This morning, I’m off to the Chicago-North Romance Writers of America Spring Fling Writers’ Conference.
No, the BP is not a romance by any stretch of the imagination. No, I don’t really read romances. But the Spring Fling features agent pitch sessions and seminars on marketing, character development, plot structure, and lots of other topics applicable to any writer—even one who’s writing a non-romantic young adult novel about boys who beat each other up with sharp sticks.
In honor of conferences, here is a Friday Angst from a journal entry about the 1998 Breadloaf Young Writers Conference, which my friend S and I attended during our junior year of high school.
May 15, 1998, sometime around 4pm
I just attended the “Write-On Session I” with Deborah Q. (a guest author) in the “Blue Parlor.” What a trip, in more ways than one. I will swear by my life that these kids were on some highly hallucinogenic drug. And Deborah too.
She started off by discussing her own writing for an average of about half an hour. She began speaking of her lover Mordock or something. No, I think it was Maku. Maku is the 17-year-old character in her second novel with whom she fell desperately in love and finally “came face-to-face with” when the movie of her book was produced and an actor was cast to play him. This boy actually allowed her to call him Maku throughout the entire filming.
She went on like this about her friend authors and such until she finally remembered that she had to allow us all to do something as well.
“I want you to immerse yourself in a state between dream and reality,” she said. “Close your eyes and try to picture what I say in your mind.”
Unwillingly, feeling silly, I shut my eyes.
“You are walking down a path…”
She gave us a few seconds to walk down the path. I frantically attempted to picture a better road than the bare, dirt path I saw in my head. Finally, I thought that I would picture the scene of my newest novel about bandits. So in my mind, I recalled the picture of Bandit’s Roost on 59 ½ Mulberry Street that I had photocopied for inspirational purposes. There. Now I had a road.
“You walk down this road and come to a bend that you can not see beyond.”
She gave us a few seconds to come to a bend that we couldn’t see beyond.
“Now you turn the bend and see something there. What do you see?”
I put my main character there, leaning against the alley wall with his arms crossed over his chest. I pictured myself running and flinging my arms around him. Then I restrained myself.
“Now the character turns to look at you and speaks to you. What does he say?”
I couldn’t think of anything for him to say, so we just stared (passionately) at each other, until Deborah interrupted:
“Now continue walking down the road with your character. Listen to his voice, the tone and lilt. What is he saying to you? What is it he says he wants?”
Eyes closed, I wondered offhandedly if she was reading the directions from a printout. I pictured my bandit and me walking down the road. He wasn’t saying much. I couldn’t think of anything a bandit might say. So we just walked.
I played with the idea of having him say “Hi,” but it was not effective.
“OK, now open your eyes…and write.”
She gave us ten minutes, and then cut in again.
“Now I would like to discuss our characters. Does anyone want to say anything?”
Only about three people (of 15) raised their hands. Deborah spoke a bit more about her own writing (and Maku, of course), then called on a pale, frail girl who wore a long black skirt over black tights and a long-sleeved, green velvet shirt. It looked like a Christmas costume, and I don’t know how she survived the ninety-degree heat. She said,
“I was shocked! I saw this girl I had been thinking of writing about. We were talking, and she was angry. She was SO angry she was nearly spitting at me. I had never seen that aspect of her before. I never knew she was capable of such rage!” She went on and on in the same melodramatic, fluting voice.
Deborah cut in to ask a few philosophical questions, such as:
“What is this character angry about?”
And the girl answered:
“Well, I don’t know exactly. I think she is angry because no one understands her—including me. “
“Yep,” Deborah said. “She is mad even at you, her creator.” She offered more of her own take on the Christmas girl’s character, and then moved on to another girl who sat in a blue plush chair in the corner.
“I was just surprised because I didn’t know the person who came to me. I just met him and we talked and I don’t know where he came from, but I guess he wants to be written about.”
“So,” Deborah said, “you met someone you had never known before?”
Another girl shouted, “My friend said that when we are writing about somebody, we know them in a parallel world, and if we kill them in our writing, they die. We feel so sad as if we are killing someone we know and love.”
Deborah interrupted to tell us about her friend who writes detective science fiction and had killed off a character only to “see her” walking across the street. He realized that he had to keep her in the story because she “permeated” everything he did until he figured out how to bring her back.
S bravely raised her hand and said, “I was interested to think of what the character wanted. I had never thought about that before.”
“Every character has to want something,” Deborah said. “Who met you on the road?”
“He’s a recurring character in my stories…” S said.
“Why is that?” asked Christmas girl.
“Because I’m in love with him,” S said.
I considered bringing up Edward. Edward is my own private little character. He’s a little old, mildly insane man who is me in sixty years, if I were a man. But I didn’t.
A boy finally raised his hand. He was extremely tall, but most of his height was caused by the massive sheaf of hair floating in a haze above his forehead. He said,
“Well, I turned the corner and I saw my brother. Which is kind of shocking because I expected to meet some strange new person like everyone else. But I met my brother.”
“Your real brother?” Deborah asked.
“Yep,” he answered.
“Did you have a conversation?”
“OK, well does anyone want to read their piece?” Deborah asked.
No one raised their hands. Then, in an attempt to be tentative, the Christmas girl shoved her hand into the air.
She began to read, her head jerking with every syllable, her voice rising hysterically and then falling again. Selections include:
“And she threw the flowers at me, and spit at me…”
“She was so angry, clenching her hands at her sides…”
She just went on and on, and I attempted with all my will not to laugh at the poor Christmas girl and her angry imaginary friend. She was so earnest. I couldn’t look at S, and I heard the quick intake of breath that precedes her laughter. I just stared at my notebook until my eyes crossed.
This is where the entry ends. But I do recall fleeing the “Blue Parlor” with S and collapsing outside on the lawn in a laughing fit that lasted a good ten minutes. Then we went back to her room and read to each other from our novels-in-progress, thinking we were quite sophisticated because we knew we controlled the fates of our characters–and they would never dare to spit at us.