Help! Writing my way through chapters of my book, I just know there’s a lot more to this than I’m prepared to handle. I find myself drawn to courses on improving my craft. I drool over every email offering classes with literary talent and fine institutions. I yearn to learn. But many come with a high price tag, and dates far in the future. I’m anxious for more immediate tutoring.
Thanks to a posting on the Lake Superior Writers Facebook page, I found Kate St. Vincent Vogl’s class called “Making a Scene.” It sounded wonderful – “how to set it up, how to bring out the line of action, and how to intensify the conflict along with the characters for a satisfying chapter end––all of which will keep your readers turning page after page.” And the kicker? Only $7 which included lunch. Sponsored by the Crosby Library Friends Foundation it meant a 100-mile drive each way for the 3-hour workshop, but I was game. Best of all, it was only a few weeks away.
With a long history of teaching at the Loft Literary Center, Kate proved to be the seasoned professional I hoped to find. Her knowledge was extensive, with the ability to call up examples and authors at will for illustrations and further study. She conveyed her deep knowledge with ease and gracefully invited participation and comments from the 20 students in the library classroom.
It was all I could do to keep up with the rapid information coming my way, scribbling as fast as I could yet trying to absorb the wisdom at the same time. Tying in a few writing exercises helped us all put it to use immediately, to reinforce her points.
Here are some nuggets from the class:
Think of CATS to remember the four basic components of a scene:
- Characters – need multiple people interacting
- Show how the characters are different through their actions, how they argue, things they treasure, family background
- What attitudes do the characters bring?
- Acting on a desire – establish what the main character wants
- Don’t mistake motion for action. What characters do must have consequences
- Actions complicate the problem and must make the reader uneasy
- Tension – a conflict or a problem
- Set it up early, develop it, have a turning point
- The problem must matter to the main character
- Specific place and time
- Where are they and why?
- What things are in the room? How does the lighting affect the mood? What characters are present?
- Think about how to make your story as tight as you can for the reader. Don’t give them anything they will skip.
- Be as specific as possible. Get descriptions into your nouns and verbs instead of adjectives and adverbs. “She slammed down her coffee.”
- Using flashback or description – does it break up the flow? You may need to get it in through dialog or imply what happened.
- When ending a scene, you need to leave a character frustrated, his or her needs not met. There needs to be something more that will pull the reader along.
- Worry is your friend in writing. Give readers a reason to read further.
- Let yourself write badly. It takes many drafts to get ready to submit to an agent or publisher. In your first draft you are writing the story for yourself. In the next draft, you can shape it and use the ideas you generated. Refine it in subsequent drafts.
- Read aloud to get the feel of your story. It’s best to read to an audience; you can tell immediately where it needs tightening.
Kate made sure to connect with each of us personally. She was happy to talk to me about my book, gave me some thoughts to consider before class started, and answered my more specific questions at the end. The three hours went by quickly, and I left with new tools in my writing skills repertoire as well as renewed inspiration.
There is much to be gained from these short learning opportunities. Each time I connect with a writer, I learn something. I aim to take advantage of as many of these local offerings as I can. And I can’t help but continue to dream about the in-depth classes. I’m still very much the student.
Note: Kate St. Vincent Vogl is a fiscal year 2017 recipient of an Artist Initiative grant from the Minnesota State Arts Board. Grant recipients are asked to use their talent to benefit the community. In this case, local writers were the lucky beneficiaries!