This was my first year attending the Willamette Writers’ Conference, and I was inspired by the love of craft and dedication to practice displayed by the attendees and presenters alike. Here is my brief re-cap of the sessions I attended, as well as links to the presenters’ websites so you can connect with them. Most of these presenters lead additional workshops and seminars or have wonderful craft books.
The Art of the Unlikeable Character – Miriam Gershow
In this seminar, we focused on how to make unlikeable characters, particularly narrators, successful in fiction. The major take-away from this seminar is that the unlikeable narrator/character is developed through a strong, unique voice, clear desires and goals (often ones that readers might find reprehensible – but that’s what makes them interesting, right?), and perhaps most importantly, relatability – some characteristic or quality that readers can relate to. Let’s face it – every one of us could possibly be an unlikeable narrator in our own stories, right? Everyone is a blend of likeable and unlikeable characteristics. The unlikeable narrator just wears their ickiness a little closer to the surface than the rest of us.
To learn more about Miriam and her publications, visit: Miriam Gershow
Location, Location, Location: Settings that Breathe, Create Mood, and Influence Story Events – Jessica Morrell
This was the first of two seminars led by Jessica Morrell which I attended this weekend. In this seminar, we focused on setting. Because Jessica provides such a wealth of information, I could write pages on this seminar (because I took pages of notes!), but I’m going to focus on the key takeaways:
- Settings have to be believable – make use of resources such as Google Earth and Google maps to ensure accuracy
- Settings should enhance and underscore the emotional landscape the characters are moving through
- Settings should be specific and authentic – the setting is where you root your reader in the world – don’t skimp on the details!
Resources for helping with setting are, as mentioned, Google Earth and Google maps, as well as a website suggested by another attendee: Random Acts of Genealogical Kindness, which he explained was a website where you could write to someone in, say, Winnamucca, NV and ask him or her to give you information on some aspect of the setting. I have not used this yet, but it sounds like a great resource!
For more on Jessica Morrell, her publications, and her craft books, visit: Jessica Morrell
Poetry as Prose – Robert Vivian
In this seminar, I was expecting a little more talk on craft – i.e. how to make our prose sound more poetic. This seminar was ultimately more of a discussion on how the publication system and we as writers create false boundaries around the idea of genre – that fiction can only be fiction and not poetry; that narrative non-fiction can only be essays; and so on. Robert Vivian is a brilliant writer, and I greatly enjoyed listening to his lecture on breaking free of form and pushing through the limitations of genre. For experimental writers, this is probably already an integrated part of your writing life, but for myself and I sense others in the room, this was a wonderful “aha” moment. I would still have liked a little more craft to this seminar, such as suggestions and exercises for helping us to write into the poetic places of our brains, which for me does not always come second nature. All craft aside, Robert was warm, personable, and heartfelt. I strongly recommend reading his works, which are now on my list for my next trip to Powell’s.
To learn more about Robert Vivian and his publications, visit: Robert Vivian.
The Life Changing Magic of Revision – Natalie Serber
Revision has slowly evolved in my life from a thing to be despised and avoided to one of my closest allies. Whenever I write about revision, I bring out that old hat: “writing is rewriting.” Why? Because It’s True! In my younger writing days, I would write story after story after story, determined to become the kind of writer who could just write the perfect story right out of the gate. Then I pulled my head out of my you-know-where, and I started revising. Good strategies for revision are a must.
And part of revision is also realizing there is more than one way to tell a story. In Natalie’s class, we took a scene and rewrote it four ways to see how these changes evoke different aspects of the story. As Natalie said in her lecture, “compressed experience evokes emotional truth.” To try this out, write a heated scene between two people; it must contain dialogue. For your second pass, write this same exact scene from the perspective of a fly on the wall, a dog, a cat, or an inanimate object. For your third pass, write the scene with only action, no dialogue at all. And finally, for your fourth pass, write the scene in which both characters say everything they are thinking. Explore your four scenes – what evolved? What emotional truths come out? Are these truths best displayed through dialogue, the perspective of an objective narrator, or action?
Natalie also shared a revision strategy in which she takes a sheet of paper and draws a diagonal line from each corner, creating a giant x. Then, she puts a circle in the middle and writes the character’s name. Then, in each quartile, she describes what the character would see in front, behind, to the left, and to the right. Doing this has helped her discover new props and items within the scene that lead to unexpected actions, dialogue, and so on. She suggested this method for when you hit a wall and are unsure what the character would do or say next. Imagining the character’s world in this way can uncover unexpected props that lead to the next moment of action.
To learn more about Natalie and her publications, visit: Natalie Serber