… the Zurich Writers’ Workshop

I spent a May weekend in the company of fourteen writers; reading, discussing and analysing what makes great writing. Two successful authors gave us the benefit of their experience and guided us towards making improvements in our own work. Two practical, useful and inspiring days, in which I also met some amazing writers.

Here’s what I learned and/or remembered, from major issues to the tiniest details:

1. Root your story. Place, time and character orient readers and help them interpret the action.

Example – Julia Alvarez’s Snow.

2. Choose the details which perform this orientation with care, avoiding obvious and familiar examples.

Example – Carolyn Forché’s The Colonel.

3. What are the stakes for your character? Do we know from the outset what s/he stands to lose or gain? And do we care?

Example – Alex Garland’s The Tesseract.

4.  Is the story arc clear, representing fundamental change between beginning and end? Example – Ian McEwan’s Enduring Love.

5. Even if a story is true, it must be believable as a story. Reality often makes the worst fiction. Add those details which bring the piece to fictional life.Omit those which don’t.

Example – Kate Summerscale’s The Suspicions of Mr Whicher.

6. Look at where you begin your story. Do you need your prologue, your framing device? Is that the best place to start, or a writer’s conceit? What purpose does the section before the story serve?

7.  Be aware of subtext. Dialogue and action, as well as serving a purpose in moving the story on, can carry subtler resonances.

Example – Tobias Wolff’s Say Yes.

8.  Rewrite. Ensure every scene, every line, every word earns its place. Check that every line, paragraph and chapter ends with the strongest word.

9.  When writing a query letter, be professional. Avoid excessive arrogance, but do sell yourself. Avoid fawning humility, but show respect. Compare your work to well-known writers or books relevant to yours. Make your target agent’s life easier by putting your name, title and page count (eg; 3/15) in the header/footer.

10. Your profile on the Internet can be a useful tool. It can also shoot you in the foot. Be professional at all times.