Let me start by saying that the 2012 Gathering of Writers in Indianapolis BLEW MY MIND. I’ve never been to any sort of writers’ conference before, and, introvert that I am, feared that being around so many people would ruin it for me. I couldn’t have been more mistaken. It was, as keynote speaker Allison Joseph alluded to in her beautiful poem for the occasion, like worshippers in a church. We came together in joy and goodwill to pursue our calling. The positivity with which I, as a student, was met encouraged me and made me feel like a real part of the community-- and let me tell you, I was in wonderful company.
Because fiction is my focus I attended the three fiction workshops offered. Melissa Fraterrigo taught about writing effective openings, Ben Winters gave tips for building plot and structure, and Sarah Layden spoke of creating vivid settings. The final speaker for the day was Laura Baich of IU Press, who gave us all some helpful info about marketing our books (and ourselves) digitally. I won’t go into all of their great advice and revealing exercises, but I do want to share one thing with you: Ben Winters’s “story of the story.”
Most of us don’t like to be asked what our book or project is about. (I noticed, at the Gathering, that no one ever asked me that-- we just talked about genre, craft, etc.) It’s a tough question, but it’s one that we should be asking ourselves as we write. One of Ben’s tips for getting out of a rut while writing is to step back and write the story of the story. Imagine you’re sitting in a bar with a friend and he or she asks that inevitable question: “So what’s this book about?” Write your answer, but don’t attempt to dress it up or make it literary. Write it exactly as you would tell it to your friend. For example: “Okay, so here’s what happens. There’s this girl. She’s a college girl, but she hates it there and she’s kind of lonely and sad and confused, until one day she bumps into this guy-- well, she sits next to him on a bench…” You get the idea. Don’t edit yourself, just tell it in the most casual, conversational way possible. Don’t delete sentences or phrases-- allow yourself to say “never mind” or “scratch that.” You’ll discover a lot of ways you want your book to go (or not go).
It’s also helpful to focus in a little. Try writing the story of one character, one relationship, one arc or throughline. Pick that single strand out of the weave and examine it. What is Secondary Character X’s role in all this? How did he get here, what does it mean to him, what does he want, and how will he come to some sort of personal resolution? I imagine J. K. Rowling doing this. What better way to create such deep, complex, driven secondary characters like Snape or Sirius or Draco? They weren’t just “there” like some piece of scenery that helped or hindered the protagonist, they had their own things going on. That’s crucial to creating interesting, well-rounded characters.
Want more great advice like this? Live in Indiana? Come to next year’s Gathering! I guarantee you’re going to not only have a lot of fun, but also learn a lot about the craft and writing life in general. Check out The Writers’ Center of Indiana for updates and other classes and events. Another great place to visit is IndyReadsBooks, a used book store that supports adult literacy and holds frequent readings like the one I attended with Chris Newgent, Sarah Layden, Cathy Day, and Ken Honeywell, all fantastic Hoosier writers. At an event like this it really comes home to you-- especially if you're a young writer like me-- that writing is a lifelong learning process.
At my lunch table, four of us 20-something novelists talked shop with two 60-something CNF writers. They had the same curiosity, the same questions and doubts, the same issues to tackle and hurdles to jump that we did. None of us will ever feel like we've perfected our skills because it's impossible to do so. We just have to keep trying our best, keep learning, and keep making art. Comforting, that.