Wednesday, May 27, 2009

What's the Story?

I recently taught a great group of short story writers in my workshop for The Quebec Writers Federation (QWF) called Re-Vision: Shaping Short Stories. The class was about literally looking again at your pieces and shaping them in a sculptural process.

I was pleased folks brought in stories in all stages of draft form. When a piece was promising but went out in many directions, I would ask the writer to tell our group--IN ONE SENTENCE--what's the story? It was a great discipline to focus one's thoughts, ideas, and distill to the bone.

Of course a great story has numerous themes. But I think a great story can also be distilled down to a sentence that will express it's core.

Just back from TO and The Canadian Jewish Book Awards where we winners, btw, were asked to speak for 3 minutes and many spoke for 15! (Ah the limelight)! I am off this end-week to New York City, home of my birth to the Jewish Book Council's "Meet the Author" event, where we will each pitch our novel in two minutes.

So, I have distilled the essence of The White Space Between down to a cogent two minute talk.

The JBC has a great coach who worked with me on several drafts and guess what? You can say a hell of a lot in two minutes. Try it. It's bracing.


Leo said...

There is one place where one can work at perfecting this particular task - the government.

When I worked at Industry Canada, I would frequently have to prepare briefing notes for the Minister. It meant taking a complex subject and distilling it down to one page and no more.

Needless to say, the first few tries were dismal. I would get it down to three pages, then two and then give up, taking it to my kindly boss who would take the text and slash it through with red pen. After all, he had worked there for years and knew precisely what a Minister could expect to absorb.

With time, I could get a note down to one page, even 3/4's of a page. Today, in the corporate world, distilling is again the order of the day, particularly in a heirarchical system where information flows up, but not necessarily down.

When the President asks you to advise him on an investment opportunity, there is a lot of thinking, research, analysis, discussion that goes into the final conclusion. The information store is large and all he wants to know is whether or not it is a good idea to lay down the company's money. So, distill, distill, distill down to a point form email of three to four points.

This skill bodes well for writers too. There is a tendency for emerging writers to overwrite, to unintenionally pad the text with extraneous detail, a trap I fell into and continually work at overcoming. It is amazing what happens to a chapter that at first draft is 20 pages, then shrunk with successive drafts to 10. The writing becomes pithy, meaningful, powerful and compelling.

The upshot here is that limits are good as they help improve a writer's style and voice. And it helps to remind writers that space (whether on a page, an email screen, or a mobile device) is limited.

Jennifer Boire said...

dear Ami
congratulations! I've been following your name in the news, and now am happy to have found your blog.