I had a great time at the League of Utah Writer’s Conference last weekend in Layton. I visited with old and new writing friends, had good talks with an editor and an agent, survived a harrowing game of Werewolf, and picked up several awards for my writing, including first place prizes in the categories of media article, spiritual essay, and creative non-fiction, and second place for flash fiction! I will be posting at least some of those pieces here on the blog in upcoming months.
My favorite moment in the workshops was when Daniel Coleman took on Alexander Gordon Smith in mock battle during Christine Haggerty‘s class on fight scenes. There were many other great presenters, and I’m an obsessive note taker, so I thought I’d share some of my favorite writing tips:
First, from Alexander Gordon Smith (whom you should talk to if you ever get the chance–it surprises me how upbeat and cheerful most horror writers are) on pacing and characters. He suggests that books are like living things, with their own physiology, especially their own pulse. Just like people, it’s important for their pulse to vary, sometimes speeding up to keep things exciting, sometimes slowing to allow for rest. His first rule of writing is to know your characters inside and out and let them drive the story. Immerse yourself in their point of view and try to see everything as they do, capturing all five senses. Let your sentence structure reflect their experience (i.e. fast, short, choppy, versus pleasantly slow and relaxed).
On a related note, Bradley Beaulieu spoke about story tension. He demonstrated how a good story has tension on every page, but that the tension should vary in intensity and in type. Types of tension can include unresolved questions/mysteries, romantic suspense, action, danger, interpersonal conflict, emotional issues (loneliness, homesickness, etc.), moral dilemmas, political drama, failed personal expectations, flawed social systems, etc. Constant high tension (like peril and action scenes) will make most readers numb or tire them out. Low tension (like unresolved questions) is more long-term and tends to be the thing that keeps readers turning pages for the whole story. When one type of tension slackens (i.e., an argument comes to an end), a new type of tension should increase (the character feels guilty for the terrible things she said to her sister). Varying light tension (romantic) with dark tension (danger) makes both feel sharper. Resolving tension/conflict too quickly leaves readers feeling cheated, but dragging it on too long makes them frustrated–it’s a balancing act and requires practice. He recommended not worrying about these things during the rough draft, so the story can flow naturally, but paying attention to them when revising.
Nathan Croft presented on the elusive topic of voice (the writer’s unique style of storytelling). He believes voice is ultimately your own passion showing through in the context of the story. He warned against waiting for your voice to come to you–instead, you have to seek it out, such as by studying it in books you enjoy, by experimenting with writing styles and techniques, and by paying attention to your own emotions as you write, your own personality (i.e., outgoing versus reserved) and the things that inspire you, like music, art, nature, etc.
These were just a few of the great presenters, but they were the ones that gave me the most food for thought. Something they all agreed on was that writing is an ongoing journey. Keep writing, keeping learning, keep having fun! I’m excited now to jump back into my current work in progress and apply these ideas.