I went to the Ocean State Writer’s Conference this past weekend:
I was really impressed with the poet Charles Bernstein (http://epc.buffalo.edu/authors/bernstein/), the author Ayad Akhtar (http://ayadakhtar.com/) and the fusion writer/artist Alison Bechdel (http://dykestowatchoutfor.com/). Each spoke or taught at the conference and I got to see them all. But what impressed me most, possibly because of my stage as a writer, was the session given by Percival Everett. I can’t find his webpage, but here’s his wiki:
He spoke about writing fiction – this wasn’t a craft session as he was quick to point out. He seemed to feel that being a student of craft alone would get you nowhere, which was a breath of fresh air with all the junk on the internet these days.
Everett writes literary fiction, something that eluded me (and frankly I knew nothing of) until I read “The Unchangeable Spots of Leopards” by Kristopher Jansma:
I picked it up in an airport bookstore, of all places, on my way down to Austin.
Everett discussed recognizing literary fiction as it differs from genre fiction or other types. He gave us his 3 questions to ask yourself of a novel to determine if it is literary fiction or not:
- Is it non-formulaic? Or does it follow the traditional rules of flow?
- Would you read it again? Most other fiction you wouldn’t. Literary fiction you would (thinking back to “The Unchangeable Spots of Leopards”, and now as I recognize it, Milan Kundera and Gustave Flaubert’s works, yeah, I’d read them all again.
- “The 3 A.M. test” as he called it – if you would be tempted to call your friend at 3 A.M. to read a passage of that book you are reading, it’s probably literary fiction. The books above that I mention are dog-eared and scored in numerous places where the beauty of the writing, the turn of phrase, the selection of words just blew me away, and yes I read those sections to others, although not at 3 A.M., thank God.
So this bolstered my understanding and appreciation of literary fiction.
Other things Everett taught in the session:
- Don’t try to teach or tell something when writing fiction – it will suck.
- If you are too close to a real story (too close to the facts, as if parts of it really happened to you), you likely won’t do a good job writing it as fiction because you are too connected to the places and events. It’s when you create the setting and situations that you can really stretch your fiction-writing muscles.
- On dialogue – what is written as good dialogue would be ridiculous if you said it out loud in real conversation, and vice-versa (real conversation makes for lousy fiction dialogue). When writing dialogue in fiction you are creating an illusion – you are carrying the story through conversation. It needs to fool the reader into believing that the conversation is viable, yes, but in actuality it would sound silly as a real conversation.
- Story does not equal plot. Plot is not where story and fiction reside. A story can be over-plotted. In literary fiction, the story follows no formula, and yet it still interests the reader. Imagine that.
And of course I had to sneak in my “Show, Don’t Tell” question. He seemed to see it like I do, as a tool to be used when appropriate, not an overarching rule.
I snuck a similar question in with the Ayad Akhtar session, with a similar response. He answered that he read a lot of Shakespeare, and that there is almost no showing in his works.
It was a great conference!