I'm back from Eckerd College's Writer's in Paradise Conference and thought I'd share some of my notes, mostly the gems I hope to remember. Some of what I heard was a repeat of material I heard at the conference two years ago. But I realized while I was there that I learn in layers. Maybe we all do. Each lesson learned opens the door for deeper understanding of old lessons. The faculty and staff at Eckerd are fanatstic. They offer a packed week of energetic learning and motivation. I was honored to share my writing with the talented writers in my workshop. There's a sense that everyone there cares about growing your writing.
Ann Patchett was the keynote speaker so I'll start with my notes from her speech:
Ann Patchett: She spends a long time building a story in her head before she writes the first word. The book is the dead thing she creates from the beautiful story in her head. She's says we need to forgive ourselves for our inferior efforts to transfer that story to written word. Do the best you can and accept it. Every time she writes, she’s confronted by her lack of talent.
Learn to write a short story and you’ve learned to write a chapter. If you aren’t sure of a chapter’s thrill, make it short. If the chapter has material that readers can’t stop reading, make it long.
She writes the first draft chronologically so she discovers what the characters discover when they discover it.
Research either in the middle of the book or the end. Then forget it so you don’t have the urge to show readers all you know on the subject.
She uses the Visual Dictionary.
Daniel Woodrell: He studied Hemingway to learn to take readers inside the story in succinct sentences and paragraphs. He doesn’t know the heart of his story until he’s made two or three attempts. After fifty pages, he hits a groove and the chapter he’s writing feels like it’s connecting with the beginning; the story makes sense.
Don’t hype your characters or force plot on them. And don’t protect them. He fights an urge to defend his characters, to save their reputation, make them look good.
Each day, he reads all he's written of the draft before he types new words. Asked if he had 250 words written, did that mean he read all 250 words? His answer . . . yes. Mind blowing, isn't it?
Notes from Michael Koryta's Narrative Lecture:
Any word next to a period plays jazz.
Place shorter words and paragraphs at the points of greatest complexity.
For clarity, slow the pace. Short sentences make the reader read slowly.
Control the pace of the story with sentences. Long sentences create a flow that carries the reader down a stream of understanding.
Establish the conflict first; then paint the world.
If a character points out the shotgun on the mantle, that gun needs to play a key role later in the book.
Character’s emotion should change from scene to scene, arc from one emotion to another. It’s imperative that we see how events change the character. It’s not how the character works on the plot, it’s how plot works on the character.
Always increase obstacles and challenges, never decrease.
Look for scenes that can tie into the story as subplot. Subplots drive toward the main story.
Mark manuscript with Ds (dramatic/in-the-moment narrative) and Ss (summary) to measure the balance of show and tell.
To play with stretching and condensing time, write one to two pages about a small event (like eating an ice-cream cone); then condense a long chunk of time in one or two paragraphs.
I'm feeling pretty positive about this new year. Good things are afoot, starting this weekend with my second Writer's in Paradise conference at Eckerd College. The campus is nestled at the southern tip of Pinellas County, surrounded by beautiful, gulf waters. My best friend from high school is attending from New Mexico and we hope to channel some energy from our past. Novelist, David Yoo is leading the young adult workshops which will take up my mornings for the next eight days. During lunch breaks, my friend (who is doing the nonfiction track) and I plan to find a sunny spot near the water, picnic and compare notes. In the afternoons, we'll attend presentations by the illustrious: Dennis Lehanne, Ann Patchett, Andre Dubus and more. I can't wait!
In the fall, I was thrilled to be accepted into a fantatsic, critique group of middle grade and young adult novelists. At first, I fretted over the drive and time commitment. The group is based in the county south of mine with two members living in the county south of that. They alternate meetings between the two counties, one every other week. Critique days, I'm on the road for almost three hours. Add that to four hours of critique and the day is almost gone. But after two meetings, I knew the time and drive were justified by the rewards. These talented authors have encouraged my efforts and offered superior, critical feedback. On top of that, I get to read and learn from their stellar chapters! I'm still pinching myself. For the last three years, I've hoped to find a group of this caliber and had almost given up. When I did find it, I worried about fitting in. I'm the least experienced writer by far. They not only make me feel welcome but have graciously shown respect for my feedback and work.
Three of my new critique partners are attending the SCBWI conference in Miami this weekend. I'm looking forward to hearing about their experience and sharing my notes from Eckerd at our next meeting. If you aren't a member of a critique group, the new year is a good time to look for one. Writers need support and agents and editors will thank you for work screened by your peers. If you've been searching for a group and haven't found the right fit, don't give up! Keep perfecting your craft and gather where other writers gather. Speaking of gathering, January is a good time to check out the year's writers' conferences and workshops. Our skills are never too sharp and they're great places to network. Many critique groups started from conference friendships.
And by drama, I mean writer hysterics. It won't be pretty and it's likely to continue for the next few months. The cause? I've entered a mentorship agreement with New York Times bestselling author, Caroline Leavitt. When I first heard of mentorships, my brain conjured images of Dorothy and Glenda, Harry and Dumbledore, Frodo and Gandolf. I loved the idea of a sage hand guiding my work. But I knew I had much to learn before I'd understand a mentor's wisdom.
So for three years I continued learning: in critique groups, books, conferences, online classes, and I wrote and wrote and wrote. Last week, Julianna Baggott, the author who led the YA workshops at Eckerd College's 2011 Writer's in Paradise Conference, wrote a post about building your own MFA. She listed several writers who teach, edit and mentor. This seemed like divine intervention. I had been scanning 2012 conferences but none of them felt "right." Was I ready for a mentorship? I tiptoed through the writer's links in Julianna's post and settled on Caroline. Why did I choose her? First, the information available provided a good picture of what to expect from her services. She teaches online classes at UCLA, which offer course descriptions and a syllabus. Then there's her website, featuring a bio, her books and a blog. I was impressed with her writing and her syllabus and I felt I knew a little bit about her after my research.
I drew a deep breath and sent Caroline an email. She promptly responded with an enthusiastic message, thorougly describing her classes and personal mentorships. She feels the writer/editor relationship should feel right to both parties and offered to review three pages for free. I sent the first three pages of my book Sunday afternoon and a couple hours later they returned with Caroline's comments. I was pleased with her balanced blend of encouragement and criticism and it appeared she could stomach my writing. Another deep breath later, I agreed to send the first hundred pages of my book along with a synopsis, followed by the rest of my book in chunks. More deep breaths, or was that hyper-ventilating?
Then self-doubt demons attacked. What was I thinking? I only had one hundred pages of a first draft; how did I know I could write the rest of the novel? Maybe I wasn't cut out to be a novelist. The story probably wasn't worth Caroline's time. Those imps spun a convincing doubt campaign. I pictured my protaganist and a fierce voice rose to her defense, sending the demons back to their dens. The story would be told. Tuesday, I withdrew from my critique groups to clear my schedule for intense writing time. The hardest to leave was PB&J, my picture book group. They're a source of inspiration and they feel like family. For two days, I've been saying temporary good-byes and receiving best wishes for this project. I feel bolstered by these friends, fellow children's writers traveling a well-worn path to publication. Yesterday, I explored my expectations for this mentorship. I'm not Dorothy, searching for home, Harry, battling evil or Frodo, tempted by a cursed ring, and I don't expect magical wisdom from Caroline. I hope this partnership bolsters my drive to finish this book and the guidance to make it the best it can be. Mostly, I hope to be a better writer when its done.
I write middle grade and young adult books with a magical twist. I'm represented by the fabulous Leslie Zampetti of Dunham Lit.
Lorin Oberweger - Freelance Editor