Simple Techniques for Student Engagement in a Writing Workshop

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Without student engagement, not much in the way of learning takes place in a workshop. With engagement comes enthusiasm, minds receptive to learning and a relaxed learning environment that promotes involvement. I knew nothing of this when I first started teaching my Writing Hurts Like Hell workshop over a decade ago. I offered mostly lectures and take home assignments. It was boring and the dropout rate was high until I caught on to what I was doing wrong. I was distancing my students from what I was trying to teach them. I was talking at them and stalling off any active involvement until they were home, by themselves, without any classroom interactivity.

This continued throughout the first year until it came to me in a brilliant flash of enlightenment: I needed to make the workshop more interesting. I needed to engage my students. I spent an entire summer redesigning, reworking and rethinking. It was worth it. My workshop became popular, the dropout rate dropped to practically nothing and my students were actually writing and enjoying it. These are some of the strategies I worked out:

Get them into it right off the bat and make them feel in control. In the first class I had each student tell their name, explain their personal reasons for taking the workshop and tell a little about themselves. Not until they were familiar with each other did I say anything about myself. This put them first, me second, giving them a sense, no matter how faint, of student empowerment.

Encourage open discussion even it if run off topic. This turned out to be one of the most important facets of the workshop. In order to facilitate it, I sent out detailed notes after each class so that, if a topic wasn’t completely covered, it would be covered in the notes and any questions about it could be asked in the next class. Initially, only a few students would take part in the discussions, but, as the classes progressed, the silent majority would start speaking up. One of the key things I learned here was to let the discussion be based on questions from the students rather than questions I brought up for discussions. Again, the sense of empowerment, the sense of owning where the instruction is going.

Unless they’re going to explode it they don’t, tell the students to not take notes. As I said, I sent out detailed notes at the end of each class, not bulleted lists or topic titles. I wrote these up as if they were pages in a book (which they eventually became). They included in-class exercises and assignments. I know that some people insist that taking notes is a good way to reinforce the learning. Well, maybe in a class, but not in a workshop, especially not in my beautiful new interactive and engaging workshop. The problem with taking notes is the time it takes to write something. I that time, the student might miss an opportunity to ask a question or respond to a question because their focussed on something that happened a moment or two ago. Also, and this is important: If the student isn’t off somewhere in Writing-All-This-Down-Land, they’re fully present in the class and more apt to engage immediately in discussions. I don’t have research studies to back this up…just my observations.

Introduce them to mindless writing. I love mindless writing. You sit with pen (or pencil) (or laptop) (had one student do it on his iphone) in hand and write for several minutes without stopping to edit, correct spelling or re-phase. You just write without thinking, letting the subconscious spill over onto the paper or screen. (Actually, this works best with pen or pencil because you engage the mind more deeply with tactile senses.) I make my students do this in the first class and then I use it in almost all the in-class writing exercises throughout the workshop. What makes mindless writing so effective is the spontaneity of the exercise. Whatever the student writes is correct, even if they wander off topic. Again, it gives them a sense of being in control of their learning and it certainly leads them to feel that they’re not being controlled.

(Want to learn more about mindless writing? Read Dorothea Brandt’s Becoming A Writer.)

Everyone reads what they’ve written. OK, some people simply will not do this. At least not right away. And take it from my experience: death threats won’t work. Generally though, everyone will come around as they get used to each other. Reading aloud is not just a confidence builder, it’s another empowerment tool because it’s the students moment under the sun and they can say whatever they want to say: the reading is based on mindless writing that might go completely off topic and they’re not being graded. They own the moment. I’ve had students who wouldn’t read aloud for the first few classes no matter how often I called them up in the middle of the night and threatened them, but once they did…they liked it. These were almost always the ones biting the bit each class to read what they’d written. BTW, the readings included the assignments (the class starts with these readings) and the in-class exercises.

Everyone applauds. This is the follow-up to reading aloud. After each student reads what they’ve written, the rest of the class applauds. I can’t stress too much what a powerful tool this is in building confidence and engagement in the workshop. It gives the reader a sense of achievement and pride and it gives the audience a sense of group participation. Once a student has read aloud and received that applause, they’re hooked. My workshops were almost always held on Monday nights. I was told repeatedly by my students that Monday had become their favorite day of the week. Talk about a powerful tool for engagement.

BTW, take a look at the image accompanying this article. Look at it for a few minutes, put it aside, pick up a pen and some paper and write about the image for five minutes without stopping to correct or change anything. Just write whatever comes into your head. You might be surprised at what you write.

 

Biff Mitchell is the author of Writing Hurts Like Hell: How to Write a Novel When You Don’t Have Time to Write a Short Story, based on his 10 years of teaching writing workshops through the University of New Brunswick’s College of Extended Learning, The Maritime Writers’ Workshop, the FogLit Literary Festival and the Muse Online Writers’ Conference. Biff is the author of five novels and has managed to trick numerous online and literary magazines into publishing his short stories and poems. He’s also a regular contributor to the award-winning Twisted Tails Anthologies. You can visit Biff at www.biffmitchell.com.

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On Following Your Characters

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Started my next novel six years ago. Still hard to believe it was that long ago. Spent almost two years researching, building characters and scenes and a story board. Then, I broke all the rules that I’ve been teaching my writing students for 10 years and wrote myself into a brick wall. Took a few years off to study photography and almost gave up on writing altogether, except for a few short stories and some poems that I managed to trick a few editors and magazines to publish. (HINT: Pretend you know how to write…they fall for it every time.)

Something strange happened during that time off, something that I tell my students will happen. And it happened. Regardless of me writing the story on my laptop, the story kept writing itself in the back of my head. Last fall, I started going to a local coffee shop (Reads) and came back to the novel. I managed to salvage one short chapter from the initial attempt and tried to follow the original story board. But, like I said, the story was writing itself in the back of my head…by the characters. And they started writing the story on their own. I just had to move my fingers across the keyboard

It was kind of cool. I didn’t have a clue what I was going to write each evening. I just followed the characters and let them go where they wanted, do what they wanted and say what they wanted. They had a lot more story in them than I did. Their words flowed like turkey gravy into the manuscript. Night after night was surprise after surprise.

One problem..

…I had no idea how it was going to end. That was the problem with the first attempt. I never write even the first sentence until I know how the story ends. It gives me something to write towards, even if I change the ending to match the journey towards it

But, in this novel, I was dumbfounded when it came to how to end it. There were so many possibilities, but none of them worked in a way that would bring the story to and end that would make sense and be fair to all seven main characters. Yep, seven main characters telling their own stories surprise after surprise, and me wondering how the hell they were going to end it

Well, this week, they did it. They showed me the way…and what a surprise that was. It was complicated at hell and I almost ran into another block, but I kept if going…trusting that the characters knew what they were doing.

And they did.

I sat at Reads today and finished the first part of the ending. Remember now…it has to end for seven people in such a way that it ends sensibly and well for all of them. But the first part just threw up a thousand more questions. I went home and ate something. No…wait a minute…I went home to eat something but I didn’t. Instead, I opened myself to the characters and went back to Reads and wrote the second part of the ending. And everything fell into place. Everything made sense. I know exactly how to finish this novel. It’s going to be another ten or so pages. The page and word count at this point don’t mean a thing. I know how it’s going to end.

I should have this novel finished within the next week or two. Well, the first draft. And then the real writing starts.

To the characters in this novel, thank you for leading me through a wonderful and constantly surprising experience. I love you folks.

Oh, I’m a photographer as well, so this post is accompanied by a gratuitous image of a purple plant. If it were growing out of a piece of pavement, it would be related to this novel, but it’s not. Gratuitous.

The Food Smasher Conspiracy

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Unlike my body, my brain didn’t survive the 60s…but I’m not crazy. I’ve done some crazy-ass things…but I’m not crazy. After reading this, you’ll likely scratch your head and avoid me when you see me on the street or sitting inexplicably on a camping chair in your garage, smiling…but I’m not crazy. I have a crazy story to tell…but I’m not crazy.

It started about 10 years ago when I bought a beautiful new food smasher so that I could smash food down to its basic atomic parts to make guacamole. I smashed green peppers, green onions, cucumber, garlic, avocados and more into precise nuclear arrangements that, when aligned under the right celestial conditions, produced the best guacamole in the world.

People travelled from afar to challenge me in guacamole wars, but I invariably sent them home with their legs behind their tails…or shot them. I was a happy man with a wonderful food smasher. Things couldn’t get better.

But they could get worse.

At the beginning of this week, it occurred to me that I hadn’t made guacamole in a while and I decided it was time. I bought guacamole-friendly vegetables and lots of avocados and laid everything out on the kitchen counter ready to be smashed into the world’s best guacamole. I opened the cupboard door to fetch my beautiful food smasher but, as soon as I saw it, I knew something was wrong.

This wasn’t my beautiful food smasher. It was something else.

It was too big. The food smashing drum was twice the size it should be. The handle was too high, too wide. The contours were all wrong. It was cumbersome with not a hint of the sleek and efficient design of my beautiful food smasher.

I checked my memory:

Have you seen this before?

No.

Did you trade your beautiful food smasher for this abomination?

No.

Did you unknowingly buy this…thing?

No.

Do you have any idea how it got here?

No.

Are you sure you haven’t seen this before?
Yes.

I was stymied.

But I decided to use it anyway. I filled the bowl with pieces of green pepper and green onions, put and pressed the button. I made noise that I’d never heard before. Loud, unacceptable noise with no food smashing results. It wasn’t smashing the peppers and onions to anywhere near the atomic parts I needed to make the world’s best guacamole. It was a dismal failure as a food smasher.

I called my daughter in Edmonton (3000 miles away) and asked her if she’d replaced my beautiful food smasher with a failed food smasher. She denied any involvement, pleading distance as proof of innocence.

I was further stymied.

I couldn’t think of anyone else who would dare venture into my hovel. I couldn’t think of anyone else who would know the location of my food smasher. I thought, You must be wrong about this. You must have remembered your food smasher wrongly. You mind has failed you. I looked in the cupboard again. Maybe I somehow, accidentally had two food smashers. It seemed to be in the realm of possibility. I may not be crazy, but I certainly wasn’t playing life with a full deck of cards.

And then I saw it.

Sitting off to the side.

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A food smasher attachment. I grabbed it and tried to fit it onto the failed smasher. It wouldn’t fit. It was designed for another smasher…my beautiful missing smasher.

I wasn’t crazy. Someone had actually switched smashers. How? I don’t know. Why? I don’t know. Who? I don’t know.

But I will find out.

If anyone has any information leading to the apprehension of the food smasher switcher, please contact me. There will be guacamole in it for you…the world’s best guacamole.

As for the switcher…you know who you are. You know what you did. I will find you.

Shooting in the (almost) Dark

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I love going for bike rides with my camera in the early evening, especially just as the sun is about to dip into the void off to the left of where that giant elephant carries the world.

(Don’t worry though, somewhere around morning, the sun invariably bumps into the elephant and the elephants says, “Ouch!’ and uses its trunk to toss the sun back up to the world. This is called sunrise.)

Finding patches of color in the (almost) dark is like finding a rough diamond and saying, “Wish I’d seen you an hour earlier.”

OK, so an hour earlier the rough diamond would still look like Smokey the Quartz, but both Smokey and the patch of color have one thing in common: with a bit of polishing, they present incredible beauty.

Now, I will admit…the patch of color isn’t going to look all that great if you enlarge it to poster size. I mean, you’ll have to bump the ISO up, which will degrade the image to an extent, and you’re still going to have a lot of (almost) dark.

But we photographers have magic tools that turn us into diamond cutters and polishers. Mine is Lightroom. In the image above, I set the ISO to 800 (a respectable ISO for a Canon 5D2). but there was still a lot of (almost)…well, dark  in the image. But it threw the reflections of the stream in the distance into a beautiful backdrop for the color in the foreground and, with a little brightening in Lightroom, a few of the flowers became polished diamonds.

Sure, it’s not something I’d enlarge to poster size. It would look like pixelated crap. But it looks OK online…and isn’t that what the internet is for? To make high ISO images look good?

I guess what I’m trying to say is…don’t let the (almost) dark stop you from finding diamonds in the rough. Especially in the (almost) dark.

(Lens: Canon 100mm (with 2x extender); f stop: 4; shutter: 1/45 (hand held); focal length: 149mm)

 

The Falls Brook Falls

Went canoeing down the Miramichi on the May long weekend with my old buddy Nanook of the Nashwask. My fourth time on that river and it still captivates me with its sprawling beauty.

One of the things I love most about the trip is the side trip to the Falls Brook Falls, one of the highest waterfalls in New Brunswick. Here’s what I mean…

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Become a Writer

Do you want to write a novel, play, short story, poem, annual report?

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This workshop will show you how to conceive an idea, develop it, and turn it into a finished piece of writing ready for publication. The focus will be on writing a novel, but the techniques you’ll learn apply to all forms of writing.

Presented by Biff Mitchell, author of Writing Hurts Like Hell: How to Write a Novel When You Don’t Have Time to Write a Short Story, this workshop is based on 10 years of teaching writing workshops through UNB CEL, the Maritime Writers Workshop, the Muse Online Writers Conference and others.

Fee is $95 and includes a free digital publication kit.

There will be four 2-hour sessions (June 12, 14, 19 and 21) from 6:30 till 8:30. For more details, email biff@biffmitchell.com. Enrollment is limited to 10.

 

Writing Hurts Like Hell – Breaking the Story Board

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I encourage my writing students to create a story board before starting their novels. I stole the idea from Walt Disney, who created a visual story board for the animated cartoon movie Snow White. I think is was something like a half mile long. This isn’t exactly what I do, not having half a mile of wall space.

I use one large card for each scene. Each card indicates the names of the characters in the scene and, very briefly, what happens in each scene. The cards look something like this:

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The story board is a form of visual plotting. You can see how the story progresses. You can see where you might need more development, where scenes are missing, where you might need a previous scene to make a later scene make sense, and where you might need to delete a scene because it doesn’t advance the story. It gives you new ideas for more scenes and new directions for the story.

The story board creates a structure for your novel, so that when you start writing, you know where you’re going and how to get there. Starting off with that structure burned into your head saves a hell of a lot of time, cuts down the chances of getting writer’s block and makes it possible to get back into the writing if you’re away from it for a while. It also allows you to put together a realistic writing schedule because you can see what has to be done and the scope of what has to be done.

All this said, there may come a time when the story itself takes over, when the actual writing reaches a point where the story board doesn’t make any sense and you just have to write.

OK, the blood-sucking editor of the Twisted Tails anthologies, J, just said, “But Biff, you spent all that time sweating and suffering over a story board…and then…and then…you have nothing. Ha ha!”

And the fox said, “Ha ha!”

“Hey fox,” I said. “Guess how J writes a novel?”

“With brilliance, insight and feeling,” said the fox.

“Thanks, fox,” said J, smiling like a self-satisfied Canadian, who’s actually an American living in New Mexico.

“No!” I said. “He sleeps. Yes, he goes to sleep with a laptop in his lap and dreams. And while he’s dreaming, he records the dream and when he wakes up…presto…novel finished. And perfectly formatted.”

Just as J and the fox were about to say nasty things about me, I ran into my bedroom and crawled under my bed with my desktop computer. I can hear them shuffling around my apartment looking for me, but I know they’re afraid to look under my bed, fearing whatever stuff a writer hides under his bed. Like the stuff I got from my stag party about thirty years ago. I won’t get into details that might even scare me.

So yes, this just happened to me. I had the story board completed for my next novel, the details of which I won’t get into because they might even scare me. I estimated a short novel of about 60,000 words. I had everything worked out, plotted, carded, and on the wall at my studio.

But, as I approached the 60,000 word mark, things started to happen. The characters started doing things that I hadn’t planned. The story line started finding new paths that wandered far away from the story board. Tomorrow, I’m going to break the 80,000 word mark…and I’ll be nowhere near finished.

So, am I sorry I bothered putting all that time and effort into a story board?

No.

Now, I should mention one other thing. I created that story board three years ago. Then, I took three years off to study photography. I came back to the novel a few months ago. I had the story board to come back to for re-orientation. But more important, I had a structure in my head that had three years to simmer and evolve. I dumped the opening chapter for something that, after three years of second thought, worked much better, and then continued with the original plan.

But, like I said, around 60,000 words things started to get out of hand.

I think J and the fox are looking for me in my refrigerator, and eating everything in it as they look. I didn’t know foxes ate avocadoes. I didn’t know editors ate.

But get this. It’s working. Each day when I start to write, the words are gushing out. New ideas and new directions are falling into the manuscript line inspired rain.

The fox said, “Did someone just say ‘inspired rain’?”

“That sounds like something dumb that Biff would say,” said J. “He’s still here. The refrigerator is empty. Let’s find him.”

So I have to make this fast. The story board gives you a structure to start with. It organizes your brain, and your creative instincts, around that structure. And once you have that structure, you can toss it when the story goes its own way. Without the structure to begin with, you would never have gotten to that point where the story would have taken off on its own.

Now, having said all that, there are writers who never use a story board. I mean, some writers just all asleep with a laptop in their laps. The story board is meant for people like me…busy people with fulltime jobs and myriad other things to do.

If you’re not writing fulltime…take the time to do a story board, especially if it’s your first novel. Get that structure in your head and, if the time comes, dump it and just let your story take you where it will go.

“Hey J,” said the fox. “Biff’s under his bed. And…holy shit look at the stuff…oh…the stuff!

Oh, shit.