Writing Workshop Review: Taming the Beast

It’s been an out of the ordinary couple of days for me. On Friday I attended the Summer School Wheeler Centre writer’s workshop Taming the Beast with Sonia Orchard, while this afternoon featured another instalment of me at the dentist. Turns out both had things in common: bit of probing, and fixes for things.

How to clarify your novel’s themes and goals

Finding you narrative voice

Understanding narrative drive

Troubleshooting and problem solving techniques

Mapping out the path ahead

Goals and Themes

At the dentist, the goal is to stabilise what’s going on, with the theme being slowly and surely, fixing everything. You probably don’t want to read about that and I don’t want to relive it. But the goals and themes in the workshop started in a similar fashion: find out what we thought were the issues, and then drill down into what moves us as writers. Like a dentist peering into a face, we began by looking within. My problem with my MS is filling in the gaps and linking chapters and deciding on which ending is the real one.

We were first asked to :

  • outline what our birth order meant and symbolised,
  • list movies, TV programs or news items that provoked powerful emotions.

The point of these questions is that the themes for the movies and what arose from birth order issues will be linked, and will probably show up in our work. If they’re not in our work, our novels may lack an emotional connection through theme. These themes will be different for everyone, just like novels are different, but I found this an eye opener. Stuff that had cropped up in my novel draft unexpectedly now have reasons for being there and I can focus on them to heighten the drama.

And here we are. Dar

And here I am, darkening this doorway.

Thus, for two deceptively simple questions they managed to reveal quite a lot about what motivates me and what I want my novel to do and how they should align for the best outcome: ie a completed draft.

Narrative Voice

Turned out voice didn’t feature too much. I’ve not had too much of a problem finding my voice in my writing so far, nor indeed making myself understood by my amazing dentist. In the workshop, we looked at opening pages for several novels, and while we focused on how each set up intriguing situations that were meant to hook readers into finding out more, each of them also had clear and distinctive voices.

Understanding Narrative Drive

Under this we were asked a lot of technical questions about structure, tense, narration, and used Gary Provost’s plot check-list to see if we understood our novels and characters and everything from their back stories, to how they need to grow emotionally. What helped with this was constructing a one sentence hypothesis and then another one sentence premise for the narrative. Sonia Orchard has a background in science and explained the benefit of using the scientific method in writing: observe, hypothesise, methodology, results, conclusions, (publish).

Troubleshooting & Problem Solving 

Orchard gave us Malcolm Gladwell’s equation from Outliers to consider for time management. I have reservations about the 10,000 hour supposition, but I do agree writing takes time. However, while I can set a schedule, I know sometimes 400 words in a day would be an epic achievement, while other days may require 6,000, which I know I’m equally capable of when required. NaNoWriMo taught me that much. I’m also sucker for number counts as motivation.

No writing implement was recommended in this workshop.

No writing implement, like the orthodacylic pen holder, was recommended in this workshop.

We were asked to consider whether what we thought were structural barriers were sourced in psychological ones. We should examine our fears and blocks and plan things to help ourselves and examine novels for how they approached the type of problems we may face. Not unlike going to a dentist despite fear.

Mapping the Path Ahead

Our adviser recommends Scrivener, which I use, but also physical cards to lay out the narrative scene by scene. She explained she could then see how scenes related to each other and which had to move or change. Where each chapter or scene relied on the same drama she changed it. Seems sensible and I will try it. I will definitely look at my novel and novella in terms of how each section or chapter uses dramatic and emotion conflict to drive the arc.

She advised getting to know what kind of writer and what kind of novel we are writing. Yes, genre or whatever, but whether it was a plot driven story or a character driven one, or somewhere in the middle.


Now my face has ceased feeling numb and I’ve blocked the sound of drills, I can explain benefit of this kind of workshop. It affirms, once more, that there is no right career trajectory for writers, but there are tools and advice to take advantage of, whatever your experience or success. I have a few more tools now to assess what I want from my novel and novella. They may help in keeping me aware of what I want to achieve, so I don’t wander off my narrative track. All in all, I would attend other workshops like this, as a kind of narrative health check. Just like my teeth need some attention from a professional, it doesn’t hurt for my writing practice to get the same.

This typewriter represents me under a dentist's lamp.

Typewriter represents me under a dentist’s spotlight. Or something. 

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