Writers In Conference: The Micro-Tension Of A Pause


Autumn And Authors Holding Their Breaths

The townspeople of Salem, Massachusetts, are busy this week pointing out to visitors their brilliant fall leaves. “They should be on the ground by now,” one longtime resident says, shaking his head. “Should have hit the grass a long time ago.”

And like the eerie pause in the pace of a colorful season, the first Writer Unboxed Un-Conference here has created an interregnum familiar to frequent delegates to writers’ conferences.

Normal life has stopped briefly for roughly 100 writers. They’ve entered a tangential space this week. Standard home-and-family-life interruptions don’t stick to these people right now. They start early in the morning, trading career anecdotes over morning coffee. Near midnight some are intent on poker games led by author and instructor John Vorhaus (Poole’s Paradise) in the Hawthorne Hotel’s basement lounge — with its determinedly below-decks shipboard decor.

It’s an Indian summer camp for adults. , this first attempt at such an event by the major Writer Unboxed community’s co-founder, Therese Walsh (The Moon Sisters). 

Not least because of an adamant, officially stated resistance to publishing-business issues, the sessions feel slightly out of time. Near a baby grand piano on the grounds of the National History Landmark House of the Seven Gables, conferees discuss craft, craft, and craft — writers’ not witches’ — under the gaze of significant Salem figures’ portraits.

Of course, as soon as you’re talking quietly with one colleague or another, it’s all…business. The digital disruption is not about the art of writing. It’s about the distribution of content. That’s business. And its transformation of the industry is something that authors ignore at their peril.

My own session on criticism (and what to take to heart and what to ignore) got pretty  businessy during our Q&A session. And how could it not? — the viability of the consumer review is a creature of the digital dynamic as harnessed by Amazon and other major retailers. And it’s the consumer review that has now largely eclipsed the mainstream-media-based phenomenon of book criticism that once was the leading evaluative mechanism of the industry.

Very Present Tense

No stranger to the business, longtime literary agent and author Donald Maass is the headliner among the teaching corps, leading up to Friday’s day-long workshop presentation of his seminal Writing 21st Century Fiction: High Impact Techniques for Exceptional Storytelling. This may be craft, but it’s the craft of what sells. And rightly so.

Maass’ trademark, insistent Socratic technique is full force here, pushing note-taking writers to ask, ask, ask themselves more and more about their characters and the tensions brought to bear on them.

“When is a moment in which your protagonist can rise above?” he asks them. “Turn the other cheek? Take a step back? Marshal some new wisdom?”

“Wait,” one of the authors speaks up.

“Yes?” Maass asks?

“I’m trying to catch up with you.”

Despite the micro-tension she’s having in getting his probing questions down, Maass moves right on, driving home his point that a reader must experience tension as the inner turmoil of characters, not as outward observers:

We cannot make tension by making violence more violent…Tension doesn’t come from action or how you write it. The source of tension is not plot, nor the subject matter of your story. Tension is inside, not outside…It doesn’t get tenser if the bullets are bigger or the gun is a semi-automatic.

By session’s end, Maass has the writers scrambling for number randomizers online, a virtual way of “throwing all your pages up in the air and picking them up as they fall.” He wants them to scour their manuscripts, one out-of-order page at a time, in order to recognize where tension flags, where the reader doesn’t feel a drive to stick with the story, where a character isn’t shoved by some conflict of need, opportunity, barrier.

“Thematic developments, the world of the story,” he tells them, “this is one thing we can work on. He uses pages of Writer Unboxed community chief Vaughn Roycraft’s fantasy work-in-progress to set the authors brainstorming on ways to create not only tension but what he terms “micro-tension.” In a ceremonial sword-presentation scene, the passing of a sacred weapon to the family scion is examined for where it could be “tensed up,” if you will.

Where once Maass exhorted authors to generate “tension on every page,” nowadays the man wants tension in every line, it seems, and the writers rise to the idea, struggling to capture his comments.

Plotting A Good Story

Earlier, author and UCLA Extension Writers’ Program instructor Lisa Cron (Wired for Story: The Writer’s Guide to Using Brain Science to Hook Readers from the Very First Sentence) and leading Salem author Brunonia Barry (The Lace Reader) join Maass in a plenary session debate with the authors about plot and story. No, they’re not the same thing. Determining which comes first is as chicken-and-egg as it gets.

The long-honored E.M. Forster delineation from his Aspects of the Novel lectures is invoked quickly:

‘The king died and then the queen died,’ is a story. ‘The king died, and then the queen died of grief,’ is a plot. The time sequence is preserved, but the sense of causality overshadows it. Consider the death of the queen. If it is in a story we say ‘and then?’ If it is in a plot we ask ‘why?’

Cron tells the group that a writer chooses points of plot to bring forward because they inform the inner journey of the character. But, she adds, “You have to know, going in, what are those connections of meaning for the character.” Skillful selection of plot points to support a story, in other words, takes discernment and conscious manipulation of available contingencies.

Barry — instrumental in arranging the Salem setting for the conference — talks of writing long, detailed biographies on two characters and then developing the story from the two personalities’ viewpoints. “There’s a connection drawn in this technique, even though the connection in the book is situational,” she says.

The group talks of internal elements, the character’s (and reader’s) inner journey — that’s story. And there are external elements, the events that take place — those are plot.

One good way to think of plot and story, Maass says, is in a cause-and-effect model. “The way you get plot and story working together,” he says, “is a matter of finding the personal meaning for a POV [point of view] character. Even if you have to write 45 scenes, you should be able to stop at any point” and tell precisely what the  events at that point mean in the point of view of a character.”

And if story informs plot, these authors’ own life stories must inform their work.

Confession Is Good For The Story

The UK-based American author Meg Rosoff (Picture Me Gone, shortlisted for the National Book Award) leads a roundtable at Salem on  personal backstory, reeling off some 35 questions for the writers to answer:

Name something you’ve done that makes you feel proud of yourself…Name something you’ve done you’re ashamed of…Name two traits you got from your father…Name two you got from your mother…If you found out you were going to die tomorrow, what would you do tonight?…If you could visit any year and place in history, what would it be?…What was the turning point in your life?…What do you fear most?…Name a moment you’d like to go back and change…

One by one, authors volunteer to share their answers, as tweeting from the room goes silent to honor the privacy of these personal admissions. No one is required to speak up. Most attendees do, however. In some cases, it’s  clear that — like plot and story — writing and self-therapy have become somehow entwined, maybe for the good, maybe not. In other cases, the answers are clinically, crisply reported — these, you might think, are the more advanced authors in the room, able to recognize influences without falling prey to the attendant emotions.

If anything, the Rosoff exercise raises a question about the genre-leaning preferences of many of these authors.

As one of the most astute participants in the session points out to me afterward, so many of them are working emotionally at the level of literary fiction. They are eloquently adept at opening their own hearts and carefully displaying one or another formative color, hue, tone — something that five minutes earlier you’d never guessed might figure into their personal history. And yet, when it comes time to work again, they dive back into the structured, predictable worlds of romance, mystery, fantasy, science fiction.

Is this escapism? Is this an artful dodge?

Maybe it’s easier to muffle one’s so-human resonance under cloaks of archaic sorcery and behind the passionate kisses of the glutted romance market. Maybe writing skills are still catching up to the higher fire of demands some deem to be required of “literary” writers.

Maybe it’s just so damned hard to position yourself in this upended marketplace with skewed signals amid blurring categorizations.

The author Heather Webb is here with her Becoming Josephine, based on the historical love of Napoleon Bonaparte’s life, and she shows me the striking cover of her new book, scheduled for January, Rodin’s LoverThat’s the wandering stare of Camille Claudel, her sanity dimming with the Parisian sky behind her, artists in love, you know — rarely ends well.

Her colleague Erika Robuck is nearby and hands me a copy of her Fallen Beauty about the poet Edna St. Vincent Millay’s liaison with an unlikely compatriots, the cover turned on an actual Ziegfeld Follies girl photographed in beaded and feathered regalia. What do readers think of this book when they see it? Does it lead them to think of Robuck’s Call Me Zelda (Fitzgerald) or Hemingway’s Girl?

“Without sin, can we know beauty?” runs the line on Fallen Beauty’s ads. “Can we fully appreciate the summer without the winter?”

It’s been raining gently on old Salem all day, but not cold, and still these jaunty leaves hang onto their branches.

The authors pass in the Hawthorne lobby and cross on their way to one session or another, laughing in this peculiar break from the usual battle to write every day, ply their brands on social media but defy its time-eating maw long enough to write, think, remember, revise.

Also: we have men here

Begun as a blog site loosely but not doggedly based in women’s fiction — natural, of course, with Walsh’s and Kathleen Bolton’s guiding work from the outset — Writer Unboxed has undone some of the site’s one-time image as mostly-women’s arena in the past two years. They’ve succeeded (where many operations fail) in becoming a forum welcoming to both men and women who write and read books.

This was no accident. My own conversations with the founders (no longer dubbed “mamas” on the site) were forthright as I started to work with them. With no disrespect — quite the opposite — for the fine work so many women are doing in literature today, Walsh and Bolton clearly knew they wanted a balanced, real-world community in which authorial gender isn’t the point of good books. And they’ve succeeded. The organization is richer for it. This is tremendously to their credit and is now fully evident in the finely mixed group here in Salem.

In an aside, I’ll just point out that six of the 20 citizens of Salem executed for witchcraft during the atrocities of 1692? — were men. We’ve been along for the ride on challenging journeys here before, and not always in the driver’s seat, as many might assume.

So far, no one’s been convicted of anything black-magical in the Unboxed coven. And contemporary writing will find new understandings of what it is — and who it is — much faster together in all its diversity than it will separately.

You wonder how these authors will be changed, if at all, when they leave at the end of this #WUUnCon week. If even one artist here finds his or her way to something deeper, sharper, clearer, more coherent in the work, then something has been accomplished. I’ve even found a playwright in our midst. He’s Mr. Therese Walsh to most of us, the endlessly helpful Sean, running interference for us on everything from audio-visual panics to chauffeur duty.

Great lists of exciting projects are totted up in these events, you know, on those little hotel pads that lie all over the conference rooms. The refreshed author gets off the plane or out of the car or off the train with ambitious plans for this project and that collaboration…and then the bills are waiting and the family is waiting and the exhaustion is waiting.

But sometimes an idea sticks, and photos will recall this autumnal hiatus, and a great splashing of this odd little city with unseasonably resilient color — tied to the germ of a story or the discipline of a new tack or a mad shuffling of pages to find more micro-tension.

Quickly, before the leaves finally fall.