I taught a whole-day workshop* yesterday for twelve writing students. The topic was ‘exciting writing’. My aim was to pass along what I know about making a reader believe what you’re writing, and to then make them care. Basically, I spent six hour laying out the steps a writer need to take to get their readers to fall into their work, to breath its air and feel its sunshine, to feel and dream and agonise (and exult) with your protagonist.
This is my favourite teaching topic–because it’s my favourite part of being a reader. When I was eleven, part of my growing up happened in Middle Earth, alongside Frodo and Sam. As a teenager, I learnt to lead men in Alexander’s Macedon. In my thirties, I discovered how petty and how brave humans can be in extremis, how silly and how kind, as I sailed the high seas with Jack and Stephen. These books helped make me who I am. Alexander’s–and Sam’s, and Stephen’s–lessons were my lessons. Those books were great gifts.
I aim to write novels that give that same gift to my readers. (See my Writer’s Manifesto.)
So for this workshop I deliberately kept the focus on making writing vivid–no wandering off into story structure, or dialogue best-practices, or the rules of point-of-view. Just endless hammering about how to bring the reader in. The trick? To funnel everything through your main character/s, make your character/s the lens through which the reader sees–and smells, and hears, and feels–all other people, places, and events in the novel. Do this well enough–paying attention to the specific, the particular, and so avoiding cliche of trope or phrase–and you’ll trigger your reader’s mirror neurons. Trigger the mirror neurons, and the character will come alive inside your reader. Your reader will be living inside your novel, moving through it along with the character/s. Just as I did–and still do–with people created by Tolkien, Renault, and O’Brian.
Once you’ve triggered those mirror neurons, once those characters are recreated inside your reader, then your job as a writer is to not fuck up: to maintain immaculate narrative grammar so you don’t bump the reader out of the story.
One day, I might write a short book, complete with exercises, on how to do all this. Until then, there’ll be the occasional workshop like yesterday’s.
I had a good time teaching those twelve writers. Some of them will become names you will recognise. They were all fine people. It was a good day’s work.