Rose and the Panther — a Cautionary Tale of Workshops

As some of our readers will know, Sophie and I gave an editing workshop — complete with black  panther — at the RNA Conference in mid-July 2017. (Fantastic conference, by the way.)
About 70 people attended. That’s a lot — we normally limit our workshop numbers to 12!

sparklers in the hands of a loving couple

Our topic was editing to add Sparkle to our writing in order to hook and hold readers. Since we only had an hour, rather than our normal 2 full days, it was more of a twinkle.
But it was fun. And we hope that those who attended found it useful.

We certainly did. It taught us some salutary lessons which I’ll share in a moment.
First, let me introduce you to Rose…

Rose meets her Match…

One of the examples we used was the first meeting of a heroine, Rose, with her unnamed hero. Crucially, would it hook and hold a reader? This is the text that we gave the workshop:

twenties flapper woman dancing Charleston

Rose felt out of place and a bit scared, since she didn’t really know her companions very well and, when the men had had too much to drink, they had a nasty habit of pawing any woman they could lay their hands on. She glanced round helplessly, wondering whether there was any escape route but knowing, in her heart of hearts, that there would be none when, suddenly, she saw him – she had never seen him before, she was sure, and he stood out because he was quite alone, his immaculate white tie and tails fitted his panther-like body like a second skin and he was obviously in total control of all about him. He strolled nonchalantly across to her. “Dance with me,” he said.
(125 words)

Participants were invited to spend 5 minutes deciding what to change in green text #1 above so that it sparkled enough to grab a reader. We told participants it didn’t grab us. We admitted we’d written it. And we said it was OTT. What we didn’t say explicitly — mistake #1 — was that we had deliberately written it to be so dire that participants would tear it to shreds.

…and the workshop meets a Panther

Mistake #2 followed from mistake #1. Here it is:

panther with glowing eyes in the dark

Four minutes into the 5 minutes of thinking time, we put up this panther slide. We intended it to raise a laugh, or at least a giggle. It didn’t.

On a blog page like this, it may look OK, but on an enormous screen, it didn’t work well because the image isn’t high-resolution. (We learned what a sin that was during Janet Gover‘s informative conference session on manipulating images.)

And anyway, our participants were working away so hard that they probably didn’t even notice that a rather fuzzy animal image had appeared on the screen.

red oops! key on keyboard

Mistake #3 was to underestimate how kind RNA members can be, particularly at Conference and particularly when they’re invited to criticise the work of fellow authors. Basically, RNA members understand how devastating harsh criticism can be, so our participants tried to be really, really kind about that dire green text #1.

Oops, indeed. That wasn’t the plan at all.

Shoot the Panther?

When prompted by Sophie, participants did agree that there was quite a lot that could be taken out of green text #1. Once they got into the swing of it, suggestions really began to flow. That wasn’t surprising, considering how dull and wordy green text #1 is. By the time Sophie had finished taking contributions from the audience, we had cut large chunks of text and we had suggestions for improving much of the rest.

panther on the prowl

The panther was still hanging on by his claws, though. I strongly suspect it was RNA kindness again.

Sophie had admitted the panther was her idea and I think our author colleagues were too generous to tell her that her animal metaphor should have been shot at birth.
(If only we had told the audience that we were doubled up with laughter when we originally wrote it. I couldn’t read the panther passage without corpsing into giggles. Still can’t.)

Exit Panther

The revised green text we offered to our audience came sans panther, I’m delighted to say::

Rose looked at the dance floor and shivered. I don’t know where I am with these people, she thought.
     Over a drunken shoulder, she saw a commotion in the doorway. A new man had arrived.
     He was a stranger. Controlled. Mesmerising. And staring straight at her.
     Suddenly, Rose couldn’t breathe.

     A second later, he was there.
     “Dance with me,” he said.
(61 words)

Green text #2 is nowhere near perfect — and there’s never a right or perfect answer to our exercises anyway, because all readers are different — but we think it has enough sparkle to grab a reader a bit more than the first version.

The workshop produced interesting discussions about how this shorter version — less than half the length of the first one — could be improved. Opinions differed over Suddenly, for example, and over the omissions of the hero’s physical appearance and how he got from the doorway to Rose.
But no one wanted the return of the panther.

Lessons from the Libertà Panther

  1. If an example is deliberately dire and is intended to be torn to shreds, SAY SO explicitly
  2. Don’t use low-resolution images on slides. EVER. [Thank you, Janet Gover 😉 ]
  3. Don’t distract the audience with jokey slides when they’re working hard
  4. If something is intended to be a joke, make sure the audience knows it’s OK to laugh and that laughter won’t hurt the presenter’s feelings
  5. Never underestimate how kind and generous RNA members can be to fellow authors

panther at rest but alert with JOKE text

I shall create a Joke Flag for future workshops, to be waved vigorously at pantherly moments. Message — it’s OK to laugh, folks, if you find it funny. It’s OK to groan, too.

8 thoughts on “Rose and the Panther — a Cautionary Tale of Workshops

  1. christinahollis

    That flag idea gets my vote! Without it, anybody who has the nerve to stand up in front of 70+ people gets my full and sympathetic, non-smiling/groaning attention. It was a great presentation, by the way.

    1. Joanna Post author

      Flag, it is, then! Thanks Christina. And glad you liked the presentation, even if the joke did fall flat 😉

  2. Elizabeth Hawksley

    It sounds a fun workshop! Personally, I’d have disowned writing the extract. Instead, you found it in a magazine in the dentist’s waiting room years ago and thought it was so dreadful that you surreptitiously tore out the page and, no, you haven’t a clue who wrote it.

    This would allow the group to bypass all those polite hesitations and plunge in at once with what they really think.

    1. Joanna Post author

      Trouble is that Sophie and I are not the greatest of liars, especially when in front of a big audience, some of whom know us quite well. But we’ll bear the idea in mind. Thanks, Elizabeth

  3. Susan Bergen

    Reminds me of the time I gave a talk to a lecture theatre full of probationer police officers. The topic – victim support – was incredibly serious but I introduced it with a joke. Only one member of the audience, self- consciously, tittered. I was mortified. Lesson learned.

    1. Joanna Post author

      I do SO sympathise, Susan. Sometimes, as presenters, we think that a joke will lighten the atmosphere. But when it falls flat, as our panther did, it feels so much worse. Yes, we’ve learned the lesson too. Either no jokes, or wave the Joke Flag.

  4. Elizabeth Bailey

    I can sympathise with the panther mistake. In reverse, I remember when I introduced a drama workshop and played a bit of music first, I said it was the only serious bit of the whole thing and everybody went SOOOO serious to listen to it! I had to jump in with both feet to lighten the atmosphere immediately with a daft drama game. Thankfully the rest of the workshop was a sea of giggles and fun.

    1. Joanna Post author

      It’s so helpful — and comforting — to hear that other authors, like you and Susan, have had similar experiences. I also think, on reflection, that it was partly a function of the vast size of the lecture theatre we were working in. Jokes can work in the small groups of up to a dozen that we have at our full-day workshops. In a huge lecture theatre it’s more difficult. In case anyone doesn’t believe me, here’s John Jackson’s pic of me at the start of the session. Just look at the size of that screen!Joanna Maitland at Panther workshop #RNAConf17

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