Thursday, December 22, 2011

An MFA-level Fiction Workshop

Want to experience an MFA-level fiction workshop? Lee Martin teaches in the MFA program at Ohio State, and he's decided to share his syllabus and assignments via his blog. If you're interested in "studying" with him, take advantage of this opportunity and follow along.

He's also going to be on the faculty at the Midwest Writer's Workshop this summer. He's a celebrated teacher and writer. Don't miss out on these opportunities.

Tuesday, December 20, 2011

Tuesday, December 13, 2011

Walk the Line or Dance Around?

by Rachel Rump

For many writers the challenge of writing for a novel comes not from what the story should be about but how in the world they are going to write it. Every writer has a technique. Some write in a linear fashion while others write whatever comes to them and only put the story together later. 

Unable to decide how to write my novel, I decided to try both techniques and see which one worked best for me. I worked on two novel pieces during the time of my Advanced Fiction Class. One was written in linear fashion (we shall call it Z) and the other was written in chucks of scenes as they came to me (this shall be known as S). Now that the semester has ended I am able to look back and evaluate which technique is best for the way I write.  

For my Z novel, I wrote in a straight fashion of how things were presented on my storyboard. I found that this took some time because I was already thinking further ahead to the climax or ending of the story and found that a couple parts were difficult to make it through before I got to a part where the words flowed. But I also found it easy to keep track of where I was in the story because I followed my storyboard and the story was put together with all parts included. I am roughly at the halfway point with a few revisions still needed but that will be addressed at a later time because my story must continue. I must continue to “walk the line”. 

Since I seem to always be all over the place I decided that I would try writing whatever scene came to mind for my second novel S. For this one, whenever I had an idea no matter how long or short it was I would write it down and save them all in a word document. I tried not to go back and revise these parts and just made sure to keep writing everything I thought about with the story. Looking back over all the word documents that I had written I noticed that many of them seem to overlap and describe a scene more than once. I have tried putting what pieces I have together but I find that there are many holes in between scenes. At this point I seem to only have a third of the novel down.  Luckily it was all on computer or it would have been a mess of paper.

A constant theme throughout these two novels? I have written a lot of words. Given that one story is more progressed than the other doesn’t mean this is the only way that I will ever write. I feel that linear is easier to do because I can see the novel come together, but I also liked just writing what came to me. It helped take all the scenes out of my head and put them on paper so that I could find where they fit into my story. I encourage anyone to try out these techniques just to see if maybe one of them fits better than the other.

Turning a Giant into Many Dwarves: A Novel-Writing Approach

by Clay Carter

When I tell people that this semester I am in a fiction class focused on creating a 50,000 word manuscript they are astounded and fearful. Many times I’m hit with their doubt, that they could never do this, that it is too much work, or that their ideas will not be able to cover enough space to fulfill the required word count. I understand that students are often frightened of large assignments, and that such a task can deflate confidence and reduce their drive to succeed.

My head was filled with these same thoughts in the summer months before entering this course. How will I ever complete my words? Will I be able to keep up? Can I imagine all the characters and plots and settings needed to communicate clearly the world of the story? In all honesty, I began to doubt myself and the story I wanted to write. Luckily I encountered a quote that allowed me to look at this project as composed of dozen of parts rather than thinking of the whole all at once, T.S. Eliot says:

“When forced to work within a strict framework, the imagination is taxed to
its utmost – and will produce its richest ideas.”

The framework that Eliot mentions is crucial to tackling any large work of writing, whether it is an epic poem, a memoir or a piece of investigative journalism. His words also assuaged my worries. From here I felt more confident in my ability to create this world that I had begun to imagine by dividing my novel in smaller, more manageable sections. In the remainder of this blog I will outline the process that I feel has been effective in keeping my thoughts fresh and my fingers flying.

Developing a storyboard and a list of characters was the first step I took during the pre-writing phase. This is mainly an organization tool. It is daunting to remember characters and their plotlines. The storyboard is especially helpful to me because it allows my plots to become visual all at once. I used note cards to color code each character. When I lay them all out I can trace how any particular character moves through the course of the story. In times when I see that a character is not well rounded, meaning the character is static, I lay my cards out and find areas in the plot that would be conducive to the expansion of that character’s traits, flaws and desires.

When it comes time to writing I stay on a straight and narrow path with a planned destination because I have my cards in front of me. Before I write I know what scene I plan to write, which characters are going to be interacting and the conflict they confront. Knowing these three things allows for my mind to fill in the details of only this scene rather than thinking about how it might influence the rest of the novel. To reiterate, the storyboard provides a framework in which I can write and explore the minds of my characters. Structure will work wonders!

In conclusion I want to leave you the reader with another quotation I found to be most inspirational. It gave me the drive to push my creativity to its utmost and never shoot down ideas before I give them a shot. This bit comes from the film director Jim Jarmusch:

“Nothing is original. Steal from anywhere that resonates with inspiration or fuels your imagination. Devour old films, new films, music, books, paintings, photographs, poems, dreams, random conversations, architecture, bridges, street signs, trees, clouds, bodies of water, light and shadows. Select only things to steal from that speak directly to your soul. If you do this, your work (and theft) will be authentic. Authenticity is invaluable; originality is non-existent. And don’t bother concealing your thievery - celebrate it if you feel like it. In any case, always remember what Jean-Luc Godard said: “It’s not where you take things from - it’s where you take them to.”

[Editor's Note: To hear about experimentation in the framework of a novel, check out today's other blog post by Rachel Rump. - Lauren Burch]

Monday, December 12, 2011

Working with the Vantage Point

by Chris Smith

I’ve found that writing a story can get incredibly boring if you don’t love, or at least enjoy, being with your characters. The basis for my novel is that I’m loving putting these characters through their life struggles, and seeing what comes out in the end.

There are a few things that come from writing a story with multiple main characters, or protagonists. You have to decide on the distinct voices, as well as which parts of the story to tell with each character. The unique thing about my novel is that I’ll be retelling certain events over again, but with a new voice, and therefore with a new set of views, bias, and insight.

The biggest problem will be creating each voice. I can’t afford to let any character sound too much like any other character or the story will blur together and the meaning will be lost. Readers also will not feel that they are reading into new characters, and will give up reading before the action picks up.

I find that setting each character in a first person view gives me more opportunity to make the voice unique, but it also is more difficult. The first person view can get repetitive, and is also extremely limited in scope. This is tailor-made for a story trying to leave out certain parts because each character is limited, but it
makes is harder to change the voice each time.

Writing things in a third person style would eliminate the voice almost entirely, and we’d be set with only a singular third-person narrator. This could be OK if I ended up including the third-person in the end as a first person narrative, but it would make the other characters less important, and the overall theme should incorporate each character as equally as possible.

When retelling the same story over and over again, you can’t just repeat the action and words. The new view comes with new angles, new understanding. What was one thing could be something entirely different to another person. Perhaps he did stab the guy in the back before he jumped off of the plane! Perhaps he didn’t and he really got stabbed himself! Depending on which view you see it from, it can make all the difference in a key scene. You can also use misunderstandings and red herrings to advance the plot and bring the characters closer together.

The most important thing to remember is that each voice in the story is unique. That will be the key feature in creating an interesting book. If each voice is flat and dull, then the stories will not mix well, or will mix over into something that is boring, and unreadable.

Working with the Vantage Point was a good title, as the movie Vantage Point (while not exactly being a critical masterpiece) does a good job of exemplifying this particular perspective.

[Editor's Note: Tune in tomorrow for the last two student blog posts! - Lauren Burch]