During his craft talk on PLOT at the 2012 Yoknapatawpha Summer Writers Workshop in Oxford (Mississippi) this past weekend, author Tom Franklin (Crooked Letter, Crooked Letter) gave us a great visual for remembering the three things all stories need. He started out with the 3 Ps (augmented by the 3 Cs):
And then to make it even clearer, he added the 3 Ss that every good story has:
the SUCKER, the SITUATION, and the SHIT.
How the person/character/sucker in the place/context/situation negotiates the problem/conflict/shit = the PLOT.
Of course Tom’s talk was peppered with great illustrations, from his own work and others’ writing.
Creative nonfiction author, Sonja Livingston (Ghostbread) talked to us about “Writing Your Life One Snapshot at a Time.” Her wisdom can also apply to fiction writing, although the samples she shared with us were mostly memoir and essay. She talked about structure—writing little pieces that are like tiles in a mosaic—and then tying them together to form the essay or book. And about SEEDS—moments that are broken open so you can get to the heart of the matter. Good stuff.
Scott Morris (Waiting For April, The Total View of Taftly) deviated a bit from his usual philosophical address to give a practical talk on the CRAFT of writing. Perfect timing for me, since I had my second meeting with my freelance editor that same day. Between the two of them I think there’s hope for my novel! This seemed to be the year for lists. Scott explored 5 basic elements of writing and how to use them (or not) in our writing:
1. Dialogue (including interior monologue)
2. Descriptive Writing (relating things in terms of the 5 senses)
3. Expository (explaining)
4. Commentary (opinion—the author’s or a character’s)
5. Action (what’s happening)
Modern American realists use only 1, 2, and 5, leaving expository and commentary out of their work. Lots of editors in New York City don’t want 3 or 4. But Scott points out that’s not how the real world is. I was so glad to hear him talk about how to use expository and commentary WELL in our writing, especially since my editor was telling me to quit using dialogue to explain things. Like Scott said, we talk in code. It’s unnatural to have our characters explain things through dialogue. Are there exceptions? Sure. One of my main characters is a teacher, so she sometimes explains things in dialogue in my novel. It was good to be reminded that the rules are just a starting place. We need to know them—just like a good jazz master who bends those rules and creates improvisational music.
It seems that every writing workshop eventually gets around to a discussion on this whole “show, don’t tell” mantra. Workshop Director, M. O. “Neal” Walsh (The Prospect of Magic) (left, sporting his YOK tattoo) reminded us of something he learned from Richard Bausch: “It’s not show OR tell, it’s show AND tell.” Neal did a fabulous job coordinating the weekend, hosting the Open Mic events, and even took time to do written critiques of our work.
The bottom line? Scott said it well, “Tell a story that creates a level of excitement in yourself and don’t worry about the rules.”
What a great weekend. One of my personal highlights was Saturday night. Tom Franklin gave a reading for the workshop participants at Off Square Books. When we arrived there was a table set up with books by the workshop faculty. And right there at the end—rubbing elbows with one of Scott’s books, was Circling Faith: Southern Women on Spirituality.
Since I contributed an essay, a number of folks (about eight, but who’s counting, right?) purchased the book and asked me to sign it for them. Thanks so much, everyone! (That’s Vaughan Dickson and me at left.) I was very humbled and gratified by their support. I loved signing the books during the workshop weekend, since the faculty and participants at the past six years of Yoknapatawpha helped shape the words in that essay, just as they did the novel I’m trying to finish now. I can’t wait to buy your books and have you inscribe them for me!
And kudos to third-time YOK participant, Michael Risely, for the success of his self-published crime drama, Through These Eyes. I enjoyed reading it on Kindle a few months ago and appreciate the paperback Michael gave me as a gift this weekend. (Michael and me, on the square, right.)
Enjoy these parting shots… all taken with my cell phone. Watch for some better quality photos from Doug McLain on Facebook! Hugs out.