Report from Day 3 of the Eckerd College Writers Conference

After our morning workshop session, during which two more victims had their stories critiqued, we listened to two craft sessions––one on beginnings, the second on endings. The theme for the day (my label, not the conference’s) is beginning a story is like grasping the reader’s extended hand, holding it firmly throughout the story, then letting it go at the end.

Between critiques, Lori Roy ran off a list of writing tips, which I’ll share for those entering the craft.

  1. Avoid the “fallacy of imitative form.” One does not create a mysterious atmosphere by writing vague, mysterious prose, or create a suspenseful atmosphere by using a suspenseful tone. The story has to carry the weight, not the tone.
  2. Name the Dog––a lesson from journalism. If a dog died in the fire, the reporter is supposed to get the dog’s name. If you are describing flowers lining the road, name them.
  3. Words to minimize or avoid: that, just, suddenly and finally. I added and at the beginning of a sentence.
  4. Avoid most dialogue tags other than variations of said and ask.
  5. Write the book you want to read, not the one you want to write. In other words, if your book is not something you would want to read, why will others?
  6. To learn how to plot out a novel, practice by writing short stories.
  7. Know your weaknesses as a writer so you can focus on improving in those areas.
  8. Avoid adverbs.
  9. Know why you started your novel on the particular day it begins.
  10. In sum, humble yourself to the craft. Before an architect designs a modern abstract building, she or he has to learn how to design a basic standard one. In terms of writing, prove that you’ve learned the rules of grammar as well as those of fiction writing before you start tinkering with them.

The authors on the Beginnings panel were Stewart O’Nan, Ann Hood and Les Standiford. Les and Stewart both said that it’s okay to begin slowly, although most instructors tell writers to get into the story quickly––in the first sentence if possible. Ann listed a number of beginning categories and gave examples of each, some of which go against the norm, such as starting with dialogue.

The Endings panel authors were Laura Lippman, Laura Williams McCaffrey and Andre Dubus III. Lippman gave examples showing that both quick and dirty and summing up endings can work, McCaffrey used examples from children’s literature to emphasize how endings don’t have to be elaborate and Dubus used The Son Also Rises to point out how the ending reflects the tension set at the beginning. He implored us to trust the reader with our endings.

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