Improving the Odds
Source: Improving the Odds
The annual James River Writers Conference is becoming one of the best weekend conferences around. This was its second year in the Greater Richmond Convention Center and as a part of the Library of Virginia’s literary week celebrations. The conference has grown to accommodate the larger space and the uplift in prestige. This year’s attendees came from all over Virginia and the several surrounding states but also from far western Canada and the U.K.
Like many other conferences I’ve attended, this year JRW classified its panels into tracks, so you could concentrate your attendance in specific areas: Exploring Genre, Getting Published, Improving Your Craft, The Life of a Story, and Promoting Your Book. I spent most of my time for the two days in the “Improving Your Craft” track, because, well, that’s why I’ve been conferencing and workshopping so much in the past year.
The conference started off with a plenary session on Saturday morning featuring poets Brad Parks and Gbari Allen Garrett. Gbari is an eighth-grader in Richmond and rocked the house with poetry which seemed to come from a wise, old man. He’s a rising star. Then, we had pep talks by three people from various aspects of the business, non-fiction writer Christopher McDougall (Born to Run), publisher Carey Albertine, and graphics designer Chip Kidd. Kidd gave a wonderful presentation on the evolution of a book’s cover.
After the Library of Virginia Literary luncheon, featuring the finalists for the Virginia Literary Awards, the panels started. My first one was “Suspense Across the Genres,” which offered techniques for heightening tension. The panelists were Philippa Ballantine (Geist), Christopher McDougall, children’s author Kevin O’Malley (Bruno, You’re Late for School), and Howard Owen (The Philadelphia Quarry). Ballentine writes epic fantasy and steampunk; McDougall is non-fiction; O’Malley writes children’s stories with an edge; and Owen is a mystery writer, so an excellent cross-section of how to imbue your writing with suspense. Each writer emphasized that one way to build suspense is to put characters in “hot-spots.” However, you have to develop that character to the point where he or she matters to the reader, so the reader cares about what happens to the character. An excellent discussion with many concrete examples.
Next was the panel featuring the Virginia Literary Award finalists for fiction, Gigi Amateau (Come August, Come Freedom), Clifford Garstang (What the Zhang Boys Know), Lydia Netzer (Shine, Shine, Shine), and Kevin Powers (The Yellow Birds). Because the questions to the panelists were about their writing process and what inspires them, this was truly a great primer on the craft of writing.
Sunday’s program started off with “First Pages.” Frankly, I always cringe at this type of session, where you submit the first page of your work to be publicly critiqued by a panel of agents and editors, and, in this case, suspense writer, David Robbins. The critique is gentle, and JRW did try to trip up the panel by inserting first pages from authors at the top of their genre, but I never take anything useful away from this, mainly because if you go to more than one of these over a year’s time–and I have–you’ll find the advice from one panel contradicts what another had to say.
“Issues in Personnel Management: All About Characters” was a panel where authors Philippa Ballentine and Lydia Netzer used standard management principles (motivating employees, setting goals, delegating responsibility, communications, and egalitarianism) to describe how the characters in their novels get developed and infuse themselves into the writing process. As a former manager of (way too many) employees, this was an interesting exercise in “managing” the characters in a novel and time well spent.
“Voice Lessons” with panelists Elizabeth Huergo (The Death of Fidel Perez), Lydia Netzer, and Virginia Pye (River of Dust) went beyond point of view to whose voice they used to tell their stories and why it’s important to pick the right voice or voices. The conclusion of the panel was that for a first-time novelist, stick to third-person limited, get that first novel published, then experiment with other voices (e.g., first person).
I went a bit “off track” to the publishing side and attended “What to Do Before You Query.” Agents Deborah Grosvenor, Beth Phelan, and Paige Wheeler covered what they liked to see in a query letter, what they didn’t like to see, and how to prep your manuscript to make an impression on an agent.
I skipped “Pitchapalooza” because I still don’t have the guts to subject myself to that, but I drove home with a lot of ideas rumbling through my head and heightened enthusiasm. JRW’s conference is a great place to meet up with writing friends, old and new, and to pick up tools to help with your writing. Not to mention, picking up quite a few more books for the “to be read” pile.
And congratulations to my writer friend Clifford Garstang, whose What the Zhang Boys Know won the Library of Virginia Literary Award for Fiction.
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.