One Story Summer Conference Day 5: Authorial Authority

Dear Readers: This week we’re hosting our 9th annual Summer Writers Conference. Our current interns, Stephanie, Ben, and D.J. will be chronicling each day here on our blog, giving a peek into what we’re doing at the Old American Can Factory in Brooklyn. Today’s write-up is by Stephanie Santos. Enjoy!–LV

The One Story Summer Conference ended on Friday after a week filled with craft lectures, panels, and workshops. While we’re sad to see it end, we’re happy to have welcomed a new group of writers to the One Story family.

After the final workshops, Hannah Tinti gave a fantastic lecture on how writers can ensure they have authority in their stories. The main question writers should ask themselves when they are considering the amount of authority they have in a story, Tinti told the audience, is “Am I doing this story justice?”

To begin, Tinti asked the audience to close their eyes and recall the first book that sparked their interest in reading or writing fiction. After asking the audience how they felt reading this book, she wrote down some of these descriptions: “entertained,” “invested,” “understood,” “excited,” “alive,” “not alone.”

Hannah then asked the crowd to find words that describe feeling lost. The answers she received included “confused,” “disorientated,” “stupid,” “lonely,” and “angry.” Her main point was that a story written with authority would skillfully guide readers to the first list and inspire them rather than frustrate and confuse them.

Tinti listed some key things that she looks for in a short story while reading unsolicited submissions:

  • Language
  • How quickly she is sucked into the story
  • If the story displays a new idea or something in a new light
  • If the story clearly knows what it’s about
  • How in control the writer is of the story

While at first it may seem overwhelming to juggle so many ideas at once while writing, Tinti dispensed helpful advice to the writers so that they could begin to achieve each of these important elements.

  • Write with clear, confident sentences
  • Immediately set the stage of the story to ground your reader
  • Include just enough specific facts
  • Establish the main character quickly
  • Understand the emotional situation of your story

To demonstrate what all these skills look like in action, Tinti led the group in a close read of Jesse Lee Kercheval’s flash fiction piece “Carpathia,” which manages to employ all these essential elements seamlessly. She pointed out that the effect the story has is only possible with tireless revision and an acute attention to these details.

Tinti then had the audience put her advice to the test with three exercises. The first was to take a flower and invent a botanical encyclopedia entry for it. She had participants describe the flower in terms of specific facts that relate to it as well as how the flower appeals to the five senses. This exercise established false authority and demonstrated its usefulness at making false authority feel believable.

Conference participants prepare to write fictional botanical encyclopedia entries about their flowers.

Tinti also stressed the importance of mapping a scene out to make it clearer to the reader what is happening, where they are, what they are seeing, and what the main character’s feelings about the situation are. The mapping exercise, which was designed to help writers establish a scene, was to describe a situation with a car that the writers were very familiar with and describe exactly everything they see to the right, left, forward, behind them, up, or below them. Then, she had the audience write a scene using this “map” to show how much easier it is to write a scene when the writer has planned it out.

Hannah’s final exercise demonstrated the importance of layering in a scene. Her exercise focused on character. To help the group visualize the layering process, she used a soil diagram that showed the layers of earth: surface litter, topsoil, subsoil, and bedrock. The exercise was to choose a character and state what they are saying out loud, which makes up the surface layer of that character in a specific scene. The next layer (the topsoil) was made up of the character’s physical action while they are speaking. After this topsoil, Tinti asked the participants to write what this character is thinking (subsoil). Finally, as the bedrock, writers provided a memory that this character might be reminded of in this scene.

Tinti’s goal for these exercises is to make each scene easier to access for the reader. Writing with authority is critical to avoiding confusion or frustration from a disoriented reader. A story should be clear and leave all the complexity to its substance.

To conclude the conference, all workshop participants were asked to read a part of their work before dinner. Every writer gave their reading with eloquence and authority, thanks to the reading tips they received on Thursday from Ann Napolitano and Patrick Ryan. Following a dinner catered by Runner & Stone, workshop participants were sad to go but left fulfilled by the week. We at One Story wish these writers great success and cannot wait to see where their talent and hard work will take them next.

One Story Summer Conference Day 1 : Characters Matter

Dear Readers: This week we’re hosting our 9th annual Summer Writers Conference. Our current interns, Stephanie, Ben, and D.J. will be chronicling each day here on our blog, giving a peek into what we’re doing at the Old American Can Factory in Brooklyn. Today’s write-up is by Stephanie Santos. Enjoy!–LV

One Story’s 2018 Summer Conference is here, and writers arrived at the Old American Can Factory on Sunday night excited to begin their week of workshops and craft lectures. Over wine and cheese, One Story co-founders Hannah Tinti and Maribeth Batcha introduced the Writing Advice Wall: lengths of twine strung between two metal posts where workshop participants could handwrite bits of writing advice they picked up throughout the week on colorful cards and clip them to the twine.

The writers were given a tour of the Can Factory. At the One Story office, Maribeth and Hannah talked about the organization’s origins. The magazine started with just three thousand dollars and grew beyond what the two founders could have dreamed. The Summer Conference, they said, was an especially important milestone. When they held the first Conference in 2010, it was the organization’s first step toward being more than just a print magazine.

The next day, after their morning workshops with Anna Solomon and Will Allison, conference participants gathered to hear Patrick Ryan’s craft lecture entitled “Good Writing About Bad People.” He began by listing steps to approach any character you write, stating that all characters should:

  1. Interest you
  2. Be somewhat unknown to you
  3. Be able to surprise you
  4. Want something

Patrick said following these steps when creating a character is an effective way to separate your writing from typical genre fiction, which often falls flat for him when writers create a character and only go as far as tacking on shallow, meaningless attributes that do not speak to the character’s actions in a complex way. “Genre fiction,” he said, “is great when it comes close to literary fiction: when the characters matter.”

Patrick stressed that your character should be someone you want to spend quality time with, even if they are not someone you necessarily would like. Even if a character is mainly sweet, kind, or generous, finding the part of them that isn’t a good person is still important. He applied this same idea to unlikable characters: “You don’t have to like the character to be engaged in the story and want to learn more about them.” He emphasized the idea that there has to be some mystery about the character, and that overplanning or knowing everything about a character can make them reductive.

Another problem with overplanning connects back to the third step Patrick mentioned: if a writer knows everything about their character, the character can no longer surprise the writer. Patrick stated that too much planning is boring and puts too much pressure on the writer to invent, rather than allowing that character’s decisions to unfold organically. More importantly, he said this room for surprise is where some of the best ideas can come to a writer.

Stories are all about people, Patrick pointed out. Naturally, people see each other as good or bad to some degree. When writing a bad person or a villain, Patrick’s main point of emphasis was this: people are not just good or just evil, so neither should your characters be. “Evil” oversimplifies your character. He added that the same thing goes for labeling a character as “crazy.”

Patrick then outlined the three keys to writing complex villains:

  • Villains do not see themselves as villains.
  • You have to love all your characters the way an attorney loves a client.
  • Get in touch with your character’s internal narrative.

Patrick concluded his craft lecture with a final piece of advice for the writers. In order to write complex villains, writers must be both sympathetic and empathetic. Sympathy is at the base of all compassion and, as Patrick pointed out, it is impossible to not have compassion and be a writer. Empathy is important when writing a villain because it forces you into the perspective of that character and prevents you from selling your villain short. Patrick said that in every villain, there is often a heart, often a regret, often a fear, and something more than just evil. Without any of these, the villain is boring.

After Patrick’s craft lecture, the writers attended a Q&A session with instructors Will Allison and Anna Solomon. Hannah began by asking when Will and Anna first felt comfortable calling themselves writers. Anna felt pressured to take on the title when she was applying to graduate programs and had to explain to her friends and family the seriousness with which she now was approaching the field of writing to validate leaving her job to pursue a fiction-writing career. Will said that he calls himself a reviser. He took on this name long after he started calling himself a writer, eight years after he started writing his short story collection.

One student asked about Will and Anna’s daily writing routines, and both revealed that they schedule writing time early in the morning. Another student asked if they take time away from writing their novels to write short fiction, and both do but in different ways. When Anna submits a manuscript for feedback, she uses that time to write a short story and then puts it away to revise when she has another feedback-waiting period. Will says he often uses that break time to revise a story he has already written.

At the session’s end, they both named something about their writing careers that makes all their hard work worth it. Anna said she finds the act of writing thrilling, especially those moments where she creates something that surprises her. She also gets the chance to hear people discuss her published work and loves seeing how invested the readers were in her characters. Will said that when he was losing a game of softball, one of the players told him he had read his novel. After talking to this fan of his work, he stopped caring about the outcome of the softball game.

When the Q&A finished, writers filed out of the room and headed home to get ready for another busy day of workshops and craft lectures.