SCBWI Western Washington rocks so very hard. In addition to an excellent and well run spring conference, each year the chapter organizes a retreat on Hood canal, where writers stay from Friday through Sunday afternoon to work on craft and build community. This year admission was competitive and I felt luck to attend. Arthur A. Levine and Linda Sue Park led sessions on craft and critique. The weekend was truly remarkable.
Coming out of the experience I feel bolstered by the approach to craft and to my own work, with clear and concrete take-away tools for the writing and revision. For me, the outline has been demystified: define the main character’s Outer Quest (what he/she wants) and their Inner Quest (what he/she needs). Brainstorm impediments to those two quests and progress points. Think about some plot turns and scenes if they come up. Define the ending: will it be happy (both quests fulfilled), hopeful (one or the other quest fulfilled) or existential (neither quest fulfilled)? The permission to create a one-page outline on these simple terms was a huge relief.
Thanks to Arthur I have a new way of looking at the job assigned to the first chapter of a novel – it’s a first date: “This is what you will love about the book”. Put your best self as a writer up front. I also have permission to take a little time getting to the inciting incident – the walk to dinner is also a part of the date. Look at the architecture, the landscape, enjoy the stroll. You want the reader to come out on a second date, to turn the page to chapter two and then three. You are building a relationship and the first chapter must build confidence and comfort with the terms of the story for the reader.
The idea of an exterior and an interior quest for my main character allows me to both outline the story and evaluate the writing I’ve done. Where previously I was looking for technical fixes and formulas, I now will focus more closely on the dictates of the quest and emotional truth.
Something I do pay attention to but will articulate to myself more clearly are the questions: Would my character say this at this moment? Is this something my character would take for granted and so not feel the need to speak out loud? Am I just delivering information through the character? Does this scene advance the story? Is there progress or impediment to one or both quests in this chapter? In addition, I have the exercises of Linda Sue Park to try and the feedback on my first pages that Arthur gave – these will allow me to revisit the work with a point of view and tools for revision.
Coming up in January I will be able to write full time, for a quarter at least, and the weekend gave me a reassuring sense of being grounded in my process. Thanks Arthur and Linda Sue, as well as all the writers who shared the weekend, conversation, critique and friendship.Photos: Linda Sue Park by Sonya Sones; Arthur A. Levine by Elizabeth C. Wang (detail)