"It's impossible to discourage the real writers; they don't give a damn what you say." Sinclair Lewis

Monday, September 2, 2013

A Feast in the Elements of Craft

By Karen Finnigan

After a lifetime of reading, you think you know what goes into a story. And, in a generic way, you do. Plot: Check. Conflict: Check. Compelling characters: Check, check. But in today’s publishing world, thousands of other stories also have plot, conflict, and compelling characters. Above average use of these components isn’t good enough anymore. It takes some special forces to lift a story beyond the ordinary if you want to make the cut with agents and publishers these days. The Excellent stories, the Chosen ones, contain specific components that lift them from ho-hum to page turners. Elements you’ve maybe admired in books you’ve read without being able to put your finger on exactly what they are.

This was my state of mind when I arrived, hungry for advanced craft, in Portland, Oregon, and shuttled with Sandy Lord and Richard Rice from the airport to the Sheraton Airport Hotel for the Willamette Writers Conference. I attended workshops on the craft of writing from Aug 2-4. During those three days, I only had short breaks for buffet lunches. I did not bring enough note taking paper and ended up taking notes on the backs of handouts. Condensing what I learned here is like cutting a 120,000 novel to a book jacket!

FYI, the book most commonly referenced by workshop presenters as an example of excellence was The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins. I had not read it, but I had seen the movie. And I’d heard plenty about it from my granddaughter, who found it so compelling she asked for bow and arrows for her birthday and who named her latest kitten Katniss after the heroine in Hunger Games. (That was before the vet told her the kitten was a boy, but I digress.) When I returned home, I borrowed my granddaughter’s copy of the book and read it so I can also dissect what one workshop presenter called a brilliant plot.

Three days in a row I sat in on the workshops presented by story fixer and author, Larry Brooks. He gave us nearly 5 hours of meaty tips on how to add power, tension, and force to our own stories. He explained how there are three layers to creating a story: conceptual phase or the search for story. We aren’t done with this phase until we know our ending. (I’m pretty sure I’m still in this phase with my current story.) Next phase is the Premise phase where we apply the three-act structure to our concept. You know, have a good idea what’s happening at our first plot point, our mid-point, our dark moment, and in our climax. Last phase is the actual writing. Some writers do all these phases in their head as they go. Others need the formality of organizing it outline style. There is no right way, he said. Whatever works for you is the right way.

But writers who think they are finished once they get that draft committed to computer/paper may be selling their book short. Larry wasn’t talking about technical stuff here as much as intangible forces.

In short, too many stories are technically competent, but still have something missing. Larry’s bottom line: Analyze whether your story is as powerful as it can be. You can find Larry Brooks on Storyfix.com. You can hire him to analyze and add power and force to your story. If you can’t afford that, you can buy his books, Story Engineering, and Story Physics, where the forces are explained in detail.

I also attended intermediate-level workshops by multiple other presenters. The topics ranged from Effective Motivation, Maximizing Tension, Dialogue, Making Your Protagonist Sympathetic. And I visited the Manuscript ER more than once (where I found out from a published author I’ve probably been marketing my novel all wrong).

I also pitched two agents. The first said my story sounded fascinating, but not “edgy” enough for her list. True, I don’t have a bow and arrows in my story nor exploding fireballs. But maybe other elements needed a second look. I refined my pitch over breakfast with encouragement from friends. Then I met with the second agent who does deal in literary fiction. She listened to my pitch and said to send her my opening chapters!

But I did not send off the chapters the day after I arrived home. I had also attended this agent’s workshop on what makes a novel publishable--and, again, taken copious notes. She said she looks in the first two pages for the dramatic hook, the story promise, or if you like, the question that’s going to be answered by the end of the book. I checked for that in my manuscript. She also said the first sentence is crucial for drawing her in. Gave mine another look. I thought about all the other craft stuff I’d learned in relation to my opening chapters and quickly reframed Chapter Two to (I hope) maximize the tension. Only then did I email my chapters.

Now I am sitting back, hopeful, but still digesting all I learned. I was so hungry for writing advice, and boy, am I sated. The Willamette Writers Conference definitely put on a feast for writers. Workshop presenters gave me a lot of the meat and potatoes, but kept it real too. Not once did anyone anywhere say writing a novel was a piece of cake.


  1. Excellent post, Karen! When I read about the agent, I thought of my book. I don't think she'd keep reading mine. I have a great opening sentence, but I don't have a question that will be answered in the end. At least not that soon in the chapter. Sounds like you had a wonderful, informative time. Next year I'm going with you!


  2. This is a very interesting and informative post, Karen. However, I hope you won't take offense when I say I'm compelled to offer a little different view point on the subject. It's my opinion that much of the information presenters give at these conferences is subjective, and is open for scrutiny.

    What you have written sounds pretty complicated to me. I think these presenters sometimes tend to complicate things more than necessary. I think we have to be very careful that we don't "over fix" to the point of ruining an already good story. Puts in me mind of a car salesman I once knew. He didn't know when to stop selling. More often than not he would have a customer ready to sign on the dotted line, but continued his pitch until he talked himself out of the sale.

    The same can be true with our stories as well. If we get too caught up in worrying about whether it has power, whether it has edge, whether it has enough tension, etc., I think we can easily lose track of the story. As Tom Clancy once said, forget all that and just write the d***** story.

    I remember with my first novel, I decided to let a neighbor read the manuscript. He was a person I had known only a few short months, so I thought he'd be one who would not be prejudiced by a long friendship. I gave him the mss. one evening about eight o'clock. The next morning, he returned it. My first reaction was disappointment. "He didn't like it," was my thought, and I intimated this to him.

    He told me, on the contrary. He finished it. He said it kept him up until three in the morning. He couldn't put it down. I was flabbergasted. I wrote that book by the seat of my pants, only trying to craft an interesting story. An assistant manager of a Walden Book Store asked me, after he had read it, when was the sequel coming?

    So my point here, is, I don't think we should be so concerned if our story has power, or edge, or enough tension, etc. We're story tellers. I believe if we concentrate on that, and try to tell our story in the most interesting way we can, all these other factors will fall into place naturally.

  3. That was excellent, Karen. I took notes as I read your advice. I loved your continued theme of the feast - meat and potatoes, a piece of cake, ect. After I digested the information I went in and fixed me some lunch. The whole experience was very satisfying.

    Miss you,

  4. Sounds like it was a great conference. Thanks for such a good report!

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