First Writers Conference of 2014 – Part Two

To read Part One of this post, click here.

I’m a person who still reads two print newspapers a day (and a lot more online), so Radford professor Bill Kovarik‘s workshop, “Who Killed the American Newspaper and Where Do We Go From Here?” was something I really wanted to hear. However, Kovarik decided the first half of that title had been done already (He blames corporate media for their own demise, by the way.) and focused instead on the second half. His solution to the fact that corporate media no long meet our needs is a media co-op, or community media, citizen journalists who report on the communities where they live. The press, Kovarik said, has always been “cloistered, told not to join local groups, to keep aloof from the community to further their impartiality.” He believes that more involvement would lead to more honest reporting and not necessarily by trained journalists. He envisions shared equipment and broadcast time, but I’m a bit skeptical. Media co-ops sound great if your only interest is your local community, but I’m a world citizen.

Tiffany Trent, former Virginia Tech creative writing teacher, has found her niche in writing young adult fantasy and sci-fi novels, and her workshop, “SciFi and Fantasy in YA,” offered a great exposition on world-building. YA scifi and fantasy is “where it’s at,” she said. “It’s where the most exciting things in writing are happening right now.” However, to stand out you have to build a credible world, whether right here on earth or elsewhere, which the discerning readership of this genre can grasp. “You can take the usual or universal and give it a slight twist,” she said, “like changing gender stereotypes. For example, make the men the faceless, nameless ones. Or you can create something completely alien.” She encouraged YA writers to watch the love triangles–“that’s become a YA trope, and I’m concerned that it’s been overdone.” There are primal emotions/events–birth, death, fear of the dead–which can be used in fresh and interesting ways, as long as you “ground it in the real.” When describing a world you’ve built, your language has to be specific not general. Using your own experiences with the unusual or the odd in everyday life is a good starting point for creating a new world.

I’m not much of a YA fan, but Trent’s points on world-building were thoughtful and applicable to just about any genre. This was a fresh and engaging workshop with lots of helpful Q&A. I’m certainly going to try one of her books.

My final workshop for the day was “The Rebellious Essay,” presented by Cara Ellen Modisett. This was quite the crash course on the various types of essays–experiential, observation, or recall versus reflective. All essays, Modisett said, “are an attempt at making sense of a subject. The act of writing is an act of thought.” Inexperienced essayists tend to be linear, she said, “they start at A and progress to Z. However, the way people think and perceive may be A to E to L, or M to Z to C. Your essays should reflect that.” And be more interesting, I’m sure. An essay also has to be about more than one thing. “Two subjects equals two-dimensional, three subjects three-dimensional, and so on,” she said. Further, an essay can’t simply be based on our recollections because we often write about what others have also experienced. However, if we’re reflecting on the memory of an event and how that event led to varied other parts of our lives, then we have something new and interesting.

For fiction writers who delve into essays, Modisett emphasized, “Don’t make stuff up! Save that for your fiction.” To structure a good essay, she said, “Use verbs of muscle and adjectives of exactitude.”

For our writing exercise, she used something called the “braided essay,” which is taking multiple, seemingly diverse subjects and weaving them into a connected essay. For part one, we had to write about an object we had with us but couldn’t name it, i.e., we had to use some of those “adjectives of exactitude.” In part two, we were to write about the emotion we felt when we received that object, and for part three we had to take that same emotion and relate another time when we felt it for a different object. The result was pretty amazing, and I can see how these techniques can also aid my fiction.

A one-day writers conference may not seem like much compared to, say, AWP, but I learned new things, caught up with writer friends, made new writer friends, and found out about a group of Doctor Who fans who get together and dissect episodes. They are now doing a retrospective of the earlier, pre-Christopher Eccelston Doctors, and that made me wish Roanoke was just a little closer.

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