More Craft Lectures – TMWW Pt. 2

The Tuesday craft lecture for this year’s Tinker Mountain Writers Workshop was geared for the poets among us, so we prose writers–at least from my workshop–decided to spend the extra time reading workshop submissions and doing our assigned homework from that morning. Since it involved writing down our dreams, a nap seemed like a good idea, all in the interest of the workshop, of course.

Wednesday’s lecture was probably one of the most anticipated of the week. Barbara Jones, executive editor at Henry Holt, had chosen the topic, “Writing a Book for Publication: Approaches to Authenticity and Timing.” The description of the lecture called it “A dual narrative–the writer’s ongoing work on the book and, meanwhile, what’s simultaneously going on in the publishing world…. how do you prepare your organism to thrive in that agar?” Exactly what a writer seeking publication would be interested in, right?

And, indeed, Ms. Jones gave us a vivid glimpse into a publisher’s conference room where editors have to sell a project to her, the marketing staff, the sales staff, the publicity staff, and ultimately the publisher him- or herself. Her opinions were honest if not a harsh reality–if your first book doesn’t meet the sales department’s goals you don’t get a contract for a second one., for example. She did, however, talk about making your writing “stand out” to attract an editor’s attention, so he or she will push hard for your book at that conference table.

She then described her editing process, i.e., “eliminating words to free the story.” Frankly, she seemed to be describing an ideal book, in her opinion, as page after page of “subject-verb-object” over and over. However, she did emphasize she edits literary fiction. This was a great insider’s view of the part of the publishing world we writers are–or were–happily ignorant of, and Ms. Jones may have inadvertently discouraged more people from submitting their work to Holt or anywhere else than she encouraged.

On Thursday, my workshop instructor, Laura Benedict, did her lecture on “Bringing the Sizzle: Five Ways to Add Genre Appeal to Your Writing (Without all the Heavy Breathing.)” Benedict opened the lecture with the question, “Is popular fiction inferior to literary fiction?” She didn’t wait for a reply and responded with, “No, of course not!” She explained that she is not a traditionally trained writer–she started out in marketing and public relations for Anhauser Busch–but when she came to writing she wrote stories she wanted to tell. She made a conscious decision to write genre fiction with supernatural elements because she wanted her work to be entertaining.

The key to genre writing is simple, “Something has to happen in every chapter.” Genre writers, she says, should strive to produce “upmarket” work, i.e., a compelling story with attractive language.” Good genre fiction, Benedict says, “is for a literate reader who loves a story but who doesn’t want to read crap. Bad writing, whether genre or literary, makes me angry.”

Benedict provided her personal definition of the differences between popular (genre) and literary fiction. Literary fiction, she says, “is character-driven. Style and language are more important than plot. Popular fiction is driven by the plot, but popular fiction can be as good as literary fiction when a writer successfully merges good characters and writing with a superb plot.”

Her “Five Ways” are as follows:

  1. If you want people to read your book and enjoy it, raise the stakes–don’t be quiet, go for the awesome factor, not the quotidian epiphany. Make sure people care about your characters but put them at risk, i.e., in situations where they might lose something or where bad things can happen.
  2. Mind your setting for all its worth. It’s okay to use tropes because that means you can concentrate on story.
  3. Keep the story moving; don’t dwell so long on an image you lose the reader. Start by having a clear sense of what your story is about. Use the 3 X 3 exercise: Describe your current work in three sentences of three words each. This is the start of–or is–your elevator pitch.
  4. Create characters with emotional and moral intensity and definable value systems, whether the value system is good or bad. This is especially true for your antagonist or villain; make him or her as three-dimensional as the protagonist.
  5. Enjoy yourself in your work. Genre writers love their jobs because they’re writing what they love.

Great words of advice from one established genre writer to a hopeful one.

Part 3 – Fred Leebron’s take on creative writers using post-modernism.

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.