Notes From a Small Conference, Part 2

The draft was supposed to be to my betas on April 1. Here we are on April 20, and it STILL hasn’t managed to get to them! So 100% of my brain power is focused on rewrites this weekend, in the hopes that I’ll have the edits done by tomorrow.

In the meantime, I thought I’d share more notes from the 2013 Rose State College Writing Conference. These are from a presentation given by David Morrell (who wrote, among many other books, Rambo). His website is http://davidmorrell.net/. 

His presentation last year was on point of view – specifically, when and how to use first person.

1.) If you’re a history addict like me, you’ll find this interesting:  the first person POV started in the late 1600s and early 1700s as “confessions” and “morality tales.” Writers were raking in the money by writing fictional confessions in the voice of real, executed criminals.

2.) Daniel Defoe was apparently the first writer to recognize the true value of the first person POV. It felt real; it put the reader right there alongside the narrator.

3.) By the time we get to Henry James and The Turn of the Screw, writers were beginning to explore the idea of the unreliable narrator. James apparently said the only way to truly write in first person was to know if your protagonist is an egotist, just delusional, or a liar. Everyone has their own viewpoint; we all have a point of view that is exclusively ours.

4.) Fitzgerald uses the first person POV a little differently, as did Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. Both authors used the first person POV — Nick Carroway and Dr. Watson, of course — but neither narrator was the true protagonist of the story. They were on the periphery, telling the story of someone else.

Morrell said that he believes most writers use the first person POV in a “naive fashion;” it’s objective, it’s true, it’s factual. No deceit is intended, and none happens. But life isn’t really like that; we all have an agenda. We all tell the story a little differently. For a good example of this, go to a murder mystery weekend. No two people will have seen exactly the same thing. It’s the same principle when you’re writing in first person. Your narrator will not see everything going on.

Which brings us to point #5:  if you don’t have something built in as to why you’re using the first person, then maybe first person isn’t the right choice for you.

For example:  Morrell cited the use of first person in detective novels from the 30s and 40s. It gave validity to the story, because we knew the narrator was doing the investigation himself. Interviewing suspects and witnesses. Tracking clues. So when he came to a conclusion, we believed him. It might not have necessarily been the right conclusion, but we’d been there with him and we believed him.

So as a writer, Morrell said, you should ask yourself the following questions:

  1. How will I get around natural suspicion of the narrator?
  2. What is the motivation for the narrator to tell us his story? Is he bragging? Trying to convince us of something? Seeking sympathy? Is this a story only the narrator can tell? He cited the example of Holden Caulfield; in the beginning of Catcher in the Rye, it’s implied that Holden is in a psychologist’s office, telling his story. That gives him a reason to be telling it, and a reason for us to be intrigued. Plus, we also know his tale is only the surface; there are things we may not get to know. Salinger uses satire to deflect what Holden really feels; it’s up to us, the readers, to see that and understand what he really means in those moments.
  3. Get to the point. Don’t gush over every detail.
  4. But — don’t use just sight, either! Just like with all writing, use all five senses. Make a 3-D experience for the reader. It may even be more important in first person than in third, because we should be seeing, hearing, sensing, touching, and tasting everything that they do.

Morrell recommended reading several books in the first person POV before you start trying it out, if you’re a beginner: Catcher in the Rye and The Turn of the Screw were two, along with nearly anything Wilkie Collins wrote. Once again proving that there are only two ways to become a better writer:  to write, and to read.

Off now to do one of those two things! 🙂

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Can you walk and write at the same time?

I have three ways tImageo decompress:  photography, writing, and walking. Happily, all three tend to coincide quite nicely.

I know that sounds oxymoronic, but it’s true. When I go out on my daily walk, I take my cell phone with me (my beloved Blackberry Bold). The camera on it isn’t half bad — in fact, I had a photo show at a local coffee house in January, exhibiting only photos taken with my Blackberry! But more importantly, it has an app. Voice Notes Recorder. That is my life saver. Because when I walk, I get ideas.

Stephen King talks about this phenomenon in his book On Writing, the fact that sometimes when you get stuck, you can go for a walk to work things out. The physical exercise, combined with the freedom and stimulation of a new location, often work wonders.

It’s always been that way for me. I expect that when I go for a walk, I will spend several minutes on my voice recorder, “jotting down” things I need to look at on a manuscript, new scenes I want to/need to write, changes I want to implement, character motivations, etc. Several times, I’ve been able to get down the bones of a scene, even down to lines of dialogue and emotions and exact descriptions.

One memorable summer morning, I didn’t take my phone. I was dealing with some irascible students and wanted an hour away from the idiocy, just for myself. For the past month, I had been wrestling with the overall plot structure for my urban fantasy series, trying to reconcile the different books I had outlined and the thing that connected all of them. I knew there was a connection:  the question was, what the bleep was it? But I wasn’t think about that when I laced up my sneakers and headed out. Those students were uppermost in my mind.

A mile from home, it all clicked. Exactly like the moment a safecracker hears the tumblers fall into place. The connections, the threads that united all of my books. Plain as day. How could I not have seen it before?

AND I HAD NO WAY TO RECORD IT!

I ran. A mile. Home. I still have the five scribbled pages of notes in a journal. They are the basis of everything. I couldn’t wait for the laptop to warm. Had to get it all out before I forgot it!

And yes, when I re-read On Writing, I discovered that Stephen King had done exactly the same thing with The Stand. He’d been struggling with the plotline for quite some time, stuck in the middle, no way out, unwilling to abandon thousands upon thousands of words he’d already written.

Most smart phones either have a similar app already loaded, or you should be able to download one for free or not very much. When you’re in the car, on the subway or train, standing in line at the grocery store — yes, I’ve done it, although you get weird looks, but what’s more important,  your book or what a lot of strangers think about you? — walking the dog . . . have your cell phone with you. But I work best when I’m walking. There’s something about the quietness of it all. Of course, I live in the country on a mostly deserted road. I imagine for those of you living in towns or neighborhoods, it might be a bit different. But again, what’s more important . . . 🙂 All I can say is, give it a try. Have you been stuck on something? Try walking. It may not work right away. But I believe that if you make it part of your schedule, it will start to work.

Some authors say that they have a set schedule for writing, and they know that when they sit down at their computer the words will be there waiting for them. Their subconscious has been working on it all day, and the moment they start to type, the words begin to flow. I’m beginning to find that my walks are much the same way. I’m never surprised when a scene pops into my head that I didn’t even know I needed. Even characters come to me on my walks — that’s how I met my little rumrunner Nicky, and Shannon, the antagonist for my urban fantasy series.

Then, I come back and I write.

And sometimes, I download my photos, too. 🙂

Notes From a Small Conference (part 1)

One of the best conferences in the area is also one of the newest — the Rose State Writers’ Conference. It started in 2012, and continued last year, and I have no doubt, given the participation, that it will continue for a LONG time. If you are anywhere in the Oklahoma, Texas, Kansas, Arkansas, or Missouri region, I really encourage you to check out their site:  http://www.rose.edu/shortcourse.

One of the reasons it’s so great is because of the atmosphere — everyone is so excited to be there. Take business cards. If you don’t have them, make them. People want them, because they want to stay in touch with other writers who are “close by.”

Another reason it’s so great is because of the quality of speakers. Last year, I met YA agent Regina Brooks, who is also the author of Writing Great Books for Young Adults — which also happened to be the “textbook” we were using for the Writing Young Adult Fiction class I was taking at Oxford! She was so generous and gracious. All the presenters are.

In 2012, best-selling novelist Phillip Margolin gave a presentation “How to Write a Novel in Your Spare Time.” I wanted to share it with everyone in the hopes that it might help someone else (as well as remind me of what I need to do!). Margolin writes mysteries, so a lot of his advice is geared towards that genre — but I think almost all of it can be useful to everyone who writes.

1.) Make your characters sympathetic. If the reader feels empathy for the main character(s), they’ll keep reading.

2.) Write non-linear plots to keep up the suspense. Surprise the reader as soon as you can in the novel, and keep them guessing with twists and turns.

3.) Pull the rug out from under the reader as soon as possible. Hook them in. Get them to invest their intelligence in your book — then, they’ll keep reading. Let them think they have it figured out — and then twist it up again.

4.) Outlines:  He does outline, but he made it very clear that outlines are not set in stone!

As he put it: the outline is one-dimensional; the book is three-dimensional.

The characters may still surprise you. The book may go in directions you didn’t expect. When that happens, go with it. See what happens. Most often, it ends up being better than what you had outlined, because it’s more true to the characters.

5.) Margolin said he likes to let things percolate. For example, for one his books, he spent three years just thinking about it, until he finally felt ready to put it on paper. He likes to think about the characters, who they are, what they want, what plot twists he’d like to put in, etc.

6.) Rewrites:  look at both the book as a whole, and individual scenes, from different angles. For one book, he said he wrote more than 20 drafts of his opening pages, because he had trouble figuring out where to really start the story. And when that happens, he says, you have to focus on what’s important to the story. Backstory, secondary plots — they don’t matter in those first few pages. Give the readers the story they want.

7.) And when you’re rewriting, your ego has to take a hike. Especially when your beta readers are giving you feedback, your one and only job as a writer is to listen with an open mind so you can figure out what they like, what they don’t like, and why. Only then can you make the decision to either follow their advice, or leave your book alone.

Over the next few weeks, I hope to share more tips and information I’ve gleaned from writing conferences over the last couple of years, both Rose State and the Oklahoma Writers Federation (www.owfi.org).