Look up writing classes and workshops on the Internet, and you’ll come away with a plethora of options for beginning novelists. Outline Your Novel in 10 Days! How to Write a Novel. What A Writer Needs to Know. It would almost seem as if once a writer has experience and sales, there’s nothing more for them to learn.
Far from it. In other creative arts, professionals continue to hone their skills. Most notably, actors continue studying with acting instructors. Opera singers continue to take master classes. So why not writers?
As a professional writer, I respect my craft and want to continue to improve. To that end, I’m taking film classes, because film is storytelling, and storytelling is what I do. I’ve taken a few workshops, and I continue to look out for other workshops that can help me learn more about being a writer. These aren’t “master classes” per se, because certainly participants come with different levels of experience. They are, however, useful and well worth the hours and (reasonable) fees.
To be clear, I’m not talking about the MasterClass series, in which famous authors like Neil Gaiman and Shonda Rhimes discuss how to write their amazing novels and game-changing television shows. I’ve not taken these classes because I’m past the theoretical stage (although I’m sure I can learn from each of them.) What I’m looking for is, for lack of a better word, blue collar. The nuts and bolts of a different way of lining up words. Exercises that dig into plot, structure, mood, tone, emotion.
I had the opportunity a few years ago to sit in and listen to an Austin Lyric Opera masterclass. The audience all watched, rapt, as the instructor taught University of Texas opera students and professional singers, who were already amazing, get the most out of their emotional and technical performance. It was incredible.
That’s the type of class I’m looking for, for writers.
Here are some of the classes I’ve taken and continue to take:
Short Story Structure
A short story writing class with Hannah Tinti of One Story. This was a weeklong online class that focused on structure, one of my weaknesses. It was useful look at how to build a scaffolding for a story and then flesh it out. I had to work on something that didn’t come easy to me, which is outlining. However, the story that I worked on for the class remains unfinished, several years later. It’s still just a core. Does the model that Tinti taught work for me? I don’t know. I’ve been trying to tell that story for a while, so maybe it’s not anything to do with the class, but with the story itself.
Make Your Fiction Sing: Songwriting Techniques that Carry into Prose
Songwriter and storyteller Sarah Pinsker led this Zoom workshop on using songwriting to enhance prose storytelling. I’ve always admired songwriters, those masters of words and music. This is not poetry, although it’s akin to poetry. We learned rhythm, structure (that word again!), emotional stakes, and more. It was a very useful class, and I think I absorbed a lot from it, although nothing I can specifically point to. No, I take that back. I’ve started to look at different ways to incorporate lyrics in my work and I’ve been going for more emotional stakes with simplicity and structure rather than overwriting emotionally.
Prose Lessons from Screenwriting
Taught by Maureen McHugh, this two-hour workshop was an excellent class for novelists and short story writers. The workshop focused on the connective tissue of scenes, how they can be linked by “and,” “because,” and “but” to drive a story. This is potentially the most useful structural concept for me. How do you get from one place to another in story? Plot is not just one damn thing after another. And Because But is ultimately character driven, which is pertinent to novel writing, because when something happens because something already happened, it is largely because of character. We looked at the first 30 or so pages of Fargo, and it was pretty telling how the Coen Brothers used And Because But to great effect.
Finally, I’m in film classes right now. Screenwriting, film editing, lighting, and production all combine to help build a storytelling framework. I have learned to write more economically, with an eye on plot and character, and yet without losing setting, emotion, backstory, tone, mood and everything else that makes a novel stand out. I’m learning what makes a story (whether film, book, or short) work.
I’ve still got plenty more to learn as a novelist. I figure I’m in my journeyman (journeyperson?) phase right now, and have been for a while. I keep looking for guides along the way that can help me understand this writing thing and grow as a result. Ultimately, it’s a voyage of discovery, and I’m glad to be on the path.