One Story Workshop Day Two: We Find Our Spirit Animals in the Rain

AMNHIt’s the second day of One Story’s fifth annual workshop. Today our students braved severe thunderstorms and flash floods, all in the name of good writing. We started off the morning with workshops at the Center for Fiction led by Will Allison and Marie-Helene Bertino, our fantastic instructors. After eating some delicious wraps and sandwiches for lunch, we sat down with One Story’s Editor in Chief Hannah Tinti, who then began a lecture about creating unique characters, using three techniques: “10 Facts,” “Superhero” and “KWL”.

The “10 Facts” technique is self-explanatory. It involves writing ten basic facts based on the character’s appearance. Hannah used herself as an example. Students immediately listed off some facts about her, some of which included “curly hair”, “creamy skin” and “wearing a large bracelet.” These facts added up to give us a sense of who she was, at least on the surface. The students were then asked how this could apply to their own characters; what does their appearance say about them? What conclusions could be drawn from that, even if eventually proven wrong?

Next was the “Superhero” technique. Hannah used Superman as an example, and asked the students about his costume, superpowers, backstory, weakness and quest. By outlining all of these details, we were able to create an image of Superman that even someone unfamiliar with the comics or movies could understand. While our own characters may not be superheroes in the same way that Clark Kent is, we could use the same approach for them. What do they wear? What are they good at, or bad at? What is their personal history? What do they want most? Hannah used a quote from Kurt Vonnegut to further emphasize that last point: “Every character should want something, even if it’s only a glass of water.” She then asked the students to consider how each character’s individual needs could intertwine to tell the story.

Finally, the “KWL” method. What does the character know? What does the character want to know? What has he or she learned by the end of the story?

With these methods in mind, we set off for the American Museum of Natural History. After some minor delays (thanks to a sudden downpour and one extremely late B train) we arrived at the exhibit for North American mammals. We split up and searched for animals that we felt most strongly about, and used the techniques Hannah had taught us to brainstorm stories about them. We used the information given to us by the museum’s placards to jot down the animal’s strengths and weaknesses, and we used our own imaginations to fill in backstories and quests for them. Then we took it one step further, and gave them an obstacle–whether that included a hunter, an opponent to compete against for a mate’s attention, or even, referring back to Vonnegut, trying to find some water–and we sketched out a brief scene, in which our characters succeeded, failed, or decided to change their goal entirely.

We headed back to the Center for Fiction, and were treated with a very informative discussion from a panel of literary agents: Jim Rutman, Sally Wofford-Girand and William Boggess. They offered plenty of advice to our students, and they parted with these three important tidbits: “Don’t rush your first offering. Wait until you’ve done everything you could for your story”; “spend time with a workshop group to make your story even better”; and, lastly, “the writer is really the source of the talent; trust your own work.” We wrapped up the night with snacks and cocktails, laughing together and enjoying some great company before heading out into the terrible storms once again.