arthur levine & linda sue park: WOW

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)

About Tina Hoggatt

I am an artist and writer and work for 4Culture, King County's cultural arts organization.
This entry was posted in awesomeness, scbwi, writing and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

20 Responses to arthur levine & linda sue park: WOW

  1. Lia Keyes says:

    LOVE that you’ve shared some nuggets with us! I particularly liked “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”.”

    For some reason that totally chimed with me, even felt like an ah-ha moment, as daft as that sounds. I mean, it’s common sense, really, isn’t it? But our minds get so cluttered with advice about first chapters, but this is really the most important thing to remember and it really helps to have it expressed so clearly.

    • Tina Hoggatt says:

      I know, this was an aha moment for me too. Lovely man. Generous and smart.

    • Shelley Souza says:

      That’s the reason I changed my entire approach to writing over the Summer. The more I thought about why I loved reading so much as a child, the more I realized it was the anticipation of the story itself, and the world it would bring me into, that was exciting. The genre and even the actual story didn’t really matter that much–magic, realism, boarding school, adventure, mystery–it was the anticipation that kept me going. Which is what a first date is all about: the promise of perfection…and if it works out, even if not quite perfectly, the promise of more good things to come with that person.

  2. Shelley Souza says:

    Sounds as if you had a great time, Tina. I’d love to meet Arthur Levine one day; which Harry Potter writer fan wouldn’t! 🙂 I confess, the language of story structure and character remains alien to my imagination and the way I think about story, no matter who says it. It always seems backwards to think of structure guiding the characters’ development rather than the other way around. If I were to try and figure out what my characters’ internal and external conflicts were before figuring out why they even exist in the story, I would be completely stymied. I tried that for years, and failed, miserably. I have found that by simply focusing on a character’s internal logic within the story, I eventually discover what his or her internal and external conflicts or obstacles were (and are). It’s taken awhile for me to realize that popular ways of constructing story do not work for me, but I’m always happy to read about their success when they work for other writers. I’m thrilled you are rejuvenated from your weekend and can see the fruits of your labour blossoming in the near future. xxxs

    • Tina Hoggatt says:

      Shelley, I hear you. This tool was Linda Sue Park’s and if expressed in the questions, What does my character want and what does he/she need? it might feel more intuitive. Or not. Everyone has their own thread. Thanks for the visit!

      • Shelley Souza says:

        Yes, these questions work for some (maybe many) writers. The important thing, as you say, is that you find the thing that works. More and more, I am coming to the conclusion that it’s much harder to teach someone the structural rules of writing than it is to learn how to draw, structurally. I’m not exactly sure why that is.

  3. Thank you so much for sharing these tidbits Tina! It’s really wonderful for us at the other end of the world 🙂
    For some reason, I am leaning more towards this way of writing now that I think I know something about the craft. Not that my stories are yet any good, but I’m trusting my process more and more and thinking in terms of what characters would and wouldn’t do, and how would they react being true to themselves and the situations they are on.
    Also, the questions you shared, are interesting to ponder. So, thanks again 🙂

  4. Molly says:

    Thanks for sharing, Tina! I heard from other friends that it was a remarkable weekend. I wish I could have been there! And what a joy that you’ll get some months to write full time. Wonderful! Take care, sister. I miss you!

  5. Tina Hoggatt says:

    Thanks, Molly and Lia. Feeling the love.

  6. Melissa K says:

    Hi, Tina. I enjoyed chatting with you at the retreat and loved reading your thoughts about it here!

    I thought Arthur argued pretty compellingly that the reader needs some time to settle into the world of a story before getting hit with the big mysteries and problems. But he also said that the reader doesn’t need everything explained right away. I’m still struggling to find the line between those two pieces of advice. Thoughts?

    • Tina Hoggatt says:

      That is a thin line, Melissa and a shifting one. I’ve been listening again to the first Harry Potter book and had not remembered how much time she spent on establishing the life with the Dursleys, how long it took to get to Hogworts, and the masterful unfolding of this world. Yet The Hunger Games is a different kind of pleasure, you are off like a shot, nerves jangling and even the restful moments are filled with an uneasy sense of trouble around the corner. So the story dictates the pacing and what you lead with. In each of these cases the opening reflects the holistic approach to the story – Harry’s long and complex quest, with many characters and a rich setting we will need to know in order to fully appreciate the story as it unfolds. While for Katniss each novel brings the same oppressive intensity Am I remembering correctly your story as that of the young soccer player? It could not hurt to take both Arthur and Linda Sue’s advice and try the beginning a different way, leading up to the moment you now open with on the field. It may not be right in the end but at least you will be certain you are on your own track. Onward!

      • Melissa K says:

        Good examples. In Harry Potter, we meet Harry in his awful life with the Dursleys, not in the fantastical world of Hogwarts. In Hunger Games, we meet Katniss on her home turf, not in the arena.

        I’m writing that story about the ordinary girl in the world full of reincarnated people. As I continue to process Arthur’s advice, my working theory is that the reader needs to be rooted, immediately, in the main character’s mind and desires. Peripheral bits of information need not be explained…but of course, character is conveyed through details, so it’s a matter of picking out the details that are central to the story right now.

        Whatever. I’m mulling it over. Meanwhile I’m just slapping words on the paper and hoping I’ll figure it out later. As you say, onward!

  7. pog3 says:

    Thanks for the careful notes Tina. It was an amazing craft-focused weekend. I took away so much.


  8. Thanks for sharing this with us, Tina. I love the first date analogy! “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.” Fantastic!

  9. Amy Baskin says:

    Great post, Tina! I’m still digesting Linda Sue Park’s chocolate chip cookies and trying not to leave crumbs around the corners of my mouth- makes for a bad first date impression!

  10. Tina Hoggatt says:

    Melissa – sorry for the cross referencing. i remember your story well and now have you in my mind. I am defaulting to Arthur’s recommendation for my own manuscript. I felt your opening was powerful and intriguing but that his suggested approach would be worth a go-round. Honestly, I am leery of going back to the beginning again before I get to the end. It’s a little whirlpool there where one could get sucked under.

  11. helenlandalf says:

    Thank you for sharing your experience at the workshop, Tina. I so wish I had been able to go! I love the idea of creating an outline by looking at external and internal goals.

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