… 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.

    6 replies to "Ten Things I learned from … Zürich Writers Workshop"

    • laurastanfill

      Wonderful list–and it also serves as a reading list! I definitely want to read The Suspicions of Mr. Whicher based on the lesson it’s conveying. I’m actually in the thick of figuring out #3 for my new novel, so this was really timely. Thanks for sharing.

      • jilljmarsh

        Thanks Laura!
        Yes, point three has made me think long and hard about every word choice.
        It also makes me watch people differently, wondering what’s REALLY going on.

    • Libby O

      I love your ‘Ten Things’ lists, Jill. This one is thoroughly useful. Looking forward to the next list…

    • Chantal

      I couldn’t have summed up the weekend any better myself. Thanks for this. It was great meeting you there.

    • Kelly

      Great succinct list of the main points of the workshop. I’m bookmarking it to remind myself later!

    • Karen

      Thanks for so graciously sharing all that you learned. This is a very helpful post!

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