Conference tidbits:

September 24, 2012 § Leave a comment

As promised earlier this week, here are some tidbits from the writers conference in Charleston, SC last weekend:

Mary Alice Monroe led an interesting session titled “Structure and Soul of the Novel.”  Of particular interest to me were her strategies to avoid the sagging middle.  Remembering always that story involves and revolves around character goals and conflicts, both the inner and outer of each, she focused her strategies around scene and sequel.  In short, the scene must include action, something to move the story forward.  It establishes time, place, circumstance, and most critically, point of view. The writer must demonstrate the “goal” of the scene very quickly and work toward its climax (Yes, scenes should have a climax, as does the overall story.)  Every scene must contain some sort of happening.  The character does something, or something is done to the character, which brings about a CONFLICT with the character’s goals(ultimate desires).  The climax, of course, occurs at the point when the character comes face to face with that conflict that blocks her way (yet again)and must now make a new decision…an important decision that will affect the progress toward the goal.  It is then in the SEQUEL that the character reflects on what has just happened and decides what action to take to further her progress to her goals.  Thus, this is logically followed by the character putting that decision in action (another scene) which builds to yet another stumbling block or twist in the path and requires yet another sequel to decide what to do next…thus, your story moves deliberately and progressively through that dreaded middle.

I played around a bit with the model.  (This is  only”lightly” illustrative, mind you.)  In the story beginning, we learn that author Candice desires to write a memoir, but she doesn’t know exactly what happened to some of the main players in the drama, and this information is vital to her story, so she must begin a journey to discover their whereabouts and what they are now doing.

Scene: Candice reaches out to friends from the past in an attempt to find information. But each call she makes, each email she sends out comes back with no new information.  It begins to seem as if the people she is searching for have disappeared completely.  But late one evening when sleep won’t come, she sits down at her computer and HAIL MARY! There’s an email with a lead…a real lead…an email address that just might provide her with contact with the very most important person to her story. Candice is ecstatic…she quickly scans the rest of the email.  She moves the pointer up to the “New Message” button in anticipation,” but then… stops.  The contact is the best friend of the person she ultimately wishes to reach and is not someone she wants to have contact with in any way.   Candice stares at the name on the screen, and her hand slides limply to her lap.

Sequel: Candice has reached a climatic point in her search, but suddenly a new and unforeseen obstacle looms ahead.  A long ago, secret encounter with this best friend now looms over the hope of reaching her desired contact. She must now decide if she can face this particular demon and move forward toward her goal, or if she can find another way to accomplish the same end.  Her reflections, her memories of this long ago encounter might create the “real” story here, or they might just serve as a minor bump.  Either way, Candice must reflect and decide on a course of action.  By the end of this reflection, she must have made a decision to act. This is a “transition time” in your story.  The character must have interior monologues, or talks with friends, or maybe you might use a flashback to provide more info on the conflict, but it is a time when the character must decide on her next move.

Scene:  this scene will show the reader what decision Candice has reached.  Will she contact this long ago enemy? Will she avoid contact and reach out to others for information? Will she give up her search? Whatever decision she makes in the sequel, must now be put in motion in this scene. BUT, yet again, a conflict, a problem will arise that forces Candice back to herself and another decision.

So, we have the basic (simplistic) structure of the story: opening–scene–sequel–scene–sequel–scene–sequel–conclusion. At all times, the character is either acting or thinking about acting.  Her moral character is revealed through her decisions.  Ultimately, both her thoughts and actions in the final scene/sequel will prove that she has changed in some way.

This week, I tried out this suggestion. Using this model, I found it easier to discover which of my scenes were working as they were supposed to work.  I have already rewritten four this week using this as a guide.  I think it’s improving the work, making it stronger, shifting the pacing to a more “enjoyable reading experience.” Give it a try and let me know what you think.

Reading Recommendations from Mary Alice: Structuring Your Novel by Robert Meredith

Writing Screen Plays That Sell by Haag

Stephen King on Writing


 Josephine Humphreys also provided a great talk on “How Writing Transforms the Novelist.” Ms. Humphreys’ novel, Rich in Love, is one of my long-time favorites. It evokes so much of the place and people I know so well.  She spoke of what I term “the writerly emersion”….that place we go as writers when we totally commit to a project, to a story.  That place where we are immersed in all the fine details of the setting, the time, the characters.  “The universe cooperates…” she said… it provides “signs, omens” and bits of flotsom that randomly appear to us and relate in some way directly to our story.  The writer becomes “more aware,” “more in-tune” to the world surrounding her. It is our job as writers to stay attuned, to be aware, to actively look for these gifts.  But the writer at some point in the process “must move beyond self” if he or she is to make the story come alive for the reader.

As writers, we must make no judgments.  The story we are seeking can be anywhere, about anything. We must stay “aware.” She continued (and I’m paraphrasing here, as best as I can remember her words) : The ordinary world often offers something that happens and pulls us into a new, uncomfortable space. We often meet mentors, tests, obstacles, enemies, and allies.  There are treasures that must be found and brought back to share.

Reading Recommendations from Josephine Humphreys: The Writer’s Journey: Mythic Structure For Writers by

Christopher Volger

One Year to A Writing Life by Susan M. Tiberghien


Of the five reading recommendations, I’ve read Meredith, King, and Tiberghien, and I would highly recommend that you read Stein on Writing by Sol Stein (one of the VERY best I’ve EVER read.)

I’ll be interested to hear if you try some of Mary Alice’s suggestions or if you can relate to some of Josephine’s comments.



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