Tinker Mountain 2015 – My Writing Tribe

The countdown calendar to the right of this post indicates that, as of today, I have seven days to go before the 2015 Tinker Mountain Writers Workshop. I find it amazing this is my fourth one! Three years ago about this time, I was having big second thoughts. For one, I’d never had my work critiqued by strangers, much less a well-respected, actual writer who was my workshop instructor. To say I was a nervous Nellie would freshen that cliché.

But 2012 was all positive with the incredible Pinckney Benedict; 2013 was amazing with the insightful Fred Leebron; and 2014 was an eye-opening experience with a master of genre writing, Laura Benedict. So much so, I’m re-taking her workshop this year, and I hope what I’ve submitted embodies everything I learned from her last year.

As critical as the workshop is now to my writing, the making of writer friends is, in some ways, more important. I have a circle of extremely talented writers who’ll beta-read what I’ve done and point out exactly what I need to do to make it better. More importantly, because we have that shared workshop experience, I respect their opinions. There is no sense of competition; just genuine, meaningful critique. What more could you ask for in a writing workshop?

So, today, I’m positively giddy. I can’t wait for Sunday to get here to head the loaded car south to Roanoke, set foot on the absolutely gorgeous campus of Hollins University (an inspiration in and of itself), and see my writing tribe.

Oh, and, I might get a writing themed tattoo while I’m there. Gasp!

A Little Respect for NaNoWriMo

During the critique of my novel excerpt in my Tinker Mountain workshop, I mentioned I’d completed the rough draft during National Novel Writing Month, and a small discussion ensued. The instructor, Fred Leebron, had a dim view of NaNoWriMo based on other workshops where people had submitted excerpts from their own NaNo works. Needless to say he wasn’t impressed.

Another workshop member sneered that NaNoWriMo emphasizes “quantity over quality.” That’s true, but it doesn’t necessarily mean quantity can’t become quality, I pointed out. I referred that person to the website, where the Office of Letters and Lights emphasizes editing and revising a NaNo draft, but I conceded you can lead a horse to water but can’t make it drink.

Later, during my one-on-one conference, Leebron admitted that he had a new respect for NaNoWriMo, given the quality of my work and another person’s workshop piece, also from NaNoWriMo. I explained that I do nothing with a NaNo draft for six months, then I pick it up and start revising. I also explained that the first twenty pages I’d submitted for the workshop had been worked and reworked during a writing retreat in May and honed especially for Tinker Mountain. The rest of the draft, I explained, needed a lot of work. Nevertheless, Leebron conceded he had new respect for NaNo but wished that every participant didn’t rush to publish or to submit to workshops before editing. I agree.

Of the two NaNoWriMo-ers in the workshop, I’m the seat of the pants writer. The other was an outliner. Now, I’ve done both, and, in fact, the only other NaNoWriMo MS I’m particularly proud of is one I meticulously outlined before November 1. Last year’s effort came from a germ of an idea in a piece of flash fiction I did for Friday Fictioneers. Either way works, but in some ways it’s the aftermath of NaNoWriMo that matters. The hype goes toward the build-up to November, to the daily word counts, and hitting that 50,000-word mark in thirty days. OLL can’t force you to behave like a professional writer and edit that MS–edit as in critically look at it and revise it into a polished MS. That’s up to the writer.

There are very few–I’d say negligible–writers who can go from a rough draft to a viable published work in those thirty days. For one, since the word count is what’s important, I’m finding that in my revision of last year’s MS, I’m eliminating about three-quarters of the dialogue tags. Using them for every line of dialogue is great for word counting but distracting when reading. Sometimes it’s the small things like that which distinguishes a professional MS from a rank amateur one.

So, I offer this challenge to fellow NaNoWriMo-ers: Do your part to enhance NaNoWriMo’s image in the literary world. Don’t publish that MS right away. Polish it. Edit it. Revise it. Run it through a critique group. Do whatever you need to do to make certain it reflects well on you as a professional writer. Making NaNoWriMo look good is just a pleasant side-effect.

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.

Tinker Mountain Day One

“The only way to bring your novel to the final level is to address what worries you the most about it.”

So said workshop instructor Fred Leebron after having us answer, to ourselves, three questions he posed:

What excites you most about your novel?

What worries you most about your novel?

What do you want to accomplish in your novel?

The answers to those questions should all be the same, and that’s where you have to focus during the revision process. For me, the answer to all three was “It’s a radical departure from what I usually write.”

And this is just one example of a constant three hours of mental exercises about the novel excerpts we submitted for the workshop. It was a grueling yet very enlightening afternoon, preceded by Pinckney Benedict’s morning craft lecture “From Page to Screen.”

Benedict explained that when you attempt to bring a work to the screen, you can be successful only through “the power of collaboration.” He described the collaboration not only between him and the filmmaker but between them and the small town where they shot the very (very) low-budget movie version of one of Benedict’s most anthologized short stories, “Miracle Boy.”

Much of the collaboration Benedict acknowledges is accidental but because he and the filmmaker had a strong professional and personal relationship before the project, there was automatic trust. Benedict knew his friend would do his story justice.

We got to view the seventeen-minute film, which richly brought to life the short story I was very familiar with. “Thinking cinematically,” Benedict said, “helps you write how things look.”

Probably his best advice of the craft lecture was, “While you write, indulge the fantasy that your writing will win a Pulitzer or will become a movie. Why not? You can always dream.”

Leebron’s craft discussion on the first day of the workshop was intense and packed with information–he accompanied his presentation with a thirty-two page handout. It was complex yet simple in content. It’s all stuff I’ve heard before in various writing classes and workshops; yet, it was far more coherent and better explained than I’ve ever experienced. Conflict, for example, is far more complicated than we think and yet expressed in such simple terminology.

Leebron moved on to narrative arcs (using the example of The Great Gatsby), how to write movement in your work, how to make your work resonate, and more. It was a ten-pages-of-notes day. Great stuff.

Tomorrow is the first of the critiques, and I’m up second, purely by coincidence of having a last name that begins with D and close to the top of the alphabet. The craft lecture for tomorrow is by poet Thorpe Moeckel, and his topic is “Food and Drink in Poetry: The Techniques, Trappings, and Themes.”

In the evening is the time set aside for student readings, and I signed up and will read my short story, “Marakata,” which recently took third place in a contest.

Another busy day to look forward to.

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.