Takeaways from a Writer’s Conference
I attended the one-day Conversations & Connections writer’s conference again this year, hosted by Barrelhouse Magazine, and wrote up all the best advice and lessons learned—just for you guys. Enjoy!
First Panel: “What you Show: How to Choose What and When”
Speaker: Fiction Writer Stephanie King
Characterization is what you show in a character, plus context, plus situation. Ask yourself, what is your character’s biggest fear? What is he/she struggling to do? What will she/he learn in the process? What your characters do now shows what they’ve done in the past.
Consider “The Gift of the Magi”—O. Henry doesn’t go into the characters’ past. But there are select scenes that show who they are instead. Or “Hills Like White Elephants,” which is almost all dialogue. Jig wants the man she’s with (we’re never given his name) to love her again. Her insecurities, her neediness is evident through their conversations. She relies on him for nearly everything. We don’t even know what she looks like, but her character is clearly seen in the way she watches him look at the hills. Use subtle clues like this to show who your characters really are.
Create a logline for your story–that one-line “hook” that makes readers take notice. Tape it in front of you and refer back to it as you create.
Think of some of the most memorable movie characters that really had an impact. Hannibal Lecter was only on screen 15 minutes. Alien only four minutes!
Checklist for revealing your characters:
- Character sketch
- The slice of life you choose to show
- How they express themselves
- Context—how all this fits into their life
Second Panel: Invite, Beg, Snare, Broadcast, Brag: How to Open Short Stories
Speaker: Author Tommy Dean
Ask yourself what will entice the reader. Character, setting, and conflict create a concrete understanding for the reader and keep the story from settling into a vignette (a story without resolution or a sense of meaning—it can have character and conflict, but nothing is at stake for the writer or reader).
A good opening starts off with a sense of what’s at stake: The character has something to gain or to lose.
Introduce mystery, tension right from the start.
Become subservient to your story. Immerse yourself in this world and give us all the sensory details of it.
I found this session, and the prompts we were given, to be extremely helpful and interesting. And I feel like I’ve moved a step forward with the piece I’m working on.
Prompt #1: Write a general, bland sentence.
Now make it better with specific details:
Then add something off-kilter, unexpected:
Prompt #2: Push into your sense of irony.
Create dread, tension, or hope with targeted word choices. Why are these characters in this place at this point in their lives?
Prompt #3: Think about what your character didn’t do.
Continue with concrete nouns/verbs and something off-kilter. Build through this until the character does something meaningful that moves the story forward.
Prompt #4: Set up the front and back story.
Or set up duel conflicts—two characters sharing an unexpected event. Think of a word or words that might pass between them. Maybe something heavy from the past, or something about a particular item. Words should connect them in surprising ways—make them come together and then bounce away.
Prompt #5: Subvert the setting.
Think of a place you love. Write about it from the point of view of someone who hates that place. Consider the paradigm of character, setting, and conflict.
Publishing: Editor’s Panel
Moderator: Marisa Siegal, Editor in Chief of Rumpus; Panelists: Venus Thrash, co-editor of Beltway Poetry Quarterly; Jessica Fischoff, managing editor/owner of PANK Magazine; Chris Gonzalez, Fiction Editor of Barrelhouse; Monica Prince, Managing Editor, Santa Fe Writers Project
Siegal: How do you sustain writing while editing (or any other job)?
“Keep a journal and pen in every bag and desk and drawer. Write on cocktail napkins. Don’t ignore ideas when they show up.”
Prince: I’m required to write to keep my college professor job. I learned to write in the mornings, which changed everything. Never ignore an opportunity to write. Keep a journal and pen in every bag and desk and drawer. Write on cocktail napkins. Don’t ignore ideas when they show up. Write every day. It doesn’t have to be good. Write a grocery list! And drink lots of tea.
Fischoff: I’m still trying to find that balance. I’ve realized I can’t obsess over every piece. When it’s done, it’s done, and I move on.
Gonzales: I can often revise writing when it’s a low day at work. My job is sort of paying me to do this. If I had to go home and write, that would be too hard. I joined a writing group to keep me accountable. It’s been helpful. I’ve forgiven myself for not writing every day, so when I do, I’m less stressed. It happens when it happens.
Venus: I struggled with this and went into a writer’s slump. I teach, so my writing slows down during the semesters, gears up again in the summer when I’m off.
Siegal: Should writers follow market trends?
Gonzalez: Be aware of them, but write what you want and let it be what it will be. Is there a home for everything? No. But there is for most things.
Fischoff: Someone dying, opening grandma’s closet and finding something surprising—there’s far too much of that. Read a journal’s most recent issues to see what’s been done already. Surprise us.
Siegal: Do you have a way to separate editing and writing?
Fischoff: I tell myself, for the next hour, I will WRITE, not EDIT. I tell the editor in me to shut up.
Prince: Accept incoherence. Go on a rant. Write in the margins. You will need to revise, undoubtedly, but keep going.
I also attended the “Speed Dating with Editors” event, where you can share and discuss a short piece of your work with an editor for 10 minutes. I met with two literary magazine editors, both of whom had some wonderful insights into the writing I showed them. They speed-read a four-page piece and disagreed on several things I should correct. But the one thing they both advised me to do was slow down and insert myself more fully into the scene—let us see, hear, smell what the character is experiencing. And you know, that’s the really fun part of writing, isn’t it? Why is it always so easily overlooked?
Oh, and the best line overheard of the day?
“You have to listen to writing advice, but you don’t have to take it.”
(Which means, of course, you can ignore all of the above.)