Wednesday, May 18, 2011

Northwest Author Series: Eric Witchey

Eric Witchey
The Short Story: Write It & Sell It in 90 Minutes

This was the final workshop of the 2010-2011 Northwest Author Series (supported by the Wilsonville Public Library and Friends of the Wilsonville Public Library). I was looking forward to Eric Witchey, since I've attended his workshops at the Willamette Writers Conference in the past. Although I don't write short stories I hoped I would be able to apply his concepts to the young adult novels I'm writing.

The workshop was well attended, which resulted in a lively collaborative session. Eric shared an informative handout compiled for the workshop that may be the starting point for a future book on writing. :-)

Eric began by describing Story as an extension of language. Learning to write prose is like learning a second language -- we use the same areas of the brain to learn and acquire the skills.

Per Robert McKee, "Story is a metaphor for life." Thus, our story doesn't have to be true in the real world, but it must be true and consistent in the world of the story.

The exercises Eric taught us are a means to teach ourselves the story development process. It is an exercise we can practice daily until (like a new language) it can become a more natural and smoother process.

We worked within the framework of the seven point story arc:

1. character
2. setting
3. problem
4. try/fail but learn something
5. try (apply what learned)/fail but learn something more
6. try (apply additional learning)/figurative death (do or die)/fail (tragedy) or succeed
7. Climax/resolution

We began by brainstorming interesting jobs for our main character. The job may or may not be an important element of the story, but it is important to the make up of the character. After selecting a couple of unusual jobs we then chose the gender for our protagonist -- a female doing traditionally male occupations. We then discussed what the jobs revealed about the female protagonist and to these we added additional characteristics and situations with potential for story conflict.

With the protagonist sketched out we then moved on to "The Other" -- the character who would create the greatest problems for our main character.

With a start on Point One of the story arc, we moved on to Point Two -- the setting. Again, what would create the most problems for the protagonist and establish conflict for her with The Other.

Themes (cultural expectations) began to emerge as we placed the two characters in the setting. Since each character in a story will have a position on the themes, we designated conflicting beliefs for our two primary characters.

Point Three, the Problem, evolved from the character and setting conflicts.

With the first three points sketched out we then discussed potential scenes that would develop the Middle of the story.

The classic story scene typically has the following elements: setting, conflict, climax/resolution, and result.

Eric applies "ED ACE" to scene development. Emotion leads to Decision leads to Action leads to Conflict, leads to new Emotion. Each character enters the scene in an individual emotional state with agendas (conscious and unconscious). These influence the decisions and actions of each character. The character's "normal tools" for dealing with conflict will fail her and by the end of the scene the character is experiencing a new emotional state with which she enters the next scene. Since the old tools for dealing with the world aren't working, the character attempts to adapt what she learned in the previous scene for the next confrontation.

Eric guided the group as we drafted Point Four, the first try/fail scene of our story. This set us up for what we believed should occur at Point Five.

Regrettably we ran out of time to flesh out Points Six and Seven. However, we were well on our way to an understanding of the process.

As for publication, the writer cannot always predict what editors and publishers will want. Eric's handout included four stories (literary, horror, and fantasy genres) that he developed and wrote in about two hours. Per the whims of the publishing industry, one of the stories he least liked has had the most success. Go figure.

Eric left us with a process for creativity. Using prompts from any source of our choice, he suggested selecting three random concepts to use in a 15 minute writing exercise. Whether practicing the pieces of story arc separately or in combination, don't worry about producing a publishable product. Consider it practice in learning the language of prose. If one of these practice sessions produces the germ of a good story, then fly with it to see what happens.

Per usual, even though I've attended Eric's workshops in the past, I learn something new each time. He is one of several frequent presenters at the Willamette Writers Conference that I watch for.

Many thanks to Christina Katz for coordinating the Northwest Writers Series.

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