First Sessions at the Writing Excuses Retreat

The Writing Excuses retreat features several sessions where established writers talk about some specific aspect of writing. Sometimes they also have exercises for us to do, which is a significant step up in terms of learning from just listening.

On Sunday evening Howard Tayler of Schlock Mercenary gave us three freewriting exercises, where you are supposed to write continuously for ten or so minutes without stopping – and, in this case, without even hitting the backspace key. The idea is to force yourself to turn off the internal editor that slowsdown getting the ideas from your brain through your fingers and into your document. The Wikipedia article summary says it’s for overcoming writer’s block, but that’s not its only use; it can help you get into a flow state where the words are coming easily.
The first exercise was to describe everything we could remember about the Promenade – the long corridor of shops on Deck 5 of the ship. The point was to focus on describing all the little details we could remember about what we’d experienced. The second was to write two people arguing while on the promenade, with the challenge of bringing out as many of those details as we could work into the conversation. The third was to write a chase scene, with science fiction or fantasy elements, also conveying as many of those details as possible.
For me the first two weren’t that bad – I don’t think I have a very good memory for details, but I did manage to get a respectable number of words down, and I can manage dialogue OK. Somebody else managed more than twice my rate on the first exercise: about 80 words per minute, which is a fairly fast raw typing speed when just copying text, but impressive when you’re also having to create new prose as you type. The third one was very hard for me; I realized that writing action scenes, even without time pressure, is something I’ve got to work on. We had 50% extra time for this one – 15 minutes – but I managed only about 3/4 the words of the first description.
The next morning Delia Sherman talked about description. I had neglected to bring my laptop, so only managed to take a few cryptic handwritten notes, most of which relate to three passages we read, and which thus would be incomprehensible without the passages themselves (some of which are still under copyright). Some of the summary guidelines we took away were
  • Description shouldn’t just “sit there” on the page; there should be some sense of (metaphorical) motion, either advancing the plot or developing an emotion.
  • Bring in more that just how something looks.
  • A first draft needs to focus on getting onto the page what is in the writer’s head; the kind of polishing and subtlety we found in those passages might take a 5th draft.
  • One of the audience members suggested that the idea of a setting being itself a character makes sense only if there is some sort of character arc for the setting. I’m still not sure what “setting is a character” ought to mean, but it was an interesting suggestion.
  • In first person limited, what the person knows limits what they’ll notice, and so reveals something about their character.
That led to an exercise I found enormously difficult: have a character enter a place having just witnessed a traumatic event, and describe the place in such a way as to convey their emotional state withoutreferring to the event itself. Then describe the same place when they’re in a different emotional state. I spent most of my time drawing up a list of items with pairs of descriptive elements and phrases, and only had a few minutes at the end to start on the first description.
At 11:30 I had a 15-minute 1-on-1 session on Nalo Hopkinson I gave her some of my personal background and a description of what I’ve been working on; we talked about how to manage a series of novels, and short stories related to those novels, given that writing chronologically later elements might change your mind about what you ought to have done with earlier ones, and might need to reveal some spoilers. She pointed out that there’s never a reason not to write something, and that the order you write things doesn’t have to be the order you publish them. She also said that managing your writing is a lot easier with Scrivener than with a normal document editor like MS Word or LibreOffice Writer.
In the afternoon we got to be an audience for the recording of four Writing Excuses podcasts that will appear near the end of Season 10. The “video feed” shows the kind of banter that happens between podcasts, and some of the stories the podcasters tell that don’t fit into the show.
In the evening Daniel JoséOlder talked about power relationships, how they’re an essential element of real life, and encouraged usto think, while worldbuilding, about who has power and how they use it. There was a lot of audience participation. He asked us to come up with lists of different kinds of power, and who exercises it usingan example of a city district in the middle of gentrification. I learned a little about how to encourage active learning; from his reactions there were certain elements he really wanted us to bring up and talk about more, but he waited until the audience said them instead of telling us “the right answer.”
The talk ended around 7:30 pm. I went back to my stateroom and wrote up parts of the blog entries I’ve already posted under “Travel”. Dinner on the ship starts at 8:30 and runs to about 10, which is much later than I usually eat. With a large fancy meal in my stomach, I was tired enough that I had to go to bed much earlier. There’s a contingent of game-players who meet around 10:30, and I hope some evening I will have the energy to participate.

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