Dear Readers: This week One Story is hosting our 8th annual Summer Workshop for Writers. Our current interns, Hannah, Olivia, and Miche 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 Olivia Liu. Enjoy!–LV
Tuesday was a stellar second day of the One Story Summer Conference. The featured Craft Lecturer was One Story Contributing Editor Karen Friedman, who gave a useful talk on how to edit your own story. The lecture was structured around four main story aspects—beginnings, characters, plot, and endings—and the lessons we can learn from soap operas. You read that right: soap operas! Sure, soap operas are not exactly high-brow literature but they do have a way of pulling you in and never letting go, something that a story should certainly do.
To edit beginnings, Karen advised writers to take a page out of Yoda’s book (yes, that Yoda). Unclear writing can make a reader angry, and, according to the Grand Master of the Jedi Order, “Anger leads to hate, and hate leads to suffering.” To avoid angering readers, writers should make clear what the setting, characters, and conflict in their work are by page 2.
As a template for character, Friedman used Jason, the golden-boy-turned-crime-boss-protégé from the soap opera General Hospital. As soon as we re-meet Jason after his amnesia, we immediately learn his appearance, actions, voice, motivation, backstory and, perhaps most intriguing of all, we learn the concept of reusing a character. General Hospital could have made the crime boss protégé a new character entirely, but Friedman pointed out that Jason would lose the layer of emotional depth the viewers gained from knowing this new villain was once a beloved son.
“Make your characters want something right away, even if it’s a glass of water.” Friedman used this bit of advice from Kurt Vonnegut to frame her segment on editing plot. She outlined the basic narrative arc of set up, escalation, climax, and resolution and emphasized that every scene should feature a narrative arc, no matter how small. One example of a scene arc she used was a clip from Guiding Light in which Reva Shayne baptizes herself as the “Slut of Springfield.”
Friedman discussed her two major “don’ts” for endings—NO TRICKS (don’t make the story “all a dream”) and Death ≠ Answer (a character’s death does not count as a story ending). Endings, she said, should resonate with readers. The reader should be thinking about the story long after it’s over. One technique to create resonant endings, Friedman said, was to slow down and focus on an object that has had some significance in the narrative. As an example, she used the ending of Jodi Angel’s “Snuff” (OS #179), which is structured around a pocketknife, and the final scene of As the World Turns, which prominently features the newly-retired Robert Hughes (Dr. Bob) slipping his nameplate into his briefcase as he leaves his office for the final time.
The lecture ended with a fun writing exercise. We each wrote two characters on two different yellow cards and one setting on a blue card. Everyone switched cards and had to craft a beginning of a story from those characters and that setting. This resulted in some fun and unexpected stories, which Friedman stressed was the point of the generative exercise: to get writers out of their comfort zone.
The group reconvened in the evening for a panel with some of the industry’s top agents: Mitch Hoffman, Dana Murphy, Duvall Osteen, and Renée Zuckerbrot, moderated by One Story Co-founder and Executive Editor Hannah Tinti. They opened the discussion by discussing an agent’s role in the life of a writer, a role that, according to Murphy, ranges from best friend to therapist. All four agents agreed that it is ultimately a business relationship, and stressed the importance of professionalism.
Because the relationship with their agent might be the most important relationship an author will forge in their career, the panelists advised conference attendees to choose carefully, with patience and deliberation. Finding agents and editors can be a lot like matchmaking, and jumping the gun on these relationships is akin to marrying the first person you meet on Tinder.
The four agents also shared projects that they were proud of. Murphy talked about her very first project, Girl in Snow by Danya Kukafka, which will be published next week, and Osteen told a story about hope: her client who had a book she absolutely loved got rejected multiple times but finally got a deal after waiting and more revising.
When asked about the best way to approach an agent, they discussed the importance of doing your homework. Know who you’re talking to, they said, and be sure to follow the specific submission requirements the agents have.
After the panel, conference attendees enjoyed wine and cheese and a chance to talk to the agents one-on-one. Despite a long day of workshops, lectures, and panels, the writers were all buzzing with energy as they chatted with the agents and with one another. The crowd didn’t begin to thin until well after 9pm. “I’m tired but happy,” proclaimed one attendee, as she left for the evening with a grin on her face.