Women Who Write (WWW) a NJ based group for writers, held its 2nd conference in as many years in Madison, NJ. The full day of workshops and lectures had my brain buzzing. I write essays and the occasional short story so I followed the “prose track” for the day. The conference also offers tracks for poets and children’s writers.
After the initial meet and greet I made a beeline for the classroom of Dr. Susan Osborn, critic, novelist and poet. She taught a workshop at last year’s WWW conference; I came away from that session bedazzled by her ability to teach me how to pare down dialog to its most basic effective elements. She’s a rock star of writing, in my opinion. I skidded to a stop at the classroom door; the room was filled to the brim with prose writers and I squeezed into the last available seat.
Dr. Osborn’s looks are deceptive; her funky asymmetrical buzz cut and all-black ensemble conceal a wicked sense of humor. The topic for the day was “Love Thy Villains as Thy Self: Developing Believable Characters.” Dr. Osborn challenged us, “Describe a person you really dislike; one who has done you wrong. Write down their past transgressions and annoying behaviors. Give us concrete details.”
With that, we were off and writing. My mind jumped back to a former coach of my daughter’s; it was amazing how angry I got just thinking about him, how many details roared through my brain on a hurricane-force wind. My pen flew. Dr. Osborn worked the room; she read what we were writing, offered words of encouragement and — most important — constructive commentary. She read my prose, looked at me and said, “I want to hear his voice.” I got it: show, don’t tell. And my pen flew faster.
The second writing exercise showed us how to develop a believable character, particularly a hateful one. Dr Osborn said, “Describe yourself through the eyes of this evil person. Use first person.”
I was dumbfounded. And challenged to put myself in that former coach’s head. I sat. I wrote. And scratched out what I wrote. And wrote some more. At the end of the class I had developed a character who was well on his way to being a believable multi-dimensional bad guy!
Dr. Osborn teaches creative writing at Rutgers University in New Brunswick, NJ; she invited us to sit in on her class. I think that’s a challenge. One I’m going to try to meet.
After lunch all 3 tracks converged to listen to Jenny Milchman, a writer whose novel will be published in 2013 after a 10-year journey of rejections/revisions/acceptance. She shared her wisdom about 3 paths to publishing: (1)the traditional Big 6 with its attendant “you need an agent” and grindingly slow process from query letter to printed book; (2)independent publishers at small presses, which are similar to the Big 6 but don’t necessarily require an agent to break through their golden doors; and independent or self-publishing, in which the author controls the editorial process from text, to cover, to printed book or e-book. Jenny provided a handout, “Publishing Paths Questionnaire,” that can help writers decide which path best fits their writer’s journey. One takeaway from the lecture? When Jenny said, “The world takes you seriously once you take yourself seriously.”
During the afternoon prose track with Dr. Rene Steinke, novelist and editor, we explored “She said what? — Creating a Distinctive Narrator’s Voice.” Like a college class of old, we read excerpts from and discussed a master of “voice,” Grace Paley, who had a passion for writing about the lives of ordinary people. I forgot how energizing it is to write/listen/exchange ideas and opinions with a class full of interested students. “Write three sentences you said in conversation over the last six months.” “Choose a favorite sentence of the three and tell a story using that voice.” “Think of someone you know who is a colorful character; write three sentences they said.” “List two events — one that happened ten years ago and one that occurred recently.” “What is my relationship to time?” “Create a metaphor for …” And on we went, writing, talking, comparing, examining.
At the end of the day my head was buzzing with new ideas and angles to consider. Well done, WWW.