Getting Ready for Tinker Mountain

TMWW logoI’ve made my to-do list for the next week so come Sunday afternoon, I can hit the road and arrive in Roanoke for this year’s Tinker Mountain Writer’s Workshop. It’s the tenth anniversary, with a lot of extra workshops and new instructors. As usual I’m nervous, excited, and, well, nervous.

The past two years have been very positive experiences. Last year, for example, led to having an agent review a manuscript. (He turned it down but said lots of positive things.) The first year I attended was the first time any of my MSS had been critiqued by total strangers, and they liked it, they really liked it. This year is the first time a portion of one of my genre MSS is being critiqued by strangers. The workshop I’m attending is “Crafting High Quality Genre Fiction,” and the instructor is Laura Benedict. She also happens to be the spouse of my first Tinker Mountain instructor, Pinckney Benedict.

The forty pages I sent in comes from an MS titled A War of Deception, which is loosely based on the Robert Hansenn spy case from the early 2000s. I say loosely because it started out as a fictionalized version of that event with my U.N. spy characters in the mix. It turned into a study of revenge when what I intended to be a subplot became the main plot. The title comes from a Sun Tzu quote in the Art of War, one of my favorite books: “All warfare is based on deception.”

I’m sure I’ve mentioned my love affair with the Art of War before. I had the audio book on my iPod and listened to it every day on the way to work. It was that kind of workplace at times. Plus, Sun Tzu has a lot to say about spies and espionage which resonates today.

Anyway, the nervousness comes from having my genre fiction workshopped. It’s a first, though the material workshopped in my first Tinker Mountain visit was a speculative fiction piece I submitted because I didn’t have anything else ready. However, I don’t consider myself a speculative fiction writer. A lot of my flash fiction falls into that genre but only because I’m not sure I could sustain a full-length spec fic novel, even that particular manuscript. It seems I inadvertently channelled Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale when I wrote it for NaNoWriMo a few years ago. When Pinckney encouraged me to work on that MS, I explained about the striking similarity to Atwood’s dystopian piece–“Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery,” he said. Ms. Atwood may not think so, however.

This year’s MS is one of my “historical thrillers,” to borrow a term from Alan Furst, a writer of espionage fiction I hope to emulate. It’s got a mole in the FBI, sex, violence, marital discord, and two mysteries to be solved. I hope I have a third great experience. Even if the rest of the workshop hates it– Ack! Let’s not put that in my head!

So, off to do laundry, water plants, and pack, etc., and be ready for a worthwhile week of workshopping, craft lectures, and writer friends that is Tinker Mountain Writer’s Workshop.

A Friday Fictioneers Anniversary

Today marks one year since our fearless leader Rochelle Wisoff-Fields took over the reins of Friday Fictioneers from our intrepid founder Madison Woods, and it’s true. Time flies when you’re having fun. Rochelle has worked tirelessly at making Friday Fictioneers the “go-to” flash fiction site, and her success is marked by the fact that we “charter members” keep going strong while we add new participants every week. Three cheers for Rochelle!

National Novel Writing Month is just a week away, and I’m all set with character sketches, plot outlines, and plenty of enthusiasm thanks to an online workshop put on by my other writers group, Shenandoah Valley Writers. We called the workshop “Finish That Novel!” but we based it on The Weekend Novelist by Robert J. Ray and Bret Norris. The book had some good points and not-so-good points, but the exercises were certainly useful to me in that I realized I needed some back story to make this novel more understandable.

This year’s NaNoWriMo project is Book Two of a series on the attacks of 9/11. The series is called Meeting the Enemy. Book One, drafted after last year’s NaNoWriMo, is Terror; Book Two is Retribution; Book Three is Rendition.

I’m also working on a sequel to my collection of espionage short stories, Spy Flash. Spy Flash II will also be short stories, but they collectively form what’s called a novel in stories. I hope to have that ready to go after the first of the year.

So, I may be going to my last writing workshop of my year of conferencing/workshopping this coming Saturday (“Ending it All” at WriterHouse in Charlottesville), but the writing work continues.

This week’s Friday Fictioneers photo prompt, taken by our fearless leader herself, was a bit of a challenge to the challenge I posed for myself. I’d decided that for the spooky month of October, all my Friday Fictioneers stories would have an edge of the paranormal. This week’s still-life had me scratching my head, wondering how on earth… Then, I remembered the title of a 1982 movie, and off I went from there. My story, “Noisy Ghost,” isn’t quite as scary as that movie, but I hope it’s a little chilling.

As usual, if you don’t see the link on the story title in the paragraph above, scroll to the top of the page, click on the Friday Fictioneers tab, and select the story from the drop-down list.

My Name is Phyllis, and I’m a Writer Workshopaholic

They say the first step is acknowledging you have a problem. In eight months this year, I’ve been to nine writer conferences and/or workshops. There, I’ve said it. I may be addicted to writerly things. Yes, I may be addicted to meeting other writers and learning from them or, more importantly, becoming friends with them. Yes, I may be addicted to picking up information or techniques to improve my writing. Yes, I may be addicted to making my craft, well, more artful. Yes, folks, I’ve got it bad, and I gotta have my fix.

What am I going to do about it?

Not a bloody thing. I think this is one addiction we can overlook. ;)

On Friday I got an email from WriterHouse in Charlottesville, VA. (I’ve written about this writer’s space before–a great place to write and a great provider of one or two-day or even longer workshops.) They had openings for a one-day workshop on Saturday–“Ready, Aim: Firearms in Fiction.”

Okay, a little diversion here. If you abhor guns and think they’re the physical manifestation of evil, don’t read any further, and have a nice day.

I read the description, and, even though I have a good familiarity with firearms and gun safety, I thought, “Why not?” As one of the workshop attendees, who is a gun safety instructor said, “You always learn something new.”

This turned out to be the kind of workshop I really like to attend–one where you bring work to be critiqued and where you get writing exercises. Thanks to the workshop instructor, Betty Joyce Nash, and the other attendees, it was a great day learning about the importance of fitting a weapon to a character and how to research to make certain you get the details right. Three of us were very knowledgeable about gun safety and the mechanics of guns. The third was a novice, who left the workshop ready to go to a gun range and get some instruction in safety.

Even the three writing exercises were informative. First, we selected a picture of a person from a collection supplied by Ms. Nash, then we had to write a bio or expository scene about the person in the picture and include a gun. After reading aloud and critiquing each other’s work, we went over some examples from literature where authors included guns in their work, how successful they were, and whether the gun was necessary or superfluous to the story.

The second writing exercise involved keeping in mind the bio/expository scene we’d written before while we wrote about the first time we each became aware of guns. Again, we read what we’d written aloud and critiqued each other’s work. Another workshopper and I decided to directly link the two exercises, and it became obvious we both had stories in the works.

After lunch, we each read a portion from the stories we’d brought with us–the story had to involve a gun, easy for me, since I mostly write about spies–and critiqued them. I had the efficacy of these workshops proved to me when I finished reading my excerpt and another participant said, “I want to read the rest of that!”

Finally, we had the third, free-writing exercise–two people arguing about money with a gun in the room. (And I forgot to mention, the instructor also participated in these exercises, and we got to hear and critique her work as well. I liked the fact she didn’t set herself apart.) Then, we had a free-ranging Q&A about guns and about writing and publishing. I’m so glad my schedule is flexible enough to able to do last minute writing things like this.

Again, if you’re close to Charlottesville, check out WriterHouse. It’s very inexpensive to join and has different kinds of memberships so you can get exactly what you need from them. I know I certainly do.

A Gathering Of Writers – Redux

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”:

Presentation1We 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.

In Praise of the One-Day Writers Conference

I’m sure when you think of writers conferences the image you have is a multi-day affair like AWP, Writers Digest, or ThrillerFest. They are great places to go and learn and network, but take AWP, for instance. At AWP Boston this past March, you were one among 12,000. How on earth do you network successfully there? Even the time between panels is compressed, when you have to move that many people in a large convention center. I’m not dissing big conferences or suggesting they’re a waste of time. They aren’t, but they can be overwhelming.

One-day conferences are more intimate, and the opportunities for networking, not just with fellow participants but with faculty as well, are better. The mini-workshops are intensive but because you don’t have to rush across a convention center the size of a city block for your next panel, you can actually stay behind and talk to the instructor or have plenty of time to network.

Press53, an independent press in Winston-Salem, NC, sponsored the second annual “A Gathering of Writers” this past Saturday in Winston-Salem (or “Winston” as the locals call it). The faculty consisted of Press53 authors and/or teachers of writing from universities up and down the east of the country. Press53 limits the number of attendees to 53 on a first-come, first-served basis. As much as I enjoyed A Gathering of Writers last year, somehow Press53 managed to improve upon it. Last year and this year, I came away with more writer-friend connections, and kernels of information on how to enhance my writing. And the cost (under $200) is reasonable. It’s not a case of getting what you pay for but, rather, getting a lot for a little.

A Gathering of Writers offered six workshops then repeated them in the afternoon, and the most you could work into the day was four. It was difficult to choose because all six sounded great. Here are the offerings with the ones I attended in red:

How to Haunt Your Readers, given by Mary Akers
The First Five Pages, given by Marjorie Hudson
The Compelling Story, given by Michael Kardos
Sandbox Game: Writing as Discovery, given by Steve Mitchell
Inhabiting Story Through Images of Place, given by Darlin’ Neal
Picking Your Perspective, given by Henriette Lazaridis Power

After the workshops ended, the faculty each read from their current, published works or works in progress. Throughout A Gathering of Writers, two West Virginia writers, Natalie Sypolt and Renee Nicholson, did live interviews and live-Tweeted for their great podcast, summerbooks. They even interviewed me, and it was one of the most fun interviews I’ve done–sitting around chatting about writing and reading with two other writers and voracious readers.

Later this week, I’ll post about the workshops I attended and why they were so successful–even given my momentary and embarrassing case of writers block.

Tinker Mountain Days Four and Five

The craft lecture on Thursday was by my workshop instructor, Fred Leebron, and was entitled, “Achieving Complexity in Narrative.” Fred had said his workshop didn’t need to attend because we’d already heard it, but most of us did show up. And a good thing, too. The second time around you realize all the things you missed the first time.

Though Fred had some interesting things to say about plot (“Plotting can be a literary straightjacket–it makes you think as if all stories have already been written.”), he emphasized his standard points about how to make your fiction transport the reader into your world and to resonate with the reader, i.e., go on beyond the end and stick with the reader. Fred then described the various ways to create the complexity needed to both transport the reader and have your work resonate with him or her, and it can be anything from judicious line editing, to multiple POVs and narrative arcs, and many more until, he says, “you get to the end of your narrative after exhausting all the possibilities.” Exhausting all the possibilities is the point where you can finally begin to revise.

The craft lecture concluded with an exercise we could take home with us to help with characterization, an exercise designed to develop the “shades” of a character: Describe what the character is most ashamed of, what haunts him/her the most, when he or she came close to doing someone harm, when he or she was the most humane, what he or she wants the most, and what he or she doesn’t want at all. You may never use the answers in a story, but you’ll understand the character better and make him or her layered and complex.

Day Four’s workshop session focused on dialogue and the various ways you can layer time in a story with dialogue, enlarge the cast of characters, and reveal things a character doesn’t know. Tension, important to story structure, can be both created and enhanced by dialogue that contradicts, is passive aggressive, ignores, or even agrees with.

Day Five’s craft lecture was on screen-writing, and I’ll write something on that later. The final day’s workshop session began with a discussion of drafts of our work. “The first draft,” said Fred, “is what the character wants. The final draft is what the reader wants.” I’d never quite thought of it that way, but essentially that is the case.

The rest of the time before the final critique of the week was a free-wheeling Q&A about writing–using substory, flashbacks and flashforwards, when to use dreaming (“economically,” says Fred), and how to give your endings “bite.”

After the last person’s critique, it was time for goodbyes. The week flew by and, for me, is immeasurable in terms of what I learned. Fred Leebron gives you a lot to think about and not just for the five days of the workshop; for the rest of your writing life. I’m already looking forward to next year!

 

Tinker Mountain Day Three

Wait. Day three? Hello, didn’t we just arrive? How can it be Day Three? Rather proves the cliche about time aviating when you’re entertained.

The craft lecture today by Jim McKean was about including suspense in your fiction, creative non-fiction, and poetry. Perfect for me since 1) I write suspense, and 2) I’m giving a one-evening workshop next week on incorporating suspense into your work. So the “Nine Tricks for Incorporating Suspense” and the “41 Ways to Create and Heighten Suspense” were perfect for me–and not just for the workshop. I’m certain I’ll keep both at hand when I’m writing/revising stories about Mai and Alexei.

Before the critiques started today, Fred Leebron talked about the relationship of the title to the remainder of the work then about Risk = Ambition in novel writing. They are essentially equal, he said, but one also leads to the other in a loop.

Some of the ways you take risks in novel writing are altering the form or structure, using an unusual voice, the content itself, how you use time, and how you treat what’s absent from the novel.

For using an unusual voice, for example, he cited Bright Lights, Big City by Jay McInerney. It’s written entirely in second person. Then he had us do an exercise where we took something from our novel excerpt and put it in a voice opposite to what we’d already written. Amazing how that changes perspective and meaning.

When taking a risk, you need to ask yourself if that risk is necessary or gratuitous; a reader rebels against gratuitous risk. In other words, like the inclusion of sex and/or violence, it has to work within the story. Then, our exercise was to identify what risks we had and hadn’t taken with our novels.

Finally, we discussed how to keep our novels from becoming obsolete. For example, how do novels like Moby Dick, The Great Gatsby, or Heart of Darkness still resonate today, decades, even a century or more after publication? The writer “got the details right”–in other words, verisimilitude.

Tomorrow’s craft seminar is by my instructor, Fred Leebron, and his subject is “Achieving Complexity in Narrative.” He indicated his students didn’t have to attend, since it will be a summary of what he’s told us the whole week, but I have a feeling we’ll all be there. After workshop, we have our class photo out by the famous campus rock, then open mic night for those who didn’t read on Tuesday night.

And then, it will be almost over.

Tinker Mountain Day Two

Thorpe Moeckel makes me wish I were a poet. His craft lecture, “Food and Drink in Poetry: The Techniques, Trappings, and Themes,” was, pun intended, a feast of delicious poems he used to illustrate his point; namely, that the necessity of food and drink to life makes them elementals. The act of eating and drinking is sensory, a particularly good ingredient for writing of any kind.

Moeckel imagines the first poets were proto-humans who sat around a campfire chanting about their basic needs–sustenance, warmth, and mates. When we see our work on a page, he says, think of it as food on a plate. That distances you from the work and lets you  begin to revise.

Many of my fellow prose writers skipped this craft lecture, and I say, “Shame on you!” It well worth the time and the reading of the poems he used as examples. My favorite was this one, by Charles Simic:

Watermelons

Green Buddhas
on the fruit stand.
We eat the smile
and spit out the teeth.

The afternoon, of course, was day two of the Advanced Novel workshop, and my novel excerpt was up for critique at the end of the day. Fred Leebron started it off with a brief overview of finding an agent and preparing the right sort of query letter. Then, he went over some hints about how to submit a successful manuscript–formatting, for example–then things to do to make an editor “love your book for two years,” the approximate length of the publishing cycle. Keep at it, he advised. “If you give up, nothing will happen, so you can’t give up.”

Then came the critiques. Again, this was a civilized process, which provided positive feedback. I’m still at the level of confidence where someone who likes or praises my writing leaves me in a state of wonder. When a well-known teacher of writing compares your excerpt to Sinclair Lewis’ Main Street or Theodore Dreiser’s An American Tragedy, holy crap, you must be doing something right.

The one-on-one conference afterwards gave me good direction and a plan to pursue, and it wasn’t exactly what I had already planned; but it’s where I need to go.

Tonight was student open-mic night, and I read “Marakata,” my short story which won third place in WriterHouse’s contest back in May. It was very well-received, and I got some suggestions on where to submit it for possible publication.

Jim McKean will give tomorrow’s craft lecture, entitled, “Suspense?”–a timely topic since I’m teaching a one-night, online workshop next week about including suspense in your fiction. Then, two more critiques of other classmates’ excerpts. It’s hard to believe as of tomorrow we’ll be on the downward slide.

What’s on Tap – Tinker Mountain Day One

On Sunday evening we had our orientation and meeting with our instructors, after a tasty dinner, dessert, and wine. Yeah, this is my kind of workshop.

One thing is clear: Fred Leebron is going to challenge us in the Advanced Novel workshop, and that’s what we’re here for. Our “homework” is to spend thirty minutes tomorrow morning thinking about the novel project we submitted an excerpt of and to ask ourselves two questions about it: How much is it taking on, and what are we leaving unasked?

All fine and good. I do this sort of thing all the time and make notes. Fred’s twist? We’re to think about it for thirty minutes without writing or making notes. After thirty minutes we can write away. The “thinking” should be about the whole book, not just the excerpt. An interesting concept, and I know it will be hard for me not to pick up a pen for thirty minutes. Oh, and during that thirty minutes–no music, no radio, no internet, no video streaming, just thinking. Oy!

He’s also leaving us wondering about the order in which we’ll be critiqued. Last year I wondered why I was last. This year it’s a different fretting, then–when will I be critiqued. Trust me, there’s always something to fret about.

Tomorrow’s craft seminar features Pinckney Benedict (my instructor from last year), and his topic will be “From Page to Screen,” or taking a story and adapting it for film. In the past year, one of his stories, “Miracle Boy,” was made into a film, so it will be interesting to see how he adapted it.

The actual workshop starts in the afternoon, except again Fred is turning it upside down. No one will be critiqued Monday afternoon. We’ll introduce ourselves, discuss craft, and ask questions. There are seven in this workshop, including yours truly, and an auditor/observer. So, I think the discussions will be lively. It also means I need to get reading everyone else’s manuscript.

This year I couldn’t wait to get here, and I’m excited to get this party, I mean, workshop started.

Gearing Up for Tinker Mountain Redux

By this time next week, I’ll be at my first craft lecture at the Tinker Mountain Writers Workshop. Last year’s experience was the highlight of my fledgling fiction-writing career–twenty pages of a WIP thrown out to eight strangers and an author whose work I admired and which received very positive feedback. But, before that happened, I shook in my Tevas, I was ready to go home the first night, and I had convinced myself I’d made a bad decision. Then, it all turned out completely differently and gave me a confidence boost I’m still surfing.

Of course, being the nervous Nellie I am, I’m already tying my stomach in knots over attending Fred Leebron’s Advanced Novel workshop. I had put in for Beginning Novel, which seemed logical. I have all these unpublished novels in various stages of completion–unpublished being the operative word. Not enough people signed up for Beginning Novel, so I was faced with the choice of re-taking the same workshop from last year (which would be good but there’s nothing like fresh eyes on your work) or not attending Tinker Mountain at all.

After I lamented this on Facebook, a writer friend suggested Leebron’s workshop would be the best option. One glance at Leebron’s bio at Gettysburg College, where he teaches writing, is intimidating, and he’s also a founder and director of TMWW. That’s like taking a constitutional law class from the President, but every writer friend I know who has had Leebron for a workshop has praised him for providing just the right critique.

Okay, gulp. Twenty pages of a different WIP polished and sent off to more strangers and an author whose work I’m not as familiar with–though that will change.

Really, I’m ready to go right now. My head is in the right space for it, and I know in the next week I’ll start that hideous second-guessing I always do and work myself into a tizzy of self-doubt.

I’m a writer; it’s my job to doubt myself.