Monday, July 27, 2015

Apprentice Classics

Six participants in the Providence Bay Writers' Camp stand before a waterfall.
Most of the group at the 2015 Providence Bay Writers' Camp:
Mark, Wynn Anne, Gail, Dianne, Sonal, and Rosanna. Missing: Meg and Chantal 
Shortly after I retired in December 2013, I looked for ways to nurture my interest in writing fiction. At that time, Gail Anderson-Dargatz was offering novel mentorships -- something for which I was not ready (I'm still not). In February 2015, however, she announced a one-week writers' camp to take place in August on Manitoulin Island. This was right up my alley: immersion in writing and a great vacation all in one. I'll write about the vacation part in another post; for now, I'll tell you about the writing class.

The first thing to know is that it was quite intimate: eight writers around a farmhouse table sharing stories that very often come from their secrets and passions. Gail noted that writers (speaking broadly) very often have a great deal of anxiety and are very sensitive. It is this very combination that leads us to face the demons that hound us.

Each morning, we went around the table commenting on pieces of fiction writing (scenes, novel excerpts, or short stories) that we had submitted and read ahead of time. Gail set the ground rule that we were to start with what was working and continue with kind critique and brainstorming. Gail would be the last one to give feedback and then -- and only then -- the author would have the floor.

There was a broad range of experience in the group, including some who had already published novels, who taught writing classes and had fiction or poetry published in literary journals. And there were those of us who had an itch we needed to scratch.

On the first day, Gail introduced us to the term "apprentice classics" -- these are the universal pitfalls that novice fiction-writers encounter. Here are a few of them:

  • Exposition -- those long-winded sections of text that tell the reader what to think. A skilled writer knows how to write a scene that gives the same information without feeling like a textbook.
  • Therapist -- an expository tool used far too frequently by novice writers. Maybe because so many of us are familiar with our own therapists?
  • Lone, ruminating character -- While it may be important to get inside the protagonist's head, it is rarely engaging to do so in an extended interior monologue.
  • Shifting point of view -- Shifting back and forth between different points of view is confusing for the reader. 
  • Flashback -- Oh, Hollywood, you've made this too easy for us. In storytelling, flashbacks are often over-used and can be disorienting for the reader.
  • Over-writing -- We want to be absolutely certain that the reader "gets it," so we add a little extra reinforcement. Also, we fall in love with our descriptions and metaphors, and we embellish. Too many characters, too many plot points.
  • Lack of focus -- there's so much we want to tell that we don't know where to start or stop
I think my submission included every one of these.

In her frank and open-hearted way, Gail shared that she has been victim of each of these. Moreover, her editor still catches her with them. This, by the way, is an author who has several international bestsellers and who has twice been a finalist for the Giller Prize. 

The critique was consistently respectful and constructive -- and varied. I don't think any of us came away feeling bruised. Rather, we were inspired. I know that, after the second day, I wanted to go home and rewrite my submission, but I waited to see what more could be addressed after my story was on the table for discussion.

After the go-round, Gail chose a topic to discuss with us. These were often the fruits of her painful experience. 
  • The building blocks of fiction
  • Structure, dialogue, timeline, 'beats' and rhythm
  • What we're afraid of ("What will Mom say?")
  • Research and interview
  • Working as a writer
  • Self-doubt and anxiety
When it came time to discuss my own submission on Thursday morning, I wasn't as anxious as I might have been for two reasons: 1. It was patently clear that I am novice. 2. Regardless of level of experience of the author, feedback had consistently been kind and productive. 

I have two pages of handwritten notes from the comments around the table, and a 2-page document of notes from Gail. The sweetest comments were from those who said they felt I was "a natural" writer, that all I needed was to learn the craft. So that's what I'm going to do.

Sunset at Providence Bay, Manitoulin Island


  1. Replies
    1. In many ways it was a dream come true. Now to do the work!

  2. Wow, that sounds like such a positive and productive experience!

    1. I hope it'll be the beginning of lots of good things.

  3. How wonderful to spend a week with other writers and on Manitoulin as well! Sigh. Colour me jealous...

    1. It was a fantastic opportunity, and I was so glad we could do it.

  4. This is something I would love to do someday. So much to learn and great people to meet, plus the abundance of learning would be wonderful!

    1. Follow Gail on Twitter or Linked In or Facebook to hear about upcoming opportunities.

  5. Fantastic experience! I agree, you're a natural. Love your style and choice of topics and always look forward to your blog.

    1. Thanks, Nancy. My big challenge now is to step away from my "confessional" blogging style and learn to craft fiction. It's a fun journey!


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