Learning from Authors as Scholars of Writing

Screen shot 2015-06-08 at 9.57.25 PMLast weekend, I ventured into the literary heart of my soon-to-be home city. Boston’s Grub Street is known nationwide as a excellent place for aspiring writers to learn every aspect of the craft and art of writing. Their annual conference, The Muse and the Marketplace, is certainly impressive, though not intimidating, because the staff and volunteers go to great lengths to welcome participants.

I met writers at the beginning of their journeys, first time authors, as well as highly respected editors and agents. But the highlight for me was talks given by two seasoned and brilliant writers who I think of as scholars of writing. Here are a few tips gleaned from them.

In her workshop, Roxana Robinson, author most recently of the moving novel, Sparta, described how successful literary fiction shares five key elements:

  1. A new world that entices the reader to see even the familiar as different and new.
  2. Beautiful language, which doesn’t mean flowery. Each sentence must have a rhythm of its own. A clear voice and point of view create a bond between writer and reader.
  3. Sympathetic, though not always likable, characters, whose humanity is accessible.
  4. Conflict, which is essential, otherwise the story dries up. Conflict brings characters to life.
  5. And finally, change, which can take place in the reader, not always in the characters. The reader must be changed in some way. Without that, there is no point.

Emotion, Robinson stressed, guides fiction writing. We write because something moves us. Passion, rage, fears, or joy drive the writer forward.

Charles Baxter, author of novels and short story collections and two important books on the craft of writing, spoke articulately about so many aspects of writing that I can only distill a few of his ideas here. He focused on how writers create momentum to move their stories forward and keep readers caring about the characters.

To achieve this, he described Request Moments, when characters have something asked of them by other characters, or even by God, which they have no choice but to accept. Hamlet and Macbeth both begin with Request Moments that then propel the action forward.

Another dramatic catalyst is what Baxter called The One Way Gate. These are moments in a narrative when your character can no longer turn back and must take action or come to a new realization. Sometimes a minor character can push the action forward by saying what no one else will say, or by revealing motive or intention of the other characters.

The Ticking Clock also propels the action forward. How long do the characters have to do what they need to do? If the timeframe is infinite, there is no dramatic tension. Sometimes The Ticking Clock can be subtle—the brief mention of grey hair in Chekov’s Lady with the Lap Dog helps to explain why the protagonist’s feelings are suddenly more complicated and fraught than ever before.

Baxter’s talk was wonderfully rich with references to great literature, as was Robinson’s, who posted her favorite examples of great novels on Facebook. While I loved the whole conference, I was especially grateful to these seasoned authors, who reminded me, and I think others, of the most profound reasons why we write.

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