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.

About One Story’s next online class and how to become your own best editor

Will PhotoIn the summer of 1996, a few months after I finished my MFA at Ohio State, I got the luckiest break of my writing career: I landed an editorial job at Story, the fabled literary magazine that prided itself on discovering great new writers, from J. D. Salinger and Carson McCullers in the 1930s and 1940s to Junot Díaz and our own Hannah Tinti in the 1990s.

I say it was the luckiest break of my career because even though I’d been writing fiction for eight years, editing stories taught me how to write them much better. My job at Story also gave me insight into what I could expect when the day came that I’d be working with an editor myself.

In this latest incarnation of our popular editing course, you’ll get a rare, behind-the-scenes look at the editorial process. You’ll also learn to bring the same sharp editorial eye to your own work that the editors of One Story bring to each issue. Daily online lectures will guide you through a case study of a One Story debut, issue #191, “Claire, the Whole World,” by Jonathan Durbin. You’ll follow the story from first draft to publication—studying actual marked-up manuscripts—as the author and editors work together to make the story the best it can be.

In addition to drafts of “Claire, the Whole World,” the ten-day course (November 13th – 22nd) will include daily online lectures, assignments, and a message board where you can share ideas and manuscripts with other writers who are committed to becoming better editors of their own work. To find out more about this course, go here. Deadline to sign up is November 13th.

I hope you’ll join us!