If you haven’t had a chance yet to check out the free Love and Devotion: From Persian and Beyond exhibition at the State Library, you should definitely do so before it closes on the 1st July. The exhibition is so beautiful; just the right size, and clearly laid out. I was expecting that the manuscripts and books would be gorgeously illustrated and bound, and they are, but what I wasn’t anticipating was how many great stories would be contained in the exhibition.
I got to make the most of those stories in the week leading up to Easter when I taught a writing workshop for 15 eager young writers from all over Victoria. Can you imagine giving up the first four days of your school holidays to sit inside and write?! These teens were the very definition of motivated and enthusiastic.
They also had access to industry professionals during the week: Penguin Marketing manager Tye Cattanach; Michael Webster from RMIT; my very own editor from Text Publishing Alison Arnold; and Penguin designer Tony Palmer.
The exhibition proved to be the perfect inspiration to explore different writing techniques and tools. I thought you might be interested to know what we covered in the workshop.
On Monday we worked on description and place, discussing the merits of detailed vs sparse description, and facing the challenges of describing some quite unusual and detailed illustrations, including the quirky Iskandar and the talking tree.
There are quite a few maps and travel accounts of early travellers in the exhibition, so I also got the students to write descriptive travel narratives, imagining what it would be like to be a European traveller in such new surrounds.
We did lots of work on character, making character maps using portraits from the exhibition as a launching point.
We had some pretty lively discussion about whether a book’s protagonist should be likeable, with several admirers of villainous characters in the room! We all agreed that villains often had the most interesting back stories and more complex personalities.
For our second session of the day we delved into dialogue, examining the nuts and bolts of how to represent dialogue in text, and looking at distinctive voices for characters. We found some great illustrations in the exhibition where two characters were relating in mysterious ways, and worked at creating dialogue for them.
Wednesday was all about plotting, with the students sharing their plotting techniques and writing methods. We discussed some more formal narrative structures, and practised working some of the stories in the exhibition into three acts. I was really surprised how much everyone enjoyed the plotting exercises; I’d been worried that it would be a very dry session! The students seemed to be drawn to the more salacious stories in the exhibition, with a real flair for Bold and the Beautiful-style narratives! Murder! Suicide! Cheaters! Espionage! A popular story was the Seven Planets sequence, in which Bahram Gur visits his seven wives, each on a different night of the week in a different house.
The final morning saw us working in groups on either ghost stories (inspired by a tour into the belly of the State Library the day before) or working on our lurid Persian Soap Opera from the previous day. I’m afraid to say pretty much everyone wound up dead at the end of these stories! I found myself constantly amazed at the dedication and imagination of the workshop attendees. And I’ve never witnessed so much excited book talk as at morning tea time!