Wordstock Day 2: Whitney Otto

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?

About Laura Stanfill

Publisher, Forest Avenue Press
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14 Responses to Wordstock Day 2: Whitney Otto

  1. These are some excellent points about structure. I think this is one reason I gravitated towards writing mystery stories. They come with the structure already built in. 🙂 Even Stevie One, which is classified as an adventure, is structured as a mystery (in fact, which one it is depends on which character you think is the protagonist 🙂 ).

    “nobody knows what the audience wants.” Or, as they say in Hollywood, nobody knows anything. Nobody was sitting around looking for Harry Potter or Hunger Games or Twilight until they happened. And trying to “write about a particular hot-right-now topic” seldom works, if only because of the amount of time it takes to write a novel. By the time you’re done, even if you happen to nail it, that topic will almost certainly have cooled off.

    • She was incredible, Anthony. I remember loving assignments in class, because I could do what I wanted within those assignments. Same goes for mystery stories, and I also think about Martha’s race car essay in Brave on the Page, where she has chosen to write a cozy mystery because it has a particular structure to work within.

      Thanks, as always, for broadening the discussion to include movies, or at least movies made from popular books. When I worry about my 19th century historical novel being out of fashion, I think about trends and how if I were writing about something popular right NOW, I’d really be in trouble.

      • Actually, Laura, I was talking about the books. 🙂

        I think the difference she’s drawing between structure and outline is that structures exist. She said to look at the books you like and see what structures they have. That makes it seem that structures are like genres, there for us to use.

        An outline would be for a specific project, like an application of the general structure to the particular story. As I said, I very definitely use the mystery story structure, but i never use an outline.

  2. annewoodman says:

    I liked the Victorian furniture analogy! Sounds like you’re learning a lot and getting to hear some great speakers!

    • Wasn’t that wonderful? It just popped out of her mouth at the end of the Q and A. Wordstock went by way too fast–in terms of me not being able to see or hear a lot–but what I did get to was great.

  3. Emma says:

    I really need to think more about structure. Going to sit down with a pen and paper and work it out properly for the next novel.

    • Emma, it was so interesting that she drew the line between structure and outlining in advance. Someone asked her about that and she said she tends not to outline. I am not clear (or don’t remember) whether she decides on structure in advance. Both things offer a kind of framework for the story itself, but in different ways.

  4. jmmcdowell says:

    It always frustrates that so many of the biggest sellers come from left field—and yet so many agents and presses are afraid to take a chance on them because the works don’t fit the current “what will sell” models. I think our e-publishing abilities will have some major impacts in where the truly good original stories appear.

    • I think that’s very true, jm. It’ll be interesting to see how publishing evolves, and how the tastemakers/gatekeepers change, or get edged out by readers being able to pick and access their own content, instead of only traditional (vetted by industry professionals) content.

  5. Pingback: Brave on the Page at Wordstock! | Laura Stanfill

  6. 4amWriter says:

    Very good points indeed. I really agree with her assertion that novel writing is a lot of problem-solving.

    I never really understood the claim that we have to know our audience, because people don’t come at a book as only a 24-year-old single white mother. We bring our experiences, loves, hates, dreams, regrets, etc. to every book we read. So, how can we write for that kind of a varied, mysterious background? So, I liked “nobody knows what the audience wants” for this reason. Because we don’t. That’s why I always believe in the power and importance of writing for ourselves first.

    • Excellent interpretation of the “nobody knows what the audience wants” comment, Kate. And I agree about the problem solving. It’s the nature of the process, how we create problems and tensions for our characters within our work, and then we find ourselves having to fix problems that arise due to those choices.

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