Thursday, August 2, 2007

Chapter One and Beyond With Jenny Vacchiano

Every workshop and discussion I attended at the Grand Lake Writers Getaway with Lighthouse Writers Workshop a couple of weeks back was outstanding, but the workshops called Chapter One and Beyond and Sweating the Small Stuff provided me the most immediately useful practical information of all of them.

The workshops were both led by Jenny Vacchiano, MFA. Jennifer’s fiction and nonfiction have appeared in such publications as 5280, Redbook, StoryQuarterly, Cimarron Review and Women’s Studies Quarterly. She was 3rd runner-up for the 2005 Faulkner-Wisdom Creative Writing Competition in the novel-in-progress category. Jenny was awarded a 2006 Rocky Mountain Women’s Institute Fellowship for work in the same novel. She earned a BA in English from Grinnell College and an MFA in creative writing from Emerson College.

It’s no secret that a novel’s first chapter or prologue is critical. How well the first pages are written will determine whether or not our readers want to continue reading.

We talked about what makes a lead character compelling, establishing the setting or story world and establishing voice, which is directly related to the point of view we choose. We talked about story questions that should be established at the start, how much we should reveal and how much we should leave open ended. We also talked about the importance of laying out what the character wants and who or what is standing in her way. Finally, we discussed the kinds of things that can slow the start of the story down: too much back story, too much character or setting description and starting the story at the wrong point in time – often we’re tempted to start the story far earlier than we need to.

Jenny provided us with a number of questions to ask after every chapter. I found these questions to be perhaps the most useful tool I now have to remain organized and focused on where I’m going.

Some of the questions to ask after each chapter are: What actually happens in the chapter? What question or questions have I left the reader with that are compelling enough to keep her reading? What might happen next? Even if you already think you know what will happen next, this question can open up possibilities for other actions that may be even better. Are there secondary characters, images, objects or symbols that appear in the chapter that might resurface later to develop or reinforce your theme(s)? Have I addressed specific plot points? Developed subplots? Created sufficient tension?

If I stand back to look at the big picture of how I’ve plotted my story, refer to the inciting incident that got the character moving in the first place (whether it’s part of the story or not), take a look at the major conflicts and crises that will eventually lead to the climax of the story and the eventual resolution, evaluating each scene and chapter individually, within the context of the story arc is invaluable. It helps to ensure that each is serving a purpose inherent in the overall structure.

In Sweating the Small Stuff, Jenny challenged us to take ourselves out of the writing process and put ourselves into the editor’s role and scrutinize each scene and chapter, asking the kinds of questions an agent or editor would

To facilitate evaluating each individual scene in a chapter, we did an exercise where we took a printed chapter and literally cut the pages up to delineate individual scenes. We taped the pages that belonged in each scene together and then laid them out on the floor. In some cases, people found they had short scenes that were unnecessary. In others, people found that changing the order of the scenes worked better than what they’d originally envisioned. The same can hold true with the chapters themselves.

Do we present questions that are plot driven and character driven? What are the stakes associated with the questions we pose? When we provide answers to questions, do we introduce new ones? Is our lead character making decisions and/or significant non-decisions? How many of these are decisions there is no turning back from? What are the consequences of the character’s decisions? Do decisions lead to a spiraling sequence of events? Finally, as we get to the story’s resolution, what has changed? How is our character different than he was at the start, or how is her world changed?

By breaking a draft down into manageable pieces and analyzing each on its own merit and making notes after each, I found it was much easier to objectively gauge how well the story was working. When we exchanged chapters with another writer and we each analyzed the work of the other, using the same criteria, everyone was able to see things through the other person’s eyes that they hadn’t been able to see themselves.

Two things that Jenny said that also stuck with me:

Revision is not tinkering or editing
Try retyping your draft when you revise, instead of opening up an old draft

What advice on craft have you been given, or can you offer that you've found especially helpful?


Charles Gramlich said...

Good stuff here. Anything that makes you think more about your work and where it's going is worthwhile.

iyan and egusi soup: said...

dear lisa:

these are such helpful questions. thanks for sharing them.

a bit over a month ago i attended the "voices" writing workshop where i was in the novel class led by zz packer. one thing that stays with me from that week (which is much like what you've shared): in the beginning, clearly present the main character's motivation--why is she doing/thinking/saying as she is, and how does this inform the central conflict of the story?

i'm sure zz explained it more eloquently, but this is how i'm remembering it. :)

Patti said...

the thing that always sticks in my head when i am writing: is the conflict enough to drive the story?

Lisa said...

Charles, I think you're right about that. Just about everything I read on all of the writing blogs helps me in one way or another.

iyan and egusi soup, A workshop with ZZ Packer must have been so inspiring! I would love to have been there with you. Developing the character well enough to make her actions in response to conflict believable is something I'll need to continue to focus on.

Patti, I agree with you. I always wonder how I can raise the stakes and/or if I'm creating enough conflict. In my writing, this is almost all internal and so it's very challenging.

reality said...

Can you please write more details about what was said about revisions.
I am particularly intrigued about the retype remark.
Can you elaborate on why that was said.

Lisa said...

Reality, I think the tip about retyping, rather than continuing to edit within an existing document has to do with our sometimes inability to see our own work with fresh eyes if we continue to look at the same document. If we start to retype, we may be more inclined to change things as we go along than we would if we were fixing things we've marked up on a printed copy. I can't elaborate beyond that, as that is my interpretation of why Jenny suggested doing that, although someone else reading this may have thoughts. I thought it was just as important that she made the distinction between Revision and tinkering/editing. I think Therese and Judy both talked at what time about Revision being RE-VISION.

NoviceNovelist said...

Thanks Lisa - this was really useful. I'm finding conflict within myself at the moment as I'm writing a 2nd draft - one part of me is focussing on the big 'story' questions while another part is obsessed with line by line editing for language, grammar etc. It's a tricky balance.

Larramie said...

I agree with your interpretation of Jenny's retyping a revision, Lisa. No matter what type of writing you might be reworking, the actual process of redoing it tends to encourage improvement. Albeit, if for no other reason, making the extra time worthwhile.

Subscribe Now: Feed Icon

Literary Quote

It is worth mentioning, for future reference, that the creative power which bubbles so pleasantly in beginning a new book quiets down after a time, and one goes on more steadily. Doubts creep in. Then one becomes resigned. Determination not to give in, and the sense of an impending shape keep one at it more than anything.

Virginia Woolf