Sam North, author of eight novels including his latest, The Old Country, ran the fiction workshop this weekend. This is what I learnt.


Concrete Nouns

As human beings, our primary sense is sight. The writer needs to guide the mind’s eye of the reader. Learn the power of a concrete noun. Much of the skill of a writer is learning what to leave out. You have two pedals; writing and non-writing. Use both in constant balance. Give the reader something to do and under explain.

Exercise: Make a list of concrete nouns which explain a process you perform on a regular basis.

My effort:

Ears. Tails. Kitchen. Cupboard. Barks. Bowls. Spoon. Rice. Sachet. Smell. Whines. Mess. Snorts. Dishcloth. Bin. Leads.



The first principle of organising your story: what drives us, what gives our story traction? The main character’s desire should be as concrete as possible; what T.S. Eliot called ‘the objective correlative’ is a representation of your character’s desire. We understand everyone by what they want. Desire can be low key or epic, but must provide motivation.

Exercise: Write down one line. Who is your main character and what does s/he want? The desire must be concrete.

My effort: Beatrice Stubbs wants to catch a sex offender before he attacks again

Impetus comes from desire and provides the engine for the story. Deception of any kind ups the stakes.



The author needs to inhabit the character rather than writing from on high. That individual’s actions in order to achieve his/her desire must make sense for that person. Many writers make the mistake of lobbing obstacles at the protagonist. Real pity is aroused by seeing the character as undeserving of suffering.

Exercise: Write a series of actions your character would logically take to achieve the object of desire.

My effort: Research previous offences. Map area. Interview victims. Organise surveillance. Set lure.

Create change through cause and effect. Appeal to reason, and always adhere to the logic of your story world. This comes from character and plot interaction.

Four ways of effecting change:

Actual change. Scrooge changes personality through a transforming series of experiences.

Readers’ perceived change: Mr Darcy transforms for us although his behaviour is consistent.

Characters’ perception change: The Reader, The Boy in Striped Pyjamas. The reader may or may not be aware, but a character changes for the surrounding characters.

No change: Character remains unaltered despite great changes in environment. The province of tragedy and comedy, from King Lear to Borat.



As powerful a driver of story as logic. Make a moral map of what is right or wrong in the story world. Consider how the reader is recruited into believing the rights and the wrongs. It’s possible to convince a reader that murder is absolutely the ideal solution if the set up is done right. What scenes you put next to the moral centre should highlight that moral message.

Exercise: Map your plot from a moral perspective

(Took me a while, as I had way too many moral strands. So I focused on one.) Beatrice is assigned to a sex offender case, which she sees as less important than tackling knife crime. WRONG. She interviews victims and changes her mind. RIGHT. She is pursuing a personal line of enquiry elsewhere. RIGHT. And neglects the sex offender case to follow it. WRONG. Etc …

The three principles of desire, logic and morality will form the basis of your plot and referring back to them will keep you on course.

An author needs two things. Authority: know your ground. And Integrity: own your voice.

Don’t try to be a writer. Try to tell a story.



    6 replies to "Ten Things I Learned from Zürich Writers Workshop II"

    • Liza Perrat

      Great post, Jill!

    • Marni Graff

      Jill, this was very informative; thanks so much for sharing~

    • johnnycrowman

      “Don’t try to be a writer. Try to tell a story.” the magic ticket!

    • Kelly

      Great synopsis, Jill. I’ll come back to this when the details of the workshop start getting fuzzy. Thanks!

    • jilljmarsh

      You’re most welcome, everyone. I believe in sharing what I’ve learned. Yes Johnny, that one struck a chord for me too.

    • Writer Abroad

      Thanks for letting me in on the fiction workshop. Sounds like you all learned a lot!

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