativity of others.  I know I get exponentially more writing done when I get together with my own writing group, The Weymouth Seven. I would meet with them every week, if we all actually lived in the same state. But even though we don't, we still make time and travel to meet up with each other for a week at a time, two or three times a year.

It seems to me that it's so worth the time to create and sustain a critique group.  That's not an easy thing to do, I understand. Especially when you're a new writer, a bad critique group can do a lot more harm than good.  But if you can find a group of dedicated people who have enough control over their own egos and insecurities to commit to creating the kind of atmosphere that encourages creativity, it can bring everyone's writing to a far higher level.

How about you guys?  Good or bad experiences with critique groups?  If you have one that works, how do you run it?  Do you have a moderator, or do you use a particular writing method?

And if you don't have a critique group, how do YOU practice story?

- Alex


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aniko said...

I've attended a few workshops, but none as intense as what you describe for the Writer's Academy. I suspect that your attitude helps the students open up to the idea of helping each other become better writers. In any group situation, the character of the leader/mentor tends to be a deciding factor in how healthy and collaborative a group will be.

Which means I'm sure your workshop is going well! :)

As for how I practice story, I also have a writing group. To date, we've never met in person. That hasn't made them any less integral to my growth as a writer - knowing they are there for me, gives me courage and keeps me honest.

Alexandra Sokoloff said...

Aniko - good point! Online writing groups can be incredibly effective - when I moved out of L.A. for a while I continued to "meet" regularly with my writing group online.

If you don't mind saying, how did you meet/put together your online group?

AMB said...

I attended a week-long workshop and was lucky enough to meet a few like-minded writers. Two in particular have been keeping in contact weekly through a round-robin email. one of them is pushing me through a crisis with the ms I took to the workshop inspired by the critiques I received there. If i didn't have those two, I would be completely stuck.

I often have to choose between activity A and writing, so finding writing groups locally after hearing some bad personal stories fell to the bottom of my list. My writing may suffer, though.

Alexandra Sokoloff said...

AMB - for my money the internet will never, ever, ever take the place of being in the same room, or park, or beach, with other human beings. But it can be a fantastic second choice. I e mail back and forth on an e mail loop with my writing group almost every day. We have instant access to the group brain, and it is lifesaving.

Winona Cross said...

I was at the Writer's Academy in Jodi Thomas's class. It was wonderful. I heard nothing but great reviews for Alex and will be back next year sitting in her group. I think I'll go every year.

I miss my writer's group in Louisiana. I found one in Wichita Falls, TX but it's no longer around. As a new writer I know I need a critique group that I can trust. Can't tell you how many times I've almost given up based on really hurtful comments that didn't teach me anything.

But, I'm a survivor . . .

Alexandra Sokoloff said...

Nona, I'm looking forward to having you in class! It's very true that you have to be careful to get into a critique group that actually understands CONSTRUCTIVE criticism. People can do a lot of damage when their motives aren't clear.

BTW, I got your question and I haven't forgotten about you! I'm writing a blog about using words to create suspense, will probably post it later today.