If you missed part one of my interview with independent book editor Lorin Oberweger, click HERE, then come back. Lorin not only has nearly two decades of experience in the publishing industry, she’s an expert at honing in on what writers want–what they need–and offering workshops tailor-made for them. She’s also a ghostwriter and award-winning author, so have no doubt she knows what she’s talking about. We’re thrilled she took time out of her busy schedule to talk about who might benefit best from workshops, the best workshop exercise she’s seen–which is can’t miss!–and more.
Part 2: Interview with Lorin Oberweger
Q: What are the most common problems you see when reviewing the works of workshop participants? In what ways can these things be fixed?
LO: I could, and probably should, make a list, but I’ll tackle just two of the top issues I see at workshops: 1) the lack of understanding of scene structure and purpose in a novel; and 2) the lack of dramatic, observable action in a story, in favor of loads of exposition (the dreaded “telling” instead of “showing”).
With the first point, I’d say the most helpful approach is for a writer to educate him or herself on scene structure. Somewhere out on the “interwebs” here, writers can find an article I wrote on the topic. Just put “Lorin Oberweger, scenes” in Google or your search engine of choice. That’s a start. But plenty of instructors have written much more extensively about scene structure, and their work is pretty easily found as well.
The guiding principle is that a scene should be in one character’s point of view, should be centered around the pursuit of some goal on the character’s part (preferably an observable one, which is related to the character’s main goal for the story), should feature some form of opposition to that goal, and should resolve itself in such a way as to move the story forward, at least until one reaches the end! There are, of course, other critical factors, such as location, swings/shifts in tension, etc., but those are some basics.
With the second issue—exposition instead of observable, dramatic action—again, this is something that writers need to investigate more fully on their own. Basically, one needs to watch for narratives that are driven by SUMMARY rather than action that can be observed in the writer’s inner eye.
An example: “Tom and Lucas had been best friends for years and felt comfortable with each other. They were almost like brothers.”
This is TELLING the reader something, feeding him or her information in summary. It is informational, but there’s not much there for the reader to mentally observe. While some of this is fine, even necessary in a novel, too many writers relate their entire stories in this fashion, with information, summary, and little action and imagery to really help readers feel invested and immersed.
A less expository approach might be something like: “Lucas came into Tom’s room and flopped onto his futon. Helping himself to a handful of french fries from Tom’s dinner, he grinned and said, “So, what’s the plan tonight, bro?”
Obviously, this is a pretty imperfect example, but one learns, via the ACTIONS of the character, as well as the dialogue, something about their relationship. The writing is more visual and lively and makes us feel more a part of the scene.
Q: Can writers at all stages of their career benefit from workshops, or are they generally best for unpublished and beginning writers? How can intermediate and advanced writers evolve through a workshop experience, if at all?
LO: I firmly believe that workshops can benefit writers at all stages of their writing careers, though one of the reasons I created the Breakout Novel workshops with Don was that I didn’t see much out there for intermediate and advanced writers and very little for published mid-list authors who wanted to push beyond their current capabilities.
But I do think writing is an art form that thrives on continued discovery and that sometimes it’s not so much the TOPIC presented at a workshop but the APPROACH to that topic that can part the clouds for a writer. In other words, even if a subject feels elementary to a more seasoned writer, there may be something in the instructor’s specific way of looking at the topic that feels fresh and valuable.
Of course, it helps to ask questions before signing up for a workshop or class, and to read the descriptions carefully. For intermediate and advanced writers, I’m a big advocate of courses that are hands-on, that compel you to do real work on your novel-in-progress and/or to create new work during the week. That way, it will always be based on your skill level and will always be very specific to your needs/goals as a writer, rather than simply a passive learning experience.
Q: How often do you see writers who come across well on paper but who are just lacking that certain “something”? What sort of advice do you give to them?
LO: Often! So often, in fact, that I’ve begun work on a book on this topic, in the hopes that I can better understand the reasons for this and help my clients and students get beyond this stage, which can be SO frustrating and demoralizing.
Most writers who come through our workshops are pretty adept stylists with a fairly elevated sense of how to create sympathetic characters and tell a compelling story. And yet, in many cases their work doesn’t stir a real response in Don or the other staff members, myself included. It doesn’t prompt agents or editors to say, “Yes! This is the one.”
To help with this, I actually have an exercise I’ve introduced at the Writers Retreat Workshop, in which I ask students to look at the elements of narrative distance, voice, stakes, imagery, and conflict/tension within their scenes. If the reader doesn’t feel close to the scene, doesn’t find something unique or compelling in the voice, isn’t treated to rich sensory detail, has no idea, really, what’s at stake for a character in a scene, or if the conflict/tension is muted at best, chances are slim that the reader is going to care enough to turn the page.
In terms of advice, I’d ask them to take a look at those elements for each scene, or, better yet, ask trusted writing friends to do so. I also have a diagnostic sheet I’ve used in some of my classes, which I’m happy to send to anyone who emails me for one. It’s actually best for group diagnostic work, but it will help writers working solo as well. Just drop a line with “Scene diagnostic sheet” in the subject line to: firstname.lastname@example.org.
Q: What’s the best exercise on writing you’ve ever seen in a workshop? We’d love to try it.
LO: Here’s one that Don Maass developed during our Breakout Novel Intensive workshops. It’s also featured in his THE FIRE IN FICTION book, newly out from Writers Digest Books. I use it with his generous permission!
Step 1: Find a violent action in your novel.
Step 2: Deconstruct this violent action into its three, four or five most distinct visual pictures, the stills that freeze-frame the sequence.
Step 3: Look closely at each still picture. For each, write down something in the image that we would not immediately notice.
Step 4: For each picture, put your point of view character in a psychiatrist’s chair. Ask, what do you feel at this precise moment?
Note: Discard the obvious emotions: shock, horror, fear. For each step of the action write down a secondary emotion.
Step 5: Without looking at your original draft, rewrite this passage of violence using the results of the steps above. Pick and choose, of course, but draw heavily if not exclusively from your lists.
Discussion: Film directors take a lot of time to storyboard violent action. Each shot is carefully planned, then the shots are edited together to make the sequence. Novelists rarely spend as much time planning their violence. Violence in many manuscripts is rushed. Essential visual action is dry and objective, or sometimes buried and hard to follow. Focusing on less obvious visual details and unexpected emotions can make violence visceral and fresh. Breaking it down into steps, meanwhile, makes the action easy to follow.”
This also works beautifully for scenes of sexual connection, and really, I find it pretty essential for writers to do some form of this for every scene—focus on the unexpected, the fresh, both in the visual realm and in the emotional one. Doing so will definitely result in powerful storytelling.
And who doesn’t want that?
Thanks so much, Lorin, for an especially empowering interview!