May 6th, 2015

I attended my first writer’s conference last Saturday: The Muse & The Marketplace hosted by Grub Street Inc. a non-profit creative writing center in Boston (the same folks I took a class with earlier this spring). It was really cool to be surrounded by other writers of various stripes, to be exposed to a lot of fresh ideas about craft, and to meet-up with writer friends. There’s a huge component of The Muse that’s focused on publishing, including sessions and lunches where you can meet agents and editors, but I skipped those this year and focused on craft-based sessions. Click on the courses below for some of my take-aways:


["Timing is Everything: Negotiating Past & Present in Fiction"]

taught by Maya Lang

This workshop was fantastic and I wasn’t the only one discouraged by the blaring fire alarm that interrupted our session. Dr. Lang had a smooth, calm voice and made the concepts we covered – the position of your character in time and how that relates to the narrative of your story – seem approachable, achievable. She also talked about the way readers experience time: “Some stories make time disappear,” she said, “others make time slow down.” Like devouring a meal versus savoring an 11-course tasting menu. “Sometimes it’s worth dwelling.”

Notes:

  • META narrators are positioned away from the dramatic action, but the story brings them back through time to focus/reflect on that action. These narrators utilize: hindsight, regret, justification, self-awareness. The change in emotional state between then and now adds to the sense of emotional stakes – why the narrator is looking back.
  • IMMERSED narrators are present in the dramatic action of the story. These narrators utilize: immediacy, high stakes, likeability, more detail, no safety net, no pre-knowledge of the outcome. “You have to watch the pace of the unspooling” of the narrative.
  • Seamless flashbacks are woven into the narrative and flow of thought – they don’t disrupt the story. They are always “triggered” by a thought or sensory experience in the story.
  • Demarcated flashbacks are often longer and there is some sort of indicator (paragraph break, chapter break) indicating a movement in time. These tend to be fuller and richer than seamless flashbacks.

Reflections: This session was perfect for me because in The Ghost Story I am doing all four of these things – meta narration in the form of demarcated flashbacks alternating with live-action immersive narration with the occasional seamless flashback. I asked Dr. Lang if that was allowed, if I could do all of these things in one novel. That I didn’t want to do everything half-assed instead of one thing well. “Don’t think about what you ought to do in the first draft. Just write.” A lot of the temporal position questions can be resolved once you have the whole picture, she assured me, once you yourself can reflect back on the work.

Maya Lang: "Time is a tool at your disposal"

Maya Lang: “Time is a tool at your disposal”

["Dramatis Personae or What Are All These Characters Doing in Your Story"]

taught by Lynne Barrett

Twitterfbc7013Another fantastic session. Barrett dove right into characters from a theatrical point of view: their roles on stage, their exits and entrances, the dynamics of different numbers of characters interacting with different levels of knowledge. “A story has a cast with roles,” she explained, “And those roles and relationships can change shape and shift.” It was fascinating to think about making effective use of “stage time” for characters and developing triangles of tension between them. “Good books have lots of triangles in them,” she joked as she outlined the dynamics between characters in The Great Gatsby.

Notes:

  • The protagonist is important, but the story really starts with the entrance of the deuteragonist (2nd character) who may or may not be the antagonist. The introduction of a tritagonist (3rd character) allows for more variation – the deuteragonist can then take on more of a confidante role. But all of these roles can transform by the end of the story.
  • Aristole’s Poetics, Vladimir Propp’s Morphology of the Folktale, and the Comedia dell’Arte all have examples of different kinds of roles that are useful in interpreting your characters. Doubling up on roles can really add drama through bonds of love/hate. E.g. Breaking Bad where the anti-hero and his antagonist are brothers-in-law –more dramatic than if they weren’t related.
  • There are viewpoint characters like Watson who relate the story/serve as a lens versus focal characters like Sherlock Holmes who are the main drivers of a story.
  • How do you make things happen in a story about internal struggle? Character “rifts” – Characters that enact internal struggle/conflict with strong actions that are contradictory serve the story  best. Continual contradiction creates character. Characters that say one thing but do another, who are consistently inconsistent create action and movement.
  • Ways to think about your characters and story design. Try making a character map or list outlining the breakdown of your characters by: class, territory, genealogy, order of appearance. Entrance order in Shakespeare’s plays made clear the balance of power to an audience without a program. What does your characters’ order of appearance say about the balances within your story?

Reflections: Yes, a thousand times yes. My story is bloating outward with characters; everytime I fact a conflict or am not sure which way a story should go, I add more characters. “Every character should really contribute to the outcome of the novel,” Barrett warned, “Always try to think about who can serve more roles.” I really appreciate being told to think about the roles my characters play and how those interact. Whose story is it? Who’s telling it? Who contributes to that story and how? Also love the character “rift” point, that contradiction is the strength of good characters.

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Lynne Barrett: “Good books have a lot of triangles in them.” Connections of marriage, lust, power, and money in Gatsby.

["'A Woman Wouldn't Say That'- Gendering Characters Without Bending to Stereotype"]

taught by Dawn Dorland Perry

A gentle conversation about how to develop characters that don’t conform to gender stereotypes. “In the absence of information in a story, a reader will make an assumption, likely fueled by a stereotype,” Perry said. We discussed techniques of characterization and what some of our own stereotypes are about men and women. “Stereotypes eat our writing from the inside out,” Perry warned, and urged us to think deeply about the context and point-of-view of stereotypes creeping into our own work. Perry did an excellent job of making the material accessible and comfortable, though I wish we had had the time to dig a little deeper into how gender shapes the choices we make about our characters. We did some reading and writing exercises that were very fruitful.

Exercise: Step 1: Call to mind someone you know Spend three minutes list the salient traits of this character, inventing and embellishing wherever you like. PAUSE. Step 2: Flip the gender of your character. Take a moment to adjust to this new reality. Then for five minutes write a passage rendering a scene from this new characters point-of-view, either in third or first person.

Reflections: Doing the gender-flip exercise was great and I loved the discussion it generated… I almost wish we had done that earlier in the workshop! This is a topic I think a lot about because my novel’s protagonist, while female, often passes for a boy and is fairly non-conformist. Its important to me not to fall into the traps of my own bias, especially when I’m creating an entire world to populate. It got me thinking about: what are the stereotypes in the world I am creating? How do my characters break not only the stereotypes of our world, but of theirs?

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Dawn Dorland Perry: “Stereotypes eat our writing from the inside out.”

["One Thing You Should Always Do Before You Write"]

taught by  Nadine Kenney Johnstone

Not too many notes on this because we spent most of the session doing a visualization exercise. Johnstone was very down-to-earth and organized, even with the cerebral nature of the exercise. Writing without developing a scene in your mind is like moving into a house with not plan for unpacking, layout, and design she explained. She walked us through a piece of writing, having us call out the d

WP_20150502_15_17_26_Proetails of scene and character that stuck with us. Then she led us in visualization exercise. First we jotted down a few notes about a day-in-the-life of our character and had us think about one thing that might be different on this day.  Then we closed our eyes and she had us picture the scene, first from a birds-eye view with natural elements, time of day/year, etc. Then she had us zoom in on the space our character occupied and examine it through the senses, then through the furnishings and objects around the character, then examining the character herself and those around her. Finally we focused on action in the scene and that subtle shift – who or what has changed at the end? What won’t be the same anymore?

Reflections: I liked this exercise, though I don’t think I did it right – I started my character in her bedroom in the morning, after first waking up before I realized we were sort of supposed to start them in the moment in change. But when I asked Johnstone about it she said “If you started in her room, there was a creative reason for it.” I think this is a great exercise for really diving deep into sensory details. It’s something I do in a smaller way on a regular basis since descriptive detail is my jam. But I liked the idea of “what is different about today?” and that it could be as small as waking up in a different mood. I had a mini “ah hah” moment during the exercise, so that was fruitful.

A hook to get me into a fresh scene for my novel...

A hook to get me into a fresh scene for my novel…

["Star Literary Idol"]

Pieces read by Steve Almond, judged by Stephen McCauley, Anita Shreve, Elinor Lipman, and Mameve Medwed

Imagine having your first page read aloud in the dulcet tones of writer Steve Almond and judged by four brilliant authors? Yup, that’s “Star” Literary Idol. Almond read the pieces aloud and if one of the judges hears a line that would prompt them to stop reading, they would raise their hand. Once two hands were raised, Almond would stop reading and the judges would critique the piece.

The first piece read aloud was a darkly funny piece about a man struggling with obesity, attending over-eaters anonymous with a bunch of skinny women. The judges loved it and wanted more. The second piece they read was MINE. Almond read it beautifully, I’m sure, but I only heard half of it because my heart was literally beating so hard and loud it felt like my entire rib cage would split open. But… no one raised a hand. My first 250 words made it through strict judgement! They were intrigued. Anita Shreve was worried that it would be grim, but was interested in hearing what happened next. They all liked the imagery (even Elinor Lipman who said “I don’t usually go for descriptions of leaves and things…”) and the unexpected line “the trees rattle and cough with hundreds of birds.” And then they were on to the next piece and my hands were shaking and I could breathe again.

Reflections: Terror! Now the rest of my novel has to live up to the first 250 words! Which was always the case, but some piece of me wants to believe that if I fix the beginning enough, the whole thing will be fixed – NOT TRUE. As for the rest of the pieces read and analyzed during the Idol session, about a quarter to a third of them were stopped mid-read, usually due to confusion, boredom, or cliché. There was a large swath that made it all the way through, but where the feedback was really mixed – the usual comment was “The first part was slow/clichéd/confusing, but it really started for me with your second-to-last line…” There were a handful that the judges had only positive feedback on, and a teeny tiny number that the judges loved.

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Mameve Medwed: “Dialogue should be the cream that rises to the top.”

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One Response to “The Muse & The Marketplace 2015: Reflections”

  1. I LOVE the stereotype quote!! Sounds like a fantastic conference!!