, , , , , , , ,

by R.S. Mellette

Warm-up for the workshop’s “hawt” writing tips includes homemade cookies and hot coffee.

Before attending Henry Lien’s Creative Toolbox Workshop in January, I wasn’t much of a workshop person. I’ve got a theatre (with an “re”) degree. I’ve studied all the great playwrights from the inside out—meaning I’ve played their characters, and there is no better teacher about what works and what doesn’t than a live audience. I have written screenplays. I’ve won awards for TV and film. I have books published with glowing reviews. I have earned my snobbish attitude!

But I’ve also been locked inside for two years, like the rest of us, so any chance to see another person face-to-face is a joy these days. Also, I know Henry. Author of the Peasprout Chen middle grade fantasy/adventure series, he sat on a panel I put together for L.A. Comic Con. He’s a really nice guy, so I should go wave the flag of the SCBWI-L.A. board, right?

Fine. I went.

As we gathered, I chatted with other writers over coffee, doughnuts, and AMAZING homemade cookies (thanks, Kim!). I talked with a writer-mom who has been having trouble finding YA authors for her kids’ book festivals. That’s basically my volunteer job as the PAL representative on the board so that made everything worth it, and we hadn’t even started.

The first part of Henry’s workshop reminded me of a class I had at UNC-Charlotte about what creativity is. Henry not only summed up the class in a few minutes, he also gave us an exercise to hammer it home – and attendees didn’t have to take out a student loan for the information. Nice.

Henry leads the group in creative exercises and discusses cultural bases of story structure.

After a break, Henry talked about act structure. Full disclosure, I hate discussions about structure. To me, that’s something for analysts, not creators. Coming from theater and TV, an act break is when the audience has a chance to leave and not come back. It’s not an esoteric thing that happens wherever the cat says you’re supposed to save it. Tell a good story, create interesting characters, and some professor will come along later to say what great structure you have.

I also happen to be completely, totally, stuck writing book three of my series, Kiya And The Morian Treasure.

Henry immediately dismissed Western three- and five-act structure as a subject for the day. That’s when my ears perked up, mostly because I hadn’t heard anyone in Hollywood talk about five-act structure since I moved out here in 1988. Shakespeare’s print editors broke his plays up into five acts and TV shows have five commercial breaks, so it was nice to hear it mentioned and nicer still to have it thrown out. Henry taught us about an East Asian four-act structure. He also discussed how story structure is something embedded in our culture, and so, is embedded in us. Maybe that’s why I dislike talking about it so much. My “duh!” reflex kicks in quickly.

Hearing about an entirely different story structure gave me an intellectual, “That’s interesting,” response, but didn’t change my creator’s rebellious, “I don’t care!” attitude.

Attendees hear Henry’s “three hawt writing tips” no one (else) talks about.

Then, as I drove home, I realized I was stuck in my Kiya book because of the Western structure embedded in me. I could break my own logjam by moving a scene I had thought belonged at the end of the story—because it was outside of the rest of the narrative—closer to the middle of it. When editors say that it doesn’t belong there, I can whip out the snobbish attitude I had at the beginning of the workshop and say, “Obviously, you aren’t familiar with the East Asian four-act structure of Kishōtenketsu, which I learned under the tutelage of Master Lien.”

Henry’s workshop is responsible for about ten thousand really good words I’ve cranked out since and every other word after that. I’m forever grateful.

SCBWI has many workshops like this. Each one is a chance for you to meet and greet with not only the instructors, but also each other. For those who lament missing out on memberships to The Bloomsbury Group, The Algonquin Round Table, The Inklings, or The Factory, you’ve got it right here in front of you. All you have to do is attend. One of our next meetings will be at the Los Angeles Times Festival of Books. Look for an announcement coming soon and bring your imaginations . . . or your lunch. I think it might be a picnic.

For more fantastic content, community, events, and other professional development opportunities, become a member today! Not sure if there is a chapter in your area? Check here.

R.S. Mellette is on the board of SCBWI-L.A. and the author of Kiya And The Morian Treasure and Billy Bobble Makes A Magic Wand.

Images provided by the author.