Recently I attended the Writers’ League of Texas 2015 Summer Writing Retreat in Alpine, TX. As a newbie writer I have a burdensome number of doubts about my ability and motivation regarding writing. One doubt in particular that I have is in regard to my training in the craft.
Up until the retreat, my training in creative writing has been limited to Brandon Sanderson’s BYU 2013 writing class as observed via video from the website Write About Dragons and some limited reading. When I learned about the Writers’ League retreat, I instantly wanted to join. With the support and encouragement of my wife, I signed up for a class, reserved a hotel room, and waited.
I went to the retreat alone. It was not my choice to go alone because despite being a very gregarious, boisterous, and opinionated individual, I’m quite quiet and meek before making a person’s acquaintance. I love company, I just hate making it. When my wife could not (or perhaps would not) go, I could only hope for the best. Luckily that is exactly what I got.
The retreat orientation was on a Saturday night with classes starting in earnest of Sunday. I took the class “Focusing Your Fiction: Plot, Character, Setting and Analogy” with Charlotte Gullick because I felt like I know very little about plot. Having led numerous sessions Dungeons and Dragons for years I have learned how to create interesting characters and how to set up interesting scenes, but I’m not particularly good (yet) at “decorating the stage” or stringing scenes together to form a coherent plot with rising and falling action. Practical application of these ideas alludes me. Unfortunately I allow my ignorance (among other things) to distract me from writing.
The class was excellent. Charlotte provided several examples of meaningful stories for the class to read prior to class. We then discussed in class the aspects of the story that she wanted to illustrate to us. Principle among the things she taught that I fail at was to ensure every scene had a goal and a “disaster.” The disaster in a scene was explained as an element of the scene that narrows the character’s possibilities. My scenes often lack this narrowing of options.
Additionally I attended an afternoon critique group that consisted of about half the class. In this group, we each read ten pages from each other writer and provided our own insights on the submitted pages. From this experience I learned so much I fear I would fail in an attempt to repeat or quantify it all. But I can stick to the highlights.
- When I write a flawed character, I tend to go so far overboard that the character instantly becomes incapable of redemption. I need to add something to said characters to allow the reader to relate to him or her. Even if I’m going to kill the character later. Which I totally am going to do.
- The devil is in the details. I finally learned the meaning of “verisimilitude”, because my ten pages lacked it. My small town lower middle class upbringing failed to provide me the sense to know that fancy 1980’s New York auction houses probably used photographic images on glossy stock paper for high-end buying guides, and what might be a lot of money to me isn’t going to be a lot of money to some rich socialite’s charity.
- What is obvious to the writer, may not be so obvious to the reader. I knew this one already, but it came into focus during the critique portion of the class.
On the second day of the class, I got two compliments from the teacher. I’ve forgotten the first one, but I remember the second. After reading a rather long sentence (or two) about something she had us write from a prompt, she said “That’s beautiful. Is all your writing like that?” Which I had to admit, no, just some bits here and there. BUT SHE SAID “BEAUTIFUL!” I know no one was keeping score (and they shouldn’t have been if they were), but that day I felt like I was winning. 🙂
Three people from each class were selected to read a section of work for everyone else in attendance on the third day. Charlotte asked the class who was interested in doing this, and there were only five of us. She then asked who had never read before an audience before, and two of the people lowered their hands. We had our three, of which I was one. Now I have read before other people before, but it was to a panel of editors at GenCon and not to a public audience. There were at that event maybe ten writers and four editors. I didn’t really count that as “public” since spectators were not allowed. I volunteered for the retreat reading for the same reason I volunteered for the GenCon reading. The idea scared the crap out of me.
Charlotte helped the readers from her class pick out about a page and a half of material to read. I chose the portion of my untitled short story where my heroine seals her doom by raising her eyes and seeing for the first time her future employers. Charlotte read my piece last. Her eyes went wide and her mouth dropped as she read. If her reaction was honest (I have no reason to feel otherwise), then I feel I chose the right bit.
I was not nervous at all about reading until the day of when Charlotte allowed each of us to practice in front of the class. I shook slightly as I read. My words provoked a few “ewwws” and gasps as I read. I smiled inwardly even as I trembled. I don’t know if I would call what I wrote “good” or not, but I managed to evoke a reaction. That night, when we read for the entire retreat, I trembled even more. When I finished there was applause and a “Good job, Joe” from one of the organizers. A firm handshake and a smile from a new friend helped put me at ease, but I didn’t stop trembling for at least thirty minutes. I was and am happy that I was able to experience that.
Finally, I have to mention that before the retreat I had no contact with other active writers, but I now feel like I’ve made several new friendships and several more associations with other writers. This would not have happened, or would have been much less likely to have happened, if I had taken my wife.
The first night I ate alone a the bar of the small garage turned bar and grill. From the bar I could hear people at other tables talking about their writing and just being so close to such a gathering made me smile a bit. On the second night I returned to the same bar and grill. Two of my classmates were already there and seeing that I was alone, they invited me to their table. I didn’t eat dinner alone after that night and our little group of three became six by the end of the week. I would not have made those connections, those friendships had I had my wife, my refuge with me.
Up until I actually went to the retreat, I constantly wondered if I was doing the right thing with writing and investing so much into it. The retreat cost me time and money. Yet after the first day and each of the following days of the retreat, I felt that the investment I made was worth just that individual day alone.
Charlotte asked each of us on our last day to come up with a word that summarized our experience at the retreat. About ten people had gone before me and each of their words seemed significant, but not right. Not for me. When she came to me I didn’t have a word. Then in explaining this dilemma, about how before the retreat I wondered if I should just quit my silly dream, but the retreat taught me so much and allowed me to connect with so many other delightful people that my hopes, my dreams were restored. The whole experience for me was simply … and I found my word.
© 2015, Joseph K Little. All rights reserved.