What do you teach?

by Alex

I thought I’d continue JT’s topic from yesterday because, well, there’s a lot to say about it.

Instead of asking the question “Do you teach?” though, I’d like to focus more on “WHAT do you teach?”

It seems to me that we are recruited to teach these workshops and we have an appallingly limited time in which to do them. What can you really teach anyone in an hour?

I had a conversation with an author friend recently and she said she doesn’t even do any teaching or even speaking on the subject of writing or getting published, anymore. She feels strongly that until the business model changes, we shouldn’t be encouraging people to go into writing at all.

Well, yeah, it’s rough, no doubt!

Still, I told her that I had taken scads of screenwriting classes when I first moved down to LA, some good, some bad, but almost all useful in some way, and in every class, when the Jaded Screenwriter would look out over a class of fifty or a hundred people and say, “Realistically, only one or two of you will ever make a living at this,” I would think to myself – “Well, that’s me.”

My point in telling her this was that it’s always worth it to teach just because there MIGHT be the real writer in that room who can benefit from what you say.

But looking back, I wonder if I was also making another point, which is that it really didn’t MATTER who was up there teaching or what they were saying. The critical factor wasn’t the teacher, it was ME – and what I was getting out of the class for myself. And when not in class, what I was getting out of books, and movies, and my own false starts and dead ends.

I could be inspired by just a sentence, really.

But when you agree to do a workshop, you’re committing to teaching SOMETHING. So what can you teach in an hour?

I have stolen my foundation for teaching anything craft-related from Barry Eisler. To tell you the truth, I’m not even sure that he really has ever said this – it might have been my own interpretation of what he was saying. I tend to do that. But I think what he said was that “All writers are essentially self-taught, and you need to be able to break down everything you read to figure out what that author is doing and how s/he’s doing it.”

Well, that’s really all you need to know, as far as I’m concerned.

So when I walk in to teach a one-hour class, on suspense, on character, on theme, on story structure (which is my favorite thing to teach), I always start by saying exactly that: that you have to teach yourself to analyze how other writers create the elements of a story, and then I have them write down ten books (or movies, or a combination of both) which are in the genre that they are writing in and which are similar to the movie or book that they are trying to write (and GOOD, of course). It has to be ten, no less. Then hopefully there’s some overlap in the lists – that there are a number of people who name the same work, and we can use that one to analyze. I’ll also bring in a few of my own favorites as examples. So if I’m talking about story structure, I’ll walk them through a quick analysis of, say, the three act structure of a book or movie, including the stakes, the central question of the story, and the hero or heroine’s desire (external drive) and need (internal drive).

Then I’ll have them do another one or two together as a class, and then I’ll have them take one of their own and do it on their own, and have a few people share their analyses.

Same with breaking down suspense. Write down ten books/movies, choose one that a lot of people have listed, have them break down the elements of suspense that are set up and played out in that story.

Once they get the method, I tell them what they have to do is break down ALL TEN of their listed works in the same way. And then they have a template for creating the structure, or suspense elements, or whatever, in their own story.

People get it (and it’s exciting to see them get it!), I can do it in an hour, and I know that people will walk out with a practical method that they can use for virtually any element of story.

So, kids, if you feel like it – tell us what YOU can teach in an hour, or what you’ve been successfully taught in an hour.

(It’s supposed to snow in Raleigh today – fingers crossed!!)

15 thoughts on “What do you teach?

  1. J.D. Rhoades

    All we’ve gotten here so far is rain, Alex. You?

    And folks, I’ve worked with Alex…if you ever get a chance to learn from her, TAKE IT. She connects with a group of people as well as anyone I’ve ever seen.

  2. Sophie

    Hi Alex!I haven’t had a chance to teach craft yet, though I have lots of ideas on the subject – but I’ll be giving my first workshop this summer and it’s a roundup of ideas and markets for written work to consider while you’re waiting for the publishing industry to realize your brilliance and accept your novel. The idea came from my own need for small successes to stay encouraged enough to keep working away at my manuscripts (um, all NINE of them :)- Sophie

  3. Alexandra Sokoloff

    That’s a great idea for a workshop, Sophie, for several reasons. I’ve heard more and more editors and agents say that the first thing they do when someone submits to them is Google the person to see if they have a web presence. The kinds of credits you’re talking about are perfect to list on a website.

    Please be sure to give us details about the workshop as it gets closer!

  4. Allison Brennan

    Fabulous post, Alex, and I would love to take a class from you some day though I hate analyzing stories. I don’t really want to know why they work, it might ruin the enjoyment for me. And since I don’t plot, I fear that if I start plotting I won’t be able to write.

    I’ve taught a lot of workshops on a wide variety of subjects from craft to business. I don’t know that I’m any good at it. I tend to not plan it out, because every time I plan something it falls flat. The most successful workshop I’ve taught (based on feedback) is my NO PLOTTERS ALLOWED which is both a motivational workshop and a story workshop (essentially helping people trust their story instincts.) I’m not a great teacher, I prefer to leave it to people better than me.

  5. Alexandra Sokoloff

    Beeg, I’m jealous! Still no snow!

    Allison, I’d love to take that NO PLOTTERS class from you even though the idea of not plotting makes me break out in hives. Really, let me know when you do it again.

    It’s not that I don’t trust story – it always changes and it always comes together. But I LIKE plotting – it feels good. Like, literally, FEELS good. Like exercising feels good.

  6. Alexandra Sokoloff

    Fran, I don’t think I’ll be doing any workshops on my own at LCC. I’ll be doing the plot workshop at the Southern California Writers Conference in San Diego over Presidents’ Day Weekend next month – it’s a fantastic, high energy, hands on conference, highly recommended!

  7. pari noskin taichert

    Alex,I’d sure love to take that class from you. I tend NOT to be very analytical (or, at least I don’t think I am) with structure and would love to know how to do it.

    I’m going to be teaching two one-hour workshops at a writers con next fall. The first one has to do with PR and I can give attendees so much info they’ll feel like they’ve gotten a grad course in an hour.

    But the other workshop has to be something related to mysteries. I don’t feel like I can do a straight writing class; that’s not what I’m being asked to do. So . . . I’m at a loss.

    I’m supposed to come up with this workshop in the next couple of weeks (idea and title– for promo).

    What would potential mystery writers want to know about writing crime fiction?

    Any ideas? I’m stumped.

  8. Alexandra Sokoloff

    Well, again, here I go with the structure, but I’d love to get a breakdown of the different types of mysteries (locked door, fair play, unreliable narrator) and famous/recent examples and structural elements of each.

  9. JT Ellison

    I want snow. It’s colder than a witch’s you know what in a brass bra here, but no snow. Worthless weather.

    Teach in an hour? Now I understand that might be impossible. The fiction workshop I did last weekend was 9 hours of actual class time. How in the world can you fill up nine hours? By doing what Allison said, letting the writers write.

    Alex, you are a teacher, whether it’s in the classroom, here on the blog, on the lists… you’re an inspiration, and a model. And a damn good one at that.

  10. Dana King

    I agree with Eisler (if it was, indeed him who said that); so, if I had only an hour, I;d like to teach a tool or two the student could use to improve her own writing, even if it was just a way to research good writing sites.

  11. Stephen D. Rogers

    Hey Alex,

    I love the idea of your class on analyzing pieces that have worked. When are you next teaching it in Massachusetts? Seriously, this is something I need. I’d even drive all the way to Rhode Island. 🙂

    I read and I read and I read but I’m not sure I ever learned the skills of how to make that exerience anything more than enjoyable.



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