It started with me teaching a science fiction workshop at the Maritime Writer's Workshop in 2006. Only one student dropped out over the course of the week, and only because she saw a naked man roaming the halls of the Lady Beaverbrook Residence late at night. She quickly returned to Nova Scotia. Apparently, the other students liked the workshop, so the folks at the UNB College of Extended Learning asked if I would teach a writing workshop on a regular basis.
It was supposed to be a workshop on how to start and finish a novel, but it was a tremendous flop. I mean, I started off with a class of about 10 people and, as the weeks passed (arduously...go ahead, Strunk and White, punish me for that) the class dwindled as the content became increasingly boring and the students lost interest faster than the instructor lost interest. By the last week, no one wanted to be there. No one wanted to look at characterization, no one wanted to examine the intricacies of rhetorical speech, no one wanted to explore the variegated facets of diction.
God, what was I thinking?
It was a plodder. The whole thing was a gargantuan waste of my time, the students' time and the time of the space for the wastage of time that was allotted to waste the time. (OK, Strunk and White...figure that one out.) I tried again in the Winter term, but the same thing happened and I determined never to teach another writing workshop again.I drank a lot beer and wine the following summer.
I did a lot of thinking (thus, the beer and wine to lessen the pain of thinking). It occurred to me that I can`t teach people how to write. No one can teach people how to write. You learn how to write by writing, re-writing and re-writing again. And again. Given that, why teach writing workshops at all? This question pickled my head through many a summertime drunken stupor as I staggered down dark, lonely streets and crawled through the muck of ditches and lost cat graveyards searching for the answer.
I woke up one morning in a ditch with cat bones in my teeth. This inspired a story called Sleeping In Ditches, but it also reminded me of how miserable the life of a writer can be, and that’s when it hit me like a ton of horse manure dropping on my head: I can’t teach folks how to write, but I can teach them how to be as miserable as I am. I can teach them how to become writers! The idea of spreading my misery excited me to the point of sobriety. Ideas rushed into my head with the force of a stampeding cow funeral (ask my friend Nanook of the Nashwaak about this). I asked myself questions: Biff, how do you go about doing this? I answered: Biff, you do it step-by-step. And remember…no grammar. Don’t ruin their lives with grammar. Ruin their lives with storytelling.I created a whole new syllabus. (Did I just use the word “syllabus?” I meant plan. I drew up a plan.) I asked myself: What is the fundamental characteristic of a writer? And the answer settled over my head like the strands of a spider web shroud: A writer writes.
I had my first class. It was devoted exclusively to mindless writing. This would get them writing every day. Next step…I asked myself: What kind of stuff does a writer do besides writing? I answered: All kinds of stuff…like spying on people, asking people personal questions, looking at bugs flying around a street light, licking trees and power outlets…the stuff was endless.
But no grammar, I promised myself. No grammar.
By the time September rolled around, I had the workshop completed and I had a new name for it: Writing Hurts Like Hell. I figured that if someone was crazy enough to take a workshop with that title, then they were likely crazy enough to become a writer.
I included lots of stuff that writers do (like how to look at the world as a writer) and lots of stuff that writers need to know (like the first draft of anything being impure garbage). I included fun stuff like how to write sex scenes, how to fill your characters’ mouths with foul language (appropriately), how write about violence, how to write humor, how to figure out if that novel you’ve always been thinking about is really what you want to write.
I included stuff on how to put together all the thoughts, feelings, information, influences, observations and ideas that go into the foundation of writing a novel. I included stuff like story boarding, visual plotting, researching, finding a place to write and keeping the steam up, and lots (and lots) of discussion. But no grammar.
In that first Fall workshop, no one dropped out and no one appeared to be bored (including the instructor). There was plenty of lively discussion. Some folks actually seemed animated, excited, into it. I think this had a lot to do with the no grammar part.
One of the key features to keep things interesting was location. Instead of meeting in a classroom on the campus class-after-class, we ranged out into the city, meeting in malls, bars, studios, radio stations, coffee shops, homes, restaurants, parks…we even had one class in a hot tub. This also brought us into that so very important element of a writer’s life: the world.
I’m thinking about having a class at night in a dark alley. I’ll have to check on how many of my students will have black belts in Karate and give this some serious thought.
“We all have a story in us and this book is a blueprint for getting that story told.” This is the premise of Biff Mitchell's new book, Writing Hurts Like Hell: How to Write a Novel When You Don't Have Time to Write a Short Story.
Based on a decade of teaching writing workshops to busy people, Mitchell has written a book that offers a step-by-step process for conceiving the idea for a novel, developing the idea into scenes and chapters that tell the story, visually plotting the novel specifically for busy people, and writing the actual novel within the boundaries of a busy schedule.
“I was working a demanding full-time job that frequently required working overtime, raising kids, and a few other things when I wrote my first novel,” said Mr. Mitchel. “Finding time to write was tough but, over time (and a couple more novels), I worked out strategies that helped me get the writing done.”
Mitchell describes his book as “hands-on” training for aspiring novelists. “Because this book is based on workshops,” said Mr. Mitchell, “it’s not something you just read and then sit down in front of a laptop and snap out a bestseller.”
Writing Hurts Like Hell contains dozens of activities that force the reader to write instead of just read. “That’s the only way to learn how to write,” said Mr. Mitchell. “By writing and re-writing and writing some more. And that’s what this book makes people do.”
“In fact,” said Mr. Mitchell, “I’ve long since stopped trying to teach people how to write. Instead, I teach them how to become writers, how see the world the way a writer sees the world and respond to the world a like a writer. I did this in the workshop through activities that force people to stop reading and talking and start experiencing. I 've carried these activities over to the book."
According to Mr. Mitchell, most people never actually finish a novel because they wrongly assume that, once they have an idea for a story the rest is going to be easy: They just have to write it.
“Writing a novel is anything but easy,” said Mr. Mitchell. “It’s hard. But I’ve worked out a writing approach that breaks the process into phases and steps that will allow the writer to chew instead of choke on the work; things like learning how to write quickly and fluidly before even thinking about starting Chapter 1.”
Most of the activities take just minutes to perform, according to Mr. Mitchell, but, done consistently, they accumulate into the first draft of a novel. “I’ve laid out a plan and workflow for taking that first draft and turning it into a manuscript that’s ready to be sent off to a publisher,” said Mr. Mitchell. e.
If you can't make it to the workshop, you can always make it to the book.
Biff Mitchell is the author of nine novels, including the Boston Jonson cyber mysteries, and numerous short stories, novellas and poems published in ezines and literary journals. He’s also the author of the bestselling ebook eMarketing Tools for Writers, 2nd Edition.
Mitchell has been teaching creative writing workshops for over a decade through the University of New Brunswick’s College of Extended Learning, the Maritime Writers’ Workshop, the Foglit Literary Festival and Culture Days Canada.