The Right Advice at the Right Time

Shakespeare Statue in Central ParkSometimes things come together. Thanks to my good friend Susan Blakeney, I had an out-of-the-blue opportunity last week to attend a free writing workshop hosted by Driftwood Theatre. I don’t write plays, but I do like to learn about different types of writing whenever I get the chance. You never know what will come in handy. What cinched it for me, though, was the name of the presenter: Rob Corbett.

Rob was part of my first writing group, years ago. We all eventually moved too far away from each other to make meeting up viable, but we keep in touch. Rob wrote novels and plays — really funny novels and plays. Sometimes darkly funny. He’s a talented writer and an insightful critiquer, and someone I like and respect very much. He also lives deep enough in Toronto that we don’t see each other very often. So if he was coming out to Clarington to host a writing workshop, there was no way I was going to miss it.

I don’t want to give away too much of Rob’s talk here. It’s a good one. He gives bits of writing advice that he picked up from reading Shakespeare. True to form, he’s funny and insightful, all at the same time. One awkward bit: he usually uses me as an example when he gives this talk. Something about perseverance and the fact that writers write. I had to correct some of his facts, though; it seems I make a better anecdote when I’m not listening in. Poor Rob.

(Another strange moment: realizing that the two other writers in class with me were the grown children of two of my writing friends. I felt terribly, painfully old.)

I learned some things about Shakespeare that I didn’t know (should have attended that third year Shakespeare seminar more often), and was reminded of some things about writing that I do know. One fun fact: Troilus and Cressida was registered in 1603, but never produced during Shakespeare’s lifetime. Why not? Because it’s just not a good play, and Shakespeare must have known it. Rob spent months of his life trying to prove otherwise for an academic paper and was forced to concede the point. Even Shakespeare wrote a dog now and then.

That’s oddly comforting.

Rob talked about story structure. It wasn’t new to me, since I’ve done a lot of reading on the subject, but every teacher presents things in a different way. Sometimes old advice can sound new. Rob talked about the midpoint as the point of full commitment. That fits in with other things I had read, but somehow seems clearer.

He talked about focus. The hook of any story is a question, and that question is not answered until the end. If you don’t answer the question, or if you answer it too soon, the reader will be disappointed. For me, this comes back to remembering what the story is about.

He also gave some advice that resonated for me because I’m still struggling with the ending of one of my works-in-progress. For an “up” ending, it’s best if the reader first thinks the character has lost. For a “down” ending, it’s best if the fall comes right after a moment of triumph. The greater the contrast, the greater the impact.

I want an “up” ending, but right now things are just falling flat. Maybe what I need to do is think about what it would look like if the main character lost. Maybe I need to find a way to make that happen, or seem like it does. When we talked about our projects, Rob asked me a question that feels like something straight out of Don Maass. “What is your character most afraid of?” Figure it out, he said, and make it happen.

Wow, I miss having Rob in my critique group.

I’m going away for a couple of days next week, holing up with a friend to write. I’m going to bring that problem manuscript with me, and Rob’s suggestions. Because something about it just feels right, and I think maybe this is the puzzle piece that will solve it.

It’s funny how these chances sometimes come out of nowhere. It was tricky, cramming that workshop into an already-full day, but I’m glad I went, and not just for the chance to catch up with Rob again (although that was lovely). Rob, if you read this, please bring Lou and the kids out to Whitby soon. We can do the Starr Burger thing.

But I digress.

Really, all I can say is, if you have a chance to learn or to do something new, take it. If someone offers you advice, listen. Try it, even it it seems basic or obvious. Hear it, even if you’ve heard it before. You never know when something will click.

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2 Responses to The Right Advice at the Right Time

  1. I’m delighted that Rob’s workshop proved so inspiring! And just so you know, you’re the one who’s always encouraged me to learn and listen at every opportunity… Here’s to solving the puzzle of your work-in-progress!

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