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Writing workshops at Varuna

14 October, 2008

Events scheduled for the recent Community Week at Varuna Writers’ House included writing workshops, individual writing consultations, and an Open Day with readings followed by a champagne high tea.

This year, the Varuna workshops covered poetry, literary fiction, short story and voice, crime fiction, and romance fiction.

I signed up for two.

  • The workshop on short story and voice was led by Julie Gittus, whose publications include anthologized stories and a new YA novel, Saltwater Moons.
  • The crime fiction workshop was led by Lindy Cameron, who has written five popular crime/thriller novels and edited anthologies about true crime.

Both workshops were fantastic, combining discussion and writing exercises, plus comprehensive notes to take home.

Some points from both workshops:

Short story

  • Short stories have two things going on at once. I think of this as the surface action plus the interpretive meaning that readers can discover beneath this. You need both, but it can be difficult to tease out a meaning without becoming preachy or didactic.
  • We undertook an exercise to tap into sensory memories, which showed us how such details from childhood can help start or shape a story.
  • I liked Julie’s idea of giving yourself permission to play or muck around when writing, rather than always forcing yourself to follow the logical path. This kind of play can sometimes lead the mind to interesting and productive places. Copying out and imitating the writings of admired authors can also be a useful exercise.

Crime fiction

  • Remember that crime readers expect relevant clues and a believable ending. They want to know the motives involved. They expect justice always to prevail–after all, fiction does not need to mirror real life.
  • Lindy believes in developing your protagonist in-depth, especially if you plan to write a series. Even if you don’t use all this information directly, you need to know enough to be confident about how your character would act in different situations that could crop up as you write. Your protagonist needs to have a logical reason for being involved in solving the crime, plus a personal investment in undertaking this kind of work. Develop the other two important characters: the hero’s sidekick and the bad guy.
  • What is a Maguffin? It is the ‘thingy’ that everyone in the story wants to get. For example, the ring in Lord of the Rings is a Macguffin. The search for a Maguffin keeps the plot moving—it is the ‘plot-enabler’ in many crime stories/thrillers. It can also work as the secondary story.
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