Novel Exercise: Making Extreme Options Reasonable

Credit Sajan Mullappally/flickr

Credit Sajan Mullappally/flickr

If you’re writing a novel, one of the easiest ways to send your character on a worthwhile journey is to eliminate possible solutions to your protagonist’s problem until the only one that remains is the riskiest, most dangerous, or most extreme.

If your reader watches your protagonist fail to solve the problem with the easy, common-sense solutions before resorting to extreme measures, it’s more likely that the reader will identify with that protagonist. That feeling of identification goes a long way toward making the reader want to keep reading.

Recently, in one part of a three-part book-length narrative planning workshop in Burlington, I used the following episode of This American Life to illuminate the concept of eliminating the “simple” options.

In the first story in this hour-long radio show, a young couple is sailing across the Pacific Ocean in their houseboat. (If you have 20 minutes, listen to the story. It’s worth it.) This houseboat is their only home. While they’re on this journey, their baby becomes sick. To solve this problem, they have a range of options:

  1. Treat the baby while they’re at sea.
  2. Keep sailing until they reach a country with a good hospital system.
  3. Push a button on a device that will call in help but force them to sink their boat.

Spoiler alert: Number three is a life-changer, and the one they eventually chose. But they had to try the first two and fail at those before option three could be reasonable. (Imagine sinking the boat first! Insanity!)

In short, here’s what happened: The baby had some kind of ear infection and wasn’t responding to treatment. The baby’s illness was so upsetting that they didn’t feel it was wise to wait until they found a decent hospital. The boat sustained some damage, making the luxury of extended travel more risky. And their radio had died. They agonized, but ultimately decided that option three was the best one available.

If your characters make irrevocable choices with huge consequences, you may have a good story on your hands. This couple’s choice left them homeless, which was the consequence they anticipated. What they didn’t anticipate was that, back in the United States, the media had labeled them “bad parents” because they’d brought the baby out to sea (which, as host Ira Glass points out, is not unusual for people who live in houseboats). It’s hard not to sympathize with them. They had some bad luck, did what any reasonable person in their situation would have done, and faced miserable consequences.

As I listened to this piece, I kept wondering what a novelized version of this would look like. Their struggle to make the outside world understand what they had gone through—and perhaps how their relationship survives the stress of being homeless and persecuted by a judgmental world—would serve as the basis of such a novel.

In this workshop, I advised my fellow writers to try and figure out the “simple” steps toward solving the problem facing their protagonist. What’s the problem? What are the reasonable steps that ultimately fail? What extreme measure did they choose, and what are the consequences of that measure?

Granted, there a million ways to write novels, and this exercise won’t apply to all (or perhaps even most) novels. But it’s worth trying out to see if it works for you. While some writers shun any kind of planning (“It ruins my creativity!”), I argue that it’s worth putting careful thought into this essential part of your story before you start writing it. Identifying the problem and the steps your protagonist would have to take isn’t going to sap your creativity. It’s going to save you time, and if you’re like me—a person with a 40-50 hour-a-week job—you’re going to need to make every precious hour count.

Opportunities and Announcements: Week of June 29, 2015

We have two deadlines for member opportunities this week.

Camp Abnaki grounds

One of many writing spots on the grounds at Camp Abnaki

Today is the last day to enter your name in the lottery for our August BWW Writing Retreat.The retreat will be held at Camp Abnaki in North Hero on August 22nd and will be a full day of writing followed by a potluck dinner and evening music session. Enter your name now > 

And tomorrow is the deadline for the next Hotel Vermont book. Send in your submission >

Continue reading

Opportunities and Announcements: Week of June 22, 2015

Mud Season Review literary journal issue #10

The all-volunteer literary journal run by members of the Burlington Writers Workshop

This week, we celebrate the 1-year anniversary of Mud Season Review—an example of the incredible work that can come from a member-driven initiative.

In December of 2013, you, the members of the Burlington Writers Workshop, voted for launching a literary journal as your #1 goal in the annual member survey. In April of 2014, you voted to name that journal Mud Season Review. And in June of 2014, the group of members who made up our inaugural staff launched the journal’s website and opened our call for submissions.

Since then, we’ve read through 2,000+ submissions; published 10 online issues and 1 full-color, nearly 200-page print issue; drawn poets, authors, and artists from around the world; and provided BWW workshop-style responses to many writers who’ve let us know that our critical yet encouraging feedback has helped them successfully publish their work in other venues.

Along the way, we’ve also had a ton of fun. Congratulations to everyone involved on a successful first year! And check out Issue #10 for some great new content >

Continue reading

Opportunities and Announcements: Week of June 15, 2015

Aerial shot of Camp Abnaki in North Hero, Vermont

Camp Abnaki in North Hero, Vermont, site of the August 2015 BWW free writing retreat

The lottery is now open for the second in our 2015 series of four full-day writing retreats! This retreat is a free writing retreat, with lots of time for working on your current writing project as well as communal meals and an evening music session. The retreat will be held on Saturday, August 22nd at Camp Abnaki in North Hero.

Like all of our retreats, this full-day writing retreat is free. To give everyone an equal chance to attend, we’re holding a lottery for the 20 available spots. The deadline for entries is Monday, June 29th. Enter your name now >

Continue reading

Reflections on Yvonne Daley’s Workshop “Using Research in Creative Writing”

by Kerstin Lange

Yvonne Daley, journalism professor and author

Yvonne Daley, journalism professor and author

I don’t know what I love more—research or writing (and when I say “love,” I mean the whole spectrum of joy, inspiration, hard work, and pain). It doesn’t matter, of course. What I love about both endeavors is that there is both an art and a craft to them, or, you could say, an inspiration element and a nuts-and-bolts element.

Almost invariably when I open a book, I feel compelled to look at the acknowledgements page. Seeing all the names and specialties of the people the author has been in touch with conjures up an image of synapses connecting not just within one brain but across many—sort of an ecosystem of interconnected minds. Perhaps this is my favorite thing about the BWW, too: That it offers a balance between the solitary and the social aspects of writing and helps us connect with other writers.

So it took me about five seconds to sign up for Yvonne Daley’s workshop on “Using Research in Creative Writing” when it was posted.
Continue reading

Opportunities and Announcements Week of June 8, 2015

OfficiallyIt’s official. The Burlington Writers Workshop is now an independent 501(c) 3 organization.

This means we are now able to accept tax-deductible donations directly from our donors. We’d like to thank the Vermont League of Writers for their generosity and guidance as our fiscal agent to date. Please stay tuned in the coming months for information regarding our new organizational bylaws, member survey, and annual member meeting as we move forward as an independent nonprofit.

We’re moving forward with a terrific show of support from our members and donors. The numbers are in from our May fundraiser. We surpassed our goal by more than $1,000—raising a total of $4,379. Thank you again to everyone who donated.

Continue reading

Opportunities and Announcements: Week of June 1, 2015

WThank You! (1)e did it! Thank you to everyone who donated to our May 2015 fundraiser. With your help, we surpassed our goal. We’re still tallying up the final donations so stand by for an announcement of the total raised.

We couldn’t operate without you—and these funds will allow us to continue providing high quality workshops and retreats, an inspiring space for writing and discussion, and other literary opportunities like Mud Season Review.

As a thank you, we’d like to offer a pair of BWW bumper stickers to everyone who donated in May. Stickers will be available for pick up next week at 22 Church Street (3rd floor) in Burlington.

We also have some great opportunities for publishing, workshops, and more this week. Continue reading

Opportunities and Announcements: Week of May 25, 2015

Greenmont Farms in Underhill, the location of our July poetry retreat.

Greenmont Farms in Underhill, the location of our July poetry retreat.

It’s time to let us know if you’re interested in attending one of our free writing retreats. We’re holding one for poets on Saturday, July 11th at Greenmont Farms in Underhill. If you’re interested, learn more about how to put your name in the hat here.

Our writing retreats are different. They’re free. But space is limited, so we’re holding a lottery. This ensures that all writers, regardless of income, have an equal chance to attend these learning opportunities.

These opportunities are made possible by people like you, who make contributions to help the BWW cover costs. We have put money in the budget to rent places like Greenmont Farms. We’ve also got rent payments and website maintenance costs (they add up!) so please do make a contribution in any amount. When you do, we’ll thank you with a pair of BWW bumper stickers. Thanks!

This is my final Opportunities and Announcement email. Next week, your new organizer, Danielle Thierry, will be sending you these announcements. Continue reading

Opportunities and Announcements: Week of May 18, 2015

Quick fundraising update: We’re doing really well! We’ve raised $2,787 of our overall goal of $3,100. Thanks to everyone who has helped us get to this point. When we reach our goal, we’ll be able to achieve all the things we set out to achieve this year (paying rent, holding writing retreats, bringing authors to workshops, etc.).

Please make your $50, $100, or $200 contribution today and help us reach our goal.

Forgive my late posting of these; Monday was a busy day. But here they are, your weekly opportunities and announcements. Continue reading

Opportunities and Announcements: Week of May 11, 2015

Fundraising update: So far this month we’ve raised $542 of the $3,100 we need to continue doing what we do. We have rent payments due, plus we just renewed our hosting/management of both and to the tune of $167.76. We’ll have to renew with Submittable, too, and that’s about $300. In short: we’ve got some expenses to cover. We rely on folks like you to help out, so please make your $100 gift today. Thanks!

Your donation pays for these opportunities, too, so please do check them out! Continue reading

A Writing Paradox

image of open notebook with pen

JD Fox on starting a writing conversation

One of the best ways to think of something to write is to write.

You may be familiar with this scenario:

Teacher: Okay, class, today I want you to spend five minutes freewriting.

Student: But teacher, I can’t think of anything to write.

Teacher: Then write about not being able to think of anything to write.

Student (starting to write and grumbling): I can’t think of anything to write. I can’t think of anything to write. I can’t think of anything to write…

Ideally, sometime before the five minutes are up, the student will go on to write about something that spontaneously occurs to them and run with it.

You may also be familiar with some riff or another about why such advice works: the mind likes to busy itself with thinking and frequently will go on wonderfully serendipitous tangents regardless of our starting-place thoughts.

But I’d like to explain it a different way here, one that might make it seem less like tricking your mind into being creative and more like simply leveraging one of the ways our minds work.

To do that, I’m going to first step away from the act of writing and ask a question:

What is your favorite band and why?

Now that you’re thinking about that band, I’ll ask another question:

Were you thinking about the band before I asked you the question?

Chances are my original question prompted the thought and subsequent answer. If we continued from that point, your answer would generate more questions from me. Or maybe encourage me to comment on my own favorite band. Either way, my response would likely generate additional thoughts and responses from you followed by responses from me and so on…

In common talk, we’d be having a conversation.

Writing is a conversation with yourself.

Sure, you can plan out what you’re going to say or write, but so much of the true substance of both comes out only after you become engaged in the act itself. Beyond being a gifted wordsmith inspired by God or a legendary raconteur born with inherent eloquence, there’s no other way than to simply start typing—or start talking—and see where it leads.

Opportunities and Announcements: Week of May 4, 2015

Our May fundraising campaign is underway, and so far we’ve raised $300 toward our overall goal of $3,100. We’re on track! If you’ve benefited from the feedback you’ve received at these workshops, and if you enjoy having the opportunities the BWW affords you, please make a contribution in any amount to help keep this going. Thanks!

We’ve got more opportunities for you to check out this week, so please do read on! Continue reading

Podcast: Mud Season Review’s Print Issue Launch Party

Kari Giroux read her story "Tuffy" at the Mud Season Review launch party on Saturday, May 2, 2015.

Kari Giroux read her story “Tuffy” at the Mud Season Review launch party on Saturday, May 2, 2015.

If you couldn’t make it to Saturday night’s party at Hotel Vermont for Mud Season Review’s print issue launch party, check out the podcast!

We heard great stories, poems, and a bit of an essay published in the first-ever print issue of this Vermont-made literary journal.

If you’re interested in purchasing a copy, act now, because they’re selling steadily online and supplies, as they say, are limited.

Enjoy the podcast!

Podcast: Mud Season Review’s Managing Editors Tell All!

A few months ago, I spoke with Rebecca Starks and Danielle Thierry, the Editor-in-Chief and Managing Editor of Mud Season ReviewMud Season Review’s first print issue launches this Saturday at Hotel Vermont, and we hope you can make it. It’s free to attend, and we’ll have free food, readings, and a cash bar.

Rebecca, Danielle, and I spoke about all manner of things, including what kind of work Mud Season Review is looking for, as well as the challenges and joys of running a literary publication in general, and running one supported by the community and created by an all-volunteer army of talented editors in particular.

Please enjoy this podcast, and if you like it, subscribe to it on iTunes. Just go to the iTunes store and search for “Burlington Writers Workshop.”

My Workshop Experience

Cathy Beaudoin (left) at a BWW meeting in 2014.

Cathy Beaudoin (left) at a BWW meeting in 2014.

I primarily consider myself a reader of other writers’ work. In that role, I just read a piece and provide simple feedback about what works in the piece and what can be expanded or improved upon.

But I recently presented a short story I wrote at the Burlington Writers Workshop. I have been attending workshops on and off for about a year and a half. I’d previously presented one other short story, as well as its revision.

As a writer receiving feedback, I was struck by the efficiency of the workshop process. The workshop had seven attendees, not including myself. My story was approximately 2,100 words, and my sense was that it was just a bit too short. At the beginning of the review of my work, I was asked what I wanted the group to discuss.

My answer was simple, “I want to know what parts of the work might need to be expanded on.”

As is the process with all of these workshops, I then went into a magical “box” while the readers talked about my work amongst each other. When you’re in the “box,” the trick as the writer is to understand you are not part of the conversation and are not there to defend or explain your work. Instead, your job is to listen carefully.

In most cases, including mine, common themes about how people react to a story will emerge. It is then up to the writer to determine how, if at all, to revise his/her work based on the sentiment expressed during the readers discussion. In this particular workshop session, readers did a fantastic job of focusing on my request and gave me solid feedback about where to expand the work.

I am grateful for receiving such valuable feedback from people I either have never met, or barely know at all. If you are a writer, new or seasoned, and would like to receive feedback on your writing, or if you would like to be a reader graciously giving your time to help others, you may find the writing workshop experience a meaningful one. I know I do.

To join the Burlington Writers Workshop (it’s free!), click here.