ArmadilloCon Writing Workshop Bootcamp Week 2: Playing in the Sandbox – Developing Ideas, Old and New

Welcome back to bootcamp. We’re T-minus 6 weeks to the June 11 deadline to enroll and submit your short story or novel chapter to the ArmadilloCon Writing Workshop. Last week, I talked about how workshops can benefit your writing and what you can do to get ready to write by carving out some time in your schedule and gathering ideas.

This week is a good time sort through your collection of ideas and/or unfinished projects and throw your lot in with one lucky winner. In other words it’s time to decide and develop your idea.
The first thing to decide is whether you’ll be working on a short story or the first chapter(s) of a novel. (I’m going to put a caveat in here that I am primarily a short story writer. I’ll do my best to keep the advice here universal, but this series might by slightly more adapted to short form fiction rather than noveling. I am currently working on a novel, and learning a lot, so stay tuned for more novel friendly posts in the future.)
While I think submitting a stand-alone short story might be slightly more productive for a one-day workshop, many students opt to submit the first chapter(s) – up to 5,000 words – of a novel. Since it is just a piece of something much larger, you’ll get less feedback and insight into shaping middles and creating satisfying endings. Even so, first chapters are critical to attracting readers. This is where you set up and set in motion a larger story, and there will be plenty of faculty and fellow writers who are on the same page at the workshop. If you decide to write opening chapter(s), focus on writing a scene or a sequence of scenes that create a strong hook. Introduce the main characters (but not too many all at once!). Salt in some world building and think a bit about setting the tone for the story (e.g. is it creepy, gritty horror or a space comedy).
Short stories are great for workshops in particular and for honing your writing skills in general. A stand-alone piece will give you a chance to get feedback on a complete unit of storytelling. Writing short fiction has helped me develop skills like assessing and managing the size of an idea, managing plot and pacing on a small scale, and understanding scene and sequence. It is also a place where you can try out crazy ideas, unusual forms and methods. Experimentation isn’t just a great way to master the form – it’s also a lot of fun. So, even if short stories aren’t your main interest, consider writing at least a few.
Starting from nada?
First, keep reading, listening, and viewing stories that engage your emotions and challenge your thinking. Whenever something piques your interest note it down in your journal (or wherever you keep notes) but don’t stop there, riff of these idea kernels, combine them with others.
Here are a couple common ways to develop ideas. 

You can think in terms of SCENARIO. Collect vignettes, fragmentary scenarios, themeatic ideas that intrigue you. Spin ideas out by asking “what if” over and over again. Be present. Be inquisitive. We witness (and act in) a thousand little dramas every day. After you get off the phone with the Help Desk wonk, imagine that disembodied voice in a surreal scenario, if you hear a quiet argument between a couple at a coffee shop spin out your idea of what might have caused it, or how it might come to an unexpected end. Start with a moment or interaction from your day, or open up Pinterest or Instagram and look for evocative images. Get out a blank piece of paper or pull up a blank document and play around with “what ifs.” Write down as many as you can, everything that comes into your head. Try combining a couple unlikely elements into a scenario that you can develop into a complete story.
Or approach story via CHARACTER, keeping in mind that for a short story or the early chapter(s) of a novel, it’s usually best to limit the number of characters. I find that two or three characters are ideal for anything under 5,000 words. If you have some characters in mind, try putting them together in conversation, and write it out in dialogue only. Give one of the characters a secret. Think about characters who want something deeply, or want to escape something. If you have a half-formed character, interview them. Pose questions and have them state their opinion and then keep writing, letting them talk. Keep going until they say something that surprises you.
Want more? Check out John Dufresne’s talk about creating a story.
The unfinished.
If you’ve been writing for a while, and you’re anything like me, you might have what I call The Island of Misfit Toys: a collection of unfinished or broken stories languishing in a folder somewhere. I keep these stories around for the day when I have acquired whatever skill I need in order to pull that particular story off. If you’re looking to refurbish a story for the workshop, this is the week to read it as critically as you can. Summarize what happens plot wise, and make notes about what you think are the its strengths and weaknesses. Be prepared to tear it down and start again from the ground up. If you’ve kept the story around, then the kernel of the idea that inspired you should survive.

So keep reading and mulling over ideas, let them grow into some vignettes and character interactions, make notes. If you have any questions, put them in the comments. 

Next week you’re writing your ZERO DRAFT.

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