As promised, I’m finally getting around to discussing the workshops I attended at Press 53’s “A Gathering of Writers” a couple of weekends ago. Thanks for your patience.
I started the morning off with “The Compelling Story,” presented by Michael Kardos. Kardos teaches creative writing at Mississippi State and is the author of the novel, The Three-Day Affair. Kardos started off by telling us the one thing, the one question we ask ourselves but will never admit: “How do I know if it’s good?” A collective sigh of relief told us we had all, indeed, asked that question. After a brief discussion about understanding when we submit something it’s all about “hitting the right editor on the right day,” Kardos went on to explain our stories have to establish “high stakes”–something which has to matter to the person in the story or which has to be a moment in time in the character’s life most important to him or her.
To help us find the “high stakes,” Kardos gave us the “Motivational Continuum”:
We should use the Motivational Continuum for our characters and map out their expectations, hopes, fears, etc. In both the “Fears and Dreads” and the “Hopes and Dreams” sides of the continuum is where we’ll find the characters’ high stakes. “Character desire,” Kardos said, “fuels everything.” Then, he quoted Kurt Vonnegut: “Every character has to want something, even if it’s a glass of water.”
We got other great tidbits–“don’t confine a character to a single place,” “use compressed time periods,” “create suspense,” “withhold information,” among others. Kardos sent us off with a worksheet of exercises, but we all wanted more of his workshop.
Henriette Lazaridis Power was the instructor for “Picking Your Perspective.” Power is the author of The Clover House and editor of the on-line literary magazine, “The Drum,” which is unique in that if she selects your story, you record yourself reading it, and that’s how she publishes it.
After a review of the various perspectives you can take for a particular piece of work (first person singular, first person plural, third person limited, third person omniscient), we did an exercise:
“Two people sit opposite each other in a subway car; one wants to speak to the other but doesn’t. Write that scene.”
We each had to pick a perspective, then write the scene. After a few read theirs aloud, we had to re-write the scene in a different perspective. I started out in first person singular, a POV I only use for very short fiction, then for the re-write I went to what I’m most comfortable with–third person limited. Needless to say, different aspects of character emerged in the two different perspectives. I’ve always found third person frees me up to “say” more than first person POV, and I even found I incorporated some “high stakes” hopes and fears from Kardos’ motivational continuum in the two pieces.
Try this; I think you’ll not only find a POV you’re comfortable with, but you’ll also get out of your comfort zone.
After lunch the next workshop for me was Mary Akers’ “How to Haunt Your Readers,” and not in the supernatural sense. The night before we’d had the launch party for Akers’ most recent collection of short stories, Bones of an Inland Sea. From the reading she gave at the launch party, I knew we were in for a treat in the workshop.
By “haunting,” Akers means things appearing in a written work which continually recur to us; poignant or persistent memories; work that evokes sentimental or enchanting memories; or something you’ve read you just can’t let go. What haunts us is personal, then, and that’s what we have to inscribe in our own writing. “The way to haunt the reader,” Akers said, “is to get to the universal by the personal. If it’s personal to you, it’s personal to the reader.” Moreover, “writing is a brain transfer. You write, but it’s not complete until the reader reads it.”
Then, we had to list five things we’ve read which still haunt us. After a few of us read our lists aloud, we had to go back and find the common theme among the five. My five were:
- The scene from Stephen King’s ‘Salem’s Lot where a person in the downstairs of a house hears a vampire sucking blood from someone in another part of the house.
- The climax of W. W. Jacob’s “The Monkey’s Paw,” when there is a knocking at the door of the parents’ house.
- In Anna Sewell’s Black Beauty, the scene where the cabbie horse dies from exhaustion. (This was the first book ever given me as a gift, and my parents almost took it away from me because I cried so much over that scene.)
- In Dickens’ A Tale of Two Cities, I’m haunted to this day by anyone knitting after reading how Madame DeFarge kept count of who went to the guillotine.
- The scene in William Styron’s Sophie’s Choice where Sophie makes her horrendous choice.
I’m sure you’ve noticed the common thread in my list is, well, death. Sheesh.
Then, Akers brought out her bag o’ prompts, and we each selected one to write on for fifteen minutes. And I had a bout of writer’s block at the damnedest time. The prompt, “Write about a time when you were completely unprepared,” did nothing for me. As my kids will attest, I do nothing unprepared. Comes from being a pilot, I suppose, but it was embarrassing.
Still, give the “five things which haunt you” a try. I think you’ll see what’s haunted you will show up in your writing.
The workshop part of the day ended with “Inhabiting Story Through Images of Place,” given by Darlin’ Neal, author of Elegant Punk and Rattlesnakes and the Moon.
After a good discussion and some examples of how to evoke place without coming out and saying “we’re in Podunk,” we got down to a lengthy exercise. Neal called for “tangible objects” from the class, and we gave her thunder, boxes, carpet, a fireplace, and a bed. She then threw in the color orange and told us to write for fifteen minutes and invoke a place using those prompts but without saying where the scene was. I got over the writer’s block pretty quickly and came up with a scene, which I finally had the guts to read aloud. After reading, we each had to state the unasked question about the scene. Then, as the workshop ended, Neal tasked us to go back to that scene in our leisure and write the part which answers the unasked question. Great stuff.
The evening ended with readings from each of the instructors, which can be daunting. Sometimes hearing a published author read can be depressing, but Press 53 managed to bring together a group of completely unpretentious writers. The reading was a delight.
If you’re within easy driving or flying distance of Winston-Salem, NC, consider taking in this one-day conference next year. It’s well worth your time and funds.