There seemed to be more buzz and excitement on the second day of Wordstock, but it was still pretty quiet. As the Oregonian reported, the crowds didn’t show up in force on either day. I noted it, personally, because many authors and writer friends I see there year after year didn’t make it this time.
On the positive side, the wifi network was changed on Sunday so it would only log people out after an hour of no activity. That made it much easier to use my Square card reader; on Saturday, any time I had a sale I had to log back in with my email and password, which was annoying and time-consuming and made me frustrated that I had spent $12.95 on access. I still had some error messages on Sunday, but the convention center IT person thought that was on the Square’s end, not theirs. Who knows. Point is, the technology worked better! And good thing too, because I sold twice as many books on Sunday as I did on Saturday.
I took my first-ever Wordstock workshop Sunday afternoon, reserving that hour for my own writing by signing up for Whitney Otto’s structure class. She’s amazing! She listed a number of common story structures, citing examples of works that fit within that structure, such as “the road trip novel” or “the club.” She cautioned people about doing something so far out of the ordinary–in terms of experimenting with structure–that the result wouldn’t make enjoyable reading.
“It has all been done before, but it hasn’t been done the way I’m doing it,” she told participants to tell themselves about using a tried-and-true structure instead of an out-there one. “It’s easy to write books that we don’t want to read,” Whitney added. Experimental fiction, which avoids traditional structures, works best when there’s a reason for avoiding them, instead of being experimental simply for the sake of pushing boundaries.
She recommended that writers look at their personal libraries and study the structures of their favorite books as a way to pick one. With writing a book taking a minimum of two years, she said “you’ve got to make sure you love that world.”
“A novel’s way too long to please somebody else,” she said a few moments later.
My favorite part of Whitney’s presentation was when she talked about how she has always written first drafts on a typewriter, until Eight Girls Taking Pictures, which is slated for release in November. “I couldn’t get into the rhythm of the computer until this novel,” she said.
She explained how she would take 200 blank pieces of paper and set them next to her typewriter. “If I fill that, that’s a novel,” she said. Of course she would X pages out, add new scenes and pages and throw in the abbreviation TK (to come) when she wasn’t ready to write a scene.
The pile of blank pages helped her because they gave her a concrete goal. “If you give yourself a goal, or something to work toward, it can really help.”
Here are some other thoughts she shared during the Q and A:
- Keep the reader in mind, but remember that “nobody knows what the audience wants.” I think she said that in relation to choosing what you want to write about, instead of trying to sound writerly or write about a particular hot-right-now topic.
- “Whatever structure you pick, if it’s hemming you in, then throw it out.”
- In a similar vein, she told writers not to hold on to what they think they’re writing about too tightly. “We’re trying to put our art into an order and position so the serendipity can come in.”
- She prefers to set pages goals per day or per week, whatever she decides she can accomplish comfortably, and then she stops writing before the end of what she knows (citing Hemingway as the source).
- “Novel writing is a lot of problem solving.”
- She spoke of novel writing as “moving Victorian furniture around a tiny apartment,” and told us that inspiration is a gift that comes every once in a while, but not to count on it.
See? Isn’t she amazing?
I’m looking forward to reading Eight Girls Taking Pictures, and in the meantime, I told her how wonderful her talk was and handed her a copy of Brave on the Page as a thank you. That was just what I needed in this bridge time between the book launch and getting back to my protagonist Henri.
Do you think about structure before you start writing? Have you classified your novel as a certain type of structure? Has your book’s structure evolved and surprised you?