How to do a self-directed writing workshop. Part 2/2


In Part 1 of this post I share my own reading process, and some of the lessons I've learned from books I've read recently. If you haven't already, go ahead and read that post first.

We're diving into our first semester of The Story Workshop, and my instructors have started "prescribing" stories to their writers, like the smart and intuitive writing doctors and pharmacists they are.

Because the program is about critique and revision, I want to make sure that everyone pays attention to what they're reading. Close attention.

Reading a story that an instructor has chosen for you specifically — because of something she noticed about your own writing — can be powerful. It feels important. You read the story for clues. When you read for clues, you're paying extra attention to the mechanics, the form, the language, the POV, etc. Because the reason for the prescription could be anything, and it's up to you to find it!  I learned this from my writing mentor, Zsuzsi Gartner.

In The Story Workshop, we don't tell you why that story was chosen for you. This makes it an even stronger experience, because you're trying to find the answer in the story itself. You can't be lazy about this. You have to stay sharp. You have to learn everything you can about process from a polished and published piece.

Even if you don't have a story prescription right now, you can always go get one for yourself! It's the perfect writing class for one: sitting beside a stack of recently-read books, journal and pen in hand, taking notes.

How to do a self-directed writing workshop.

1. Get yourself a stack of books.

Read widely. This is important - don't stick to one genre or style. Go to the library, and find books you don't know that you'll even like. Get books that feel like they're way too fun, or way too serious. You can make it a scavenger hunt! One YA fiction title. One Sci-fi title. One classic. One novel in translation. One autobiography. One book that's been made into a Major Hollywood Picture. One book you're afraid to read because it might be too much like the one you're writing. Etc.

2. Begin reading for clues.

(More on how I do this in Part 1 of this post.)

3. Document the title and author of each book.

Your subconscious will be learning all sorts of good stuff from each book, but the point of this self-directed workshop is to bring it into the conscious mind. So before you return the library books, document them somehow: take a photo of each book you've read, write down the title, whatever works for you.

4. Take notes in writing.

I prefer to write down what I learn from the books I read, because I believe that something alchemical happens when I put words on a page. Yes, it can be satisfying to talk about my thoughts and responses, especially with someone who has read the same book. But the lessons that each piece teaches me about my own writing are personal, intimate, and connected to my process. I don't share a lot about my work-in-progress, because I like to keep the lid on the pressure cooker, so to speak. Writing down notes for myself, and nobody else, keeps the lid on the simmering pot. It keeps the learning concentrated.

If you haven't tried a self-directed writing workshop already, I encourage you to try it now! Start a new journal (always nice to have a reason to start a new journal!) and start a reading tracking list, at the very least.

Remember, you're not just counting titles. You aren't a book collector - you're studying writing. Reading slowly can be part of the point, too. Because it's all about what you recognize when you read. What captivates you? What repels you? What makes you uncomfortable? What comforts you? Why?


Let books teach you how to write what you want to read.

In the hopes that seeing my notes might be useful for you, here are some more lessons I've learned from my recent reading.

Reading Notes

Love In the Time of Global Warming by Francesca Lia Block
Remembered why I wanted to become an author. Write for magic, Write for love. You can also write about darkness, loneliness and sadness -- don't be afraid that it will make your book "heavy." My

New American Life by Francine Prose Write
to get away with it. Have fun with your dialogue, and your dialogue will be funny. Write it for fun. Stretch what you think you can do -- write what you don't think you can write. Don't be afraid to sound too dumb, don't be afraid to sound too intelligent.

I'll Drink to That by Betty Halbeich
A linear narrative is overrated. Scenes can come as they come, and if you're transfixed by the details, the narrative will continue. Also: fashion is more meaningful than you think. Making note of style and design isn't superficial, it's detailed.

Elizabeth Is Missing by Emma Healey
Get in the head of your unreliable narrator, fully know her story/reality. At the same time, learn the details about what's happening in "reality." It will feel like writing in double-exposed film. For your writing to ask, "what is real?" you need to be slightly confused yourself. Also, utterly clear. Hold two stories in your mind at once.

The Clasp by Sloane Crosley
Don't explain anything in your dialogue. Let it be fast and jagged, let conversations overlap, let it be hard to understand. Let your characters drop quick references, write scraps of dialogue in different languages, be marvellously cryptic. It just makes the reading more interesting.

[Soon to be released novel] by [secret for now author] * Writing contains mysterious patterns and coincidences. Let images come to you, and trust them. The way they come to you as you write them down may be a significant part of the form and content of the story itself. Don't over think it - just get the scenes down, and trust the images.

Do you have notes on your recent reading? Please share your lessons in the comments, below. I love learning what you're reading, and seeing how you're using that reading as a writer. This is how people learned how to write before there were writing workshops, after all.


Sarah Selecky

* Sorry I can't tell you more about the last book, yet - I just read the uncorrected proofs, and I want to wait until the book is released before I name it. Soon!  

Disclosure: This post contains affiliate links. If you purchase something using one of these links, I may earn a commission. I only recommend books or products I trust.

How to do a self-directed writing workshop. Part 1/2
I want to write like Anne Truitt sculpted.


Kristin Offiler

I love this idea :) I've been reading like a maniac the last few months, but not taking notes -- I think I'll go back and write down some of the bigger things I took away from some recent reads. I'm reading The Clasp right now and I'm only about 100 pages into it, but noted the same thing as you about the dialogue. I read Fates & Furies recently and my head was spinning afterwards: I want to reread it just to study how she created such magic with her sentence structure and also how she handled the passage of time so expertly.
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Sarah Selecky

Hi Kristin! Oh, I've been wanting to read Fates & Furies for a long time. Now I'm really excited. I still think about Groff's "Arcadia" - years after reading it - for how she handled time. Love that she's done it again with F&F!
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