Looking back on a short fiction workshop
By Jasmine Fassl
We love workshops at Sunday Writers’ Club. We only organise two or three every year – not very many – so when they do come around, they feel pretty special.
Our autumn 2022 workshop was led by author and professor of creative writing Jenn Ashworth. Jenn was a guest for our Meet the Professionals programme back in April, and we enjoyed her thoughts and comments so much that we invited her back. And we are mighty glad we did!
“Writing is something we do with our bodies.”
That writers actually have bodies is something we forget sometimes. So we started the workshop with a ‘Hear, See, Feel’ exercise to move us from the physical, mundane and stressful every day life into a creative space. It was a gentle start, but it got our first words on a page. They were probably words that nobody else will ever read, but they served their purpose for setting a scene and creating a mood.
“A short story captures the real small detail of the world.”
Jenn loves lists. Lists are something we write every day; they are a format of writing we are familiar with. So why not get to know your new character by writing a list of everything they carry in their handbag or stuff into their glove compartment? You don’t need to know your character yet in order to root around their stuff. Our next exercise was to write that list. Once we had a list, we had another read through: Do they carry something that is unusual, weird or simply stands out? That is the the thing we kept in mind, the thing we took onto the next part.
“One trick to avoid stereotypes is to describe how a character CHOOSES to look, and to be as specific as possible.”
We thought about our characters again and tried to describe what they looked like in as much detail as possible. To avoid falling prey to stereotypes here, Jenn asked us to write about how they chose to look: had they always looked like that? How did they feel about their appearance? What changed and why?
This was not just jotting down a list anymore; this was getting right down to finding the exact right words to get into a brand new character’s head!
“We turn up to a short story because we want to join in.”
What do short story writers do next? We have the beginnings of a character, but now we need that character to act out an emotion. Jenn suggested to pick a random emotion, preferably a strong one, and write that character acting on it. This turned out to be challenging, and the short writing time meant that only snippets made it onto the page. But these glimpses might actually end up in the final story, so they are golden.
“Be a busy reader.”
During the workshop, we wrote only for about five to six minutes on each exercise. Between them, Jenn, aided by many literary references and quotes, talked us through literary theory, story structures, and she encouraged us to keep writing. We shared a few choice sentences, character ideas and ’emotion’ scenes with each other; and Jenn was a true ‘busy reader’, asking all the right questions to get us thinking about these outlines of characters and stories, shaping them into the world, questioning them into being.
“Go to what’s exciting for you. It will also be exciting for your reader.”
We ended the workshop in the spirit of Sunday Writers’ Club: We write for the joy of it, because we love writing. Answering the the last question of the evening: ‘How do I know when a story isn’t working?’ she said, “If I’m bored with a story, it’s probably because it’s boring.” I couldn’t have said it better. If you are not enjoying yourself while writing, put the pencil down or switch off your computer. There is always another Sunday creative writing session next week or the week after that you can join and start something completely exciting and new. There’s no need to be bored.
*All quotes in this piece were actually said by Jenn Ashworth during the workshop. Mistakes in transcriptions are all mine.
Sunday Writers' Club Team Member
Jasmine grew up in Vienna but studied in Edinburgh, Scotland. She stayed in Edinburgh for another 12 years after completing her degree, working first for a UK-wide bookstore chain, then for Scottish Book Trust – Scotland’s national charity promoting literature, reading and writing. During her 10 years at Scottish Book Trust, Jasmine was the manager of a national touring programme taking authors and illustrators all over the UK. She also organised a national book award and managed the first-ever live online author event programme in cooperation with the BBC – which reached an audience of over 1 million people worldwide. Jasmine wrote a quarterly fiction review column for the Scotsman newspaper for four years and was a regular event chair at the Edinburgh International Book Festival. With these and many other projects and programmes Jasmine has worked with authors and illustrators at all stages of their careers helping to build bridges between them and their readers. Jasmine returned to live in Vienna in 2017.
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I really loved Jenn Ashworth’s workshop. Your blog post summed up her key insights nicely. I recall she suggested “writing something naughty” — something daring or outrageous even to make it fun, exciting to write. Some great advice. Thanks for sharing, Jasmine.
Thank you, Paul! I forgot about the writing something naughty, something completely outragious – it will be exactly that part, which interests readers most (and interests us as writers most too)…