David L. Robbins, for those who don’t know, has authored eight novels, and teaches at the College of William and Mary. You can read more about him and his book on his website. I found the advice he gave during the conference very helpful. And now, notes from his workshop:
First of all, try and look at your story like a reader. Approach it with only the information they would have. Is there enough information? Too much? Does your character have knowledge they shouldn’t have? This is a difficult thing to do (because we see the story in our minds perfectly) but do your best to pull yourself out of your head and take only the info given by the words you’ve put on the page.
WHERE TO START
Know yourself as an artist. Figure out what your process is. Do you begin with the place? Do you build the world and figure out how it runs first? Or maybe you start with the character. Once you know who your protagonist is you build from there. Or is it a scene? Do you have an idea for a scene and try to bring the world and character into it to see what happens? Knowing how you like to start creating helps you understand your process so you can get started.
David says he holds auditions for characters in his head. He says to interview the characters that can tell your story. Is the character you want to use too limited in their view of the world to convey the message you want? What perspectives of the world would they have? Find the character that can tell your story the way you want it told. Avoid artificially using devices to drop info. He often referred to the “phone call”–where the character who needs the information suddenly gets a mysterious phone call that tells them exactly who the murderer is. Don’t let them find a letter where the killer has confessed everything, or where someone who would have known the information the whole time suddenly reveals that information. (I think basically if it would be hoaky in a TV show, don’t do it. I would sum it up as don’t be a lazy or cheap writer.)
Look for a story that’s difficult. Look for something that challenges you. Writer’s block is not writer’s block. It’s a moment to go from good story to great story–if you take the time to figure the problem out.
He also recommended doing original site visits when possible. In this moment I think he was referring to historical fiction, but this could apply to any genre, even sci-fi or fantasy. He said you’ll catch things on site you might not think of otherwise–little details that give your writing that extra degree of authenticity. (For example, are your characters camping in the woods? They may be on another planet, but going camping yourself and thinking about your story in that setting can bring you those details–especially if you’ve never been camping before. You may not be able to go on a spaceship, but you could tour a submarine to get a feel for the enclosed space. Maybe you tour a warehouse that holds similar images of parts of the ship in your head. Find places to grab the texture you need to add to your story.)
POINT OF VIEW
Point of view is everything, because everything is point of view. You build tension in POV and tension drives the story. This is harder to do in first person because your narrative is limited. POV helps your reader empathize with your character. The default setting for your reader is that they come to your story already wanting to be attached to it. Your job is to not sabotage that.
Don’t write in a way that your character is aware of their body, like he could feel his hand shake. (And often could will be an indicator of that). Take out every facial expression. You can’t see your own face twisted up in pain. (I didn’t completely agree with this. He said you can’t feel yourself blushing either, but clearly he’s never been a girl. 😉 ) Think of it this way, if you have to tell me, it’s not working. For instance, if you have to write, he said nervously, then you’re not setting up right. His point was that you should create a situation where that’s naturally assumed, no tags needed.
Don’t write about silence. Don’t waste words. Don’t state the obvious. Try not to tell the reader things they already knew. Example: “What the @$%# is the matter with you?” she yelled angrily. (As opposed to she whispered sweetly? Anger is obvious.)
Design characters that are distinct. Create characters that have motivations–that want something. We’re storytellers, not commentarians. The why is character. Characters drive the story. Keep them actively engaged. Don’t write stories about people who are acted upon–no victims (meaning they stay victims). Record what the character does between plot points. Using baseball, don’t let your character go anywhere but first, but let your character show you how they are going to get there. Don’t recollect what they do. Be the writer who was at the scene only moments ago who recorded what they did.
Have your character view the world in their point of view. Two characters in your story may view something like a castle very differently, but the castle remains physically the same. (I think what he means is your protagonist could remember fond memories of her cat when she sees a stray cat crossing the road, while your protag’s best friend hates that cat and all cats guts for clawing her face off when she was little. Same cat, different reactions).
Don’t mention things unless they matter. Don’t bring up how well your protagonist sings if they never ever sing the rest of the entire book (and not because they’re scared to do it). Don’t mention PhDs, trunks of clothes, etc., unless they matter.
When writing an antagonist there seems to be a 3 1/2 conflict law. Your protag may be facing people, forces–anything that can overwhelm them. The conflict should go like this:
- The good guy wins.
- The conflict is bigger and the bad guy wins.
- There is a 1/2 confrontation (they may start a fight and get interrupted)
- The big resolution (good guy wins).
Give your antagonist real power, force, and/or charm in the plot.
Stakes matter a great deal. If there aren’t any stakes, there isn’t any story. Write scenes that develop stakes. Characters should really want something. Create tension to do this. Tension is imbalance. Keep the agendas wide open in the scenes. Sometimes you’ll have to create a character who reveals the stakes (though not someone who says, “And the stakes are this…”)
When you’re resolving a scene or the whole story itself, make sure it satisfies what you promised–even if it does it in an unexpected way. And don’t let a fire, flood, or random act of God resolve the story–aka don’t be lazy just because it was hard to think of an ending.
Embrace the place. Be in the moment. Let your reader feel the place your character is in. It doesn’t necessarily have to be pleasant, but definitely vivid. Integrate place into your story. Pick locations that amplify your character. Make sure location has to do with the characters and the story. Place has to come before everything else.
Precision is concision. Never let two words do the work of one. Write the components, leave out the sum (or telling how they feel). Never have anything on the page your character doesn’t think about. Don’t engage in back story unless your character thinks of it. Do not write at any moments other than your best moments. Do what it takes to maintain your health, welfare, etc. so you can focus.
And lastly, remember that a “no” just means this is not the path, not that this is the end.