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The Writer in Residence workshops 1: The Creative Process

May 31, 2010 | Karl Schroeder | Comments (0)

As my tenure as Toronto Public Library's Writer in Residence winds down, I'm summarizing the three workshops I held.  This gives me a chance to cover the main points for people who were unable to attend (and I know there were many).  

We held the first workshop on March 25th, 2010.  This opening salvo was on creativity.  The issue:  how to generate ideas, and how to take them from an unformed state to a final, finished story.  

In this workshop, I used a scheme based on many studies on creativity.  I encouraged the workshop participants to think of the creative process as a series of phases, each one with its own scope and place in the shaping of a story.  What is most important is that these phases proceed in a cycle:

Four parts of the process
Looking at this scheme, you can see that the activity most people think of as writing--actually putting down words on paper (or on the screen) comes last. Each of the phases prior to actually drafting has its own value.  Most of us conflate them in our mind; we mash daydreaming and outlining, plotting and revising in a chaotic way.  My suggestion was that you give equal time and emphasis to each of the following activities:

  1. Generate/revisit.  This is the daydreaming phase, during which stories gestate.  Daydreaming can take years before a story pops out of your subconscious; you can speed the process up by brainstorming and similar methods, but the key is to treat your daydreaming time as important, and distinct.  Ideas that you capture in the form of notes, unfinished scenes, character sketches etc., form the raw material for the next phase. Once you've gone through the entire creative cycle once, returning to this phase is the essential first step in re-envisioning the story prior to editing and revising.
  2. Envision/rethink.  Here is where ideas and images become stories.  Having raised questions, thought of new worlds and pictured scenes, you must now draw them together as scenarios.  For instance, this is the phase where detailed worldbuilding might take place. In revision, you need to take time to evaluate whether the draft that you've written matches the aims you originally had for the story.
  3. Outline/rearrange.  Laying down the roadmap for the actual draft stage is very useful, although not everybody does it for short pieces such as short stories.  Having an outline for a novel is vital, even if it's all in your mind.  This is where exercises such as writing scenes on post-it notes and rearranging them on a timeline is useful.  When revising, this is the phase where you revisit the structure of the story and redesign it for the rewrite.
  4. Write/rewrite.  Not as big a deal as you might think.  Anything you write in your early drafts is simply raw material for the other phases in the rewrite.  Nothing is cast in stone until the story's been published (and even then, you might be able to fix things in a resale situation).  As I've said, many aspiring writers think that this phase is writing, but it's really an outcome of much prior work; and it's an input into the next turn of the creative wheel.
During the workshop we ranged through many examples for each of these phases, and had a great time analyzing classic stories such as Star Wars to see how they are put together.  With only three hours we were only able to touch on many vital ideas, but the workshop attendees were lively and eager to contribute.  I for one had a great time, and I hope it was useful for all who attended.

What to bring to the TPL novel writing workshop this Thursday

May 19, 2010 | Karl Schroeder | Comments (2)

This Thursday night is the last of our scheduled writing workshops. This workshop is full up; if you haven't registered for it by now, I'm afraid you won't be able to attend.  For those of you who have registered, please bring the following items:

  • Pen and paper
  • An outline or point-form summary of a novel project that you are working on or would like to work on
  • An opening chapter or two, if you don't have a summary
We'll be exploring the following aspects of novel writing:

  • How to plan and think about large projects such as novels
  • Common places where a novel project can go off the rails
  • The project cycle (revisiting Workshop 1's ideas)
  • How to analyze your opening to make sure it's effective
Bringing an opening chapter or two will be useful for this last exercise.  I'll present a simple method for looking at the beginning of a novel critically.  Hopefully you'll find it useful.

I look forward to seeing you all on Thursday!

Writing software for novelists

April 19, 2010 | Karl Schroeder | Comments (7)

At last Thursday's writing workshop, the question came up of what kind of word processor to use when writing fiction--particularly long fiction.  I've been down this road a number of times, and gave a quick response at the time.  I thought I should flesh it out in more detail, though.

 got my start with a mechanical typewriter and have since used IBM selectrics, UNIX terminals, VAXen, WordPerfect 4.2 all the way up to version 12, DeScribe, and lately, OpenOffice.  You'll note I've never used Microsoft Word to write fiction; put that down a matter of personal taste.

In any case, each of the major word processors has its advantages and disadvantages.  Over the years I've whittled down my requirements some basic ones:

  • I have to be able to minimize my working environment (i.e. remove ribbon bars, menus etc.)
  • It has to enable me to change the background colour and font, because staring at black text on a white background all day gives me migraines (a major flaw with Word)
  • It needs a fairly sophisticated structural view of the document; with both WordPerfect and OpenOffice I keep a navigator pane open on the left side of my working document that shows the entire chapter/scene structure of the current novel, and lets me jump back and forth by just clicking scene titles.
  • I have to be able to open multiple windows on the same document.
This is a pretty comprehensive list, and only WordPerfect and OpenOffice have been able to satisfy all of these requirements.  Lately, though, I've been exploring alternatives.

If you're on a Mac, you should probably check out Scrivener.  Scrivener is word processing for writers (not just white collar business workers).  It has a raft of cool features that let you smoothly integrate non-drafting activities like outlining into the process, and I know a number of Mac-based authors who swear by it.  A true writer's tool should be something that assists all the major activities of fiction writers, such as finding inspiration, keeping track of characters and plot arcs, etc.  No standard word processor is going to do this for you; but tools like Scrivener can.

Scrivener is Mac-based, but luckily you're not out of luck if you're PC based.  I'm currently exploring a program very similar to Scrivener called Liquid Story that has most of the features of Scrivener, some of its own, and is Shareware (costing $45).  It has tools such as timeline tracking, character galleries, a character name generator, repetitive phrase and word searching, and several different ways of outlining.  It's also a word processor with all the features you'll need to produce manuscripts and scripts.

There's a certain gimmick factor to programs that claim to be able to help you write.  The attraction of Scrivener and Liquid Story is that they don't really pretend to do that.  What they do claim to do is help you organize big and complicated writing projects in a way that standard word processors can't.  And that is a very valuable quality.

In the end, you have to try things and find out what works for you.  I know at least one major SF writer who still uses UNIX's old text-editor workhorse, EMACS.  In the end it's just words on paper.

But exploring your options never hurts.

Short Story Workshop this Thursday

April 14, 2010 | Karl Schroeder | Comments (1)

This Thursday, April 15, I'll be hosting the second of three writers' workshops at the Merril Collection.  This workshop is by reservation only, and is now full: if you haven't signed up for it already, I'm afraid it's too late now.  

For those of you who'll be attending, I'd like you to bring two things:

  1. Pen and paper, either a notebook or a number of sheets of loose paper;
  2. An unfinished story or one that you are not yet satisfied with; or, if you're not yet at that stage, any notes and outlines you have for something you would like to work on.
We will be talking about short stories in general, science fiction and fantasy stories in particular, and how to take a story from outline to completion.  We'll be doing some exercises along the way; hence the need for you to bring the above materials.  

I'm looking forward to meeting you all, and it's sure to be fun!

Reminder: Book Buzz at TPL tomorrow at 7 p.m.

March 22, 2010 | Karl Schroeder | Comments (1)

The chat will be happening at  All are welcome!  You can chat with me and Dawn Connolly from TPL, about writing, the thrilling roller-coaster ride that is the life of a writer, and everything cool and wacky that's going on in the world right now.

First writer's workshop: what to bring

March 22, 2010 | Karl Schroeder | Comments (0)

This Thursday, starting at 5:30, I'll be hosting the first of three writing workshops at the Merril Collection (actually, in the basement of the Lillian H. Smith branch where the library is located).  These workshops are full up now, but if you're interested you can still call the library to get put on a waiting list.

In any case, pretty well everybody who's signed up has asked what they should bring.  Here's my suggestion:

  • A notebook and pen
  • Any notes, scraps of paper with scribbled ideas, and unfinished short stories or outlines that you may want to work on.  This is a creativity workshop, so the idea is to unblock our minds and look at how ideas evolve from a nascent stage all the way up to solid story plans.
  • Your imagination.
That's it.  We'll be doing some exercises, but also we'll be just talking about the writing process and about how to organize your time, your thoughts, and your creative planning to get from idea to published work.  I'm looking forward to it and hope to see you there!

Writer in residence workshops are full up

March 17, 2010 | Karl Schroeder | Comments (0)

This happened a bit more suddenly than expected:  my upcoming workshops are full.  There may still be cancellations, so if you wanted to attend but just hadn't gotten around to registering yet, you should check back in just prior to the dates to see if any spaces have opened up.  

Just as a reminder, these are the events:

Thursday, March 25, 5:30-8:15:  Integrating Idea and Story

Everyone has ideas for a story, but very few people actually get a story completely written. This workshop will assist aspiring science fiction writers by clarifying the process of developing the story from the idea.

Thursday, April 15, 5:30-8:15 pm:  Short Story Structure and Plot

Attendees will learn how to identify and correct story weaknesses and sharpen their writing skills, while writing short science fiction and fantasy stories.

Thursday, May 20, 5:30-8:15 pm: Wrangling Your Novel Into Shape  

This workshop deals with the process of creating science fiction, how writers can identify and correct their mistakes, when to rewrite and when to stop.

 I'll shortly write more about what to expect, and what to bring, for those who'll be coming.

Thanks to everybody who came out!

March 8, 2010 | Karl Schroeder | Comments (0)

I had a really good time on Saturday night--not so much with the talk I gave as of course with the conversation that followed.  I'd like to thank everybody who came out.  I'm happily reading submitted manuscripts and getting ready for my next round of scheduled meetings.  And, of course, I'm preparing for the first workshop I'll be holding on March 25th.

Next library event: Saturday night in the future

March 4, 2010 | Karl Schroeder | Comments (0)

I'll be downtown at the Metro Reference library at Yonge and Bloor on Saturday night, giving a talk.  Why don't you come down and join us?  It should be a lively discussion.  We'll be discussing the following topic:

Science Fiction and Foresight: Is it true that science fiction is about predicting the future? Karl Schroeder discusses when science fiction and foresight are the same and when they are different.
Saturday, March 6, 7-8:15 pm
Toronto Reference Library
Beeton Auditorium

Which kind of writer are you? --Part 2

March 1, 2010 | Karl Schroeder | Comments (2)

Writing is not one activity, but a number of activities. We tend to only value the time we actually spend at the word processor, and since few of us get much time to spend there, we're constantly asking ourselves--and established professionals--"how do you find the time to write?"

Here's the secret of making time to write: writing is many different activities, and each activity demands a different kind of time.

You can write in the shower. You can write on the bus. You can write at the office, or in front of the TV. All you have to do is perform the appropriate kind of task in each of these time slots. If, when the weekend comes, you find four hours in which to do draft work, you could write half a chapter in that time, provided all the other preliminary work has been done in other time slots.  But you could also edit, or network with other writers, or--that much-maligned but essential, time-honoured classic--lie on the couch and stare at the wall.

The Dreamer

Let me introduce one of your writing selves--possibly the least appreciated but most important one:  the dreamer.  

We all daydream. Unfortunately, after having had our knuckles rapped for it in class, many of us feel guilty when we do it. Get over it! Daydreaming is one of your most important activities as a writer. Learn to be proud of those times when you sit slack-jawed, eyes slowly crossing. If anyone asks you what you’re doing, you can truthfully answer, “I’m working.”

Your daydreaming time can happen anywhere. The trick is to be aware that you’re doing it. Most of our daily fantasies go by half-consciously, and we forget them immediately. Learn to know that you’re doing it, and commit to paper or file the products of your daydreaming.  One way to do this is to keep an idea diary. If you work at a computer all day, leave a small text-editor file or mail message open, and when ideas come to you, jot them in this. Then save the file or mail the message to yourself at the end of the day. The important thing is to recognize when your daydreams spark interesting ideas. Then find some way of ensuring that you remember those ideas. Don’t try to schedule this creativity. Just be ready to catch the moment when it happens on its own.

The average SF writer walks around with a head full of half-finished (and often half-baked) ideas. Anything might generate a story idea--the news, a chance conversation, something you read. Such ideas take the form of little snippets, like “What if you could use nanotechnology to reshape someone's face at will, thus making them into a real-life doppelganger?” Or, “Maybe we could build giant balloon habitats in the upper atmosphere of Uranus.” We tend to have a teeming mass of such ideas floating around in our heads, most of which we're only half aware of.

I refer to such half-finished ideas as “sparks.” They aren't complete enough to become the basis of a story. If I'm interested in a particular area (say, nanotechnology), then I tend to accumulate sparks in that area. Sparks can be anything: ideas for gadgets, visions of alien places, bits of dialog that don't lead anywhere.

The writer with a lot of sparks and no story usually thinks of himself as “blocked”--feeling the urge to write, but having no subject to write about. The sense of frustration this engenders is extremely valuable; it sets the subconscious mind in motion to try to come up with a storyline.

Stories happen when these sparks come together in new combinations. Suddenly everything--character, setting, plot, and idea--just fits into place. It's a frustratingly random occurrence for most authors, but there's a lot you can do to encourage the process. We'll look at the what, where and when of these things in a future post.

Writer Karl Schroeder will be blogging in this space from February - May, 2010 as the library's Science Fiction Writer-In-Residence.