Sunday, 6 August 2017

The Short Story Intensive Workshop

On the last weekend of July 2016 I was fortunate to be able to participate in a short story workshop taught by Mary Robinette Kowal over a Google Hangout, with seven other students. It was advertised as "Intensive" and it sure was! But even though it turned out to be a bit too intense for me (I wasn't able to complete the Sunday exercises due to brain weasels and other problems), it was enormously valuable.

The format made a lot of sense. There were several sessions, separated by an amount of time almost sufficient to do the writing exercise (!) and critique two other peoples' just-handed-in exercise. Each hangout started with the critiques (from two students, plus Mary), followed by some lectures (with examples) from Mary to prep us for the next exercise. Something that made the weekend especially interesting was Mary's way of explaining writing techniques in terms of puppetry, her pre-writing career.

The thing foremost in my mind after all this time is the MICE quotient (Milieu, Inquiry, Character, Event), which is Mary's renaming of Orson Scott Card's original (where I=Idea), which the Writing Excuses podcasters have talked about before (and after I first posted this, published a new episode with an infographic), She found it was less confusing to her students after the rename. We had an exercise where we were to come up with two different arcs (IIRC of different types) and see what happens when you nest one within the other. Here was mine:

Idea 1 (character): Bili, a dwarven journeyman smith, is frustrated that he is struggling with his masterwork and can’t produce the quality he wants. He discovers his medium is silver, not iron, and succeeds. (MC: Bili). This is a Character arc because it starts with someone dissatisfied with himself, an internal conflict.
Idea 2 (event): Adirith, a young shapeshifting dragon, is enchanted by a dragonmaster and sent to do stuff for reasons. She gets help to break the enchantment and defeats the dragonmaster. (MC: Adirith). This is an event arc because it starts with a disruptive external event and results in a not-quite-clear final status quo (either restoring her original free state, or perhaps improving it in some way).
First I nested 1 inside 2:
<e>Adirith, a young shapeshifting dragon, is enchanted by a dragonmaster and sent to collect ingredients for bad stuff, one of which is a dwarf. <c>Bili, her closest friend, a dwarf-smith, is trying to create his masterwork, and having trouble making a bog-standard enchanted sword. Adirith tries to trick him into accompanying her, but fails. He realizes she is enchanted, and works a spell resistance into her silver scales, discovering that he has an affinity for silver rather than iron.</c> Adirith returns and slays the dragonmaster.</e>
Then I flipped to nest 2 inside 1:
<c>Bili, a dwarven journeyman smith, is frustrated by being unable to produce a masterwork. <e>Adirith, his shapeshifting dragon friend, is enchanted by a dragonmaster and sent to capture him for reasons. They break the geas together via his ability to enchant her silver scales.</e> Bili realizes silver is his medium.</c>
I thought a problem with these is that both are phrased as multiple points of view. I thought at the time I could see how to make the first nesting entirely from Adirith’s point of view and the second from Bili’s, but I no longer quite remember what I had in mind. I got some useful feedback from Mary and two of the other participants.
I didn’t do anything with this exercise in the 12+ months since the workshop; at the time I though novels were my thing and that short stories were “too hard.” But on the Writing Excuses 2017 cruise, we had a challenge to write a 250-word micro-fiction and I managed to pull it off, so maybe I can write short stories after all.