My first writing seminar – Like college, minus the hangover

Today I went to my first writing seminar here in LA since I decided to start taking my writing more seriously. It was taught by Nancy Ellen Dodd, a former college professor of mine,  and it was centered around her book, The Writer’s Compass: From Story Map to Finished Draft in 7 Stages, which was released last June. The seminar was put on by the Independent Writers of Southern California (IWOSC), of which I am not a member but was happy to pay the $35 non-member fee for the 2.5 hour class.

I was the youngest person there, and that gave me a weird uneasy feeling when I sat down in the front row. As I watched the room fill up around me with older and what I assumed were more experienced writers, I started to worry that I would be facing the same unwelcoming sentiment I met when I recently joined an online writers’ forum (which I plan on writing a post about in a few days when I stop fuming from anger and cool off a bit).

Luckily, I was very wrong. The people were kind, encouraging, and friendly, and the camaraderie of the group made me hopeful that not all seasoned writers treat newbie freelancers with contempt and disdain. Soon it felt like I was back in a college classroom, except I wasn’t inhaling a monster sized Diet Coke and nursing a monstrous hangover.

The content of the seminar was great. Nancy has a very systematic approach to story development, and I recognized a lot of the concepts and diagrams she presented from her class when I took it 5 years ago (yikes). She explains the way that stories can be organized and written from start to finish in 7 steps, using a lot of visual aids that I really connected to. I’ve already started applying the map to my novel that I’m working on and it is definitely helping me grasp all of my ideas and construct them in a way that creates the most interesting story possible for the reader. For some reason, her method makes a lot of sense to me, mainly because it is almost mathematic in its structure and it appeals to that weird uber-organized part of my brain.

Though the seminar itself was really interesting, I think I learned even more from the act of participating in the class itself. The second part of the session involved all of us creating a story together by piecing together ideas that different people contributed, and I noticed something that was really funny to me – professional writing seminars are pretty much full of the same characters that people an undergraduate creative writing class.

There is always a class clown, sitting in the back and making sarcastic comments under his breath to the chagrin of those admirers sitting around him. There is usually a more arrogant, hipster type who comes up with most depressing way to tell any story and then gets frustrated when no one else in the class “gets it.” There is the person who asks a million questions, interrupting so many times that I wonder if she is doing it just get attention, and then the other person who is constantly questioning the legitimacy of the speaker and the lecture itself (“So what you’re saying is that if we follow just your simple steps, we’ll have a perfect story? That seems a little limited, don’t you think?”)

And then there is me – I keep quiet, take notes, let my mind wander, brainstorm how these principals fit my own writing, start scribbling down a potential timeline for completion of my novel, and then get lost thinking about what I’m going to do about the plot issue in chapter 6…..a few minutes later I realize where I am again and remind myself to pay attention because I paid $35 for this and I better get everything I can out it.

In the end, I was very glad that I went. It was great to reconnect with an old professor, and to get some inspiration to keep plugging away at my novel. And the best part was the kindness I was shown by fellow writers, something I was starting to fear didn’t exist after my harrowing experience with online writers’ forums in the past few months. The encouragement and confidence boost was enough to get me back at my writing as soon as I got home.


My First Writing Seminar


I’m about to head out to my first writing seminar here in LA! It is actually being taught by one of my former Pepperdine creative writing professors, Nancy Ellen Dodd, who just wrote The Writer’s Compass: From Story Map to Finished Draft in 7 Stages. The seminar is based around her book.

When I get back, I’ll let you know how it went. If anyone has any tips for how to make the most of these seminars, let me know!