This weekend I held a mini-workshop for my critique group. I’ll admit that I stressed quite a bit about it ahead of time. Part of the reason was because I do know these men and women — and I like them. Part of it was because there is a wide range of genres represented in the group and genre has to be taken into account when you are talking about writing. Then there is the undeniable fact that those taking part would range from new writers to published ones. So, yeah, my stomach was churning when I walked into the room to get started.
Now, several days later, I’m hoping the group had as much fun during the workshop and learned as much as I did. Because the workshop was for our group — even though our door is always open to visitors and new members, we hadn’t advertised that we were having a workshop — I was able to give out assignments ahead of time. Everyone had to submit the first page or two of a new work that we weren’t currently in the process of critiquing. They also had to prepare a story arc that was no more than one paragraph and then they had to be ready to identify what they saw as their greatest weakness and their greatest strength as a writer.
The reason I’d asked everyone to submit the one to two pages was so we could discuss hooking the reader. We’d talked about hooks in the group before. Everyone knew what one was. But knowing and actually doing are often two different things. I knew I could stand up there and define a hook, give examples, etc., but those would only start the reinforcement. Actually having them think about it as they wrote something — and then discussing it with the group — would, hopefully, drive the point home.
What I found surprised me. Everyone managed to get a hook in that page or two. Some had the hook in the very first sentence or paragraph. Others had it a little later. Some hooks were stronger than others. But — and this was so important — they all had one. Even when the group member wasn’t sure what their hook was, unconsciously they had managed to get one in.
The interesting thing about it all was when we started discussing each piece and the writer heard what the reader thought the hook of their piece was. When the other members of the group pointed out something different from what the writer thought the hook happened to be — and I had them explain why they thought something was a hook — you could see the author of the piece switching gear from writer to reader. They quit looking at their work as the baby they were struggling to give birth to and instead saw it as an incomplete but developing story. What I hoped it did was take them out of their heads for a few minutes and remind them that we are writing for the entertainment of others, at least we are if we are writing with publication as our goal.
Now, don’t get me wrong. Just because a group member thought their hook was “A” and the rest of the group thought it was “B”, that doesn’t mean someone was wrong. In each case, what the author thought was the hook was part of it — but often one of the supporting “hooklets” that keep driving the hook deeper and deeper into the reader, making that desire to turn the page and keep reading all the stronger. And when, as happened on a couple of occasions, group members listed several different things as hooks, it helped the members see that what one reader gets out of a piece might not be what another reader will get.
One comment toward the end of the session that started some interesting discussion came from one of the group members. He had taken seriously a challenge I had thrown down earlier to try writing outside of his comfort zone. This is something our own Sarah has done with me — do you really think I’d write romance otherwise? — when I’ve hit a wall and can’t see my way around it. In this instance, the group member had started trying to write a mystery and, as he said, the ideas are now coming fast and it is clear the dam had burst burst.
That started all of us talking about what we do when we find ourselves staring at that wall and the words don’t come. The only caveat I put on the challenge, if any of the others should decide to take it up, was that they had to read in whatever genre they decided to try. Kyle added that part of what he has done to get into the right mindset was not only read mysteries but also watch procedural documentaries. As he talked about it, I could see the light bulb going off over the heads of some of the others.
So I’m hoping everyone took something home with them that they could put to good use, whether it was a new awareness of the importance of the hook, a better understanding of story arcs or simply thinking about ways they can become more familiar with the genre they are writing in.
For me, I came out of the session recharged some and, barring unforeseen circumstances should be able to finish the major rewrite of Nocturnal Challenge in the next week.
So here are a couple of quick questions for everyone. If you were to go to a workshop, what topics would you like to see covered and why? Also, what do you do when you find yourself staring at that wall and no words coming?