A Different Kind of Writing Workshop
David Farland with Algis Budrys at the Writers of the Future workshop in 1991
When L. Ron Hubbard initiated the Writers of the Future contest, he knew that there would be awards and publications for the winners. As Algis Budry, the first contest administrator put it to me, “He wanted to make sure that this helped launch new writers. That it gives them publication and some notoriety, along with enough prize money from winnings and publication so that a new writer could invest in his or her career by purchasing a new computer, doing research, and so on.”
But he wanted more for the new writers. He wanted them to meet and mingle with real professionals, people who had struggled and made their mark on the field, and he wanted to do that in the context of a writing workshop.
So a different kind of workshop was envisioned. They knew that the authors who won would already be good writers—maybe even incredibly gifted and talented writers. So a decision was made early on: We’re not going to go back over the basics. We aren’t going to teach the writers yet once again how to polish a sentence.
How to Become Writers
It was reasoned that each of these writers would have learned to write, at the very least, a professionally sellable story, and probably a great story. So what do you teach a writer who already knows the basics of how to write?
The answer was to teach them “How to become writers.” In other words, teach them how to move from being an armchair quarterback and to get into the game.
You see, people have a lot of odd ideas about what writers do. They imagine that we go to scenic mountain resorts and type out a manuscript, then deliver it to an editor to great applause. What most people don’t know about writing is this: Writing can and should be hard work.
So a workshop was created to give advice that would be perfect for taking budding new writers into the professional arena.
Algis put the lesser amount into the workshop, and so I will cover his offerings briefly. He suggested that in the mid-1980s, most new authors weren’t being taught how to plot a novel or short story. He was right.
Plotting a Story
Throughout the 1930s to the 1980s, many in the mainstream were rejecting the idea of literature that they felt “relied upon plot.” Such literature—which included things like romance, mysteries, and science fiction—were called “genre literature,” and were not considered worthy of study. Certainly, in many creative writing programs, plotting was something that was never taught. In my school, Brigham Young University, several professors refused not only to teach how to write genre literature but demanded that students not even read or study it, since it was unworthy of emulation.
Now, it didn’t matter that the most popular stories in the world were well plotted, or that “genre authors” very often outsold literary authors a thousand copies to one. Nor did my teachers realize that their notions were antiquated and had been proven wrong in other mediums. For example, in poetry when many of the beat poets were suggesting that poets ought to revolt against form in writing, Robert Frost famously silenced them by saying that “Writing poetry without rhyme is like playing tennis without a net.” In short, it makes the artist weak and sloppy. His real answer to them, though, came in his own magnificent poems that used rhyme and near-rhyme so effectively that the rhyme schemes became invisible, so that you could read one of his poems in a natural voice and not discover until after you stopped and studied the poem that it was a perfect sonnet.
In short, Algis’s argument in favor of form is simple: A formed story can be more powerful than one that has no form. So he decided to talk about form in the workshop. How do you write a plotted story? He chose a simple adventure plot, and advised writers on how to handle it. As he put it, “This isn’t the only way to write a formed story, but if you use it, you can make an entire career using this basic plot line.”
So he taught authors how to write a simple story. You can learn about his structure in an article called “Writing to the Point,” which is available from Wordfire Press. It is one of the most insightful little books on plotting you’ll ever find.
When Algis wrote it, I don’t recall ever seeing any other book on plotting—and I looked. I was researching the craft heavily, and I really wanted to know. Eventually, I became an expert on plotting myself, and you can read some of my insights into it in my book Million Dollar Outlines, where I teach not only how to create a plot, but also teach enough advanced audience analysis so that a writer can figure out how to write a bestseller.
Of course, in the past thirty years, I’ve seen a number of other fine books on plotting come out, and they are readily available now.
Becoming Your Own Muse
L. Ron Hubbard wanted to talk about more than just plotting, though. He wanted to talk about a lot more. He wanted to talk about where ideas for stories come from, and how to generate them off-the-cuff, so that if an editor calls you looking for a story or a novel, you can compose the tale in a matter of a few hours, rather than agonizing over them for years.
So Ron contributed articles like “The Manuscript Factory,” where he emphasizes that an author is a factory that produces manuscripts for a living. If you aren’t producing, you’re like a factory that has shut down.
He also contributed articles like “Magic Out of a Hat,” where writers learn to draw upon their broad experience in travel and in learning various vocations so that they can “write what they know.”
Most writers are insular people—folks who make their friends in books, so that they have little in the way of first-hand experience to draw upon. But the most successful writers in science fiction have been people who have studied engineering, worked in the military, become doctors or researchers.
In short, his advice can be boiled down to “live a large life.” As a teen, Ron left home to travel the world, becoming a photographer in China, joining the Explorer’s Club, learning to fly a plane and pilot a ship, and eventually joining the military. All of his experiences became fuel for his stories.
So he designed exercises to help writers identify some of their own unique experiences. Maybe the author has worked as a cop or a prison guard? Maybe she’s been through an ugly divorce? Maybe he was abused as a child? All of that can add details and realism to a story.
And of course, he suggested that we keep learning. Ron designed exercises to help people learn how to go start up conversations with strangers, or how to research information at libraries.
In short, I think that he would say that the person who refuses to live life, to go out and experience it, to examine it, is probably not going to go very far.
Oh, yeah, and there is that productivity thing. I remember in college hearing a quote from an ancient Greek philosopher who said that if he could go out and come up with a perfect sentence in a single day, he felt gratified. It was enough.
But that’s foolish. One sentence a day won’t do it. Instead of writing one perfect sentence in a day, I’d rather write twenty pages of damned-fine scenes, and with some jobs, it might take more. A real writer sometimes has to roll up his sleeves and get to work. If a producer needs a hundred-page screenplay in two weeks, you write it in two weeks. I recall writing a Star Wars book at 3 a.m. and feeling exhausted, so I put in another two and a half hours before I caught some sleep.
All of that “Sitting around and waiting for the muse” is tripe. Real writers become their own muses.
So Ron suggested that we have our winners compose a story in a day. For many writers, that seems undoable. But most of our writers discover that not only is it doable, it becomes an essential skill.
The Point of the Writers of the Future Workshop
Last of all, L. Ron Hubbard wanted to expose the winners to some of the wisdom of the best current writers in the field, so on the last couple of days of the workshop, the authors get to hear from and hobnob with our contest judges, where they learn the industry secrets and gossip that you won’t find in any writing books.
The entire workshop is a big and exhausting event, and it is sometimes hard on some of our winners. For example, early on, Algis and I had to decide how to start the workshop. We might have people flying in from all over the world on a Monday. Some of our winners might have flown in from places like Australia, or London, or South Africa. They’d have terrible jetlag. So we considered giving them that first night off, but when we talked to students, most of them were excited to get started.
So we decided to introduce them to the workshop that first night in part so that our winners would be able to get some work done.
But we felt that there was something far more important that happened: When we introduce the students to one another on that first night, they always get together and begin to talk, to compare notes, and to socialize. They bond, and in effect, they often begin to become best friends for life. We’ve even had couples marry.
So if you win the contest, and you’re jet-lagged that first night, and I call you in so that we can all introduce ourselves, blame me. Sorry, you might lose a little sleep, but you’ll gain something more.
Really, what I want to emphasize is this. The point of the Writers of the Future workshop was never to “teach you how to write.” Instead, the goal was to teach you some more important skills, like “How to succeed as a working writer.”
Guest Blogger, David Farland, Coordinating Judge of the Writers of the Future Contest.
David Farland is an award-winning, international bestselling author with over 50 novels in print. He has won the Philip K. Dick Memorial Special Award for “Best Novel in the English Language” for his science fiction novel On My Way to Paradise, the Whitney Award for “Best Novel of the Year” for his historical novel In the Company of Angels, and many more awards for his work. He is best known for his New York Times bestselling fantasy series The Runelords.
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