New York Times best-selling authors Aaron Allston and Michael A. Stackpole will give an encore presentation of their Writer’s Hourly Workshops at Dragon*Con 2011. Either or both of the authors will present 14 hourly workshops on a variety of writing topics beginning Friday 10 AM, and continuing on Saturday and Sunday, in Hanover A-B (Hyatt).
Putting on my editorial-opinion hat, I reported on the 2010 workshops on Friday and Saturday, giving those workshops glowing reviews. I failed in my duties for Sunday, but wish to make up any shortcomings to you, dear reader (how very steampunk/Victorian of me), by reporting on the 2010 Sunday workshops now.
Stackpole handled the plotting seminar, beginning by recapping previous comments on story arc and the importance of real characters that grow throughout the story, generating depth rather than mere change. He emphasized the importance of setting up scenes and then resolving them, working through problems and challenges/catalysts along with establishing resources and preparation available to the character(s). All of these, whether the character is successful or not, add up to facts that alter behavior and create a point of growth. He noted that the “tricky part” in speculative fiction is the world itself often amounts to a character in the story (my own examples: Narnia, Dune, Hogwarts; Bon Temps, LA). From here, he discussed various levels of complexity in plot development, from the simplest “bug hunt” to the emotional area in which separate plot lines cross each other, back and forth, layering multiple story lines together. Stackpole illustrated this principle by discussing novels with primary and secondary characters and overlapping plot lines, using the series novels of Edgar Rice Burroughs as one familiar example. He cautioned on achieving balance in the number of plots and subplots included, noting that it could take as much as 100 thousand words to resolve growth arcs for three very important characters. Estimating 30 thousand words as enough to resolve a growth arc for a single character, he noted a novel could be expanded by adding characters with smaller growth arcs, such as a sidekick acquiring skill and confidence in a secondary character’s growth arc.
Allston followed up Stackpole’s plotting hour with advice on plot analysis, noting the four components of plot: the point, theme, arc or character arc, and events or scenes. He emphasized first that a novel did not have to have a moral, as in a fairy tale or fable, and the point did not have to be a universal truth, only the truth of that one story. He noted how The Godfather expressed a point that “family loyalty leads to corruption,” but that the next story told could just as well express that “family loyalty leads to strength.” He added a writer can strengthen the emotional impact of his story by strengthening the point. Allston noted every story should have at least one theme, suggested by the events included. Possible themes mentioned were war, loyalty, cowardice, bravery, and prejudice. He stressed that evil is only a theme if evil’s manifestations are explored and that if a theme did not ultimately point to the human condition, it would not connect readers strongly to the story. Allston compared how different writers approach character arcs and discussed the importance of scenes to the story. He said over time a writer will internalize the process of plot analysis, not to “over-outline,” and be sure to be spontaneous when writing. “If you stall,” Allston said, “set [the story] aside and write a more suggestive, flexible outline.”
Stackpole described editing as a process where you “catch your mistakes and learn what not to do in the future,” and said “every project should get better.” He suggested setting a novel aside for a couple of weeks after finishing, giving your brain time to forget, but also giving enough time to let feelings, thoughts, and certain scenes mature in your mind. Then, through editing, make sure all the pieces are there. Months later, you may discover chapters are not as intensive as you wanted them to be. Then, per Stackpole, you put in “more excruciating detail, torture the character,” adding a “catalytic event to change the character’s life,” make him or her grow a great deal.
Allston presented the final workshop on showing off your manuscript and described four groups you might wish to read your work. He stated not everyone works with first, analytical readers or writer’s workshops; some writers prefer working only with agents or editors. If you do choose to work with discriminating readers or workshoppers, he suggested finding people with skills at your own level and above. First readers should not be family or loved ones who are less likely to offer honest criticism in the interest of maintaining your mutual relationship. Allston noted he has six to eight first readers. Redundancy in comments may be tiring and punishing feedback, but helps to determine if you get something right or wrong. He referred to the process of peer review as “the death of a thousand paper cuts” and detailed both when and when not to follow workshop or group critiques. Allston ended by discussing the roles of editors and agents and how the royalty pie might be split once a book was published and sold.
Allston and Stackpole were open to questions during and after the workshops and were consistently friendly and supportive of all the aspiring writers in attendance, regardless of their level or progress. My descriptions are only a small sampling of the great tips and information imparted in the 2010 program. To get the full picture, attend one, some, or all of the 2011 Writer’s Hourly Workshops. Take notes; bring a digital recorder. You are going to want to remember what these experienced and successful authors have to say.