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!!)