One Story Workshop Day Three: Breaking the rules on Flying Bicycles

flyingbicycleIt’s the third day of One Story’s fifth annual workshop. Will Allison and Marie-Helene Bertino led their wonderful workshops after our students drank as much coffee as they could. Following a lunch of sandwiches, soda, chips, and more coffee, the editor of One Teen Story, the fabulous Patrick Ryan, gave a craft lecture on guidelines for writing a story.

“You cannot take risks if you strictly follow rules,” he said. “Allow room for surprise in your writing, readers read to discover and writers write to discover. Don’t spoil that for yourself or your readers. Writing should make you happy. Also, always read your work aloud.” Leaning over his lectern he joked, “Of course you don’t want to speak it in your quiet writing studio. Disturbing other writers while they’re working…bad idea.” We all laughed.

Patrick went on to explain that writers need to think of many mediocre or terrible ideas in order to find a good one. His technique is to type up any idea, even if it’s only two words, print it out, and put it in a box. The act of having a physical, separate note makes the idea stand out, rather than being in a list, where we are tempted to scan through and pick the best one.

We took a break and then did a writing exercise with Michael Pollock where we worked in groups to write a short story in about 30 minutes based on three random ideas. My group’s: a hot air balloon, a bicycle for two, and a lemon. Didn’t figure out how to put the lemon in the story, but our flying bicycle for two was like something out of a Dr. Seuss book.

Everyone needed a break after that. We reconvened at 6:30 for an editor panel, but not before the front legs to a beautiful leather chair suddenly gave out in our very cozy writing space. But we writers can’t sit down writing all the time, in any case; we need to get out and explore the world and be social and engaging and talk to people.

Our evening panel consisted of Maria Gigliano from Slice, Lincoln Michael from Electric Literature, Sam Nicholson of Random House, and Jonathan Lee of A Public Space, all led by our own Patrick Ryan, an editor himself. The editors were very knowledgeable, coming from big publishing houses all the way to small magazines—a nice spectrum of the industry. All agreed that the best way to stand out is to make your writing unexpected. Plot and character can always be edited, but language, style, voice, etc… really can’t. And as for debut novelists they said, “It’s a wide open future. They don’t have any history that could work against them. It’s nothing but promise!”

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