Writers in the Storm

A blog about writing

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January 10, 2018

Confessions of a Workshop Flunkie

Orly Konig

Like most writers, I love craft books and workshops and blog posts and insight into writing better, smarter, stronger. There’s always room for improvement, and I’m absolutely convinced that somewhere out there is the magic ingredient for a bestseller.

I keep a notebook with those gems from each workshop that will change my writing life. I highlight and sticky-note passages in craft books that elicited a moment of “ohhhh wow.” I listen with awe as fellow authors talk about the life-altering moment when a particular method brought their story into focus, then promptly run out and devour that same material.

In August, I jumped at the chance of seeing Donald Maass present The Emotional Craft of Fiction in person after doing several online workshops with him.

And in September, I was at the Women’s Fiction Writers retreat where Lisa Cron presented a two-day workshop. I’d read Story Genius before the retreat, and I sponged every bit of additional information that came from her mouth. I marveled as fellow authors typed away on their story notes, excitement building with each new element they figured out. For weeks after the retreat, I exchanged messages with my critique partner as she applied what she’d learned and plotted out her next book.

I knew, just knew that when my time came to start on my next project, I’d rock this writing gig. Then a couple of months ago, I started a new project. First time in a couple of years when I’ve sat down with a fresh Word document and a shiny new story idea. I pulled out the notes and workbooks and started brainstorming character arcs and origin scenes and inciting incidents. I pondered the dark moment and backstory. This new book was going to be the best one yet. Because finally, FINALLY I was doing it right. I was going to have all the pieces in place and the story would be a breeze to write.

Yeah. Not so much. Because here’s the thing … while I love workshops and craft books and learning new awesome approaches to writing, I absolutely, positively, cannot apply the methods to my work. Writing, for me, is an organic process. The nuggets of a story grow and branch out piece by piece. When I force the various elements, they shrivel.

Character profiles? I know enough about my characters to get a story started. I learn about them as we grow together. When I sit with a character profile sheet and attempt to flush out who they are and where they came from, they get shy and clam up.

I know all about the various act structures — even have a huge poster board with handy, dandy guidelines for the six-stage act structure and space for sticky notes that I made after attending a weekend workshop with Michael Hauge.

Post it notes on board

Dark moments? We all face them and so will my characters. But I can’t tell you what it’ll be before I’m armpit deep in it. And forcing the plotting of it turns it from dark moment to boring beige.

I tried. I reread a couple of the books and scanned through notes. I printed worksheets and bought more sticky notes. And, the harder I tried, the worse it got. After a couple of months trying and failing and falling further behind on my deadline, I gave up.

While my writing colleagues were thriving, I was floundering. And I was embarrassed to admit it. How can I be the only one who’s not getting it? What’s wrong with me?

But sometimes you just have to admit defeat, suck up the shame, and move on. I put the craft books back on the shelf, shoved the worksheets into a desk drawer, and dove into writing. Once I gave myself permission to not have to follow a path, the story came together.

So, am I suggesting that you abandon the workshops and stop reading craft books? Absolutely not! Take as many workshops as you can, read every craft book out there. Yeah, you’re scrunching your eyebrows at me — I see you.

Here’s the thing … bits and pieces of what I’ve learned are in my head. I hear Donald Maass reminding me to explore emotional misdirection. I chuckle and rewrite when a cliché attempts to escape from my fingertips. And when the story is done and I’m ready to revise, THEN I bring out the poster board and sticky notes.

Ass-backwards, sure. Efficient, not necessarily. But it’s what works for me, and I’m okay with that. Because at the end of the day, it’s not how you get there, but that you get there!

That’s my confession. Anyone else have something that they feel they should be doing but can’t or am I the only flunkie out there?

*  *  *  *  *  *

About Orly

Carousel Beach CoverAfter years in the corporate world (most of it in the space industry), Orly Konig took a leap into the creative world of fiction. She is the founding president of the Women’s Fiction Writers Association, an active member of the Tall Poppy Writers, and a quarterly contributor to the Writers in the Storm and Thinking Through Our Fingers blogs.

Her debut women’s fiction, The Distance Home, released from Forge, May 2017. Carousel Beach will release May 8, 2018. Find her online at www.orlykonig.com.

67 comments on “Confessions of a Workshop Flunkie”

  1. Yes, my sister, I am totally with you on this. Thanks for coming out of the closet and making it safe for the rest of us to admit it. I am not a Story Genius, but like you, I read it, and learned a few things about writing. Same with so many others. In fact, whenever I start feeling insecure about my abilities as a writer, my Amazon bill goes up. Those books make me feel legit and confident again, even as I ignore much of their direction. It's the same approach I have with learning anything from anyone (and I do think everyone can teach us something) and the pile of stuff my mom always has for me whenever I visit, -- 'take what you can use, and leave the rest behind.'

    1. There's something to learn from every workshop or craft book, even if it's that the technique doesn't work for us. I'm not a Story Genius. I'm a story mutt! 🙂

    2. I've often heard that if you walk away from a craft book or a workshop with a nugget of great advice that you can apply to your book, it was worth it. That's a bit like the "take what you can use..." insight.

  2. "Yeah. Not so much. Because here’s the thing … while I love workshops and craft books and learning new awesome approaches to writing, I absolutely, positively, cannot apply the methods to my work. Writing, for me, is an organic process. The nuggets of a story grow and branch out piece by piece. When I force the various elements, they shrivel."

    This is SO me. I accepted that my process is my own, and that it might change from book to book, but I want to get words down and deal with them as I go. I have a couple of craft books, my early fave being "Self-Editing for Fiction Writers" because I'd never taken a writing class. All the workshops, wonderful as they might be, simply make me think that if I do what they say, writing will lose too much of the joy. I'd rather fix everything later.

    1. Well, Terry, personally, I'd LOVE if I didn't have a ton to fix later. 🙂
      That said, I actually really enjoy the revision phase (that comment makes Laura Drake break out in hives every time I say it). And part of the fun of each book is seeing what process it demands.

  3. Me too! I find little bits of wisdom filter down into my writing, but when I try to incorporate a "system", my brain gives me the finger.

    It's like the lessons needs to go through the meat grinder in my head, and it comes out on the page in ways i couldn't plan, or even anticipate!

    i love it when that happens. I think that's why we keep going to workshops, etc. you never know....

    1. "you never know" ... exactly! The things that work for one person, won't necessarily work for another. During the WFWA retreat, I was mesmerized by the notes one author was cranking out for her book. Serious process envy. I scooted closer hoping she'd rub off on me. Nope. My page stayed blank. Do I at least get credit for writing my name at the top? 🙂

  4. Thank you! Thank you so much for this post. I've tried to put my characters down on paper, from what they like for breakfast to the toothpaste brand they prefer, and everything dies. I try to outline the story second by second, and there is no more story. I guess we should listen and learn, and keep it all in mind as we work the way that's best for us.

    1. The more opportunities you put yourself into for learning, the more you absorb. And even if we don't walk away with THE answer, chances are we'll walk away an AN answer that will help when needed.

    2. Linda, I've found it's worth me trying different things, because it takes a while to find our process and we sometimes need to tweak the process too. But what works for others may not work for us, so that advice of "don't give up" can be terrible when it comes to following someone else's plan of writing — sometimes giving up and doing something else is the best path!

  5. You are absolutely not the only one. I have taken more workshops and classes than I can count. What hit me in the last one - the instructor interviewed a bestselling author, and that writer had never taken a single class. Like you, I find it difficult to adapt what I've learned in these classes. I get so hung up on the application of the process, that the process turns the story stale. It's so much better to let the characters have free rein, let the passion of the story drive the narrative. You can always go back and tweak later. Thanks for speaking up on this.

  6. Yes, this, this, this! Thank you. Quite likely some of it is working subconsciously, but when I sit down to follow these methods intentionally for a whole book ... bleah! It's just not fun anymore.

  7. Preach! Thank you for writing this! It's comforting to know I'm not alone. I've lost count of the times I've unsuccessfully attempted to use one of the various techniques I've "learned" from craft books or workshops. It makes me feel like I'm back in chemistry or math class, trying to apply formulas to the raw material. You're so right, we absorb the information and eventually use it in our work--perhaps not in the prescribed way but in a way that's helpful to us and our work.

  8. This resonated so much with me and I appreciate the insight. "How can I be the only one who’s not getting it? What’s wrong with me?" is the story of my life!!! And I think your statement, "Once I gave myself permission to not have to follow a path, the story came together," is probably the best piece of writing advice I have gotten out of anything I've read to date. Thanks again!

    1. That makes me happy, Laura! We're all so freaked out about imposter syndrome that we try to grab on anything that validates what we're doing. Who cares how you get the words down as long as you get those words down.

  9. Whew! Good to know I'm not alone. Outlines, character profiles, scene cards, bulletin boards make me break out in a rash. I have a perfectly good, but unused, bulletin board and push pins sitting by my desk. Best of intentions and all. I was nodding like crazy when you said you had to be deep into it before you can start really plotting. Same. I have to be 1/3 to 1/2 through before I can think ahead. Yes, it's ass backwards from conventional writing wisdom, but don't fix what ain't broke.

  10. I love this because I do the very same thing!! I find the books (like Lisa Cron's) help me AFTER my story is written and needs to be fine-tuned.If I don't have anything on the page I can't see my way to improving it.

  11. Thanks for sharing this. You've just saved me some aggravation! I'm on the edge of starting a new project (while querying the last one) and your thoughts will save me from trying (again) to become an outliner. Plotting makes the voices in my head go silent... though I hope to apply some structure to a first draft, rather than slogging through revisions looking for the arc without knowing that's what I was doing.

    1. I think you'll find that the structure and lessons you've learned about will come into play even - especially - when you're not forcing them. That's what I've found at least. Good luck with querying! And get to writing!!

  12. I also love reading craft blogs and books, but I see them as gold mines. There's gold ore in there, but sometimes it's obscured by the rock and you really have to dig for it. The thing is, when you've dug it out and fashioned it into a piece of jewellery, it is all yours.
    Last week I started revising my first book. I cobbled together a revision checklist from the best of the craft books and posts I'd read, and am working through it. I'm amazed that although I started writing the book with very little technical knowledge, it isn't as bad as I'd been led to believe it would be, but best of all, I can actually look at it and say "Oh, yeah, that bit isn't working and here's why and what I need to do to fix it." So maybe the tips and techniques trickle in with the groundwater to soften the rock so you can get out the ore more easily.
    That said, I usually find a story springs into my head almost fully formed, just needing a little tweaking. What works best for me is the approach in Layer Your Novel by C.S. Lakin. It's so easy to plunk in what I already know is going to happen, so I can brainstorm the rest. Using the 3-Act Structure is a complete failure for me. And that's OK, because people were telling stories (good ones, too) thousands of years before anyone thought it should be codified like that.

    1. Oh wow, Gini, I envy that. My stories don't arrive fully formed. More like bread dough that takes time to rise and you then have to beat it down and let it rise again. 🙂

  13. I thought maybe I was being dense when my brain just couldn't take the 3 act structure and 'lay it over' the idea I was working on and see how it fit. As Renobarb said, it makes writing feel like high school math class. Yuck! Hated that! Some of the basic tenets are there in the front of my brain like starting my story in the 'right' place, tossing a scene (no matter how much I like it) if it doesn't move the story forward, etc. But I find workshops and craft books help me more AFTER I have the story written. I use them like a checklist and if I can't check off a box, I know I have to go back in and tweak something.

    Orly, thanks for this post. It's good to know I'm not the only one that works backwards. 🙂

    1. What we learn from those lessons is with us in the writing and revising. We just apply the lessons in different ways and at different times. 🙂

  14. Omigosh, THANK YOU for this! I read a lot of books about writing (including those by Maas), I take workshops, I have storyboards, you name it ---- and my brain ends up hogtied into a Gordian Knot when I try to use a "method" first. I've learned to get the story down first however it comes, then use what I've learned to edit it or rearrange it LATER. Sometimes MUCH later.... Thanks again for reminding me that it's okay to be true to my own personal process --- I think it's very easy for us writers to feel guilty that we're not "doing it right". 🙂

  15. Awesome post, Orly. I, too, was at that Donald Maass workshop, in awe of his stratospheric mastery of craft. I, too, took pages and pages of notes, and I still have them along with posts of every other workshop I've attended, not to mention craft books I have worked through. And like you, once I get home and back to work, it is much harder to put into practice. What I have discovered, though, is when I focus on one nugget, and implement that, it is easier, far easier, than trying to do it all at once. Then I can continue with my own methods, but keeping in the back of my mind what all the masters have told me. I believe it is an organic process, absorbing new knowledge and skills. It's slow. A lot of it sinks into my subconscious, and when I'm writing away, some of the gems filter up into my conscious and give me a better way to write. I think we beat ourselves over the head too much, thinking we should be able to write like a Pulitzer Prize winner just because we've heard lots of fantastic advice. Thanks.

    1. Absolutely right! Years ago when I was just starting out with this writing gig, I went to a conference and attended a presentation by a handful of best selling women's fiction authors. Total fan girl, mouth open, holy wow moment. Then one of them said she doesn't outline, doesn't plot, just sits and writes. Mind blow, life changed, it can be done! When I freak out about what I'm doing wrong, I think of her.

  16. THIS! ALL OF THIS! I've always thought that I just didn't "get it", when it came to absorbing and applying all of the information found in craft books and webinars, etc. (My two co-writers DO seem to get it, but I've always felt like I was missing the giant piece of the puzzle.) Lately, I've been trying to force myself to create an outline and nothing is happening. I know what the story is and where I want it to go, and just letting the characters "talk" is what I do best, but trying to fit a square peg into a round hole is excruciating and I'm embarrassed to admit my lack of progress. Your post that at least tells me I'm not alone. Thank you, Orly.

  17. Orly, thank you for posting with us - we miss you! Like you, I will never (ever) be an outliner, but do I believe these workshops give us writers some badly needed confidence. Like we can trust ourselves to make the really bad draft because we have tools to fix it. Sometimes I know a story is wrong but I don't know how. Then I hear Lisa Cron and think, "O-o-o-oohhhhh! That's what's wrong."

    p.s. I just approved a slew of comments so you might want to take a pass from the top.

  18. Yeppity yep yep. I have all the books and notes and website bookmarks too. But unless I get stuck in my process, I don't refer to them directly, and I don't study them when I'm not on deadline. There's no formula, there is only process. Go to workshops, read craft books and great writing and learn through osmosis, then hope that our brains will tap into the knowledge when we need it! 🙂

    1. I think you've hit on something here, Christine — that some of this happens by osmosis. For instance, when we learn story structure from various craft books and workshops, the highlights stick in our minds as we're writing. At least, that seems to be true for me!

  19. Thank you for giving us all permission to work things out in our own way. I love learning and workshops. But I have a tendency to overuse every new idea or technique until my work is covered in a shiny cellophane wrapper and bears no resemblance to the original idea. So very frustrating.

  20. Wow and whoa! You clearly hit a nerve with this audience of writers. I'm still new to this, but here's how I look at it: we--and our characters--are like the slightly unconventional toys on the Island of Misfit Toys. You know that place Rudolph goes to with his elf friend who'd rather be a dentist? Like those misfit toys, each of us is slightly unconventional.

    So, if my mission is to write about people society marginalizes and the unexpected places their hearts lead them, then no ONE formula...no ONE process...no ONE technique is going to cut it. But my crazy-quilt approach--with the colorful and silky scraps from past workshops and craft books--is working for me.

    That's how this author is chasing and catching his dream.

    1. You're absolutely right! I don't think there is ONE approach that works for everyone. It's admitting that you don't have to conform to any - or all - of those that trips a lot of people. Snuggle into that quilt! 🙂

  21. Early on in my writing, I read several books about plotting. Determined to put it all into practice, I eventually found myself wanting instead to throw my book in the trash and become a toll booth operator instead — less stress. Imagine my shock when someone shared with me that you can write a book out of order. I was freed and could write again!

    But my learning about plotting wasn't wasted. Because once I churned out that first draft, I applied the wonderful story structure methods to the first revision. So yeah, I agree that it's not just the advice itself that matters, but how and when you apply it. Thanks, Orly!

  22. Amen! Analysis paralysis! Even though I am more a planner than a pantser.

    I used to think the way to write was to make the darned thing up as I go along. Then, years and a hundred or more 'How To Write' books and websites etc, later, I realised that the way to write is...STILL...make the darned thing up as I go along! I think my subconscious takes the best and leaves the rest, though my Inner Critic strongly disagrees. Then again, my Inner Critic tends to take the WORST and leave the rest, and not just in regard to writing!

    1. Oh, I'm very much a planner (not a plotter). And I can analyze and organize with the best when it comes to my second draft. But that first draft ... nope. 🙂

      That inner critic of yours needs to go on vacation with mine and leave us in happy writing peace.

  23. While studying craft is necessary, sometimes it can be paralyzing if we are trying to incorporate advice at the same time as the tiny muse within us is trying to speak. Thanks, Orly!

  24. Great post, Orly! I love this! I too love craft workshops, books and conferences, and I do learn from them. I also think that sometimes I will overanalyze 'how' to do something and then magic disappears. Poof! I have no idea why I created the world I'm in. Thank you for talking about it, and know that you're doing it your way, which is the 'Orly' way and that's what counts!!

  25. Thank you, thank you, thank you!

    I know others try to be helpful, but what works for them doesn't always work for me. Craft books aren't a "one size fits all." I'd rather go to a workshop and glean a few things to help or get an honest critique than spend money on craft books others think I need.


  26. I love your article and thanks for sharing your feelings. I won't mention any names, but there are some people that enjoy breaking a story down into components and then push the idea that we writers just have to follow the different components. They remind me of the same people that my company hired and called them "Efficiently Experts" and they were there to help us all work harder and smarter.
    Not true! They were there to eliminate salaries and people. To me, writing is a creative process and I have to have faith in my abilities and continue to work. It seems to me that your beliefs are similar. Luther

  27. I have done some similar things when it came to writing, I have read numerous articles, visited many site, taking notes after notes, cutting and pasting creating notebooks of my notes. The time was so consuming, and with all that being said, only one quarter of all those notes worked for me. I have since realized that outlining my story doesn't work for me, because I never look back on it, I did discovered that my writing niche was the one I create in my head while I am walking, talking, and observing others. Sometimes I look back on my notebooks for a new word to an old situation, but for now, no more note taking for me, I will just open the door in my head and watch my characters flow. I only have to stop procrastinating. Wilma

  28. I wonder if you really "flunked" the workshop. You seem to have drawn many resources together in bits and pieces, and then assembled them into a new creature that suits you. Pat on the back is what you need do in this new creative writing year.

  29. In my 'other life', the one before retirement I was a pediatric physical therapist. Over my career I took part in hundreds of workshops - all touting 'the one thing that works'. I soon found, 'ehh, not so much', so I began doing what worked. My eclectic methods sometimes didn't work - so I labeled that as 'evaluation'; but when it did work, I labeled that as 'true treatment'.
    I have carried that over to my writing. I am a profound gatherer of information on all things related to writing. Some things stick in my mind and work for me, others don't and therefore slip into the abyss of my brain. You just have to remain true to the mantra to do what works for you.

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