Writing Workshop Part 2Getting Hooked, Married and Breaking Away

Notes from a Writing Workshop Part 2

by Jason Sitzes


The first thing I learned about my new friend and author Les Edgerton is that, when he too lived in New Orleans long before my time there, he often drank with singer Tom Waits.  And thus set off the second half of Writers Retreat Workshop. Les writes for F&W Publications (Writers Digest Books) and is the author of both Hooked and Finding Your Voice.

Trying to keep Les on topic was like trying to keep a child focused on quantum physics, but his stream-of-consciousness delivery was full of nuggets of information. The note-taking and anecdotes from Les could fill a notebook.

Dipping into his book Hooked to present an example, Les taught a lesson that seemed to resonate: the importance of using the first few pages not for setup, or for getting to know the characters, but to grab the reader by plunging them into the middle of action. I teach in the core class the idea of starting the story the moment our protagonist's status quo is shattered : that moment (or just after, or a short time before) when life as our protagonist knew it yesterday is shattered forever.

An incident happens; the character is faced with a choice and a goal, and the reader is hooked. The stronger the stakes, the more the reader will be hooked. This applies not only to the beginning of the story, but the beginning of each scene. Writers should strive to tell us up-front, and in each scene, the inherent goal for the main point-of-view character in that scene.

WRW grads and authors Kimberly Frost (Would-Be Witch) and Jack Getze (Austin Carr mysteries) each led sessions about their individual journeys and what they've learned under the pressure of deadline. Kimberly is an ER doctor by day and night, putting in 20 to 30 hours in the ER before a couple days 'off'. It's on the off-days she schedules writing time. She encouraged writers to look at their monthly schedule incorporating social and/or family time around specific goals for accomplishing projects.  "When you're writing the first novel," she reminds us, "you can take as long as you want. Once you sell the novel, depending on the genre, you're on deadline that can range from six months to a year before the next final draft is due."

Setting goals for not only the current project, but setting a 'where I want to be in five years' goal will keep us focused moment-to-moment.

Jack Getze told a story about his agent getting him into a deal with a publisher (Hillard and Harris) who has all but fallen off the map, has provided almost no distribution for his book, and after the first year of publication stopped sending royalty and sales statements. This is one of the pitfalls of our current economic struggle. While his agent is working to get him a new publisher, the lessons learned are many: including the fact that just any agent and just any publisher will not always a career make. Sometimes the exact opposite happens. Sometimes the wrong combination or a weak/unmotivated agent will harm your career before it takes off. (Which reminds me of a previous WRW where author Jennifer Crusie reminded us that the agent/writer relationship is like a marriage... both sides should have the same goals or one side will be speaking into a vacuum and should run.)

One other noteworthy class among many was led by Foundry Literary agent Stephen Barbara and I on 'Breaking Rules with Style.' Stephen read examples by Cormac McCarthy's  No Country For Old Men where, essentially, the ending is given away at the beginning. I read from Richard Russo's amazing Pulitzer Prize winning Empire Falls. Having worked with hundreds of writers, I know without question that if a writer sees a published writer "break a rule," just like a teenager with a list of rules to obey, new novelists will justify their attempts.

First, we don't believe there are rules to fiction writing (outside certain genre specifications). But we do agree there are contemporary guidelines authors should follow that satisfy the needs and expectations of the modern reader and the modern story.

I argue: "If you break a guideline because you read where another writer did it well, you're probably coming from misguided motivation. However, if within your novel you have to take a risk because there is no other way, the story will not develop in the traditional guideline for scene or delivery, you're doing the story justice. That's how and why the pros do it." 

We also talked about that great final thought, the trait that all of Stephen's award-winning young adult authors know, and with what I always hope to leave you: the challenge of persistence. Anything worth having requires persistence and self-faith. If you work toward it, the opportunity will open itself. If you feel you're speaking or working in a vacuum, break away and follow another path. It might be a different project or different path all together, but get out of the situation.  Just because you've invested two years in one book doesn't mean the next book, that takes you nine months to write, isn't your first success.  

We wrapped up WRW Spring 2009 with a smashing late-night party by campfire and pond in Eastern Kentucky, where writers took old manuscript pages and dropped them into the fire: the Spring breeze carrying weak story off to where it belongs.

copyright Jason Sitzes 2009


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