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I was asked to prepare a workshop on how to set about writing something.
So I put my thinking cap on and came up with this piece.
I presented it at the meeting on 25th May and it seemed to go down very well indeed.

Writing Workshop – U3A 2023


Alan Robson

I – Introduction: The Big Secret of How to be a Writer

There is a story – probably apocryphal – that a famous writer was asked to give a workshop on writing. He agreed and quoted a fee of $500. The organisers accepted it. The great day arrived and the author walked on to the stage. “How many of you here want to be writers?” he asked.

Every hand went up.

“Then go home and write something,” said the famous author, “and stop sitting around here wasting my time.”

Then he collected his $500 fee and went home. Presumably to write something.

It’s facile to say it, but if you want to write something you have to put your bum on a seat, your fingers on a keyboard and your eyes on a screen. Or whatever the equivalents of these things are for you.

There is no short cut to writing something, no hidden secret to make it easy, no formula or recipe. But there are four unbreakable rules. If you stick to these rules then you are a writer. If you break any of them then you aren’t a writer and you probably never will be.

1. Start writing something

2. Finish it

3. Revise it

4. Go to 3 until it is really finished

That’s the whole of the law. There isn’t anything else to it. But sticking to those rules is very, very difficult. In my experience it helps if, when you are actively working on a piece, to work on it every day. Even if you only spend a short time on it each day, do make a point of returning to it every single day until it is finished, until rule number 2 has been ticked off. Every day means high days, holidays, your birthday and Christmas day and days when you are so hungover that your eyebrows bleed . I find that if I don’t work on the piece every day it goes stale on me and rule number 2 gets harder and harder to obey. Your experience might be different, but I promise that if you do lose the momentum you will never get the piece finished. If that happens you will have broken rule 2 and you won’t be a writer. At least not for the current piece.

Once the piece is finished you can afford to relax a little. Indeed, it is often useful to wait a few days before you start revising it. That way you start to see it with fresher eyes and it’s a bit more obvious what works and what doesn’t.

II – How to Write Something

Again this sounds facile, but you write something by putting words on a blank screen or on an empty piece of paper. Words are the tools of your trade and you really must learn how to use them correctly. Proper spelling and good grammar are absolutely vital. You simply can’t afford to be lazy about this. Modern word processors have very good spelling and grammar checkers. Don’t be afraid to use those tools. Use them a lot!

Something that spelling and grammar checkers are very poor at doing is detecting the misuse of homonyms. Common examples are:

your / you’re

their / there / they’re

its / it’s

And something that I’m seeing a lot of these days in internet discussion groups:

cue / queue

to / too / (two) to/too are not quite homonyms, but they are close enough that they

are often confused with each other.

Make sure you know the differences between them.

You also need to understand how to use apostrophes – that last word is apostrophes, NOT apostrophe’s. An apostrophe does NOT mean look out here comes the letter s and neither does it indicate a plural. An apostrophe means one of two things. Either it indicates a contraction (letters are missing – it’s rather than it is, don’t rather than do not) or it indicates a possessive (John’s book, in other words the book belonging to John).

Steer clear of the passive voice (good grammar checkers will constantly warn you about this). The passive voice distances the reader from the story and breaks the spell. Don’t say:

The car was dirty so it got washed. (Passive voice)

Instead say:

The car was dirty so John washed it. (Active voice)

The active voice is much more alive. It involves us with the people in the story and keeps us close to the action.

Be very careful about describing things. My own personal preference is never to describe anything at all, but sometimes you just can’t avoid it. If you really must describe something, keep the description brief. Two sentences maybe, three at the most. Descriptions that go on too long are boring and the reader’s eye skips past them looking for the next interesting bit. Assuming there is an interesting bit, of course which there won’t be if it’s all description and reported speech.

When you describe something, try to appeal to one or more of the senses. Don’t overdo it, don’t try to invoke all the senses every time. That would be a sensorial overload. But bearing this in mind, let’s suppose you are talking about a statue. Don’t simply tell us that the statue is beautiful. That is far too vague a statement. Tell us why the statue is beautiful. What’s its size, or its colour, or its shape? What’s it’s texture, or its smell, or its taste? That last is perhaps a bit creepy. How many people do you know who make a habit of smelling and tasting statues?

But don’t go overboard – descriptions are like the salt in a stew. A pinch of salt makes the stew taste great, but a whole salt cellar full will ruin the taste completely. So use descriptions sparingly. And remember that sometimes salt is not necessary because the other ingredients, along with a lot of slow simmering, will give the stew it’s flavour.

III – What Defines a Piece of Prose Writing?

There are two kinds of writing – fiction and non-fiction. Each of these, of course, can be broken down into an almost infinite number of distinct categories. Fiction divides into crime fiction, science fiction, romance fiction historical fiction etc. and non-fiction is made up of travel articles, family history, biography, self-help etc. The categories go on forever.

But both fiction and non-fiction have many things in common. There is a logical progression of ideas, – a structure, if you will – that takes us from the beginning to the end. All fiction and quite a lot of non-fiction will involve people in some way shape or form and, of course, people all do things. They talk to each other and stuff happens to them and it happens all around them as well. That’s how life works and so that’s how your writing should work as well.

This too is pretty much an inflexible rule. You can break it in certain circumstances, but by and large it applies to almost everything. The only real exception would be a piece of non-fiction that doesn’t involve any people at all. As an example, consider the essay that you are reading now. There aren’t any people in it. So it legitimately breaks the rules. Nevertheless it still has a pattern, a logical approach. Stuff happens, though the definition of stuff and the definition of happening are a bit flexible…

But ask yourself a question. Do you really want to read a piece of writing in which absolutely nothing happens and nobody does anything at all? Of course you don’t, it would be boring and it would quickly send you to sleep. So because you don’t want to read something like that, you don’t want to write it either. If you are a genius like Samuel Becket you can probably get away with it at least once (see Waiting for Godot) but you and I are only ordinary mortals and therefore we can’t get away with it.

So almost always, no matter what you are writing, be it fiction or non-fiction, the golden rules that define how to write are:

1. A piece of writing always involves people
except when it doesn’t.

2. People do things

3. People talk to each other

4. Stuff happens

Your writing needs to reflect all of those circumstances. If you are writing a non-fiction piece that isn’t about people you can safely ignore rules 2 and 3. But rules 1 and 4 can never be ignored.

Any piece of writing always has a fairly formal structure. It starts, stuff happens (see rule 4 above), and then it stops. In other words there always has to be a beginning, a middle and an end. If you don’t have a beginning, you’ve just got a blank piece of paper and nobody’s going to bother reading that. If you don’t have a middle, then clearly there’s nothing happening and again you’ve broken rule 4. And if you don’t have a proper ending then everything just dribbles away leaving everybody feeling unsatisfied. I could probably make a very dirty joke here, but I’ll leave that to your imagination.

a – The Beginning

The beginning is the only chance you have to grab the reader’s attention. It’s called a narrative hook. The opening paragraph or two is the bait on your hook and the reader is the prey that you are fishing for. Once you’ve caught your reader(s), hopefully they won’t be able to wriggle free.

If the beginning of the piece isn’t interesting, nobody will bother to read what comes next. They’ll put it down and move on to something else. That doesn’t mean the beginning has to arrive with a bang and a roar. You don’t necessarily need lots of drama and fireworks (though they always help, of course). Just raising questions in the reader’s mind is generally sufficient. Here’s the opening of a story I recently wrote:

The advert said:

Seasonal workers required for the Martian iron tree harvest.
Temporary work permits and visas available at all Martian consulates
Free transport to and from Mars will be provided to all successful applicants

“We should do that,” said Peter. “It could be a nice little earner for us.”

There’s no drama here, no flash bang wallop. But nevertheless it remains intriguing enough that people will (hopefully) carry on reading because they want to know what’s going on. Clearly the story is going to take place on Mars. Equally clearly, Peter is going to go to Mars where he will take part in the iron tree harvest. What’s an iron tree? How do they get harvested? Enquiring minds want to know. Hopefully...

Here’s another example:

The seal, streamlined and elegant, arrowed through the waves, heading towards the shore. She splished and splashed in the water, just for the fun of watching the sun cast rainbows through the droplets. She slowed down as she got close to the land and when a final wave pushed her gently onto the sandy beach she was barely moving with any speed at all. She flopped in an ungainly fashion up the beach, away from the rising tide, heading for the dry sand. Once she reached the dunes, well away from the domain of the sea, the touch of the land transformed her from a seal into an elegant, naked lady who scratched herself vigorously and cursed the itching caused by the sea salt and sand drying on her skin. She headed purposefully for the cave where she had stored her clothes. When she got there, she was rather irritated to find a leprechaun sitting on them, "What are you doing here Patrick?" she asked. "And stop sitting on my clothes. I need to get dressed."

In contrast to the first example, quite a lot is going on here. It starts out in a straightforward way with a seal swimming in the sea. But it very quickly turns weird and then it becomes decidedly odd. If you don’t have just a smidgeon of curiosity about what’s going on here then you aren’t human. You may or may not like the final result, but I’m sure you you’d like to find out what happens next. If you do, just follow this link

What about non-fiction? Should that have a narrative hook? Of course it should. Here’s the very best non-fiction narrative hook I’ve ever read:

In the beginning God created the heaven and the earth.
And the earth was without form, and void; and darkness was upon the face of the deep.
And the Spirit of God moved upon the face of the waters.
And God said, Let there be light: and there was light.

It doesn’t get any better than that.

b – The Middle

Here’s where you have room to play. Once you’ve attracted the reader’s interest they will stick with you all the way through, unless you make a complete mess of it of course. This part is where you elaborate on your opening and really get things moving.

c – The End

A lot of people think that a piece of writing always has to have some kind of a twist in the tail. That’s because at the beginning of the twentieth century, an American writer called O. Henry published a huge number of short stories all of which had an ending that made you see the events of the story in a completely different light. They are very clever stories which were (and which remain) very popular. But twist endings like that are fiendishly difficult to do. O. Henry was a genius and, as I’ve said before, you and I are not. If you can reach a twist ending, it’s just icing on the cake. I’ve written one or two and it does feel good, but really it’s just a gimmick and your stories, whether fiction or non-fiction, shouldn’t really need gimmicks to succeed.

All that an ending needs to do is answer the questions raised in the middle. The questions don’t all have to be answered in detail of course. Answers can be hinted at, left to the imagination. And, unless you are writing a trilogy, you shouldn’t end your story on a cliff hanger. That’s too frustrating But you do need to invoke a sense of closure.

One of the most influential novels of the twentieth century is The Lord of the Rings by J. R. R. Tolkien. After more than 1000 pages of rip-roaring narrative, adventure and deeds of derring-do we zero in on one of the main characters who has returned home. He says, “Well, I’m back.” And the story finishes there.

If that isn’t a perfect ending I don’t know what is. There’s an implied “happily ever after” which is always nice but there’s also the sense that everything important is over and done with.

d – Tying it all Together – Revising What You Have Written

So you’ve reached the end and you’ve finished what you were writing. How did you get there? Is there a better way of reaching the end? Of course there is. What you have written needs to be treated in much the same way that you treat the stuff you put outside your house once a week for the council to collect. There’s almost certainly a lot of rubbish that you can get rid of (including repetitions that don’t bear repeating). And there’s lots of good stuff that doesn’t really belong but which can be recycled for another piece. Or perhaps it just needs tweaking a bit to make it fit better.

Above all else, make sure you stick to the point. Don’t ramble, don’t get distracted, don’t follow random thoughts that take you away from the main thread. I once belonged to a writing group that limited all presentations to just two pages – anything longer than that meant that we didn’t have enough time to get through everybody’s work. But one person was completely incapable of controlling what they were writing within the imposed length. They simply couldn’t keep their mind focussed on what they were thinking about. It got distracted, and that distraction was reflected in the writing. Over the course of two years the writer never once managed to bring anything they wrote to a conclusion within the allowed word limit. I did a thorough analysis of a one piece that they presented and I showed that in less than 1500 words they had started eighteen separate stories and, of course, they hadn’t finished any of them. The whole thing was a complete mess. So here’s another rule:

5. Only deviants deviate

An implication of this rule is that you must decide what’s important to the story and what isn’t. Anything that’s irrelevant shouldn’t be there at all and you should delete it when you start revising the piece. It’s a principle known as Chekov’s Gun, named after the Russian playwright Anton Chekov who seems to have been the first person to articulate it. He said words to the effect of “If there’s a gun mounted over the fireplace then, before the end of the play, someone must take it down and shoot it”. If you think about that it makes perfect sense. If you don’t make use of something that you mention in the piece then why did you mention it at all? When you make a shopping list before you go to the supermarket you only write down things that you intend to buy, you never write down the things you have no intention of buying. Unless it’s chocolate, of course.

IV – Writing Fiction

Fiction has a fairly formulaic structure. It doesn’t matter whether we’re talking about a short story or a novel, the structure is always broadly the same. The protagonist is faced with a problem. Attempting to solve it causes complications. The complications get resolved, not necessarily for the better, and the story ends.

Again, these are golden rules that you should never break. All successful stories follow them.

If you are writing a short story this structure needs to be kept very simple. Restrict your story to small, simple problems that can be dealt with in a small number of words. You can’t tackle any big themes directly in a short story because you simply don’t have room to do it. You can address the human condition, you can introduce big issues like love, death and taxes but you can only do it indirectly in simple (though not necessarily superficial) ways.

Suppose, for example, that we have a character called John whose mother has just died.

If we are writing a short story around this idea perhaps we’d zero in on one small part of John’s responsibilities. As he is getting dressed to attend the funeral John is horrified to discover that none of his ties are suitable. In the stress of dealing with all the ramifications of his mother’s death he has overlooked that one small detail. And now he finds that all his ties are novelty ties, festooned with odd decorations and patterns. One tie has a flock of white sheep with one black sheep in the middle of the flock. One tie shows a cat proudly eating a (computer) mouse. Another shows Botticelli’s Venus Arising from the Waves in all her stark naked glory. Obviously John can’t wear any of those ties to his mother’s funeral! What would she think? She’d be mortified. She’d probably come back and haunt him for the rest of life. And after it as well… The ceremony begins in less than an hour. How can John find a suitable tie in such a short time?

The big themes are all there in the background but the story itself is very simple. John has to find a tie. We’ve given him a good reason for needing to find a tie and he doesn’t have much time to find one. So how can he find a tie and still get to the church on time? I imagine that this story will probably be a fairly light-hearted piece, given the silly ties that John has hanging in his wardrobe, but that doesn’t mean we can ignore John’s feelings about letting his mother down. You can make the reader laugh at John’s dilemma but John himself won’t find it funny at all. This sense of conflict or contradiction is what will give the story its strength.

So it will be short and simple. You could probably write it in about 2000 words and I think it would work well.

However if we were writing a novel with the same theme, it probably wouldn’t be light-hearted at all, though exactly the same conflict would remain, because we’d have a lot more room to explore things above and beyond John’s immediate problem with his ties. This would change the emphasis completely. Because we have many more words to play with, we will be able to talk in a lot more detail about the relationship between John and his mother, something we could only hint at it a short story. Perhaps she was a domineering character and John never really escaped from under her thumb. Does he feel relieved now that she’s dead and he’s finally free of her? Does he feel guilty because he feels relieved? When you’ve got 100,000 words to play with, you can look into a lot of things much more deeply.

So let’s think about three different kinds of novels that we could write about John and his mum:

Maybe we’re writing a murder mystery novel – so did John kill her or did he arrange to have her killed by someone else? Or is he completely innocent? Perhaps his mother has upset a lot of people over the years. Who are these people and what direct motives do they have for wanting to kill her?

Or maybe we’re writing a novel about family life. John’s father died years ago fighting in Vietnam. His mother remarried and has always been deeply in love with her new husband. But John has never accepted his stepfather and tensions between them have caused a lot of ill feeling and quarrels in the family. Now, after a long illness, his mother has died. Both John and his stepfather have a clear duty towards her. Can they reconcile their differences, at least temporarily?

Or maybe we are writing a historical novel. It’s 1199 and John has just become the King of England. His mother, Eleanor of Acquitaine, is the real power behind the throne and she guides and controls all his decisions. When she dies in 1204, John is left helpless and floundering. The remaining twelve years of his reign (John died in 1216) will be very difficult for him as he fails to cope with catastrophe after catastrophe, the loss of England’s lands in France, the revolt of his barons, the loss of the crown jewels in the tidal estuary of The Wash. How will he cope without the support of his powerful, experienced mother?

In summary, I’ve discussed how to start writing a short story and three novels. And every single one of them can be described as being a story about a man called John whose mother has just died.

So remember:

Short stories are about small, simple problems. Novels are more discursive and use a lot more material so they paint on larger canvases.

V – Writing Non-Fiction

Ideally non-fiction should have a similar structure to fiction, though you do have rather more latitude. Nevertheless the idea of a narrative hook at the beginning, a more discursive middle and a conclusion at the end still applies.

One of the most cogent essayists of the twentieth and twenty-first centuries was Joan Didion. Her collection Slouching Towards Bethlehem is a masterpiece. She deliberately structures her essays as if they were stories and presents non-fictional realities with invented details and colourful metaphors in order to make the stories more vivid. Some people call this approach creative non-fiction though that’s a controversial term which itself probably needs to be examined in a few essays, though not by me. At least not here and not now. But if you are considering this approach to non-fiction writing you need to be very aware that the techniques used to write fiction are fundamental to it. Everything I said in the last section will apply here.

Outside of that, a more general non-fiction piece (not involving people) will likely be more of an essay than anything else; much like the piece that you are reading now. But it still needs structure, it still needs to progress logically from the beginning, through the middle to the conclusion at the end.


VI – Laying Out a Manuscript

If nobody except you will ever see what you have written then who cares what it looks like? But if you are going to give it to other people to read then you need to lay it out properly so that it’s easy to read. Good layout is just as important as good grammar and proper spelling.

At the very least you should have a header on every page which contains your name, the title of the piece, a page number (and perhaps an indication of how many pages there are in total). You might also want to include a word count. Round the word count up (or down) to the nearest hundred words.

Your paragraphs should be left justified and separated one from another by a blank line. Never right justify your text. Unless you are a professional typesetter, you’ll just make a mess of it and you’ll get ugly gaps that will put your readers off.

I’ve done all of these things in this essay and as a result I’m sure you find it easy to read and easy to absorb the information I’ve presented in it.

If you are going to submit your work to a professional outlet (a magazine or whatever) read their submission guidelines very closely and make sure you adhere to them to the letter. If the submission guidelines ask for double spacing with two blank lines between paragraphs (which they probably will – it’s pretty much an industry standard) then make sure that you do just that. If they want a monospace font such as Courier with emphasis indicated by underlines rather than specific font styles (which again, many of them will) then use a monospace font and make sure that you don’t have any bold or italic words. Just underlined.

Never, ever under any circumstances use the Comic Sans font that this sentence uses.

Rest assured, if you submit a piece to a professional outlet and don’t follow their submission guidelines they won’t bother to read what you have sent them. They’ll take one brief glance at it and just throw it away.

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