Beyond The Woods
Editor: Megan Larson
Readers to Writers
An Article for Aspiring Writers
by Ashley Versaggi
Her world exploded…
Caught your interest, didn’t I?
Writing is a hobby that many people love to do, but just don’t know how, or the right way to go about doing it. Even if you think you know how, or, at the very least, are comfortable with your own writing, there is always room for something new. Even the pros out there are constantly learning new things.
On February 12th, I attended a program called “Readers to Writers.” It was held in western New York (United States), and, as far as I know, right now is only a local event, but we’ll get more to that later.
“Readers to Writers” is a county wide program for selected high-school students, grades 10-12, who are interested in writing and publication. Only two or three students can be selected from each participating school and it is a one day workshop that features nationally known local writers. This was its fifth year that it has been sponsored by the SLS (School Library System) of Genesee Valley BOCES (Board of Cooperative Educational Services) in New York. This year, 17 of the 22 schools in our system participated and there were around 50 students and 16 facilitators (teachers) that were present for the workshop, myself included.
The Good Stuff
Now we can get down to business about my experience at the “Readers to Writers” workshop. The event was from 9:00 am to 2:00 pm, and hey, it got me out of school, though that wasn’t the real reason I went. My friend Dominic and I were chosen by our school librarian to participate. I was also chosen last year, but unfortunately couldn’t attend. So, being an aspiring, amateur writer and wanting to learn more, I was extremely excited about this year’s opportunity.
The Workshop was held at the local college — Genesee Community College — and when we got there we were put in the lecture hall. There we met three local authors: Marcos Donnelly, Nick DiChario, and Robert J. Sawyer (There will be author bios later on if you’re interested). Once we got through the introductions we dug right in.
They started off with introducing us all to a term: Juxtaposition. By definition it is “To place side by side, especially for comparison or contrast.” In a writer’s case, juxtaposition is useful when you need ideas. Robert and Marcos demonstrated by looking into the audience and pointing out a girl’s shirt that read “Jack the Ripper.” Then they took another girl’s shirt, which read “I want your boyfriend”. They thus combined those two phrases and came up with a story line: “Jack the Ripper wants your boyfriend!” Marcos ended it by adding a bit of humor into their presentation (he was a riot, really) by telling us “Jack thinks your boyfriend doesn’t taste as good as he thought boys would taste.” Lesson learned: juxtaposition is your friend. If a story line is eluding you, take two objects or things, combine, and voila; an interesting storyline that is just waiting to be elaborated upon!
Robert informed us that the key to a story or novel is the premise (or the 3 P’s of writing): it needs to be a story about a particular Person, in a particular Place, with a particular Problem. Without the 3 P’s, your story won’t have substance and you might lose your reader’s interest.
He also stated that a work must have an opening (or beginning), a middle, and an end.
The opening is probably the most important part. This is the portion of the story where a writer must “hook” the reader—draw them into the story. Remember in the beginning of this article, where I spontaneously wrote Her world exploded…? That made you ask questions didn’t it? It made you ask, “Who’s she? What world? What exploded? Why did something explode? What the heck does this even have to do with the article?” and so on and so forth. A good beginning will allow your readers to ask questions. If they ask questions, they are obviously intrigued, and will thus want to continue reading. And there you go: you’ve ensnared their interest possibly so deep that they won’t want to put the story/book/novel down. You’ve created a literary “hook.” An example of a bad “hook” would be the first line of Herman Melville’s Moby Dick: “Call me Ishmael.” What kind of hook is that? Pretty boring. (Marcos and Robert were picking on that line, and Nick was defending it). Even though it’s probably quite famous, it still has no intrigue. Now, hooks can be any length. They can be a simple sentence, a sentence in a paragraph by itself, a paragraph, or a few pages. Don’t be afraid to be weird and add in the elements of the bizarre. Another way to open a story (other than a hook) is to start in the middle, or, as Marcos said: “In Media Res” (in the middle of the things). This, too, will spawn questions. Another good way is to “engage” your readers by using beautiful or surprising language or dialogue. So, lesson learned: a good beginning is crucial to a good literary work.
The middle of the book should consist of the bulk of the “problem.” A good story will revolve around some sort of central obstacle or a series of obstacles. The “problem” is the desire and motivation of a character. Every character needs a motive. It’s what keeps things interesting. However, keep in mind that a character needs a reason for conflicts. You just can’t throw something in there. There always needs to be a reason. Now, a problem should consist of conflicts: either external conflicts, or internal, or both. The character must sort out these obstacles. The authors introduced another new word: Stymie (which is a fancy word for problem). A stymie prevents the character from doing something: whether that be reaching a goal, or whatnot, the character must overcome this. Two or three obstacles that can stymie your characters are good. And thus this leads to…
The end. The ending must resolve the problem – to a certain extent at the very least. You don’t want your readers to go “…huh?” It somehow has to tie all those loose ends together. The ending should be something of a bittersweet achievement. There has to be a feeling at the end: i.e. triumph, failing, sadness, happiness, but the goal the person thought they wanted ends up changing. The character has lost something (or somethings) along the way. Even if it is a happy ending, a good ending will be bittersweet.
Another important aspect of a story that must not be overlooked is Character. A good, integral or main character needs development! They need good and bad qualities. Nick broke character development down into two categories: Spinach and Blueberries. Spinach is the tedious stuff that is as hard to get down onto paper as it is to eat. Blueberries are the simple and sweet necessities of a character.
Spinach is what reveals a character. Such things that do so are the name of the character, their physical appearances, their personal histories, their speech—dialogue/dialect, their thoughts (an author can tap directly into the mind of a character), their response to dramatic situations and stimuli (this is important, because it reveals what kind of person your character is), and last, possibly the most important: what they want. Ask yourself, above all things, “What does my character want — what is his/her motivation?” These are your character’s choices, and this will ultimately drive your plot. This is continuously changing, with the moods, feelings, and situations that the character goes through. And remember: a dynamic character is much more interesting and intriguing than a flat or static character. Give your character some substance!
Blueberries are where your characters come from. Ideas for them will come from outside and inside of us as authors. It is derived from what we, as writers, know and feel; what we have seen and heard around us in our own lives. Many times, an author will base a character off someone he or she knows. But be careful if you do this. Remember that you’re writing fiction, not a biography. It is much harder to write about someone directly from personal experience than it is changing a few things about the character. If you base them off a real person — let’s say you base your character off of Joe Schmoe, who you know — that real person already has a history, he or she already has a personality; they already have a path in their life and goals to follow, and it will be extremely hard to incorporate real life Joe Schmoe into your story. People have their own agendas, and you will ultimately find yourself writing a story around this real Joe Schmoe, instead of writing a story with Joe in it. So change a few things. If the real Joe’s past doesn’t quite fit with your plot, tamper a bit and twist him to fit. You’ll find it much easier in the end. But remember, characters can come from anywhere, just like plots. So be conscious of the feelings and people around you.
The Rest of the Workshop
The rest of the workshop was just as fun and just as informative as the lesson portion. The three authors, Nick, Robert and Marcos, had us do two writing exercises. The first exercise was practicing with hooks. They gave us various opening sentences (including: “Her world exploded”, “Mother died today, or maybe was it yesterday”, “I didn't really like discussing politics, but this time, I just couldn't keep quiet”, “I thought that cat would've been dead by now”, and “Never love a stranger”) and a fifteen minute time constraint and we had to write a story surrounding the first sentence. Robert called this “Literary Vomit” due to the fact that we had to just write; not so much think about what we were writing, but simply get our ideas, as they formed in our heads, out onto the paper as fast as we could. He said that being an author tests your abilities to work with a deadline and under pressure. The second task was similar to the first. Again we had a fifteen minute time constraint. But this time we had objects set out on a table. We had to pick one and revolve our story around that. Some of the objects were a globe, a bouquet of flowers, a pink flamingo candle, and an air pump.
After this, we were separated into three smaller groups, and each went with one of the authors. I got Robert Sawyer as my group leader. We exited the lecture hall and each group went into their own classrooms. Here, we had to read aloud one of the two stories we had just written. This was a challenge for most people; I know it was for me. But he said another key to being an author was good public speaking skills and understanding constructive criticism.
At the end of the workshop we gathered again back into the lecture hall, and there was a question and answer time with the authors. They discussed publishing too briefly for my liking (they didn’t really elaborate), and we found that they even knew about NaNoWriMo (http://www.nanowrimo.org/): National Novel Writing Month, which my friends and I all participated in.
The “Readers to Writers” workshop was an excellent program. We all had fun while learning more about writing at the same time. I have found that in being a writer, you learn something new every day, whether you are a novice or a professional author. It takes time and dedication, but it’s well worth it.
The reason why I wanted to write this article for WoodWorks was because this is such a wonderful and beneficial program, that I couldn’t see it going to waste due to it being only local to my area. By sharing this with you, I hope that you will see how special this program really is for young, aspiring authors, and perhaps put it on or sponsor it where you live. Please consider it. Think of it: “Readers to Writers” could become a nationwide or even a world-wide convention! The possibilities are endless.
Stories are everywhere! So what are you waiting for? Go ahead and write!
Marcos Donnelly first published short fiction in the early 1990’s, appearing in such venues as The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction, Amazing Stories magazine, and Bantam’s Full Spectrum anthologies. His first novel, Prophets for the End of Time, was published in 1999. Donnelly’s work has been praised by the New York Review of Science Fiction as “utterly gripping, very funny, and very clever”; noted by Isaac Asimov Science Fiction for its “wry wisdom, comic zip, and brio”; and lauded by Booklist as “brilliant and controversial.” His upcoming publications include the science fiction novel Letters from the Flesh from Red Deer Press (April, 2004) and the novelette “Café con Leche” in the Berkeley mystery anthology Death Dines In, (March, 2004).
Nick DiChario’s stories have appeared in mainstream, mystery, science fiction and fantasy publications in the United States and abroad. He has been nominated for the John W. Campbell Award for Best Writer (1992), two Hugo Awards and a World Fantasy Award. Two of his short plays have been performed at Geva Theatre’s Regional Playwrights Festival. In addition to his position as Director of Programming for Writers & Books (a non-profit literary center in Rochester, NY, USA), Nick had taught creative writing at universities, and he is the Fiction Editor of HazMat Review, a literary journal. His short stories have been reprinted in The Year’s Best Fantasy and Horror and The Best Alternate History Stories of the 20th Century, among many other anthologies.
Robert J. Sawyer—called “just about the best science-fiction writer out there these days” by the Denver Rocky Mountain News, and “a writer of boundless confidence and bold scientific extrapolation” by The New York Times—is the bestselling author of 15 novels and over 40 short stories. His novel Hominids won the 2003 Hugo Award—the top international honor in science fiction—for Best Novel of the Year, and his The Terminal Experiment won the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America’s Nebula Award for Best Novel of the Year. Rob has also won the top SF awards in Canada, France, Japan, and Spain, as well as the Crime Writers of Canada’s Arthur Ellis Award for Best Short Story of the Year. For more information, visit his massive Web site at http://www.sfwriter.com.
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