One Story Workshop Day 3: Find the Action in Your Story

Dear Readers: This week One Story is hosting our 7th annual Summer Workshop for Writers. Our current interns, Michelle, Jess, Coryna and Kally 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 Kally Patz and Coryna Ogunseitan. Enjoy!–HT


Victor LaValle talks about ACTION!

Alice Munro and the Brothers Grimm may not appear to have much in common. Aside from, of course, their enormous talent, the writers are stylistically very different. But today, they were two of four celebrated authors on the syllabus for Victor LaValle’s Craft Lecture. After students finished two hours of rigorous workshopping with Patrick Ryan and Will Allison, and enjoyed a delicious lunch prepared by Runner & Stone, we all gathered in the Canteen to take a closer look at ACTION & PLOT.

LaValle began by drawing our attention to a key element of storytelling that, despite its simplicity, is overlooked by many literary writers: present, physical action. He said that when he was an MFA candidate at Columbia, no one ever asked the basic question, “Are your characters doing anything?”

One Story workshop students then read aloud, popcorn-style, three of the stories LaValle had assigned and broke them down according to action, like a comic strip. For each new action, LaValle drew a new box, inside of which he wrote no more than two or three words. (For example, “Mike walks,” or “Mike gets lost.”) The exercise helped the students visualize each story, as they might a movie script, highlighting action as something concrete, progressing step by step. LaValle encouraged breaking down our own stories–and the stories of authors we love–in this same way, to see how the physical action relates to the overall meaning of the piece.

According to LaValle, what was important was that readers and writers alike were able to see why each action was “justified.” He cited a beautiful moment in Alice Munro’s story, “The Bear Came Over the Mountain,” when the protagonist, suffering from dementia, is leaving her home to move into an assisted-living facility, and erases the mark a “cheap black house shoe” left on the floor. Not only is she permanently leaving the home in which she lived most of her adult life; she is erasing what LaValle called “the last trace of herself.” Workshop students left the class talking about the Munro story, many intending to reread it at home looking for intentional, meaningful action.

Some One Story workshop students snuck off to nap—we mean write!—but most stuck around to hear Hannah Tinti and Ann Napolitano’s advice on giving a good public reading, in preparation for open mic on Friday. Students took notes as Hannah and Ann shared tips on getting over the jitters, then tried out their new skills with a classic author used by orators young and old: Dr. Seuss. We were feeling inspired and composed this short tribute in preparation for the evening’s Book Editor Panel:

Big press
Small press
Old press
New press.
This one has a bestseller.
This one treats new authors better.
Say! What a lot
Of editors there are.

Indeed, there were a lot of book editors in the Can Factory last night. The panel, moderated by One Story’s Managing Editor Lena Valencia, included Sarah Bowlin from Henry Holt, Brinda Ayer from Restless Books, Yukia Igarashi from Catapult, and Margaux Weisman From William Morrow/Harper Collins. (Unfortunately, we couldn’t work all of this into the “One Fish Two Fish” syntax.)

The editors started off by talking about how they got into the publishing industry. According to Margaux, the secret is to work 72 jobs and spend your free time hunting down literary agents. There was some nervous laughter in the room, but she assured us that wasn’t a joke.

Things cheered up a bit when the editors talked about what gets them excited. Sarah told us about how she got the rights to Sheila Heiti’s How Should a Person Be? Nobody wanted it after it sold poorly in Canada, but, with some editing and an extra 8,000 words, it became a breakthrough novel at Henry Holt. Everyone geeked out and Brinda asked if that really happened. Sarah confirmed that it really did. A little bit of a book editor fantasy for you.

Inevitably, we came to the age-old question: big or little, which press fits best? Everyone seemed to agree that small presses are a good home for new authors or authors who want to try something a little different. A short story collection, for instance, might do better at a small press that can afford to take a risk. Brinda said that small presses have almost become a hunting ground for larger presses looking for emerging authors. While miming a vulture, she told us about how Farrar, Straus and Giroux bought the paperback-rights to Karl Ove Knausgaard’s My Struggle after it did well at Archipelago, a small press down the hall from the One Story office. Brinda’s vulture demonstration got us thinking. We’ve been suspicious of the hawks that live on the can factory’s fire-escape in the past, but now we’re absolutely certain: they are publishing spies!

After the panel was over, editors mixed with students, sharing glasses of wine and beer and answering questions about the business of publishing. Each day of the workshop, the possibility of publishing a book one day seems more concrete and possible. As we left the can factory and wandered out into the night, we looked up at the massive nest of sticks perched at the top of the fire-escape, and wondered if the hawks were watching.


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