Monday, November 7, 2011

The 1-Day MFA

by Joan

“We need a workshop!” Pamela and I agreed. (Goofy opening dialogue explained later!) We both knew that we could benefit from an intense day on craft. On Saturday, we attended the Writers’ League of Texas’ program, “The 1-Day MFA: Lessons in Voice, Character, & Dialogue,” with instructor Sara Kocek. While it’s hard to get too deep in one day, Sara offered plenty of solid advice for us to apply to our current manuscripts.

When Sara asked who felt they wrote strong dialogue, Pamela and I both raised our hands. After trying with success to out-humor each other co-writing CCS, we felt comfortable with our skills in that area. But Sara pointed out that writing snappy, interesting dialogue is only part of the equation. Dialogue must also:

Advance the plot
Reveal character
Create or increase conflict

Another suggestion Sara offered was to have your characters talk past each other. I love this advice. Here’s my quick in-class exercise where we were instructed to write no more than three words of dialogue per line:

“Where’ve you been?” He didn’t look at her.
She dropped her purse on the floor and crossed the floor. “Red or white.”
“Fine, don’t say.”
“I will, later.”
He heard her twisting the corkscrew, grunting.
“Red, it is,” she said.
He finally looked up. She sipped too long on her glass, squeezing the bridge of her nose.
“Hey, it’s okay,” he said.
“No, it isn’t.” Her voice shook.
He lowered his voice. “You’re never late.”
“I got fired.”

Okay, it’s not perfect, but you get the idea.

Next Sara offered tips on writing strong characters. Supplying your protagonist with a driving desire is key—what does she want more than anything and what stands in her way? But that’s just the beginning. To make things more interesting, give your character contradicting traits or beliefs. Better still, give her a secret—if revealed, this secret would change the character’s standing in the world. For example, it would be a bad day for my character Janey if anyone found out that she, a respected art conservator, had a wardrobe of confiscated antiques at home.

Voice is an area I struggle with. I’ve had a particular challenge in my current manuscript because I’ve got to get right not only the Italian and Irish immigrants in Victorian London, but also two present-day architects who share the same background. Luckily, one embraces his Italian and Jewish heritages by interspersing ethnic phrases in his speech. The other is a lonely widower with a happy-go-lucky Springer Spaniel. Sara’s main advice was to make sure your character’s voice sounds authentic.

We also learned the elements of plot and structure, how to weave in sub-plot, how to write strong beginnings and endings (and how NOT to!) Don’t start your book with the weather. Don’t place your readers into an otherwise normal day in the life of your character. Better to drop them into a riveting scene where they grab onto the coattails of your character and don’t let go. As for endings, trust your readers' intelligence—resist the urge to draw conclusions. Avoid the soap opera trap (unless you’re Jane Austen). And don’t begin or end your book with a quote (unless you’re Margaret Mitchell).

If you’re in the Austin area, Sara Kocek is offering a second WLT workshop. Sign up here.

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