A big thank you to fellow Canadian scribe Kathy Steinemann for hosting this guest post on her site today.
When my youngest child was finally old enough for me to leave her without feeling guilt-ridden, I decided to attend a writing seminar in Montreal—an ocean way from my home. You know, those seminars you're always reading about and thinking: how can I possibly take so much time out of my life to attend one of these?
Ready … set … go!
Well, this time I would finally be one of those people attending the workshops instead of dreaming about it. I froze two weeks of meals, set up appropriate playgroups and emergency childcare, told myself it wasn't really that much money, and I was off. Full disclosure, I had sent in a short story that got me on a shortlist, which meant a partial scholarship. That's a great tip for those of you who want to cut down on the costs. Look for a seminar that offers that option or other grant options.
Two whole weeks of writing every day with other likeminded people awaited me. I was very excited; my goal was to finally figure out the ending to a novel I'd been working on for longer than I cared to admit.
I wanted to meet other writers, surround myself in a writing environment, meet editors and publishers, and all of the other activities writers typically want when they consider writing seminars.
I couldn't take the class I wanted.
Unfortunately, the adult writing class I wanted to take was full and I was "stuck" in the children's writing workshop for half of the classes. (I did manage to squeak into one adult class.)
I was very disappointed that I had spent so much money to fly across the world and was forced to take a class in a genre I had no intention of ever writing in. With small children at home, the last thing I wanted to do was read and analyze more children's books. I wanted a mommy break (not that I really believe in them).
Turns out, I was completely wrong.
Landing up in the children's writing workshop was the best thing that could have happened to me and to my writing.
Unlike any local adult workshop I'd ever attended, many of the homework assignments were entirely based around illustrations. We were given mock children's books full of different cartoon shots and told to write a story around the pictures, a story we'd have to share with the class. For me, approaching a story illustrations-first was a brand-new experience, and it taught me to "think in pictures" and to visualize, a whole new skill for my writer's toolbox. Think: screenwriting.
Children aren't going to wait around until a character finishes drinking her coffee, looking out the window, climbing in and out of past memories, and finally does something. Children's books are all about action on every single page. They are always propelling the reader forward. I don't know about you, but when I first started writing, characters who actually did things rather than felt or thought things did not come automatically onto the page.
Nothing forced me to think about action and movement more than knowing I'd have to read my assignment in front of the class the next day and have to answer the question "but what happens?" on each page I wrote under an illustration. The illustrations helped here too; there's nothing exciting about a picture of someone gazing out the window; something has to be happening.
My writing tends to the serious side. In a children's writing workshop, you have permission to not only be funny but absolutely silly. The instructor's favorite submission was one in which the character's head exploded. Yes, you can have a villain whose head explodes in a children's story, and it's fine with everyone around you. They love it.
This is an extension of number three. Because you have the right to be comical and absurd, you don't impose the usual limitations we often put on adult writing. I'm forever hearing comments in writing workshops like: "Would this really happen?" or "I don't believe this could happen in real life." or "No one actually says this." Those comments actually drive me round the bend at times, but that's another guest post.
So, if you're planning to attend a writing workshop whether locally or abroad, consider something new. I was surprised to learn that the instructor's background was almost entirely poetry-based. He explained to me how close children's writing and poetry really are, something I had not considered before.
Don't automatically sign up for the workshop that matches your novel, and don't take every workshop in that same genre. Consider: children's, playwriting, poetry, screenwriting, especially if you have no intention of writing in those genres. You just might find a whole new set of tools you can apply to your own work, and a fresh perspective you find energizing. I did.