Roanoke Regional Writers Conference – The Finale!

After a great lunch–I discovered during Tinker Mountain last year, Hollins has a wonderful cafeteria–we settled in for the Roanoke Regional Writers Conference afternoon sessions. First up, we could choose from “Experiences and Options in Self-Publishing,” by Michael Abraham; “The Diverse Ways Writers Manipulate Time on the Page,” by Jim Minick; “Structuring Song,” by Greg Trafidlo (who bills himself as a “troubadour”–how cool is that?); and “Writing Dark Fantasy and Horror for Young Adults,” by Tiffany Trent.

I went to Jim Minick’s workshop. He and I were at Tinker Mountain together, and he had been a guest reader at SWAG last year. His wonderful memoir, The Blueberry Years, was a delight to read, and he now teaches at Radford. His workshop got us to look at ways we convey time in our writing, on the macro and micro levels, but he emphasized that we have to keep the reader’s perception of time in mind. The reader experiences our writing in real-time as he or she reads it, but we control the pace. How we break a work into chapters or scenes (macro level), the sentence length and type of punctuation we use (micro level) all determine the pace for the reader. This is all unconscious on the reader’s part but very conscious on the writer’s part. We speed up or slow down using dialogue or the choice of specific verbs. “You are gods,” Minick told us. “Every word choice, sentence length, etc., creates a world.” Minick also suggested a time-honored way to check how you’ve used time–read your work aloud. A great workshop, and it would certainly be great luck to be one of his students.

The mid-afternoon sessions were “Understand Your Publishing Options Before Your Manuscript is Finished,” by Teri Leidich; “Visual Images as the Source of Stories,” by Carrie Brown; and “Telling Stories,” by Dan Casey.

I went to Casey’s workshop because he is a journalist and editor of a local paper in Roanoke, and journalists, not to mention those from an Irish background, are the best story tellers. Casey’s method of workshopping is to demonstrate by action–he told story after story, and in so doing taught us about chronology and setting, how to inject humor and suspense, and showing not telling. The latter is particularly interesting in the telling of the story, but he managed to do it. He reminded me of the times I spent with my Irish grandmother listening to her spin tales; she’d tell the same ones over and over, but with each telling she showed me something different. Casey bore that out when he emphasized that when we revise and edit, we are telling the story over and over until it’s the right one.

The final workshops of the day were “The Craft of the Art,” by Amanda Cockrell, who is also a professor in Hollins’ writing program; “Developing Ideas That Publishers Will Buy,” by Roland Lazenby; and “Selling Your Young Adult Novel 101,” by Angie Smibert.

“The Craft of the Art” workshop was a condensation of a semester-long course Cockrell gives at Hollins, and frankly it would be worth auditing, if that were possible. Through a series of interactive, workshop exercises Cockrell emphasized that the typical aspects of a story (POV, setting, characters, etc.) comprise a toolbox we should draw from and that we should use the right tool at the right point in the story.

Cockrell had us spend five minutes writing down our earliest memory as a way to delve into our own subconscious. Several participants read theirs aloud, and I was surprised at how much detail I could recall about my earliest memory when I got quiet and thought about it.

The next exercise was to write the letters of the alphabet in a vertical column then write a vignette about something that starts with that letter. Again, a few people read their vignettes, but Cockrell made us promise to finish the exercise on our own or use it as a way to overcome writer’s block. “You may be surprised,” she said, “to find you’ll end up working bits of this exercise into a story you’re writing. Everything we write comes from somewhere in us, of our knowledge of other humans.” Cockrell noted that the things most people read aloud came from their childhood or teenaged years. “We draw from childhood,” she said, “because it’s new and from our adolescence because it’s tense.”

The final exercise Cockrell offered was to have us draw a picture of the childhood bedroom we spent the most time in, and that was quite the challenge to recall. As the minutes went on, though, I found I recalled more and more detail, including the spot where I started writing stories at my desk and in, first, spiral notebooks then on a manual typewriter. Great fun and very instructive.

The final session of the day was a panel on the future of blogging. Unfortunately, I opted out of that because yet another snow-maggeddon loomed, and I wanted to get home without driving in the dark in a snowstorm.

Overall, my first experience with the Roanoke Regional Writers Conference was a very positive one. There was a lot of depth and breadth in the workshops, and in many cases it was difficult to choose which one to attend. The presenters were all excellent, and I took away useful advice and plenty of writing tips. I think this will become a regular conference for me, and I’d recommend it whether you’re in Virginia or not.


Out of the Mouths of Babes – Sort of, Part 2

This is the conclusion of last week’s post on Pixar’s 22 Rules of Phenomenal Storytelling. If you want to refresh yourself on the first 11, click here. Otherwise, read on.

Pixar’s 22 Rules of Phenomenal Storytelling

12. Discount the first thing that comes to mind. And the second, third, fourth, and fifth. Get the obvious out of your way. Surprise yourself.

I’m not certain I completely agree with this, unless it refers to the revision process. I don’t know that the first thing that comes to mind is the obvious or that the obvious is unacceptable. I do agree with “Surprise yourself.” If you let yourself be surprised by your writing, you could get something magical.

13. Give your characters opinions. Passive and malleable might seem likable to you as you write, but it’s poisonous to the audience.

Think back to the seemingly most passive character you’ve ever read. Jane Eyre, for example. A mousy, repressed, prim young woman who molded herself into compliance at the horrid school where her aunt sent her, we find she has definite opinions about Rochester and her life at Thornfield. Or Miss Marple. She always seems to sit placidly by while murder happens all around her, but when she lays out the evidence and fingers the murderer, she is almost vicious in her opinions about the suspects. Giving your characters opinions gives them depth, makes them real, because we’re all human. We have opinions. Just ask my friends.

14. Why must you tell this story? What’s the belief burning within you that your story feeds off of? That’s the heart of it.

I know the feeling of having something eat at you until you write it down. Sometimes the why isn’t clear until you write the story; then, it all becomes apparent. That’s a great feeling. At a recent panel on creativity, I mentioned how these two characters who are spies tapped me on the shoulder and told me to write about them. My stories about them feed off my sense of social justice, and that’s why I write them.

15. If you were your character in this situation, how would you feel? Honesty lends credibility to unbelievable situations.

This isn’t the same as being in your character’s head. This is you, dropped in the middle of your story, but chances are the way you react is the way your character will react. The reader will believe that.

16. What are the stakes? Give us reason to root for the character. What happens if they don’t succeed? Stack the odds against.

Let’s face it, a story would be pretty dull unless the character had obstacles to overcome. We don’t ease through life, so why should our characters? Besides, stacking the odds against them is rather fun. And who says a character always has to succeed? That’s the one issue I had with Miss Marple–didn’t she ever make a mistake?

17. No work is wasted. If it’s not working, let go and move on. It’ll come back around to be useful later.

It seems I let go and move on a lot, but it does usually come back around to be useful. It’s more than just saving every version of your story or novel. It’s being able to know when something’s not working. For me, it’s staring at the computer screen, unable to compose or revise. If I belabor it, it only becomes worse. Time to move on, but I know it’s waiting for me when I know the time is right.

18. You have to know yourself. The difference between doing your best and fussing over the story is testing, not refining.

“Fussing over the story” is an interesting concept, and it is a fine line between useful refinement and second-guessing every word. I’m definitely guilty of the latter, but as I’ve come to know myself as a writer, I’ve learned to recognize which side of the line I’m on.

19. Coincidences to get characters into trouble are great; coincidences to get them out of it are cheating.

I’m sure you’ve been in the middle of a suspenseful story, the proverbial runaway wagon full of women and children headed for the cliff, and the writer doesn’t resolve it in a challenging way. Think of that season of the original TV show Dallas where Bobby Ewing was dead the entire season, but we find at the beginning of the next season it was all a dream. I know I felt cheated.

20. Exercise: Take the building blocks of a movie you dislike. How’d you rearrange them into what you do like?

That would certainly be a tremendous exercise in creativity. Consider how many movies you’ve left thinking that you’d wasted your money. Now, think about how you’d rewrite them. I know I wish–and I suspect Disney does too–someone would have rearranged the building blocks of John Carter.

21. You gotta identify with your situation characters, can’t just write “cool.” What would make you act that way?

This is a corollary, I think, to number 15 above. If you have a character do something, you have to think about what would have to happen to make you do the same thing. Otherwise, the character has no depth, and the reader won’t be interested. When I had a character cross a moral line in a story, I did wonder what I would do if faced with the same situation. The result was no coincidence.

22. What’s the essence of your story, the most economical telling of it? If you know that, you can build out from there.

At a recent workshop I attended on creating a world in a short story, the instructor described how a writer he knew one time just wrote the dialogue for a story, no exposition, no character descriptions, just dialogue. That was the economical telling of it, and he went back and added exposition and description–only where it was needed. Maybe the essence of your story is a list of character traits, maybe a location. Whatever it is, recognize it as the infrastructure of a really great story.

So, there you have them. Twenty-two rules to make your writing phenomenal–and without going to work for Pixar. How will you incorporate them in your writing?

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Later this week, look for a post about the very first Press53 “Gathering of Writers,” a one-day intensive workshop in Winston-Salem, NC.

Out of the Mouths of Babes – Sort of, Part 1

If you’ve seen Cars 1 and 2, Toy Story 1, 2, or 3, Wall-E, or any of a number of animated films produced by Pixar, you’ve seen engaging stories that appeal to all ages. Though produced for children, Pixar’s films are equally enjoyed by adults. In some cases, the kids are just the excuse for the adults to go to a Pixar movie. (Wall-E and both Cars movies are among my DVD collection.)

In addition to its movies and its revolutionary advances in computer-generated imagery, Pixar is also famous as a Steve Jobs project–the one he joined when Apple originally kicked him out. Eventually and post-Jobs, Disney bought Pixar, and it’s been a good merger.

The computer-generated characters in Pixar movies would be nothing without a good story to showcase them, and to ensure that, we have “Pixar’s 22 Rules for Phenomenal Storytelling.” They’ve shown up on Pinterest and on other blogs, but I thought I give them a little different spin and describe the impressions these rules made on me and how I related them to my writing. I’ll do the first eleven this week, and the remainder for the August 20 writing post.

Pixar’s 22 Rules of Phenomenal Storytelling

1. You admire a character for trying more than for success.

When you think back on any Pixar movie, this is really its central theme. Perhaps it’s better phrased as “It’s not the destination, but the journey, that matters.” Of course, we all want to get to the “destination,” a completed book or story, but getting there is sometimes more important. Don’t “try” to write; just write. Don’t self-edit when you’re in the writing zone. Just write.

2. You gotta keep in mind what’s interesting to you as an audience, not what’s fun to do as a writer. They can be very different.

We like to do lots of fun things as writers–twist and turn a plot, dump in a surprise ending, and so on–but we have to remember we’re readers, too. Yes, write what appeals to you, but remember you’re not the only one who’s going to read it. I hope.

3. Trying for theme is important, but you won’t see what the story is actually about ’til you’re at the end of it. Now re-write.

I can’t count how many times this has been true for me, especially when writing a short story. I sit down with something in mind, but it goes in a completely different direction. Sometimes I think I have a whole other person inside me who just takes over, and she’s obviously a better writer.

4. Once upon a time there was _____. Every day, _____. One day _____. Because of that _____. Because of that _____, until finally, __________.

I don’t usually outline, but this is perfect to remind me of just what the writing process is–short, sweet, to the point.

5. Simply. Focus. Combine characters. Hop over detours. You’ll feel like you’re losing valuable stuff, but it sets you free.

I have a work in progress whose opening scene involves a person who isn’t sure if she’s alive or dead. I really liked it when I first wrote it and after I tweaked it. Now, I realize it has nothing whatsoever to do with the work in progress, so it’s time to “hop over that detour.” I never completely delete anything. Cut and paste to a new file. You never know when it might come in handy. Recycled writing.

6. What is your character good at, comfortable with? Throw the polar opposite at them. Challenge them. How do they deal?

How real life is this? Doing this to your characters would certainly make them real, not just shadows on a page. Just reading this rule got me thinking “What if I…?” 

7. Come up with your ending before you figure out your middle. Seriously. Endings are hard. Get yours working up front.

I agree, endings are hard, but sometimes they’re not that easy to come up with. Of course, if the ending is so divorced from the middle, there’s always that great R-word: re-write. (See Rule Number 3.)

8. Finish your story, then let go even if it’s not perfect. In an ideal world, you have both, but move on. Do better next time.

It’s never good for the ego to go back and read stuff you’ve written 10, 20 years before. Moving on is exactly the thing to do. I’m a better writer than I was 10, 20 years ago. I’ll be a better writer 10, 20 years from now.

9. When you’re stuck, make a list of what wouldn’t happen next. Lots of times the material to get you unstuck will show up.

This is another rule which made me do a forehead smack–what a great idea. I think we see now why I’m not a writer at Pixar.

10. Pull apart the stories you like. What you like in them is a part of you. You’ve got to recognize it before you can use it.

We all know what appeals to us in a story or novel. That’s why we read an entire series by the same author or books of a similar ilk. For me, it’s strong, believable characters who struggle with their frailties. So, what kind of characters do I write? Yep, you got it. 

11. Putting it on paper lets you start fixing it. If it stays in your head, a perfect idea, you’ll never share it with anyone.

How many of us have kept our ideas for the world’s greatest short story or novel in our heads? We probably do that because our insecurity says, “Nah, it can’t be that good.” Our inner critic isn’t the best judge, after all. It won’t be the world’s greatest story unless we put it on paper.

What do you think of Pixar’s 22 Rules so far? Inspiring? Nonsense? (Just remember the writers of those multi-million-dollar grossing films followed these rules of story-telling.) I’d like to know what you think.

Tune in next week for Rules 12 – 22!