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Writer UnBoxed UnConference Wrap-Up, Pt 2

If you missed part 1 of our UnCon recap, please click HERE [1], then come back for part two. Tomorrow, look for our final installment. A big thank you again to Jeannine Walls Thibodeau [2] for her time in compiling this recap, and to all who provided Jeannine with notes from this year’s UnCon. 

logo imagery by Kristy Condon

Story Genius:

Lisa Cron

What is story not about? A lot of people think that story is a bunch of things happening. Or that things happen to someone. Or that something dramatic happens to someone. Story isn’t about the plot.

Story is how what happens affects someone in pursuit in of a deceptively difficult goal and how they change as a result of that pursuit. (Difficult goal=plot problem).

What we say versus what we WANT to say: Which one is juicier? Readers want to know what’s beneath a character’s words. External: Never let them see your sweat. Internal: You’re a sweating, raging mess inside and you’re trying to keep everyone else from seeing.

The heart of the story is when something happens that no one expected to happen. Stories translate abstract facts and make them understandable to the one biological thing that we use to make decisions: emotion. All stories are emotion-based. What we’re feeling is what the protagonist is feeling as she is struggling scene by scene with her problem: internal struggle.

All stories begin in media res. The first half of the story has already happened. Readers need the backstory, the most foundational layer of your story. It’s in flashbacks, how character makes sense of the world, behind what character says, where meaning comes from=past. Story structure is a product of the internal struggle.

Lisa talked about several steps before beginning story:

  1. Write a “What if” that captures both your point and why it matters to you. This will show the writer where the conflict is. If you know why your story matters to you, it will help you shut down the stupid voices that whisper, “I can’t write.” One of the things we expect as readers is that there will be a point, and it will play out through the story, and that we’ll learn something about human nature. Leave out theme. Don’t use that word. It’s a big, general, abstract word. Use point instead because it’s specific and concrete.
  2. Who is your protagonist before the story opens? Write a thumbnail sketch of who they once were, who they are now, and why they are not really happy with their life but have made peace with it. If you have multiple POVs, it helps to have an alpha protagonist. Who is reader going to root for most? Now work backwards to find the specific event that turns the character’s belief into a misbelief. Write a scene where the young character forms that misbelief—that’s the character’s origin scene. The problem is the need to really go deep enough into specifics of need and misbelief.
  3. You don’t want to shove a character on the page with amnesia. If you understand the specific/concrete events of the character’s past, you can identify their specific worldview as the story begins when they walk onto page 1. Note: Knowing too much about the character’s past is as much a problem as knowing too little. The goal is to get at the character’s worldview in terms of story specifics. Why are they doing what they are doing? You have to let the reader know what the protagonist expects in the scene; otherwise, readers won’t know why/how the protagonist is disappointed. Seeing scenes cinematically is often a clue that writer is seeing things from a distance.
  4. Task: decide what plot (external) problem should be carried through the entire story. That plot problem needs to do two things: (1) It must span an entire novel. (2) It must have consequences that force the protagonist to change, touching the character’s third rail, growing, and having a ticking clock. The character will constantly be performing a cost/benefit analysis of taking a particular action. When brainstorming, try several plot problems. Does your plot problem force your protagonist to struggle through entire story? Does every scene advance that? Is the meaning coming from this internal struggle instead of counting on external drama to carry story?
  5. Think about how the protagonist’s internal desire/third rail leads to their “A-ha!” moment. Use the point of your story—that’s what should be shown, not told, in the character’s “A-ha!” moment. The protagonist earns their way to that moment with a scene that comes before. This usually appears in the last 20% of the story. All might seem lost when they have that clarity. The “A-ha” moment triggers what the protagonist does next. “A-ha” moments are earned. We don’t want to know that they changed; we want to know how/why they changed. We want to be in their head as they make that change.

Protagonist enters story with “old eyes.” The plot will open them to “new eyes.” Don’t be nice to your protagonist. Ask: How much can I hurt them? What’s the worst thing that could happen? And always let the reader know what’s going on in the moment both externally and internally. Embarrass your character! Write as if everyone you know is dead—don’t write polite.

Learning from the Masters/Spotlighting Techniques:

Kathryn Craft

This session looked at examples of techniques that authors use to convey character, mood, and tone. Kathryn suggests reading and then re-reading a novel to see how it’s set up, how foreshadowing is used, how metaphors are connected, how language is used.

Spotlighting techniques are ways to add confidence and power and to pull emotion forward. Some of the techniques found:

  1. Power word at the end of a sentence, even more so at the end of a paragraph, and more at the end of a scene.
  2. Deep point of view, but it can be exhausting to the reader to be too much in deep point of view. Use Deep POV especially for emotional turning points.
  3. Fragmented sentences when character is upset. Use of phrases instead of full sentences can be powerful.
  4. Deceleration or acceleration in rhythms of words and actions. When describing music, structure the description so it mirrors the music being described.
  5. Repetition of words and phrases for a purpose. This can work with “low value” words that, through repetition, gain power.
  6. Spotlighting tip: Read a novel through, then reread the first chapter and look for foreshadowing.
  7. Lists: “The Girls” about a conjoined twin and all the things she’s never done.
  8. Telling detail—clichéd: “limp” John Cheever detail: woman bothered by having a “small front.”
  9. Olive Kittredge: exaggerated moments that give power to a story, like Olive overwhelmed by the gentle touch of the dentist.
  10. Dialogue: Make those quotation marks count. “Are you going to ask someone to pass the salt? Hello, no, unless it’s a power play.”
  11. Rhyming – yes, rhyming even in prose.

Kathryn noted that an author can use techniques with a vengeance, and overdo it (see Poe), but that used well, these techniques can be used to highlight mood, character, theme, emotional turning points.

Making Meaning from Murky Critique:

Anne Greenwood Brown

It’s helpful to ask your critique partner(s) for specific feedback: Is this working as a novel? Does this character ring true? Do you see any plot holes? If something isn’t working, what is it? This increases the likelihood of getting something useful for your next round of revisions.

Critique groups can happen online or in person. In some groups that meet in person, the author reads the work aloud and other group members give verbal feedback. Some members noted that they have trouble giving cogent feedback on something they’ve only heard, not read. This contingent liked to have the piece to read ahead of time, and then the piece can be critiqued verbally at the session, with some also providing written feedback or notes on the hard copy (which goes back to the author).

Beware toxic critique group members. Some delight in just tearing work apart, or offer “this sucks,” instead of specific and constructive criticism.

Authors like to hear what’s working before you get into the “what’s not working” part of the critique. Specificity is good in praise and criticism. While it’s great to hear someone say, “I loved it,” that comment isn’t as useful as saying what specifically you loved and WHY—the thing the author did that made the characters more real, vivid scene-setting, or emotional conflict that helped raise the level of tension in a scene.

Likewise, “That sucked—I hated it” is not a useful statement. It’s always much better to be specific, as in “That character’s motivation didn’t seem clear or ring true with what we already know about him up to this point in the story. Is there a way to set this up earlier in the story?”

Good critique partners or groups will point out the things you can’t see because you’re too close to your own work.

Secondary Characters, Subplots, and Flashbacks:

Lisa Cron

It’s confusing to look at elements separately (dialogue, emotion, etc.), as though you could master one thing, when it all works in concert. Everything affects everything else, and everything is created to move your one story forward, that one overarching storyline.

It’s important to accept that writing a novel is messy, not one straight shot through. You create layers, which can feel like a mess when beginning. It begins with your protagonist’s story, their problem, their backstory. You need to do the same thing with your secondary characters.

Pick the most important other character and do the same process as in the Story Genius workshop—thumbnail sketch, desire/misbelief, origin scene. You need to do this for all secondary characters. All secondary characters come in with an agenda; that agenda is there to further the protagonist’s story (help, block, both). Everything about them is there for how they affect protagonist.

There are three places the secondary characters come from: 1) protagonist’s past; 2) from protagonist’s past but not living in the story present; 3) those who come in in the middle of the story and are unknown by the protagonist before they step on the stage. These characters are usually brought in to make life difficult for protagonist. They end up deepening the story because they end up changing too.

You must be specific; general is the enemy of story. Staying general is a common mistake if the author hasn’t done this work. Another common mistake is to add traits to make characters quirky. Your readers expect everything in a story to be there for a reason. Another mistake is to know in general why you are putting a character in, but this character doesn’t have an overarching agenda.

Every character and storyline is there to move the protagonist’s story forward, but you are still creating them as full and complete characters. Every character in your novel thinks they are the protagonist, and that the protagonist is the supporting character in their lives. What tends to happen is that if they don’t have an overarching agenda, nothing plays forward. They should be moving their own agenda forward in their scenes. They have their own arc.

Subplots are stories of secondary characters. They are complications that shine a light on something that is happening in the plot. Remember we want to take everything and make it as hard and painful for the protagonist as possible. Makes us go deeper. Subplots are how the story grows, complicates, and escalates.

Look for places where characters are lying to each other, or misreading each other. Not where they are nice to each other.

Flashbacks are snippets that run through your character’s mind. Must be in service of what your protagonist is going through in the moment, how the protagonist makes sense of what’s happening in the moment. Each character surveys the world to further their agenda. If they see or think something that doesn’t affect their agenda, don’t include it. Don’t make reader figure it out. Give us the insight, the conclusion, even if it’s a sentence so we see the relevance.

Don’t stick in a flashback because you think the reader needs to know, but because the characters would think it or say it. You will know that it’s relevant if you’ve done the earlier work. We need the reader to know: Why did they do that? Flashbacks do that.

Everything is in service of moving your story forward. We come to story for backstory, for the story logic=how protagonist is making sense of what’s happening (for all of the characters too), and that’s based on what her specific past has taught her.

Your Unique Story:

Barbara O’Neal

Barbara began her session with a look at the difference between voice and style, and what it means to have a strong voice. Voice is a combination of everything in your life. It’s the most powerful tool in your writer’s toolbox. Voice is the table; style is the tablecloth. But voices get watered down, sometimes by the critique process, the mechanics of writing, or the internal voice that says, “You’re not okay as you are.” Once you actively nourish your own voice, you become a much better writer.

Barbara led the group through a series of timed writing exercises to help get a better sense of the familial and cultural influences on our writer voices.

“I am seven years old…”

“Now I am twelve years old…”

“I am eighteen years old…”

“A food from my childhood is…”

After the group had done these, Barbara had volunteers read theirs aloud, and the group could hear the differences in cadence and sentence length. What did the “I am (an age)” exercises reveal? At seven, you’re becoming aware that you’re a separate individual person. At twelve, you tend to express a lot of concerns about friends and being different/alien. It shows us where the vulnerabilities are. By age eighteen, you start thinking about the rest of your life. The food exercise might reveal cultural influences, both in terms of what is described and the cadence of the language you use to describe it.

Next the group quickly wrote a list of 25 specific favorite things. What shows up in these lists are threads that show a strong visual or auditory sense, or things that relate to family, community, or place. If we use what we have, our voices will be distinctive.

The group was asked to think about their favorite book at age 15, and a favorite book the group had read in the past six months. Many seemed to have been drawn to big books like The Thorn Birds, Shogun, The Lord of the Rings, and Dune—big, juicy stories with lots of immersive world-building; possibly a function of age.

For the next exercise, the group each chose a photo from an assortment of pages cut from magazines and did a timed exercise using the photo they were drawn to as a prompt. Then they switched photos with a person next to them, and wrote again about that image. Some wrote descriptive passages for the first photo, and then “relaxed” into actually starting a story for the second one.

Character Layers and How to Use Them:

Donald Maass

Most manuscripts don’t do enough or have enough. You can’t go wrong adding layers, plot points. Character layers go beyond main character arc and problem.

Humans are always changing, more than one change at a time.

What’s the main problem protagonist must deal with or do, or learn in the story? How will your protagonist see this problem by the end of the story? How might someone else in the story see this problem differently?

When in the story does the protagonist begin to suspect she’s looking at the problem the wrong way? (This can be more than one place.)

Who in the story has a different way of seeing the problem? What is one way in which someone else in the story could misapprehend or misunderstand the problem/solution? Does this person not fully understand the problem, or misread it? Could that be the way the protagonist sees the problem at the beginning, so that it is a limited, personal reaction, not seeing the forest for the trees?

What’s the moment when the protagonist begins to suspect he might be looking at the problem the wrong way? What happens that causes him to realize there’s something he missed? What tells him it’s bigger or different than he originally thought? Trigger this with something the reader, too, can miss (at first). Your character will change in relationship to the problem.

What could happen in the story to show the protagonist that her view of the problem is not only wrong, but will also cost her (or someone near to her) something dear? What could be lost, or IS lost? What is taken away because she didn’t see the situation properly?

What matters to protagonist in the world of the story? In the wider world of the story, pick a dimension of the world around the protagonist (social/cultural, spiritual/even a hobby…not necessarily related to plot but definitely to the world/setting)? As the story opens, how does the protagonist see this dimension? Is it valued or devalued? What’s his perspective on it? At the end, how does the protagonist see that differently? In the middle of the story, find a place where the protagonist’s view of that subject begins to change. What event causes her to change her perspective?

What is one article of faith or belief does protagonist hold—a belief she holds that is unshakable? Anything we believe can be shaken, overturned, or at least complicated. How and when does the protagonist discover that belief is dead wrong? At the end, how will the protagonist modify/qualify/change what she believes to be true? What’s the new truth forged and tempered by experience?

What is the moment (around the middle of the story) where this understanding is proven to be dead wrong? What’s the one thing the protagonist must do differently to solve the problem? What is hard or unfamiliar for the protagonist to do or say to begin that process? The protagonist doesn’t just change, but changes how she looks at the problem.

Novels can change the world. Change stirs up trouble; sometimes people can die. Take responsibility for the results of the change. There’s a price for telling the truth, showing us the world in a new way. Change comes at a cost for writer and for character.

Adding character layers isn’t adding chapters, lots of words, but deepening and making the story richer. What about your protagonist changes that can be other arcs that can move through the story? You don’t have use a lot of words, but they are so worth adding to your novel.

Don says, ““Novelists can change the world, but novelists have to accept responsibility and the price. We have to change and become citizens of your world.”

Creating Conversations:

Brunonia Barry

Brunonia beta-tests her books at different stages. Her first time around, she first hired an editor, self-published, and then got feedback on the self-published book.

She went to a bookstore and asked if there was a book club that would read a fledgling writer’s book and give honest feedback. She brought the club to her house; she suggests you serve wine, have someone to take notes and ask readers to be brutal. Usually there will be five readers.

After an edited first draft, Brunonia sets up a three-session focus group, brings in an actor, has the actor read sections to the group—without excessive expression or dramatics. Watch people’s faces as it’s being read, make note of impacts and emotional reactions to certain parts.

She does not recommend having readers read a second time. She chooses which book clubs are reading at which point. So her personal book club are her first readers. You don’t want reader fatigue and you want readers that look for different things. One set is maybe for digging deep and giving good critique, and then another set of readers who look at pacing, character, etc. Have some readers who are readers and some readers who are writers. Both are needed. You need to develop a tough skin. A Book Club Bully should be watched to ensure they don’t take over the meeting.

Readers cannot always tell you specifically what’s wrong, but can point out where they are experiencing discomfort, and it could be the same place you were having issues already and you can pinpoint.

Focus Group Questions You Can Ask:

The Story You’re Not Telling:

Donald Maass

For many people, the writing of a novel gets focused on managing the plot. But that leaves a number of dimensions unexplored. Why does this happen? Because it’s hard.

Where does your novel truly begin? Where does the story actually start?

Think about the period of time you’ve chosen for your novel and ask: When is the moment that your protagonist knows for sure that things are changing and they won’t change back, forcing her to DO something? That is where the story truly begins.

What has your protagonist left behind? What has been lost? What will never be the same? Sense of self? Sense of security? What’s the moment of transition? How does this feel, and why? How does your protagonist know that this is the moment there is no turning back? What tells him that? How does she sense it? Is it an external circumstance or an internal certainty? Or both?

Focus on internal shift. What does it feel like to cross that boundary?

What has your protagonist left behind? What one thing will never be the same? What sense of self? Security? How is it good? Exhilarating? Terrifying? Specifically, why?

Who in your story will be unable to see your protagonist the same way after this point? In what ways will your protagonist look different? What does protagonist know that the other person will not see? Is that the opening moment of your manuscript? Could this be page one of your novel?

Engaging readers’ hearts is as important as engaging their curiosity.

Think about the end of the story. What is the moment where the protagonist knows the world has changed and will never be the same? What’s different? What will have changed for your protagonist? Is this the last page of your manuscript? Could it be?

This is the true ending. The end of the plot is good, and the end of the protagonist’s arc, but it’s when the world itself has changed that it is a profound resolution.

What is the effect of place and time on your character? Where we live affects us, changes us, does things to us. How does the main character change because of when and where they are? Is it a good or bad change? Empowering? Does it make the main character someone she’d rather not be?

Think about the dynamic between your novel and your reader. The reader goes through a journey, and has expectations based on the type of novel this is. Do you meet those expectations, or play with them? What is one inviolable rule for your type of novel? How can you break the rules for this type of novel?

What do you dislike about your type of novel? What tropes or stereotypes do they use that you could fix with your novel? If you break it, make up your own rule to take its place.

After you’ve finished the story, sit down with your protagonist and ask: How was the story for you? Write down one thing your protagonist was not allowed to say. What was one thing you were burning to do in your story but just didn’t work? Is there something I didn’t know about one of the other characters, maybe someone secretly working against you? I think I know what this story meant, but what did I miss? What do you (the protagonist) see that I didn’t really understand about what happened? I think I know what this story meant and gave you an opportunity to see the problem in a new way, but what did I miss? What do you know about what happened that I didn’t see?

Your story has a life independent of you. It’s going to go out there in the world and do things you can’t control. We shrink away from the parts of the story that are tough—emotional, painful, joyful. Access these moments and parts to make it deeper, richer, more involving, more meaningful. People will be changed by it and you won’t know. It’s bigger than you. There is more to it than you can see.

Come back tomorrow for our third and final installment of the WU UnCon recap!

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About [24]

Writer Unboxed began as a collaboration between aspiring novelists Therese Walsh and Kathleen Bolton in January, 2006. Since then the site has grown to include ~40 regular contributors--including bestselling authors and industry leaders--and frequent guests. You can follow Writer Unboxed on Twitter [25], or join our thriving Facebook community [26].