Earlier this month, I attended the Cape Cod Writers Center Conference. It is a weekend literary conference that has been an annual occurrence for 55 years, making it one of the oldest on-going writing conferences in the US.
I attended the conference with a good friend of mine, and we both took four classes (one of them together). This blog post series will cover all three days (Friday through Sunday) of the conference, focusing on my experiences in the classes. I’ll also speak briefly about the keynote luncheon I attended on Saturday, during which NYT bestselling author B. A. Shapiro spoke to us about writing and the joys and trials thereof.
My classes were: Writing an Airtight Narrative, run by Lou Aronica (three-day class); Double-Duty Dialog, run by Ron MacLean (two-day class); Story and Character Arc, run by Michelle Hoover (two-day class); and Changing Trends in Publishing, also run by Lou Aronica (one-day class).
I enjoyed all of the classes and all three of my teachers were well-prepared and knowledgeable about their given subject matter.
On the first day, Friday, I had Writing an Airtight Narrative and Double-Duty Dialog. When I attended the opening ceremony on Thursday, I’d dropped off some paperbacks for the conference bookstore, so all I needed to worry about on Friday was driving in, grabbing some breakfast in the hotel’s restaurant, and getting to my first class.
Writing an Airtight Narrative: Day One of Three
The week before, Lou Aronica had emailed everyone with an assignment to write a one-paragraph summary of our story. The summary needed to be about JUST the story–no details about the characters or even character names unless they were needed to understand the story.
Thankfully, I’d written one of these for the novel I was planning to use in my classes, Within the Ironwood. I wasn’t entirely sure it was what Lou wanted, but I sent it off anyway.
In class, Lou spoke a bit about writing and plotting–specifically, that they are two separate things. He then explained that his process involves starting with a single-paragraph summary of the story that is unpacked in subsequent steps until the final product (a storyboard) is ready to use for the writing process.
In short, the one-paragraph description is the “high concept” or elevator pitch, and it answers the simple question: Do you have a story that will make readers keep reading? If done well, writing this description will makes it easy to talk about your novel, will provide you with material that could be very close to cover copy, and also makes it easy to determine the target audience.
- It should be about four sentences long.
- It should show the thread that drives the reader to keep returning to the story, the “objective”.
- NO character description should be included unless necessary.
- NO message/theme; this information will be included in a later step.
- It should NOT be a situation. A situation would be: a dragon suddenly loses her wings. A story would be: a dragon suddenly loses her wings, but she goes to a sorcerers’ academy to learn magic so that she can fly again.
After discussing these points, Lou read a few of our submitted paragraphs. Guess whose he read first? Yes, it was mine! Here’s what I submitted:
Within the Ironwood: A Snow White Retelling
Branwen has spent most of her life in her castle tower, building beautiful, intricate constructs. Her favorites are the birds, who can fly freely in the sunlight, unlike their pale-skinned creator. When her new stepmother orders the destruction of her birds on the eve of her father’s death, Branwen realizes she is no longer safe in the castle. She flees into the Ironwood, a dangerous forest within which many wondrous and terrible things lurk. In the home of a family of dwarfs, Branwen finds welcome refuge, but as her stepmother’s preparations for war begin, the princess must choose between her own safety and protecting her kingdom.
I was nervous because 1) I used both character name and description and 2) I had written this in about five minutes the day I got the idea for the story, and then expanded it a tiny bit when I was later writing paragraphs for all the other ideas that suddenly popped up for the now-planned series.
After reading my paragraph, Lou asked the class what they thought. The general consensus was that it had all the building blocks of plot–circumstances, where the story was going, etc., and it was interesting enough to carry on. Lou agreed and informed me that it was a fantastic example of a one-paragraph story.
The rest of class whizzed by with us going over a few more examples, and then learning more about plotting.
A few key tips:
- Never be more than 15 pages from the main plot.
- Sometimes it’s better to drop into the story further in, then pull back and show how the characters got there.
- Science fiction: You get one suspension of disbelief that everything else needs to fit into.
- Mystery: Get the mystery on the page by the end of the first chapter.
- Dark/tragic stories: Stories go very dark, but they still need a heartbeat of humanity. If your main character dies, bring someone else in at the end for the affirmation.
- Romance: Lovers need to survive in a true romance. However, they no longer need a guarantee of happily ever after; “looking good [for now]” is accepted.
He had us do a free-write in class, where we expanded our one paragraph into three paragraphs. I won’t share mine as this post is already getting quite long (and because it spoils the ending), but here’s what we had to keep in mind as we wrote:
- Do you have enough of the story?
- Start to unpack the story. Introduce the middle.
- Introduce major plot complications (shifts in the narrative/plot twists. These must be logical!_
- Introduce the major plot twist.
- Have a clear ending for the story.
That wrapped up my first day in Narrative. Next, I had lunch with my friend, chatted with some awesome people, and then it was back to class!
Double-Duty Dialog: Day One of Two
Our teacher, Ron MacLean, was extremely well-prepared for this class! He’d thought it was a three-day class, so had six hours of material prepared (each class lasts two hours). However, his endless enthusiasm for the material and fast pace ensured we got through most of the material in the two days we had, without the class being overwhelmed (at least, I don’t think we were).
Late the week before, he’d sent us some reading assignments–short stories that demonstrated various methods of using dialog to convey information and meaning. In our first class, he gave everyone a thick handout of excerpts from various stories that we would be referring to over the course of the class.
On the first day, we discussed topics such as what makes good dialog, tips for effective dialog, and reasons to use dialog. For each topic, Ron read a few excerpts from various stories (which we followed along with the handouts) to demonstrate good dialog examples.
Signs of bad dialog:
- Too much information (info dumping)
- Not going anywhere (a conversation that meanders or has no purpose)
- Verbatim “real” dialog
Good dialog should:
- Be effective in moving the scene along, establishing the character/situation, and/or making a moment come alive
- Mimic “real” dialog in a way that feels natural
- Be JUST ENOUGH to move the story along, no more
This class was more lecture and learning through example than hands-on, but I did learn a lot about dialog and I’ll be applying it to my writing from now on!