Tuesday, August 7, 2012

Another great Willamette Writers Conference. An estimated 850-900 attendees participated over the three days.

So -- I didn't schedule any pitches because Galactic Empress is in first draft and not ready for the light of day. Even less ready than I thought, given what I learned over the weekend. Amazing how much more enjoyable the conference is when not stewing over one's pitch and checking the time for the scheduled 10 minute one-on-one with an agent or editor.

Three workshops stand out for me. Susan Fletcher's "Mining for Theme," Gene Del Vecchio's "Creating Blockbusters," and Lisa Cron's "Wired for Story."

So good stories have a premise or theme. I know that. Most writers know that. But many of us just write the story that wants to get out and hope we'll figure out the theme at some  point. Susan Fletcher has been there. Her solution to mining the theme in her own young adult novels is to read her partial or complete draft to look for repetitions. Whether words, settings, actions of characters -- see if anything keeps popping up. There is a good chance that, subconsciously, the author is inserting the premise. Consider the repetitions or similarities and determine if they represent the theme -- the underlying truth of the story. Interestingly enough -- while reading the completed first draft of Galactic Empress I discovered a character activity that I had also inserted in Quest Schmest. The repetition wasn't necessarily in the same story, but in multiple stories. And yes, it is the theme of Galactic Empress and subconsciously I had placed the protagonist in an initial predicament that is an excellent metaphor for the theme. Thanks to Susan Fletcher, I discovered my theme and now I can be more deliberate in developing that theme in the next draft. Yay!

Barnes & Noble is a sponsor of the conference and each year they have a mini book store where they sell writing-related books as well as the books of the workshop presenters. Gene Del Vecchio's Creating Blockbusters caught my eye. Who doesn't want to receive royalty checks from The Da Vinci Code or the Harry Potter books? But I already have a copy of Donald Maas' book about writing a blockbuster. Del Vecchio was the luncheon speaker on Saturday and after his entertaining talk I had to attend his workshop. Del Vecchio's background is in consumer research and it is from this perspective that he approached the question of what makes a hit movie, TV series, book, video game, etc. It turns out that the characteristics that hook and retain an audience are very similar to the elements of The Hero's Journey (Joseph Campbell's study of culture-crossing mythology). As Del Vecchio explained it, the blockbusters connect with the kid in all of us but they are edgy enough for adults to enjoy and thus attract a wider audience. His book helps the writer avoid the dreaded "it's dumb" or "it's boring" review from the 8 to 12-year-old audience.

Of course I rushed back to the B&N table to buy Del Vecchio's book and while there I picked up Lisa Cron's Wired for Story based on the title alone. I've come to the conclusion that humans need stories, and here was a book that supported my viewpoint. As it turned out, at breakfast on Sunday a woman sat down at the table where I was seated with a couple of other attendees. As soon as she said she was a presenter my intuition kicked in and I suspected she was Lisa Cron. Sure enough. Of course I went to her workshop where Ms. Cron explained that human beings think in story and in fact it is critical to our survival. Sure, you can tell a Neanderthal child not to eat the red berries because they're poisonous. Or, you can tell the child a grisly story about a boy from the next clan over who ate the berries and died a horrible death. Through story, humans can envision the future -- the evolutionary characteristic that truly sets us apart. So when the child comes across the shiny red berries he recalls the story and imagines the horrible death that awaits him should he succumb to the temptation. Because it's important that we pay attention to these life-saving stories, our brain is wired to tune out incoming information not directly related to the story. And our brain receives the story as if we are engaged in the same activities as the characters. Thus, we can experience various and sundry acts without actually endangering ourselves. As writers, we can access the reader's hard wiring through character, plot, and theme to answer what happens next, how the protagonist is affected, and what it means to the reader.

The cool factor was -- Del Vecchio's poll revealed that elements of The Hero's Journey do indeed resonate with us, and Cron's research presented the scientific basis to explain why this is the case.

Amanda Gersh presented a workshop on believable dialogue for YA novels. The dialogue should feel real, not be real. Read a transcript of a conversation and you'll se why. She also discussed turning off the "parent/teacher filter" when writing. Could be why childless writers are often successful authors with the younger crowd. Pamela Smith Hill's session on writing romance for teens indicated that the age/maturity of the target audience must be considered (lower or upper end of the YA bracket of 12-18). She also demonstrated that being less explicit and having sensitive scenes occur off stage can be effective.

I really enjoyed Susan De Frietas on speculative fiction. She discussed how recent discoveries in science may serve as the inspiration or jump off point for science fiction and fantasy. Talk about the strange phenomenon of quantum physics! "Spooky actions at a distance" may serve a hard science fiction story, or provide the basis for magic in a fantasy novel. The editor's panel that included Tricia Narwani with Del Rey and Melissa Frain with Tor indicated the first page of a manuscript reveals the author's storytelling voice. It's either there or not.  When combined with a main character the reader can connect with the editors will work with a writer to overcome plot point issues and inconsistencies in the story. Attendees created a bizarre science fiction world in Denise Vitola's workshop. She reminded us that all of our characters must be living meaningful lives in the world of our story. Screenwriter Miguel Tejada-Flores emphasized the importance of making it clear who the story is about and the character's motivation for the decisions made and actions taken. In her workshop on The Second Draft, Molly Best Tinsley explained that in the first draft the author is writing to herself. The second draft is for the audience. Eric Witchey illustrated the use of irreconcilable differences to create character depth and develop backstory.

Whew! A lot of good stuff to assimilate. Once again I'm glad I decided to spend time with one of my tribes.

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