This is just a fun list of some of the helpful tidbits I picked up while at the Napa Valley Writers’ Conference last week:
– The train has to leave the station quickly at the beginning of a story. This is a clever way of saying that you need to get a plot/conflict going sooner rather than later and that your characters’ desires/goals/motivations need to be made known quickly to draw the reader into your story. If your reader gets to page 25 of your novel and has no idea what the central conflict is, or who the main characters are and what they are after, you’ve got a problem. This metaphor really sticks with me for some reason. I think every time I write a new story I’m going to be asking myself at the end of page 2: Has the train left the station?
–When using flashbacks the drama of the present needs to outweigh the drama of the past. That is, if a character is sewing on a button in the present, the flashback shouldn’t be, say, describing a car accident happen, because why, then, include it in flashback form and not as present action?
-When writing a novel, even if you’re not an outliner or planner, you need to impose a structure, even if you don’t end up following it … or you’ll get mired in the novel. You want to be able to finish your book, not find yourself lost in the middle. (This probably explains why I have two unfinished National Novel Writing Month novels on my hard drive.)
-There is such a thing as too much craft. You can read all the writing books you want, go to lectures and classes on how to write, but at some point, all of that sinks in and you just need to sit down and (surprise!) write.
–Don’t write what sounds good, write what’s true. This is apparently a piece of advice that Ethan Canin often gives. I think it serves as a warning against passages that are too writerly. You can include all of the lyrical, beautiful passages you want, but if the reader doesn’t believe your story, you’ve got a problem.
-Place is everything; nothing happens nowhere. This little sound bite came from a lecture Ron Carlson gave at the conference. He was talking about the importance of setting and how setting can inform character and plot.
-No one should be more surprised by the ending of a short story than the writer. Another Ron Carlson sound bite, via Flannery O’Connor. It makes sense, right? If the writer is not surprised by his or her ending, the reader won’t be either. Which is not to say all endings have to be surprising, but there should be a sense of the unexpected, or of change. I think Ron brought this up as a suggestion to guard against writing toward a preconceived ending – sometimes you just need to let go and write and see what happens.
–Write 100 pages of a novel before deciding whether to continue with it or not. This one comes from Curtis Sittenfeld, who told us that she wasn’t sure about the idea she had for American Wife and decided to starting writing the novel and see what happened. She said this will probably be her deal with herself from now on. It makes sense; ideas are all fine and good, but you can’t know without trying whether an idea is viable as a novel or memoir. And though it sounds like a lot of pages to write if you are going to come to the conclusion that your idea is not viable, I can see how 100 pages would help you figure it out better than, say, 25.
–The people who get their books published are …. the people who actually finish writing their books. Sounds silly, right? But it’s important to remember not to get too worked up about publishing until you’ve finished writing your manuscript.