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Improbability is in the Details
Abra Staffin-Wiebe's Journal
Panel Notes from AWP 2015 
21st-Apr-2015 10:27 pm
Here are my notes from the AWP panels that I attended, posted because a few people expressed interest. As always, it's a mix of what they said that was interesting to me and what I thought. I wrote up my overall conference experience here: http://cloudscudding.livejournal.com/1138422.html

These are the panels I attended:
Time and Structure in the Novel - A+
Historical Fiction and Fictional History (partial) - D
Weird Science: Strategies to Encourage Innovative Writing in the Workshop - B
Substance as Style: What Noir Writing Can Teach Us About Literary Form - B-/C+
The Art of the Art of - D

Time and Structure in the Novel

Consider graphically marking out (8?) major time beats in their own plotline. This can help achieve clarity if your longform outline has left you feeling muddled.

Types of time structures:
* Classic: the length of an event, season, etc.
* Long-time: birth to death
* Switchback: parallel past and present structures
* Fabulous: circling back around to the same event over and over again from different perspectives

Is this writing section a moment for seeing or a moment for summary?

Time creates pressure on a story. Is it urgent (deadline) or not? Compress to increase the intensity of events/revelations.

Does the story have a clock on it? What is it?

Don't give readers information that they don't want yet. Give it to them a little after they realize that they want it. (Do I agree with this? Sometimes.)

Time and structure can fix a lack of plot momentum. In literary fiction, structure may substitute for plot.

Margaret Atwood is a great example of an author who plays with time and structure.

For the switchback structure, consider what propels you to switch back or forward? It shouldn't just be arbitrary. (Perhaps should also be considering this for PoV switches. But don't do the corny PoV "echoing" hand-off transitions.)

You can use the reader's knowledge of time/event (major events, like Hurricane Katrina or wars) to add pressure to the story and let the reader know how it will continue after the story ends, even/especially if the characters don't know what's coming. Can use actual historical or partial switchback to accomplish this.

Time layers referenced at the beginning can immediately add interest hooks. Implied, as in "many years later, I would remember" etc.

Exterior and interior questions are raised simultaneously. A time-based opening can raise the question (1) of what happened to cause event, and (2) why is the PoV character thinking of this now or why is this relevant to what's happening now?


Historical Fiction and Fictional History

Make sure to keep the historical details you divulge consistent with what the PoV character would notice / care about.

Minor characters can add vivid commentary as long as the voice is consistent for the time.

Use historical details that support the theme (duh!).

Bonus points for things that have a meaning that extends beyond the historical context.

Two extremes are to be either very accurate or blatantly fictionalizing to an absurd level. Both work. Somewhere in the middle they don't. Problems may arise if the reader is uncertain about where on the scale the writing is intended to be.


Weird Science: Strategies to Encourage Innovative Writing in the Workshop

(Yes, the lobster sperm panel. But these notes are about bits I found possibly useful.)

For some, writing workshops are a chance to try on a writerly identity and see how it fits.

What happens if you set aside the publishing market from your considerations?

Workshopping embryonic / experimental / confusing-to-the-writer pieces vs. more finished work creates two separate workshop experiences, and both may be useful to the writer at different times.

Don't forget to sometimes push away from what everyone says the story needs. On a purely theoretical basis, always stop to consider 1) the exact opposite, and 2) how to make that work for the story. The example given was someone being told that finding a dead body just didn't work in that story--what if instead of taking that part out, additional dead bodies were added in?

"Robert Kennedy Saved From Drowning" by Donald Barthelme - http://jessamyn.com/barth/kennedy.html
"In the heart of the heart of the country"

Exercise: write a mosaic story in vignettes on numbered note cards. Assign a partner to restructure the note cards. See which story is better. Usually it's the restructured one!

Exercise: try writing an action/event with *no* exposition or explanation.

As a critique exercise, try to describe "what the story is" without using any judgmental language.

A project one professor does involves anonymously sending creations between disciplines (writing and art) and having them try to match and experiment with it. (I wonder would this be a worthwhile project to be done outside of academia?)

Recommended essay:
"The Vehicle of Language" - Billy Collins - http://laphamsquarterly.org/travel/vehicle-language


Substance as Style: What Noir Writing Can Teach Us About Literary Form

Ponder the stylistic possibilities of action as imperative. (WTF does this even mean? It seemed profound at the time.)

Noir shows character in the details of description, whether of action or of objects related to the subject.

Noir characters are psychopaths (sociopaths?) who make us care.

Very geographically specific, strong sense of place.

Story/character is a product of what-has-come-before.

Dive profoundly into the specific to get to the universal.

What is the specificity of your setting? Culturally, what is considered good and bad behavior?

Relatable vs. believable. Both work, but relatable is often more useful. Also, there's a certain amount of skill in creating an unbelievable but relatable character. Back to the specificity thing.

Sarah Cortez was one of the panelists, and she said enough awesome things to make me seek out her writing. It's a high bar. Perhaps you should also seek out her writing! http://www.poetacortez.com/

Hard-boiled != noir

Noir "should" contain a fair amount of doomed/cursed characters or elements.

Dark humor can "make doom fun." - Elmore Leonard (or so it was attributed).

Lots of raconteur characters.

Consciously think about how gender influences the perception of these things. If you feel like it.


The Art of the Art of

Mainly, their approach is that criticism is better when if comes from a place of personal meaning. I think.


Intimacy is conveyed almost more by the biosphere/atmosphere/wording/surroundings than by actual character interactions.

Remember that there are as many different permutations of intimacy, and (white) male + female + biological children is the default, but that's not always a good thing.


Consider if/what loose ends you want to leave. What aspects do you want to leave the reader feeling unsettled or restless about?

Editor's Perspective

"Oh, the AWP, all those people who want to be writers." "No, all those people who want to be readers!" Me: WTF?

Subtextual material can be all about what people are not hearing or are not saying in response, etc., perhaps especially as pertains to modern communication. (Not sure I credit that last part.)
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