Tuesday, October 2, 2012

Context Convention 25: SF, Fantasy, and Horror

Context Convention 25

Columbus, Ohio

Last weekend proved to me (yet again) why writers are easily the most wonderful people in the world: (1) We never run out of stories to tell (2) We have no shame and look at each embarrassing moment as an opportunity for yet another good story and (3) When you put all of us together, there’s no telling what is going to happen other than sheer brilliance at its best.

I had the pleasure of seeing old friends and catching up over the months after residency, and meeting new friends and creating memories that will last me well throughout life. But beyond the drinks, the laughs, and the 50 Shades of Red I turned, the wealth of information that I learned about the field and the industry made the experience well worth the four hour drive that I did on eight hours of sleep over a three day stretch.

But that’s what coffee is for.

And 5 hour energy drinks.

I want to talk a little bit about the workshops that I attended because if I’ve learned anything over my time at Seton Hill, it’s that discussion is vital when learning about and honing your craft.  

Michael Knost, recipient of the Bram Stoker Award for his nonfiction collection Writers Workshop of Horror, spoke about the benefits of collaborating with a small press and how to paint your setting into something that people cannot only see, but feel as well.  I found both lectures very insightful, not to mention helpful as I find myself consistently impressed by how much I don’t know about the industry.  It was wonderful to hear about the advantages with working with a small house and I feel that I will be looking to them as a first resort when it comes to that time in my career. Hearing about all of the thought and PR that goes into the author’s finished product because it’s a more close-knit, personable relationship makes the marriage between publisher and author sound more homey than getting into a company that only knows you as a name.

In regards to setting, Knost gave a lot of examples of how to make the background come alive. He talked about the importance of active voice, warned against POV shifts, and advised using mood as a strip tease to the setting itself (See Michael A. Arnzen’s article “The Element of Surprise: Psyching-out Readers of Horror, Mystery and Suspense” in Many Genres, One Craft). In this case, less is more. Yet even still, I’ve been having some trouble with world building and getting my HELL to be just the way that I want it, and something Knost said will stick with me each time I sit down to work on my novel: “Every time you have purple prose, you’re taking yourself out of the story and saying look at me!”  

Remember that.

There’s no reason to show off.

The image should speak for itself and you should be using the most vivid details possible to get it there.

Lawrence C. Connolly, a dear friend and one of the most talented writers I know, spoke about the importance of endings and beginnings.  What I love about his workshops is that they are hands on and he has you writing and learning as the seminar takes off. He started out by reading the beginning of Voices (nominated for the Bram Stoker Award), and had us rewrite the opening sentence in our own way while keeping in mind place, character, conflict, momentum, mystery and style. Easy enough right?


I’m a firm believer that the beginning of a novel sells the reader on the story and most of the time, that’s through a hook or a tragic statement. For instance, my favorite opening line is from Ellen Hopkins’s novel, Crank: “Life was good before I met the monster.”

Why does this work?

Well, right from the start we know that the story is being told in first person POV (thus establishing our main character), and it’s implying that life was at one point good, until something horrible and destructive came along, hence the conflict. The place hasn’t been pinpointed, but because Hopkins is leading us in with a sense of mystery and awe, as reader’s we can assume she’s going to hold our hands through the character’s life until the monster, an ambiguous force, knocks he/she/ or it down. Momentum? Without a doubt. Don’t you all want to know who or what the monster is, and how he/she/or it came into contact with it?

It took me three days to write the first sentence of my novel.  
It's not as easy as it looks.

Connolly also talked about the Three Act Structure to plotting your novel and ended the workshop with a fitting discussion on endings. He gave some great advice on how to wrap up the story whether it be by presenting a final image or returning to an element of the opening scene, but what has stuck with me even after leaving the classroom is when he said that the ending is what sells the next book. So make it count.

The last workshop that I attended was on Flash Fiction with Gary A. Braunbeck, Bram Stoker Award Winner for Superior Achievement in Short Fiction. I took pages of notes, which is ironic for a topic that only covers 500-900 words, but I’ve found that it’s usually the smaller works of fiction that are more challenging to me. Some great quips of advice for the market are: (1) Start in the middle, (2) Build on public knowledge, (3) Use small ideas, (4) Avoid complex plots, and (5) Write each piece to stand on its own.

Braunbeck also stressed the importance of removing all unnecessary plot twists and character arches because when it comes to flash, you need to start with an idea and merely hint at a story that it much longer, not actually tell it. There’s something to the metaphorical approach that works in this market, and taking something like an image is going to propel you further into the reader’s mind, but at quicker pace than if you were building and adding pages upon pages of microtension. It was at this point that Braunbeck suggested using short, choppy sentences to propel actions and emotions along in the piece.

Overall, the workshops were great, the company couldn’t have been better, and I left with an abundance of information and inspiration. There’s really no feeling quite like returning to the desk after spending the weekend with a group of writers and seeing the words just pour out on the page because you’re still on a literary high!

1 comment:

  1. I guess I never really thought of how important the first line is! My favorite..."Last night I dreamt I went to Manderlay again..."