Today, I went to this year’s writers fair at UCLA. I got there a little late, sure, but it’s Sunday. What sort of people get up early on a Sunday?!
No, no. It was a good event, lots of fun. I had planned on going to four of the seminars, but my tardiness forced me to drop the first one. It was on the basics of fiction writing anyways, and If I needed to sit through another lecture on why plot and character are important to a story, then I figured I had no right being at the fair at all, or even being a writer.
But the other three seminars were good ones, and I wanted to share what I learned from them.
Writing Your First Novel:
This panel, chaired by Antioch alum Eduardo Santiago, consisted of writers sharing their “I lost my novel virginity” stories, giving the audience pointers on what they could do to prepare themselves for the rigors of novel writing, as many of them had yet to start on their great works.
The biggest advice was that the book needs to reach its end. Fame and fortune are not the ultimate goal; just getting to the finish line is. One problem that first-time writers have is that they don’t plan out their work in advance, the common thinking being that such planning stifles the creative flow. The truth is the exact opposite. Craft, tools, and techniques allow your brain to focus on creativity and inspiration so you can put the bulk of your energy into figuring out what that next sentence should be about rather than how to put it together mechanically.
Also, the first chapter is one likely to end up in the garbage because the characters and the novel as a whole will change so much that by the end of your draft, the final chapter will tell you what the first chapter should really be about. And don’t have an agenda or some great master plan, or you’ll back yourself into a corner. Instead, boil your themes down to a couple of broad words, then develop from there.
As far as what writers should physically do, the consensus of the panel was to devote at least one hour a day to writing, maybe two hours a day on weekends.
I was surprised to learn here that no writer really has confidence, even the pros. The point of this seminar was to find what motivates a writer to produce work. Unsurprisingly, the answer was because writing makes us happy. One of the panelists, a man named Daniel Jaffe, had actually left a lucrative law career to become a writer. No one denies the doubt, and everyone accepts that writing is a kind of socially sanctioned mental illness, but in the end, we continue to write because we derive a rewarding sense of fulfillment from it. And if your family doubts your prospects as a writer, it’s not because they think you suck; it’s because they’re worried you won’t be able to support yourself off of it.
The discuss then turned to the critics and the rejection letters that we all must put up with. Rejection letters are part of the job. Accept it. The key test of a writer is being able to bounce back from those moments of pity. If a magazine sends you a rejection notice, it’s not because you lack talent. Most of the time it’s because your story hasn’t drawn out the right editor. If you do get published, and you get a bad review, try getting some perspective on the matter. If it’s one critic’s review, then it’s one person’s opinion on your work. Try to gauge the pulse of the wider audience, and then motivate yourself to proving that jackass critic that you are a good writer. Even the thought of your audience can be daunting, so aim smaller and try pleasing a small group of people with names and faces. Then take it from there.
One more thing stood out in this panel for me, and it was a story that Daniel Jaffe told us. He described for us a trip he’d taken to Argentina where he met a man whom I think said he survived the Treblinka extermination camp during the Holocaust. This man said he saw the words “writing survives” on a wall. If nothing else, you should be motivated into leaving behind someone for others to read and enjoy.
Forging Creativity Into Fiction Craft:
Originally, I’d planned to stay in the room where Confident Writing was held for a seminar about writing and balancing a day job, but I stepped outside to check a voicemail and came back to find the room packed with people. I didn’t want to stand for an hour.
This was a very hands-on seminar, and I didn’t have much time to jot down notes. There was a short writing assignment in which we each had to pick between two pictures – a man or a woman – give them a name, list the contents of their pockets, and describe their current problem. Then we had to write about them or give them a monologue or a scene between them and some other random character. Mine had the woman wondering why she had a cheese stick in her pocket, and a friend of hers suggesting that it might be some new kind of sex toy.
Confident Writing talked about reacting against negative feedback, but this seminar was the opposite, encouraging writers to focus on their strengths. Some of us, including me, volunteered to read our brief assignment and got instant feedback on what worked; I was happy to know that my heroine was described as being opinionated and lacking an abundance of bullshit.
That’s the main thing the panelists emphasized. In a workshop, the flaws of a piece are pointed out, and that’s find in order to iron out some of the glaring problems. But if that happens too often, you’ll focus more on avoiding what you shouldn’t do and overlook the things you got right. For example, in this short writing piece, I knew that the non-dialogue prose was anemic and needed more. If someone told me that in a workshop, I would fixate on the problem and not worried enough about developing the witty female protagonist.