Tuesday, June 16, 2015

Sex, Plots, Poetry and Belly Flops

Otherwise known as post-conference thoughts

by Susan

Another Wyoming Writers conference down, and Lynn and I thought we'd share some of the things we'd learned from the sessions. I'll let Lynn get to the poetry later. For now, let's get between the sheets.

Writing sex scenes
Laura Pritchett reminded us that to ignore sex in our writing is to ignore a common and significant human experience. While it shouldn't be included just for the sake of sex, it should be there when needed to illustrate what is going on between characters. Sex scenes, like every scene in a story, should push characters farther along, connect to their larger concerns and involve their needs and histories. Let sex be complicated. There's usually more than one emotion going on.

That said, there are a lot of ways to write sex scenes badly. Laura took us on a delightful... er... romp through the pitfalls of writing sex scenes with Steve Almond's 12-step program. Among the things to beware: step-by-step how-tos, clinical terms for genitals, euphemisms and (oh, dear) food analogies. Nipples look like nipples, folks, not anything else.

Laura's exercises asked us to push our boundaries. One was to try writing a scene where one person is hired for the sex or some other situation out of our normal experience. One started, "I have never told anyone ___________." Another was to write the same sex scene first discreetly, then explicitly.

Writing book-length fiction
These were the things Laura said she'd wished she knew about writing a novel before she wrote her first one. There is a structure to writing a book-length work. The character should be at the point of no return at the end of Act I, and a decision needs to be made there. In Act II, the character has to face the implications of the decision made at the end of Act I. Keep it complicated! At this point, the reader is ahead of the character. In Act III, order is restored. 

Each scene = a unit of drama. When looking at scenes, ask:
  • Character - do we learn something new?
  • Dialogue - does it serve a purpose?
  • Narrative description - are all senses present?
  • Voice - consistent?
  • Intention - does the scene move the plot forward?
  • Theme - does the scene advance or illuminate the theme?
I came away with some great ideas for my embryonic novel and added two titles to my to-read list: The Seven Basic Plots by Christopher Booker and Aristotle's Poetics.

Finally: a belly flop
You knew I'd get to it eventually, right? After a day of encouraging writers to be brave and put their story openings in for the paddle panel, I listened to mine read. Not one editor on the panel would have kept reading. The editors were kind and fair, and I would not argue with a single point they made, but my dang ego wanted the world to hang on every word of my prose. I have work to do. Like a belly flop, it stung a little bit but at least it got me in the water. Can't learn to swim unless I do.

More questions than answers

Lynn chimes in...

After the Wyoming Writers, Inc. conference my husband and I packed up and headed to Vedauwoo campground for a few days. I wandered through aspen groves and hopped from one lichen-painted boulder to another while I processed everything I had heard at the conference.

It’s funny how certain things just seep in and take hold. Of the hundreds of bits of information I received during the conference, this is what really sunk in for me:

The Three Layers 

I attended Aaron Abeyta’s workshop, The Outer, the Inner and the True Poem.

Aaron said that he was really talking about all writing, not just poetry. He drew a rainbow-looking diagram for us on the rickety whiteboard.  The top arc, he said, represented the outer story—basically the topic you want to write about.

The middle arc is the inner story, or the revelation of the muse. It is found by asking, “Where’s this poem coming from?” or “Who is the mother/father of this poem?” The muse of most poems/stories, Aaron said, is love, fear, sadness, joy, anger or something along those lines.

The inner arc is the revelation of the self. This is where the author of the story exposes something of his own self, his human experience.

Aaron said that his early poetry left out the inner arc, and focused on the other two. It was too risky to go down to that inner arc, he said. It required too much exposure. But he learned, finally, that his poetry would be complete only if he allowed himself to be vulnerable.

Ted Kooser’s poem Mother provided an example:
The outer arc, or topic, was Kooser’s own mother;
The middle arc or muse was love tinged with sadness;
The inner arc or revelation of the self was Kooser’s recognition that his ability to be a poet stems from his mother because she taught him how to observe. He is revealing a bit of himself by sharing this understanding, and because we are human we absorb that understanding too.

 … I thank you for that.
Were it not for the way you taught me to look
at the world, to see life at play in everything,
I would have to be lonely forever.

 -- From Mother by Ted Kooser

In my own mind the arc morphed into an egg: the shell, the egg white and the yolk. (my mind does weird things like that.)

An egg, or a story, is not complete without all three parts. Without the yolk, the fledgling will not form and grow and fly.

So now I am more mindful of asking:

“Who is the mother or father of this story? Which muse is at play here?”
“What am I revealing of myself? Or am I hiding?”

I think this concept will have me pondering for a long time.

 The Three Elements 

Yeah, the number 3 seems to be coming up a lot.

During the paddle panel (an event where anonymous story openings were read aloud and then critiqued by the author & editor panel) I heard something that velcroed to my brain.

Patrick Thomas of Milkweed Editions mentioned something that he tells his interns as they weed through the piles of submissions that arrive at their office every day. I’m paraphrasing, but he said something like this:
I tell them to look for three things: 
1) Elegance of writing; 
2) Elegance of thought; 
3) A voice that hasn’t been heard from often. 
It was number 2 that stayed with me, and rattled around in my head for a few days.

I could have guessed numbers 1 and 3, but “elegance of thought”? That intrigued me!

What I recognize is that you can have elegant writing and a fresh voice, but you still have to have a lot to say: a topic, a point of view, a belief, a story. It seems obvious, but I’ve found myself mulling this over.

It pushes me to ask myself if I am showing “elegance of thought” in my writing. Or am I fluffing the words to look pretty without really coming out and saying something substantial? Have I thought (and written) enough on the topic to even know what I think? And am I standing by my thoughts, beliefs, point of view or am I mumbling, hedging, and watering down my words?

All good questions.

As you can see, I have come away from the 2015 Wyoming Writers, Inc. conference with more questions than answers. In my mind, that’s a sign that I really learned something.

Thanks to the Wyoming Writers, Inc. board, volunteers, presenters, Susan Mark (the Wearer of All Hats conference coordinator) and everyone involved in the conference for making it happen.

If you didn’t make it to the conference this year, plan to attend next year—in Riverton.


  1. Great review of some of the sessions at WWI, Susan and Lynn. I loved the review of Abeyta's three arcs of a poem. Incidentally, Abeyta said in both his sessions and in his keynote speech, that he went off to college to find no writers like him, meaning no Mexican/Hispanic/Indian voices. Then right after the conference, Juan Felipe Herrera was announced as poet laureate. I sent the announcement I got to Abeyta saying he is now in the literature, and he responded that he knows Herrera well and he is Abeyta's mentor and he considers him an uncle.

    Thanks for sharing about other parts of the conference that I wasn't able to attend--have not yet figured out how to be in two, much less three, places at one time.

    And Susan, wonderful job a conference coordinator, as you did as the conference coordinator for WyoPoets. So what do you do in your spare time? Lynn, can you slow this woman down some so she doesn't run out of steam. After all, she doesn't look much like the Energizer Bunny. That's a guitar, not a drum.

    1. Ah, but you'd be amazed how far you can travel on coffee and sheer stubbornness, Art.

      Like you, I wanted to be in three places at once every session. Thanks for stopping by.

  2. It was my first-ever conference and I wasn't quite sure what to expect. It was a great learning experience and I took LOTS of notes. I look forward to applying some of the things I learned to my WIP. I got great feedback at the critique table and next year may even have courage to try the open mic or the paddle panels!

    1. I have to say, Linda, that I got really good advice on my opening, so the paddle panel was well worth it for me. I'd encourage you to do it at the next conference. Open mic, too. The first few time I did open mic, I shook so badly you could hear the paper rattle! I was glad I did, though. Over time, it's really built my confidence.

  3. Susan, you're not the only one who belly flopped during the paddle panel. Those panelists didn't have anything positive to say about any of the work presented. I thought last year's paddle panel was much more positive.

    1. They were demanding, indeed, but I can't say that anything they said about mine wasn't fair. I actually heard many positives among the negatives. I know that when I am ready to start really pitching to editors, they will be gatekeepers, and I appreciated the insight of these four. I'd rather be shot down now than when (if ever) I have a book I want to see in print. That said, critique can be tough to take sometimes!

  4. Great summaries! Thank you both! I wish, like everyone, that I could have gone to every session.


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