Tuesday, March 2, 2021

Spring Into Spring Fiction at the Westport Writers’ Workshop

 If you’re looking to get into writing, get back into writing or keep writing this spring, check out the following at the Westport Writers’ Workshop. 

Ongoing: Mentoring Program: Intermediate to Advanced Fiction

This innovative, one-on-one program combines personalized instruction in the craft and art of fiction with inspiration toward your writing goals. Based on the mentoring segment of the MFA in creative writing, the program provides support for your project and you as a writer from a writing professional who understands publishing and the writing life.

Here’s how it works. Every week and a half you’ll email one submission of up to 10 pages of short or long-form fiction in Word.doc or .docx format. You’ll receive your commented pages back within one week, unless otherwise noted, with feedback in the form of line editing, comments and queries, and an overview of the pages with particulars on craft elements. The program is suitable for literary, upmarket and genre fiction.

The program goal is up to 40 pages of new and/or revised work.

Also included/planned are:

  • Three Zoom Meets: The first occurs at the start of the program to discuss your project and goals. The second occurs around the program midpoint to review any questions or considerations. The last occurs at the program close to answer remaining questions and plan next steps.
  • Readings: With each commented submission, the mentor will include suggested readings on craft elements that need further development.
  • Resources: Handouts on craft and writing resources, a bibliography tailored to your needs and project, a checklist that defines key craft elements and questions to consider for each element.

March 18 (One-Day Workshop): Scene by Scene: How to Create Compelling Scenes in Fiction

Scenes are the building blocks of fiction, but what makes a scene strong, fully realized and effective, and why do some scenes fall short? This workshop explores all these aspects and more. We’ll consider such key elements as backstory, interior and exterior dialogue, the role of setting, and how to develop character and advance plot at the same time. We also examine how to structure scenes in a section or chapter to make the whole greater than the sum of the parts. The workshop is suitable for short and long-form fiction of all genres. We’ll also explore aspects of scene revision so writers should bring their current projects to share and for Q&A, examples and discussion.

April 1 (Seven Weeks): Emotional Craft of Fiction: How to Find and Write the Story Under the Surface

Fiction writers often ask how to convey their characters’ emotions—the real question is how to provide readers an emotional journey of their own. Using The Emotional Craft of Fiction: How to Write the Story Beneath the Surface, by longtime literary agent Donald Maass, we’ll consider the three modes of conveying emotion, the emotional world, the meaning and arc of emotion, emotional plot, the reader’s emotional journey and the writer’s emotional journey. To explore how to find, write and revise for the emotional story, we’ll also use examples and exercises, and each writer can submit up to five pages weekly to the group and instructor. Why is it important to consider emotional experience when writing fiction? Because readers don’t just read, they respond, and in ways all their own. Join us to discover the deeper emotional connection with your writing, your story, your audience and yourself.

Required for this workshop:  We will read The Emotional Craft of Fiction: How to Write the Story Beneath the Surface, by literary agent Donald Maass. You can purchase the book through Amazon.  Please read Chapter 1 for the first workshop session.

April 20 (Nine Weeks): Novel Writing Master Class

This nine-week master-level class is for writers seeking to bring a novel to completion by a comprehensive exploration of their work on a deeper level. Each week one writer will submit up to 50 pages to the instructor and group who will read the submission outside class and share their insights in class. The submitting writer can ask the group to focus on specific aspects of craft, and the group will read for those elements and others they notice. The aim is for writers to receive three sets of constructive feedback from peers and the instructor on the larger arc and structure of their stories and their components, including character development, for up to 150 pages per writer for the season. The class is suitable for existing drafts and robust generative efforts in the categories of adult, commercial, high-concept, upmarket, women’s and literary fiction. The class includes a bibliography of reference works and a handout on craft elements.

*This class requires a three-page writing sample for acceptance.

For more, visit Westport Writers' Workshop.

Thursday, January 28, 2021

Mood Indigo: Crafting Mood to Suite Your Story

Ever noticed how easily your mood can change, with the weather, good news or bad, a new idea, fear or concern for the future? Our moods shift as often as light and shadow, making a huge difference in our outlook. The ability to create and change mood can make a big difference in writing, too.

“Mood Indigo”, by jazz great Duke Ellington, was Ellington’s first tune written for microphone transmission. Originally titled "Dreamy Blues", the 1930 piece drew such rave reviews after airing that lyrics were added, and the piece was renamed. Notice that, in the works’ very renaming, its mood is evoked. The same principle applies to writing.

Mood in writing is when the sound of the prose sets the feel of a scene or section, or the entire piece, and few writers make sufficient use of it. Why bother with this oft underrated element of craft? Creating the right mood can enhance setting, underscore theme, foreshadow events or signal a change in a character. So how can writers optimize this multipurpose writing tool?

The first step in using mood to the full is to pay close attention to scenes and settings. You can begin by reading a small section of a story, for example, the opening paragraph. Ask yourself what feeling is evoked as you read. You may be describing a wintry day, but the question is, how are you describing it? Is it with a feeling of warmth at being inside when the weather outside is foreboding? Or are howling wind and stinging sleet pelting a driver changing a flat on the shoulder of an interstate? Whether you realized it or not as you were writing, your word choices created a mood. The question is whether the mood works best with your storyline.

Once you read your work with mood in mind, consider whether it’s most effective use is as complement or counterpoint to your story. For example, if you’re writing suspense, you may want to build tension by increasing the feeling of foreboding as events unfold. Returning for a moment to our stranded driver, what if she’s not on an interstate but on an unfamiliar winding mountain road en route to an inn in the Berkshires? As her problems mount, readers will sense the situation will keep getting worse. If you’re looking to underscore impending disaster via surprise, you might set the scene with the woman dressed for the occasion and knowing something of the area. She knows what to do. She’ll get the jack out of the trunk and … By considering the immediate context and the overall goal of the story, you can consciously select the best setup, drawing readers in either by prompting them to suspect or to be surprised by scene’s outcome.

So how do you make the most of opportunities like this? First, consider what’s happening in a scene or section and what kind of story you’re writing overall. Then consider several possible approaches. To find out, write the scene several times using a different approach each time. Once you see which option is best, consider your word choices; prose is paramount. That’s why it’s best to begin with a smaller section of the story. Once you get used to going through these steps with bite-sized pieces, you’ll start doing it automatically throughout the project.

One key reason mood is overlooked is that writers don’t consciously consider it; they write a scene or section based on what’s happening with mood baked in. But if you listen to Ellington’s piece, you’ll hear that it sounds precisely like what the title “Mood Indigo” evokes—not a dreamy blues ballad or a blue mood but a long, deep and introspection. Take the time to read your work with mood in mind, consider the best choice for your context and be intentional in your word choices, and your writing can have the same effect on the reader. An old Italian proverb says the world is beautiful because it’s varied. Your story’s beauty can be enhanced by a variation of moods, a continual play of shadow and light.

Wednesday, December 23, 2020

Writing Into the New Year With the Ridgefield Writers Conference - Tuesday, December 29

Writing Into the New Year
If you're like most of us, you're looking forward to seeing a close to 2020. But what's ahead for writers in 2021? How can we juggle our busy lives and writing plans in the coming year in a way that’s both inspiring and realistic? The Ridgefield Writers Conference on Tuesday, December 29, from 6 p.m. to 7 p.m., on the Ridgefield Library Zoom platform, presents inspirational and practical tips from keynote speaker Adele Annesi on how to plan for and succeed in your 2021 writing goals.

Join us for an interactive seminar on workable strategies and tips for how to make a writing plan, set reasonable goals, create an action plan for meeting those goals, review achievements and consider next steps. Included with the program is a writable Word document with ideas, tips, references and examples to help you make the most of the coming year that you can customize to start the New Year off right. Also bring your questions for our Q&A portion of the forum.

Our keynote speaker this year is award-winning writer, editor and teacher Adele Annesi. Co-author of Now What? The Creative Writer's Guide to Success After the MFA and a founder of the Ridgefield Writers Conference and Muse & Music, Adele is a book editor for Word for Words, LLC, and a former development editor for Scholastic. Her work has appeared in 34th Parallel, Authors Publish, Fresh Ink, Fringe Blog, Hamline University’s Lit Link, Hersam Acorn Media, Midway Journal, The Pittsburgh Quarterly, Washington Independent Review of Books and Southern Literary Review, where she served as managing editor. Adele’s work has been anthologized for Chatter House Press and Fairfield University, where she received an MFA in creative writing. Her essay on Italian citizenship is among the Clarion Award-winning Essays About Life Transitions by Women Writers, and her sudden fiction has been adapted for the stage. Adele currently lectures and leads creative writing workshops for the Westport Writers’ Workshop.

Our Gift to You
Sponsored by Word for Words, LLC, and hosted by the Ridgefield Library, this year’s virtual conference takes place on Tuesday, December 29, from 6 p.m. to 7 p.m., via the Ridgefield Library Zoom platform. The event is free, on a first-come, first-served basis, and prior registration is required. To register, click on Ridgefield Writers Conference Open Forum. For more on the conference, visit Ridgefield Writers Conference.

Monday, November 9, 2020

Speak, Memory: The Narrative Pull of Remembrance

One of my favorite book titles is that of Vladimir Nabokov’s autobiographical memoir Speak, Memory. As both directive and decree, memory speaks, and it’s one of the most powerful muscles for narrative pull in all of literature.

In the same way that an olfactory experience evokes recollection, memory stimulates story. A turkey basting in the oven, coffee brewing over a campfire, an evergreen bough warmed by sunlight … These olfactory recollections may evoke the holidays or hiking in the woods or family gatherings or images of good times gone bad. No matter what remembrances they call to mind, the memories that accompany the sense recollections are powerful links to the past that open doors to discovery, and the journey of discovery can generate enough wattage to propel a story, whether real or imagined and perhaps a bit of both.

For me, November is a month filled with memories, not all of them pleasant. In this month, my father died, my mother and I moved from a home we shared for over 40 years, other family passed away … It’s a tough time of year, and although autumn is my favorite season, November is a prelude to winter, and I don’t relish the cold as much as I used to.

In writing, memory, even when unpleasant, can function in a variety of ways. It can spark a scene, provide a flashback, reveal a character or personality, propel the story, reinforce conflict, force clarity, reveal pain, provide pleasure or comfort, offer a moment of rest, create context by providing history, create a link to the past and to people who aren’t around anymore. Memory, whether manufactured on behalf of a fictional character or remembered from real life experience, can do all these things and more, long as we’re paying attention.

In real life, one interesting quality of memory is that the body often realizes before the mind that something is happening under the surface. Something is up, and that something often is a memory, a thing remembered or a thing that wants to be recalled, often so that it can be explored and dealt with. In writing as an aspect of healing, one reason to write is to explore the memory for precisely these reasons, but we can’t do that if we don’t acknowledge the recollection or don’t allow our characters to do so. Once we do, we must spend time with these people, our characters, others and ourselves.

One caveat: Don’t be surprised if the deeper the memory, the more emotions arise, strong emotions that may yield other memories and other emotions, often of a painful experience. Yet, exploration yields discovery, and discovery can bring a sense of peace, closure, that aha moment that allows us to realize something we didn’t know before and enables us to move on from there.

The same is true for us as writers and for those we write about. The key is taking time to explore the memory and ask questions of it. What does it look like? Where is it happening and when? What is happening? Who is part of this memory, and why are they there? Why is it important? What might we learn from it? What does the memory want to tell us?

As a month of anniversaries, November is a difficult month. But it’s also a month of transition, of barren trees whose branches scrape the bright sky, of smoke curling from chimneys, and footprints on snow-dusted doorsteps. I may not always want to hear what my memory wants to tell me, but I generally find myself better off for having listened.

Friday, October 2, 2020

The Mystery, Magic and Suspense of October

One of the things I most enjoy about October is its air of mystery. For the rustle of fallen leaves and jack-o'-lanterns, tricks and treats, and classic tales of magic and more, October has a natural draw, with mystery and suspense in the mix.

Some years back, I attended the Wesleyan Writers Conference at Wesleyan University here in Connecticut. One workshop I took was with Madison Smartt Bell, author of All Souls' Rising: A Novel of Haiti. At one point in the workshop, Bell asked this question: Do you think that a novel, even if it’s not genre work such as mystery or horror, should include suspense?

My answer, though I hadn’t the courage to say it aloud, was no. My biased reasoning was that only a lowbrow work aiming at mass appeal would include suspense because suspense panders to the reader’s basest instinct to turn the page. I couldn’t have been more wrong.

So what changed my mind?

First, it’s certainly true that writers can use suspense to pander to readers. But that could be said of any craft element in any craft. Yet, when used with integrity as a literary tool of the trade, suspense is not only useful; it’s essential.

How can this be?

We can start by considering two basic meanings of suspense: uncertainty and anticipation. What novel of any depth can you name where each element of plot and character development is sure the whole way through? Or what short story worth reading offers no sense of anticipation?

On the contrary, one basic writing discipline is the ability to avoid spelling out every plot element and character trait in favor of leaving some things unsaid. When I explain this to writers, I often use the example of Mark Knopfler, lead singer and guitarist of Dire Straits whose playing style has described as knowing when not to play. Not only does he play well but he also knows how to speak to the listener by offering moments of silence to contemplate the eloquence of what they hear.

Another writing skill is knowing how much of a story’s plot, character development, setting or other elements to give the reader and how much to withhold throughout the story. The skill of holding back generates anticipation, and anticipation is a form of and a catalyst for suspense.

If you’re wondering how to use suspense in your work, consider the opportunities available this month to visit or revisit classic films that use suspense as their story’s narrative thread. Some of my favorites are The Innocents, based on the novella The Turn of the Screw by Henry James, Altered States, from the book of the same name by Paddy Chayefsky, and the gothic supernatural psychological horror film The Others. Each work has its eerie qualities, enhanced to a razor’s edge by the ability to withhold elements from the viewer while continuing to parcel out plot and character along the way.

For falling leaves and cool crisp nights, bright blue and yellow days, pattering rain and endless stories of mystery and suspense, autumn is my favorite season, even in such a time as this.

Friday, September 4, 2020

Study the Craft and Art of Writing and Find Your Voice This Fall

The Westport Writers’ Workshop, based in Westport, CT, and in operation since 2003, offers workshops, lectures, and editing and coaching services for emerging to established writers in a wide variety of genres.

We’re all writers in one way or another, but there comes a time when writers decide they want more—inspiration, discipline, knowledge, community, support, structure and skill. Westport Writers’ Workshop, now on Zoom, offers all of these elements and more.

If you’re relatively new to writing or are looking to return in a more dedicated way, consider:

Introduction to Creative Writing: Beginner to Intermediate
Instructor: Adele Annesi
This interactive workshop explores the key creative concepts of poetry, personal narrative, creative nonfiction, drama and playwriting, short fiction and longer fiction to inspire writers to develop their individual voice, style, interests and focus. We also study the art of critique and revision, and each week writers can bring pages of their work to share. The workshop includes handouts, prompts and personalized critiques from the instructor. Participants can work on existing projects and/or create new pieces to cultivate and develop the writer within. This seven-session workshop meets Mondays, from 10 a.m. to 12 noon, from August 31 through October 26. The cost is $375, and the workshop is limited to seven students.

For more information or for registration, visit Introduction to Creative Writing: Beginner to Intermediate.

If you’re further along in your writing and your focus is fiction, consider:

Advanced Fiction Writing Plus Manuscript
Instructor: Adele Annesi
This advanced workshop aims to inspire writers to create their best short and long-form fiction through instruction, analysis, critique and practice. We explore all craft elements in depth, from audience, backstory and structure to theme, tone and voice. Our critique and revision methods emphasize thorough analysis of each writer’s work to discover which elements achieve the writer’s purpose or not and why. Writers also share their goals and aspirations, with personalized input from the instructor. The workshop is suitable for writers of literary and genre fiction for publication and personal exploration.

A completed manuscript is not required, but writers new to the workshop must submit a 250-word writing sample in advance for entrance. Besides presenting five pages of writing weekly aloud for discussion, each writer also sends the group one submission of 15 pages of new or revised work once during the season. The group will read the work in advance, write constructive comments on the pages and provide feedback in workshop. This seven-session workshop meets Mondays, from 1:30 p.m. to 4 p.m., from September 14 through November 2. The cost is $535, and the workshop is limited to seven students.

For more information or to register for this workshop, visit Advanced Fiction Writing Plus Manuscript.

If neither of these workshops meets your needs, Westport Writers’ Workshop offers over 75 workshops in the morning, afternoon and evening, as well as on Saturday. Westport also offers lectures and short-term writing intensives throughout the year in a supportive community atmosphere.

For more information, visit Westport Writers’ Workshop. You can also email Westport at info@WestportWriters.org or call 203.227.3250.

Friday, August 7, 2020

The Paradox of Voice, Plot and Prose in Fiction

Writers may have a unique voice, an imaginative storyline and distinctive prose and still find that the sum of the parts doesn’t equal a cohesive whole. Why? One reason is the writing.

The writer who aims to present a well-developed voice and story is a writer who aims high. Aiming high is good. The paradox is that unless the prose, the actual writing, effectively conveys these and all the other elements needed for quality fiction, the individual elements won’t matter much.

So how does a writer skillfully create prose robust enough to convey all the elements of craft? By starting with a right perspective and a critical eye.

Perspective in art is the ability to draw something on a two-dimensional surface in a way that accurately depicts the object’s proportions and position. To achieve perspective, the artist must step back and ask questions of the work. Does it look like the intended object? Does it occupy the proper space in the overall drawing? Does it tell the viewer something more than just the object's identity? In short, the artist—and the writer—must view a work with a critical eye.

The last thing we may want in life these days is criticism. But this isn’t criticism in the pejorative sense. It’s critique in the analytical sense. And it’s a skill that finds its most effective use after a first or an early draft. In a first draft, the writer is still telling himself what he thinks is the story. In later drafts, the writer is discovering the story. And attentive writing—intentional writing—actually helps this process.

The additional paradox is that it's usually when writers create beauty, lovely writing, that they most often have trouble figuring out how to sculpt the prosethe actual writing. But lovely can easily get in the way of clarity and character development, and that can’t be allowed.

So what steps can a writer take to avoid this trap? Here is a list of steps writers can use to strengthen their prose:

  • First, put the first or early draft aside for at least a week, and work on other things.
  • When you return to the work, enter a mindset that is aware of and expects the need for changes.
  • Read a small section of the work, just the first paragraph, and look for ways to tinker.
  • Remove every unnecessary word.
  • Remove all unclear words and phrases, and replace them all with precise words. Use a thesaurus or Word's synonym feature.
  • Restructure what’s left for the greatest impact.
  • Reorder paragraphs for the order in which events happen.

The key to this process is to take each step individually. This means going through a paragraph or section once per step. This will enable you to see the "before and after" of a sentence, paragraph, scene or section. Then the better you get at editing, the more steps you can combine at the same time. For particularly natty sections or chapters, revert to the one-step-per-read approach.

For added help, trying printing the section and reading the hardcopy, preferably somewhere you don't usually read it. Or imagine having to present the work to someone else for review. You might select a beta reader to do just that. Additionally, you can read the work aloud, for example, over Zoom, to a trusted audience of one—yourself. You can even record the reading and play it back.

Admittedly, this is a process that requires determination. But remember the caveat of Noah Lukeman in the classic The First Five Pages: The art of writing can’t be taught, but the craft of writing can.

Sunday, May 10, 2020

Apex and Nadir: The Peak and Valley of Story

All fictional stories have a high point and a low point. To make sure that enough happens within the story from beginning to end, writers should assess these points in the story to determine whether they’re different enough from each other.

Whether a writer uses a chapter outline, a three-act outline or just notes, most writers find a way to plot their stories. One reason for writers to do this is to assess the story’s pacing — the speed at which the moves forward — and its progression — the degree to which the plot unfolds along the way. But it’s also important to compare the story’s apex and nadir.

Apex, in this context, could be the story’s climax. But a more interesting and deeper way to consider the apex is to find the story’s most complex and interesting point. That means the nadir is the story’s lowest point — the point at which all seems or is lost.

Here is a list of what to consider when assessing whether there is enough differentiation between and development of these two points.

For the apex:
  • Describe what is happening in the story at its most complex and interesting point.
  • List the major theme and subtheme present at this moment.
  • Briefly outline how the reader might expect the story to unfold afterward.
  • Also briefly outline how the story does unfold.
For the nadir:
  • Describe what is happening at the story’s darkest moment.
  • Consider whether the main theme is adequately addressed.
  • Briefly outline how the reader might expect the story to unfold afterward.
  • Also briefly outline how the story does unfold.
Once you’ve followed these steps, compare the apex and nadir to see whether there is sufficient differentiation between the two points. There should be enough emotional and actual distance between the highest point in the story and its lowest point to make the story a real journey, not a just plot that makes readers feel they’re running in place. Then look over the story’s individual plot points to see if there are other possible outcomes at any or all of these points. And make sure to include the setting in your consideration.

Since this approach also works for characters, the writer can follow the same approach for the primary and key secondary roles to see if there is enough development in each of the characters. Writing students can use this approach for literary analysis and criticism to understand how writers bring stories and characters from the start of a work to its completion.

What are the highs and lows of your story?