I was just like a kid anticipating going to Disney World in the few weeks before Tinker Mountain Writers Workshop. I was positively giddy, so excited was I to see old and new writer friends, to workshop my genre MS, to meet the instructors, to conduct the student readings–everything. (Well, everything except perhaps the beds in the freshman dorm at Hollins University where the TMWW attendees are housed.) I mean, my suitcases were in the car two days before I left.
Dinner on Sunday was a big reunion for thirteen of us who were TMWW “alums.” That meant thirty-seven of the attendees were new to the workshop, some new to the concept of workshopping entirely. After dinner, we met with our instructors to go over the schedule for the week; then, we made our way to the student activity center for faculty readings. Emilia Phillips read her poetry, and Laura Benedict, who was my instructor for “Enhancing Your Genre Writing,” read from her new release, Bliss House.
This year, the craft seminars and the workshops exchanged places, meaning we had workshop from 0900 to 1200 in the morning, and the craft lectures from 1300 to 1400 in the afternoon. Now, the good news was three unencumbered hours in the afternoon to read, write, do workshop exercises, or have your post-critique conference. However, because we backed up against lunch in the morning workshop sessions, they felt rushed to me, and we were constantly aware of the clock. In past years, when the craft lecture was from 0900 to 1000, we had two hours of free time before lunch. Afternoon workshops went from 1300 to 1600 (the same number of hours), but if you went a little long, you still had time before dinner to work in a conference or even some free time. At the end of the week, there was an informal poll about having workshop in the morning, and it was overwhelmingly in favor of that. Oh, well.
The first craft seminar on Monday was “The Weapon as Character,” given by Pinckney Benedict, my instructor from my first time at TMWW. It was pure Pinckney. He opened the seminar with Mussorgsky’s “Pictures from an Exhibition,” followed by an excerpt from “The Walking Dead,” a popular television show about the zombie apocalypse. He used Mussorgsky to illustrate the concept of “ekphrasis,” or using one form of art to describe/define another. Mussorgsky wrote “Pictures at an Exhibition” to be a virtual stroll through an exhibition of paintings by an artist who was a close friend and who had died prematurely, Viktor Hartmann. The ten movements each focus on a specific painting by Hartmann, e.g., Baba Yaga’s hut or the Great Gates of Kiev (my personal favorite). This, according to Pinckney, is the epitome of ekphrasis–a musician describing paintings, paintings which were subsequently lost in a fire so that the music is the only depiction of many of them.
“The Walking Dead” sequence was a scene with the character Michonne, who carries a specific type of sword to fight zombies, a katana (aka a samurai sword, so designed and worn the wielder could draw and attack in a single motion). This in and of itself is already defining the character of Michonne, since the traditional way to kill zombies is a head shot with a gun. She chooses an ancient weapon, one specifically designed for close-quarter, hand-to-hand combat. Yes, it would be easier to grab a gun and fire away, but her way, she has to confront her enemy directly; she has to look into their dead eyes as she kills them. Re-kills them?
At first we see her confronting a zombie who looks remarkably like her and that appears to put her off her game. Then, she draws the katana and begins to fight, conquering an overwhelming number of zombies. The character at that point is the katana, which seems to have a mind of its own while dispatching the walking dead. This, per Pinckney, is the perfect example of a weapon becoming a character itself. “Michonne would not be Michonne without her katana,” he explained. I don’t watch the show because, frankly, my dreams would be full of zombies, and that’s just too unpleasant for me; however, I might have to watch some episodes because I’m now intrigued by Michonne and her choice of weapon.
Pinckney acknowledged the potential controversy in having a weapon as a character, and then dismissed the controversy by saying that if you don’t like weapons, don’t write stories that feature them. Amen. I encounter this myself. I write about spies. Spies on occasion use weapons. I’ve had people declare to me they won’t read my work because my characters carry guns. Okay, that’s fine. I respect that, but respect my personal writing choices in return.
After we tossed about some characters who are so closely associated with their weapons that, if they didn’t have the weapon, they would no longer be that character, we discussed the pros and cons of including weapons in our work–beyond the Chekhov adage that if you show a gun in the beginning it has to be fired before the end. Research, research, research, Pinckney emphasized because if you go on what you assume to be true about a weapon and an expert in that weapon reads your work and finds your knowledge lacking, it will color his or her opinion of the whole work. And, Pinckney says, the weapon has to fit the person and the setting and the time period of your work–unless, of course, you write Steampunk. Then, you can be very inventive.
In a recent piece of historical fiction I wrote, I had a soldier from World War II use a bazooka against a German Tiger Tank. That involved researching not only the types of bazookas used in World War II (and selecting the appropriate one), it also meant researching the Tiger Tank’s vulnerabilities (few though they were), all for a brief mention of the bazooka’s range of effectiveness.
You do that, in the world according to Pinckney, to be authentic, and if you’re authentic, he said, people will read your work and want more.
Next installment: Workshopping genre fiction and additional craft seminars.