Before this year’s Association of Writers and Writing Programs (AWP) conference, I’d been to Seattle four previous occasions, all for work. I stayed in government-rate hotels near the airport or the Boeing complex. At my agency, if a group went to a locale for the same event, not everyone got approval for a rental car. If you weren’t the one with a car, you had to beg for a ride or rent one on your own. On my first trip, I couldn’t accept that I was so close to Seattle and might not get a chance to go there, so I rented a car on my own and drove downtown. I paid an outrageous price to park the car for the day; then did all the typical tourist things. I continued to blow my personal budget with a dinner at the Space Needle’s revolving restaurant. That was on my bucket list before I ever knew what a bucket list was.
Seattle is a gorgeous, bustling, clean, artsy city, which now is one of the greenest in the country. Gas cars are being phased out as cabs, replaced by hybrids; many city buses are also hybrids; and every place you enter has recycling and composting bins–even the hotel rooms have a recycle bin for plastics. Seattle has a decent literary history and several top-notch MFA programs, but it has long been a refuge for artists. It’s famous for its blown glass artists and sculptors, but this week it’s hosting probably more authors in a single place than anywhere else in the world. I hadn’t been in Seattle for six years, but the city’s vibe and energy were still there, and I arrived a whole day early to reacquaint myself with the only other city in the U.S. I could imagine myself living and working.
Unfortunately, Pike Place Market seemed a little seedier than it used to be, and there are a lot more street people than I remember, which could mean the city government isn’t dealing will with some people’s needs; but this isn’t the political blog. Seattle also now has one of those ubiquitous, over-sized, ugly Ferris wheels on its waterfront, but, overall, though, it’s the same lively place which got me hooked on Starbucks twenty-plus years ago.
I started Thursday, the first “official” day of the conference with a panel called “Structuring the Novel,” moderated by Summer Wood and featuring Melissa Remark, Jennie Shortridge, and Tara Conklin. This was a standing-room only event, and I was glad to have arrived early enough to get a seat.
This is my third AWP, and at each one I’ve heard the discussions that it’s getting too big to fulfill attendees’ needs. Indeed, the panels are being held among three buildings, all within two blocks, but, still, with only fifteen minutes between panels, getting from the far end of one building to the far end of another is problematic. But I digress.
All the members of the novel structure panel described how they personally structured their works. Conklin’s novel The House Girl has, what Conklin herself calls, an innovative structure–two timelines alternating every fifteen to twenty pages and incorporating sections other than narrative. Conklin advises, though, if you use an innovative structure, “you have to have a reason, it has to draw out or fit the themes in your novel.”
Shortridge indicated her structure issues are pretty typical of most of us–she gets a strong beginning and a catchy ending, but the middle “is a muddle, is soft, and needs structure.” She shifted her thinking and writes the middle with the end in mind. She also advocates the “four-act” structure: setting up, seeking, engaging, denouement. Sometimes, she says, she borrows from other genres; e.g., “If I’m writing an action sequence I model it after a thriller.”
Melissa Remark, a recent MFA graduate who has a background in script writing for film and television suggests we find the “present” thread in any uniquely structured novel and start with that. Pacing can also develop structure; e.g., a fast-paced middle and a lagging ending can thwart any attempt at structure, innovative or otherwise.
Long indicated that once you find the “deep structure or soul” of your story, the structure comes naturally. The soul is a set of connections which matter but they have to be intertwined, revealing the story beneath the story, or what you intended to write in the first place. Long also indicated that we should trust our instincts, that our “subconscious communicates our values to our conscious mind,” but if we don’t pay attention to it, it becomes writer’s block.
After that panel, I spent some time in the book fair, where I once again got the itch for an MFA, even though I’ve been told I don’t need one. I probably don’t. I don’t want to teach, but it would be nice to have a bigger writing community. Considering the expense, I really don’t think one is in my future. However, I discovered there are a lot of literary journals I can submit to, and I spent quite a bit of time at the Sewanee table, discussing the workshop I’m going to apply for.
The next panel was the key one for the day for me–”Writing Unsympathetic Characters.” My female protagonist evokes diametrically opposite opinions in people. Some like her as a strong, no-nonsense woman who has a deep sense of justice. Others find her brash and profane. At a critique group session recently, one person said, “Does she have to curse?” (Well, yes, she does; when you’re kicking ass you don’t watch your language.) I was hoping this panel would give me some insight on how to keep her as is but make her more universally appealing.
But when moderator Irina Reyn opened by saying, “Often readers don’t want to spend time characters they couldn’t be friends with. Well, I say, if you’re reading to find friends, you’re in deep trouble.”
Panelist Lynne Sharon Schwartz said, “Unpleasant characters are the most memorable, but the writer has to care about what that character is doing. Only then will the reader read on to see how the character ends up. If the writing is good, the reader will finish regardless of the character’s likability.”
Hannah Tinti, the editor of “One Story,” used markers and a sheet of paper tacked to the wall to illustrate her point that we should approach unsympathetic characters as if they were super-villains in a graphic novel:
- a costume (the physicality of the character)
- a superpower (what the character is good at)
- the kryptonite (the character’s weakness)
- the back story (the character’s past)
- a quest (the diabolical plan, i.e., what does the character want, what motivates everything he/she does?)
Erin Harris added that an unsympathetic character who has no motive is a problem. “The reader wants to know the psychology,” she said, and that makes the character three-dimensional.
Publisher Richard Nash indicated we shouldn’t be afraid of a negative reaction to a character. What we should worry about is “no reaction at all.”
There were a lot of great points from this panel, and they gave me confidence that the way my protagonist is, is the right way.
After another swing through the book fair, I got ready for at event at a local Irish pub called Kells. I had entered my story “The Dragon Who Breathed no Fire,” retitled as “Man on Fire,” in the Press 53 Flash Fiction “Visions and Apparitions” Contest. I love this story, and I had a good feeling about its chances. So, when they read my name as one of the finalists, I was thrilled beyond belief. It didn’t win, but this was rather like the Academy Awards–you’re honored to be nominated. What was even better was meeting the judges afterwards and hearing how much they loved the story. “Get that story out there and get it published,” one judge said. I’ll do just that.
Continued in Part Two