Therese here to introduce you to Jeannine Walls Thibodeau. Jeannine has been working behind the scenes for WU for quite some time, helping out as a part of our guest-post team. She generously agreed to help recap the WU Un-Conference, utilizing notes from several sources, so that everyone in the WU audience might benefit from our gathering in Salem. Not an easy job, believe me. Today through Wednesday, you’ll see condensed takeaways–some jewels we think you’ll be able to use to make your writing better now.
We want to thank author Melanie Conklin for letting us republish some of her beautiful note-taking art within our recaps. Melanie’s debut MG novel, Counting Thyme, will be published by Putnam in 2016. (You can view more of Melanie’s art, and stay abreast of her writing news, on her Twitter feed.) Thank you, Melanie!
Take it away, Jeannine!
— John J Kelley (@JohnJKelley) November 8, 2014
It’s difficult to succinctly say exactly what the Un-Conference was to all of us who attended. But the consensus seems to revolve around the following: It was inspirational. It was motivational. It was a transformative experience. About ninety writers traveled from all over the US, Canada, Australia, and Europe (England and Spain) to attend, most of whom hadn’t met in real life.
But what exactly made the Un-Conference like no other? Was it the focus on the craft of writing, rather than fevered pitch sessions? Was it the way workshops required reflection and sharing? Was it because of the location—Salem, MA, formerly known for witch trials, and the early morning walks exploring the city? Was it the shared meals, whether in character or being our very own selves? Was it the realization that no one’s gut clenches? Was it throwing so many introverts in a group with some gregarious extraverts? Was it the permission to let the demons out on our characters? Was it the bedtime stories when we were able to hear our friends read their own stories? Was it writing in the tavern with our new besties? Was it exploring cemeteries at night? Was it those late-night poker games full of hilarity? Was it sitting in the lobby wrapped in blankets, drinking and laughing? Was it the sharing and love we experienced because of the loss of two of our own, Lisa Threadgill and Bob Stewart?
Yes. It was. It was all that.
Here’s a peek at individual sessions, with special thanks to Erin Thomas, Mike Swift, Don Maass, Brunonia Barry, Brin Jackson, Therese Walsh, Jennifer Roundell, and Jan O’Hara for their notes. This post would not be possible without all of you!
Lisa Cron, Wired for Story, Parts I and II
— Dede Nesbitt (@Dede_Nesbitt) November 4, 2014
What is a story? What are we talking about? Story is how. What happens is the plot, the surface of the story. It is not what the story’s about. Story affects someone, namely, the protagonist, the person whose skin the reader is in. The plot gets its meaning based on how it’s affecting the protagonist in pursuit of their difficult goal (or quest, story question).
All story is change, and all change is hard—good as well as bad. How the protagonist changes as a result of the change in the story: this is the important part. You need to know a lot about your protagonist before you can even begin to write.
All protagonists come with two preexisting conditions: something they really want, and something they need to overcome in order to get it.
Five Steps/Layers to Dig Through before Writing, Revising.
What If: There needs to be a clear problem that the character is going to have to deal with, ideally in a certain timeframe.
Who: Everything in the what-if gets its emotional weight from how it affects the protagonist. Your “who” starts to transform the “what if.”
Why: Why does the “what if” matter to the protagonist? This comes back to the preexisting conditions, which need to be firmly cemented before this point.
Worldview: How did the protagonist come to be the person they are, in terms of what’s changing, when they step onto the page on the first page? If you want to force your character to see with new eyes, how can you do that if you don’t know how they were seeing things on the first page?
— Therese Walsh (@ThereseWalsh) November 5, 2014
When: The place/time the story starts is where the character doesn’t have a choice except to act. Do you ever hear the first tick of a ticking clock? Not usually. You notice after it’s been going for a while. By the time you smell the smoke, the fire’s been burning for some time.
You need to know the very specific details of this thing that is holding your character back. “The past isn’t dead; it isn’t even past.”
A seminal scene, or something like it, needs to be in the novel. It’s not enough for the author to know it. Sometimes there can be parts of it that are just for the author. It’s not enough to be general with it. It’s about knowing in full detail the specific moments when the “lens” that your character uses was shaped, when they were changed. Because that will define how the character makes sense of the events of the novel. Most of the backstory will come into the book because it’s what the character will be thinking about as he makes decisions in the novel.
It doesn’t matter what happens—what matters is how it affects the protagonist and what meaning they’re reading into it. We can’t know that without a sense of what they’ve been through and where they came from.
— Jael McHenry (@jaelmchenry) November 5, 2014
Meg Rosoff, Throughness
Think of your brain as a colander. A million things happen to you every single day of your life, and 99.99999999% of them you’ll never think of again. They go through the holes in your colander. But every once in a while, throughout a lifetime, something sticks.
If we could each empty our heads out onto the table, nobody’s “pile” would be the same as anyone else’s. The stuff that’s in our heads, the stuff that stuck, is the most important thing about us—not just as writers, but as people.
As a writer, you spend a lot of time in your unconscious mind, and that’s dark. That’s where the dark things live.
Meg decided to take up riding horses—around 50 years old. Started into jumping. Switched to dressage. Dressage is old. “Dressage” means schooling.
The language that goes with dressage involves two words that get used a lot. One is “connection,” one is “thoroughness.” Meg kept being told she needed to be more “through.” She looked it up on the American Dressage Association site, and learned that it is “the supple elastic unblocked connected state that permits an unrestricted flow of energy from rider to horse and from horse back to rider.”
Meg’s insight: What if we think of the rider as the conscious mind and the horse as the unconscious mind?
The quality of your unconscious mind will inform your writing and will be the most important thing about your writing.
Brunonia Barry, Method Writing—and Eating
Our job as writers is to make our characters come alive for our readers, but first they have to come alive for us. A technique she uses is method writing, much like method acting.
She uses a two-step process for character development. First she writes extensive biographies for all of her characters, then, once she knows them a bit, she uses this exercise to embody them, walking around and behaving as they might for days at a time, even ordering the foods they might like in restaurants, basically doing everything she can think of to “become” them and discover their personal perspectives.
The purpose? To find your character’s deep authentic voice.
The definition: Identifying emotionally with a character and assuming the character’s personality in the process.
For the sake of this session, she asked participants to choose a character they’re currently working on and to fill out a simple chart to remind themselves of that character’s traits; this chart included traits such as physical description, likes/hates, vices and quirks. Then she asked them to become that character for the duration of lunch.
What does the character want?
What’s keeping him or her from getting it?
(Note: These questions are the most important. Pay particular attention to them.)
John Vorhaus, If You Must Fail, Fail Big
If failure ‘doesn’t count,’ then what you’re doing doesn’t matter. So do things that matter, but reframe the failure side of things.
If you don’t like terms, change the terms: redefine failure so it becomes success. “I have succeeded in failing big!” Because of our fear of failure, we fail to dare. In order to dare, we must kill (or at least manage) our fear of failure.
Examine each problem and break it down into smaller problems:[pullquote]A great story will create anxiety about something that’s important to your reader. When you run in fear from other people’s reactions, you are not communicating the human condition, but protecting yourself. The purpose of storytelling is to improve the human condition. In fact, the writer’s highest calling is to explain the human condition to other humans for the purpose of the betterment of all.[/pullquote]
Fear of other people’s reactions. A great story will create anxiety about something that’s important to your reader. When you run in fear from other people’s reactions, you are not communicating the human condition, but protecting yourself. The purpose of storytelling is to improve the human condition. In fact, the writer’s highest calling is to explain the human condition to other humans for the purpose of the betterment of all. (Treat this statement as a useful fiction, if it helps.) Instead of product, focus on growth: we can always grow in our craft.
Fear of people saying, “What you’re selling isn’t worth buying.” Selling our work has a tremendous emotional burden, but we have to get over it. There’s a part of your job you don’t like? Guess what? Everyone has a part of their job they don’t like.
Fear of bad writing days. Bring full self-awareness to your process: deepen your understanding for yourself. You can always succeed at that.
Liz Michalski/Brunonia Barry, Setting as Character
— melanie conklin (@MLConklin) November 4, 2014
A few tips to keep in mind when creating setting:
- Use all of your senses to create a realistic portrait.
- Remember that the physical landscape can be very powerful because it is not easily under your protagonist’s control (i.e., the weather) and in terms of landscape, can go years without changing.
- Create a setting so strong and unique it becomes a character in its own right, the only place your story could be told. Allow it to grow and change with time, so that it evolves along with your protagonist.
- Write a full biography of place, to help develop that sense of place in the book. Part of this biography is research, part is the pictures you choose to take—no two people will write about the same place the same way.
- Changes in a setting (how it’s changing in the period of the book) can underscore what’s going on with the characters. Objective correlative.
Meg Rosoff, Voice
We do not see things as they are, we see them as we are. Voice is about what you have to say that no one else can say.
Turning points in life are one of the most important things to look it in finding who you are, finding your voice.
— Writer Unboxed (@WriterUnboxed) November 6, 2014
Meg ran this workshop as a series of questions, which she called “Boot Camp Exercises for the Brain.” There were approximately 40 questions she fired off. Here are a few to get you thinking:
(Don’t think too hard. There are no right or wrong answers. Write quickly—Meg went through these pretty fast, so there wasn’t a lot of time to second-guess in between.)
Somebody you would like to erase from your life.
You find $1000 in a paper bag on the way home. The note inside says it’s yours—there’s no need for you to take it to the police or try to find the original owner. What do you do with it?
If you found out you were going to die tomorrow, what would you do tonight?
What year (any year, past, present or future) would you like to visit? Why?
What moment would you like to go back in time and change?
What stands in your way?
Ray Rhamey, First Pages
Key story elements that a writer can use to create a compelling narrative are:
- Story questions
- Tension (in the reader)
- Scene setting
A First-page Checklist
- It begins with connecting the reader with the protagonist
- Something is happening. On a first page, this does NOT include a character musing about whatever.
- What happens moves the story forward.
- What happens raises a story question—what happens next? or why did that happen?
Come back tomorrow for Part 2 of our WU Un-Con Recap!