Day 2 of the Grub Street “Muse and the Marketplace” writers’ conference!
Keynote: Writing in a Time of Upheaval, Stacey d’Erasmo
An academic examination of art by Gwendolyn Brooks, Henri Cartier-Bresson, and others whose style changed dramatically after some historical or personal event. At the end she explained that upheaval in her own personal life disrupted her art and caused her to research how other artists responded to upheaval. She said it didn’t help her, though; what did was shaking up her routine and trying something she had never considered — in her case, writing anonymously.
First session: Dare to Break the Ultimate Writing Rule: Why “Show Don’t Tell” Is a Crock, Steve Almond
This one was life-changing for me. Or at least writing-changing.
His premise was that writers tend to jump straight into scenes. But first you need to give the reader enough information so they understand the emotional significance of the scene. We can’t feel what a character feels if we don’t know what she knows.
This is one of those ideas that seems so obvious you know it’s brilliant. It resonated with me immediately because my writing group keeps saying, “But why does she react that way?” and I keep saying, “You’ll find out in a few chapters,” when obviously I should be just TELLING them what they need to know to understand the character’s reaction. DUH. But now I feel like I need to rewrite all my chapters.
Bullet pointy list:
- Aristotelian principle: Story is generated by a well-defined character whose world is set into disequilibrium.
- Don’t underestimate the power of the reader knowing more than the character
- Readers are ravenous for information and require it for the difficult task of constructing a movie in their head.
- The quicker the reader knows who the character is and what they care about, the more embedded in the story she is.
- Writing should cause productive bewilderment, not unproductive bewilderment. Productive: why do bad things happen to good people? What will happen next? Unproductive: Who is this character and what is happening?
Second session: The Literary Page Turner: Learning to Write with Both Pedals, Katie Bayerl
I’m going to look for Grub Street classes with Katie Bayerl — loved her self-assured style and concrete advice. Her premise was that “literary” novels are deep, thematic, and character-driven while “page-turners” are more often seen as exciting, plot-driven genre novels. But a novel can be both. She had us go through a series of exercises about why we care about our novel, and what first made us interested in it (“first glimmer”). She also highly recommended Story Genius by Lisa Cron, which she summarized by explaining that every action in a story must be tied to the character’s emotions. We then did some exercises on exploring the character’s desires, fears, and wrong beliefs about themselves and the world.
Some tips for improving stories:
- Visual storyboard can show you if you’re getting boring or repetitive — draw a little picture of each scene.
- Visualize yourself talking to the character. Ask them questions like, what was a time when you were happy? What’s your dream and why? Where did that dream come from?
- Only hold back information if the mystery/suspense is important to the core of your story — otherwise, be clear.
Third session: On Writing Epic Novels: A Conversation with Min Jin Lee, Christine Pride, Min Jin Lee
This was a wide-ranging conversation that I can’t summarize, so I’ll pull out a few things that fascinated me. Pachinko took 30 years to write and she did 14 complete rewrites. She had to hustle to get people to read it, attending every book club and bookstore that would host her. It became a bestseller a year after it was first published — her sales inched up until she reached a tipping point and got on the NY Times bestseller list. She mentioned that usually the real sales come when the book comes out in paperback, and she makes roughly a dollar per paperback. She also kept saying that while she couldn’t control anything about the publishing and sales process, she was absolutely confident about the quality of her book.
Fourth session: Irresistible Characters, Steve Almond
I am now sort of obsessed with Steve Almond, although I’ll admit that this wasn’t quite as useful to me as the previous session. I’m totally on board with going deep with my characters. Tips:
- The reader asks when they enter the story: who do I care about, and what do they care about?
- The more you know about your characters, the more you know what the plot should be.
- Name and age and important to establish upfront. Also basics like where the person is located and what they do for a living.
- Helpers and side characters should earn their way in by instigating some action or bad choices for the main character.
He had us do an exercise where we wrote lots of establishing information about our characters — not a scene, just information. One after another, everyone read their scenes. He asked, “Didn’t anybody do the exercise and just write down the information?” I nodded and he pointed to me and said, “You? Okay, let’s hear it.” So I got up and read, in my shaky voice, my three pages of explanation of who my character was. Later I saw someone from my writing group in the audience (hi Mary!) and realized that, while I’ve shared chapters of my novel, she didn’t know most of that information about the main character. I REALLY need to work on that.
The other thing that fascinated me about this session was when a guy writing historical fiction about Grover Cleveland kept trying to give us an intro with context about Grover Cleveland, and Steve Almond kept trying to cut him off and just get him to read his character study. Then when Steve Almond took the podium again, he reeled off a full minute of Grover Cleveland facts. I could not stop laughing but everyone else seemed to take it in stride, as if this were completely normal and everybody has an arsenal of Grover Cleveland trivia available for retrieval at all times.
I skipped the evening events, so that was the end of my day. Short day tomorrow, and that’s the end.