’cause I’m a published novelist now

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Today I gave my very first fiction workshop EVER at the Los Angeles incarnation of the Southern California Writers’ Conference. For the most part it seemed to go okay, although I feel like my second workshop will be so improved that I kind of want to apologize to the people who saw me through the loss of my conference-workshop virginity. Definitely some stumbling and awkwardness on my part. Although, thankfully, no blood.

I was there to talk about ‘grounding fantasy in reality’, and I had two points to make as many times as people would let me make them:

1. At the risk of sounding like someone giving bad dating advice, you truly need to be yourself. Whatever trope you want to play with — vampires, werewolves, UFOs, evil clowns, psychotic sentient puppets, whatever — you need to figure out some way of expressing yourself, your world view, through them, to tweak or change or custom-fit these incredibly shopworn ideas to your own twisted little desires in order to make them unique. This will not only make for more interesting fiction, it will also begin to set your work apart from all the other vampire novels sitting on shelves in bookstores (let alone all the unpublished vampire-themed manuscripts swamping any given agent or editor’s desk RIGHT NOW THIS VERY MINUTE).

2. You need to ground those ideas, those elements of the weird and fantastic, in concrete and nitty-gritty reality. Details, baby, details. Not a lot of details. That can be pointless and boring. You must choose them wisely. Don’t go for the easy generic ones — the sunlight falling through the branches to lie in lacy patterns on the ground, for example (although as facile and generic details go, that one is actually my favorite) — look for the details that truly suggest, evoke something, like the guy in my workshop named Kevin who described how a tree was “charred from the recent woodfires” and how the odor of smoke still stung the air. Details not only suggest the setting, they set atmosphere, reveal and imply things, play into and deepen the story’s themes, etc. They may seem pesky, I know, but they are things of power.

It’s an odd but true paradox in fiction that the specific is universal. I could describe my hometown of Peterborough, Ontario in excruciating detail — I won’t, of course, I’m just saying I could — and that town in all its specifics and particulars can stand in as Everytown, North America. But any town I describe in the most bland and generic of ways — or fail to describe at all — is not Everytown. Is truly not any town at all. It evaporates off the page. It means nothing.

Convincing the reader that your storyworld is textured, coherent, and real is vital no matter what you’re writing, of course, but when you’re writing paranormal or urban fantasy or whatever you want to call it, it’s that tangible sense of everyday reality that sets off the fantastic elements and signals the reader that you the storyteller are a masterful storyteller indeed, that she can trust you to take her through this weird and crazy tale, that her day or week or month or freaking lifetime will be the richer for it.

(My husband E has a way of describing how annoyed he gets when something happens in a book or a movie that jolts him out of the trance of immersion. “It’s like I can see right through the story,” he says, “it’s like I can see right around behind it to this idiot who’s sitting at the typewriter inflicting this crap on me in the first place.”

Your task as the storyteller is to not be that idiot.)

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Then I had them do a writing exercise. They brainstormed odd things that had ever happened to them — coincidences, encounters, dreams that lingered. I asked them to choose whatever oddity they responded to on a truly gut level — I was after them to find material they felt a visceral connection to, rather than what they felt they ought to write — and then to brainstorm possible and decidedly paranormal explanations. Then I gave them twenty minutes to freewrite (write without thinking, pausing, editing) a scene: they had to set it at Starbucks, they had to open it in the middle of an argument with a loved one, and after they’d established the setting, characters and initial conflict I wanted them to find a way of introducing the supernatural element they’d just been meditating over.

Then volunteers read their pieces aloud and we made comments and suggestions in line with what I’d been discussing earlier.

I was hoping it would go well enough that someone would find their way into a possible short story — so I was very pleased when a person came up to me afterwards and told me he thought he’d done just that.

One woman left immediately after the exercise and told me later that she’d been disappointed by it — she “didn’t want to write. I really enjoyed hearing you talk. I wanted you to just keep talking.” I appreciated that — especially since I’d felt my little lecture at the beginning of the session was rather dry, as inwardly I cringed and marveled, Wow, I suck at this, I am doing such a hideous job, I am so absolutely blowing it — but I also believe that you truly learn through doing, and then analyzing what you (and others) have done. I also found my points a lot more effective to make when I could play off one of the written exercises as an example — I even came to a better understanding of those points myself.

So those are some thoughts to take with me the next time I do this — maybe one or three short exercises instead of one long one — and also to bring in some prepared examples of both good and careless writing that prove my points, instead of relying on the students to write stuff that I can then (constructively) use to prove them.

This I swear upon the grave of Jake, my childhood terrier: next time I shall have handouts.

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