Word on the Lake is an annual writer’s festival held in Salmon Arm, British Columbia. This past weekend was their 11th celebration with a spectacular line up of Canadian authors, including Carmen Aguirre, Gail Anderson-Dargatz (@AndersonDargatz), Ann Eriksson (@Ann_Eriksson), David Essig, Gary Geddes (@gedworks), C.C. Humphreys (@HumphreysCC), Shelagh Jamieson, Ursula Maxwell-Lewis (@YouTravel), Carolyn Swayze, and Howard White (@HowardWhite). Oh, and they had one American author – someone you may have heard of (or not) – Diana Gabaldon (@Writer_DG). You can read a summary of each author’s bio here: Author’s Bios.
Needless to say, with a line up like that – I had a fabulous time. I wish I could have attended every workshop being offered, but alas, they overlapped. So, I squeezed in what I could between Ms. Gabaldon’s entertaining and thoroughly informative workshops: 1) Character: How do you make the people in your story as real as you are? 2) How to make them turn the page, and 3) How to (and How Not to) Write Sex Scenes.
Now, I know you all want to hear about the sex workshop, but before I get to that, let me back up a bit. I want to bestow recognition on the wonderful ladies of the Shuswap Association of Writers, the organizers of the Word on the Lake festival. In their own words, here is a brief description of their organization:
“Based in Salmon Arm, British Columbia, Canada, on the shores of beautiful Shuswap Lake, the Shuswap Association of Writers (SAOW) was founded in 2004 as a vehicle for organizing the Word on the Lake (formerly the Shuswap Lake International Writers Festival). Since then, our role has broadened, and we offer other events throughout the year to inspire and support writers and readers in the BC interior.”
Kay Johnston is the 2014 President of the Shuswap Association. From the minute I registered online to my last seconds before heading back to the airport on my final day, Ms. Johnston’s gracious spirit welcomed me with open arms. Even though I wasn’t a presenter, she generously arranged transportation for me to & from the airport which was 1.5 hours away. I was informed on the day of registration that I was the very first person from California to attend their intimate festival which made me a very minor celebrity. Several members of the board introduced themselves to me and personally thanked me for attending. Almost all of them asked me to come back next year with 20 of my closest, writing friends.
Normally, between 40 and 45 people attend the event, but 80 writers and readers flocked to the shores of the beautiful Shuswap Lake this year due to the magnificent line up. Advertising seemed to be a bit on the down low with regard to the biggest name authors, or I’m sure more people would have registered.
The first night, we were introduced to the presenters in a coffee house theater. I never did find out why it was called a coffee house, but it was definitely a theater. Non-festival goers were admitted to the event as well, which helped fill the small space. Each of the authors read a riveting excerpt from their most recent publication, told a tale of their past exploits, or recited a few of their favorite poems. David Essig, being one of Canada’s finest folk music entertainers in addition to being a new author, delighted the crowd with a Bluegrass song about his mother.
SPOILER ALERT: I make minor mention of a MOBY excerpt in this next paragraph, so be forewarned.
Yes, Ms. Gabaldon read an excerpt from MOBY. Have you heard the one about drunk Willie and the prostitute? I can’t say if this particular excerpt has been ‘leaked’ through her DailyLines, but reading and listening to Ms. Gabaldon perform it are two verra different things altogether.
Saturday morning the festival officially began with a warm welcome from the mayor of Salmon Arm, Nancy Cooper, and a blessing from Bonnie Thomas, tribal member of the First Nations. The keynote speaker for the event – drumroll, please – was Diana Gabaldon. I spent most of my time listening and not enough time taking pictures, but here is one lovely snapshot of our favorite bright-eyed and bushy-tailed author taken upon arrival to the banquet room before the festivities began. More photographs can be found on Ursula Maxwell-Lewis’s twitter page: @YouTravel.
Once introduced, Ms. Gabaldon went directly into professor mode, walking in front of the room to keep our eyes focused on her movements as a means to help us retain her ‘lecture’ – an old teaching trick, she insisted, that worked wonders on the football players brave enough to take one of her classes.
She spoke about her early established writing process, conserving most of her material for the two 75-minute workshops she was scheduled to lead later in the morning and afternoon. Basically, she revealed when she started writing Outlander, she would work in 15-minute blocks of time, switching from one task to another – software review to novel to academic article – writing in between two full-time jobs, taking care of three children under the age of six, and a husband who didn’t know she was writing a novel.
Eventually, everything was written to completion, and it’s a process that continues to work for her to this day – minus the child-rearing and secret-keeping from her husband. Now, he is the lucky one who reads pieces of her manuscript as they are written. Add to her list of daily to-do’s, the 5 to 15 minutes she somehow manages to fit in on twitter, Facebook & Compuserve, and you’ve got a rough picture of her regular workday.
As Ms. Gabaldon has explained in the past, there’s a lot more required than just writing in the publication of a novel. She goes into a bit more detail on her website here: Thar She Blows . . . . ! with an even more detailed explanation posted on April 18th on her Facebook page . She also wrote about the “finishing process” for The Scottish Prisoner in a blog posting entitled: In Case You Thought All A Writer Does is Write . . .
After the opening ceremony, everyone went their separate ways. Several of the authors were scheduled to meet with attending writers in what are called Blue Pencil Café sessions. For those of you not familiar with the term, it’s a one-on-one meeting with an established author who reviews a writing sample of your work and provides constructive feedback. Typically, the sample is restricted to a maximum of four pages, but the author may review more of your writing upon request and ask questions about your entire work, whether novel, book of poems or short stories.
I attended a workshop with David Essig entitled: Parallel Landscapes: Writing Songs, Writing a Novel. The other choices were Shelagh Jamieson’s Finding, Hiring and Working with a Freelance Editor; Ann Eriksson’s EcoFiction: Writing Novels for Social & Ecological Awareness; and Carmen Aguirre’s Master Class: Something Fierce: Memoir and Monologue.
Each workshop sounded interesting, but I was curious about the parallel story structure of songwriting and fictional writing. I cannot read music, nor do I play an instrument, but Mr. Essig’s teachings were relevant to all writers. Here he is pictured from his website: davidessig.com
In a nut shell, Mr. Essig spoke about finding the rhythm of a story – not unlike in a song. And as in a song, he stressed defining the ‘fulcrum’ of the story. For him, it’s the tipping point where he establishes the readers’ trust, so he is then free to surprise them and take them wherever he wants.
When playing his music, he likes to observe the audience reactions – what he calls “workshopping his work.” He wants to make sure the listeners are “getting it.” Do they understand the story? Did they hear the fulcrum point? Granted, it’s more practical watching an audience listen to music than read a book, but I employed this method in another workshop – more on that later.
Mr. Essig also spoke about thinking of one’s storytelling in terms of cinematography – balancing scenes with close up, medium, and wide shots to give the reader a sense of intimacy, companionship and environment. It’s not an uncommon technique, but it’s a great writing tip of which to be reminded.
For his closing, Mr. Essig sang a song about his father – a man who was not happy about his son walking away from a successful career in economics to become a singer/songwriter. After attending his son’s first concert, he came backstage and asked, “Do you have anything that’s not so sad?” I believe it was his dad’s way of admitting, “You done good, kid.”
And now on to the main event: Characterization by Diana Gabaldon. Let’s see if I can relay this without screwing up her eloquence. Due respect, the other workshops being offered during this time slot were C.C. Humphrey’s The Treatment: How to write a pitch that will sell your book and the continuation of Carmen Aguirre’s Master Class: Something Fierce: Memoir and Monologue.
Ms. Gabaldon started out by asking the basic questions: Who are your characters? What are their backgrounds? What do they want? How you answer these questions in your writing will determine your character’s three-dimensionality. The amount of description you add to those questions and to the mannerisms and appearance of your characters is what yields the underpainting of your story – one of the richest parts of every Outlander novel.
Motivation is the driving force of your story, as well as a major characteristic. Each character may be driven by a string of trivial motivations as long as they lead to a significant story point. Further, given the power of motivation, it may be revealed slowly throughout the story to proper effect.
Ms. Gabaldon next broke down characterization into four simple must-do’s:
A) Drawing characters from real-life or from fiction.
B) Analyzing a character’s function in the story.
C) Using correct dialect/cadence.
D) Animating a flat character.
A) is fairly straightforward and probably the first action every writer takes – basing the bones of a character on oneself, a friend, a family member, etc. Drawing attributes from a fictional character you admire or despise is also useful, but this is just the beginning.
B) Analyzing a character’s function is when the importance of conflict comes into play. What kind of or how much conflict is this character going to inflict on the story and the other characters?
We all – or most of us – know the story of Jamie Fraser’s birth. Ms. Gabaldon, watching an old episode of Dr. Who, was struck by a young Highland character in the show named Jamie McCrimmon played by Frazer Hines. She couldn’t help but notice how virile and attractive a man was in a kilt. Searching through the history of Scotland, she came across the Jacobite Rising, and Jamie’s story began.
Read the full story yourself in Ms. Gabaldon’s own words on her blog: 26-years-ago-today . . . More stories associated with Jamie’s creation can be found here: The “Doctor Who” Connection and here: A Tale of Two Jamies.
On the third day of writing, Claire was born. Now, Claire had a voice of her own, and it wasn’t just English – but modern. Having also a mind of her own, she refused to speak in 18th century language. Thus, with the famous words, which did not actually make it into the published novel, “Claire Elizabeth Beauchamp. And who the hell are you?‘ was a conflict-inducing character created.
Let’s go back to analyzing a character’s essential function. There are basically two types of characters in a story – required characters and those that pop up like mushrooms. Sometimes a mushroom character’s sprouting is accidental and other times they come about to fill a specific purpose.
Two examples of accidental mushroom characters given were Lord John Grey and Fergus. Both of them first appeared as very young men in Dragonfly in Amber and, luckily, did not go away.
Two examples of specific purpose characters given were Mother Hildegarde and Mr. Willoughby. While in Paris, Claire needed a place to work. Enter Mother Hildegarde. It was her ability to play and write music that led to her assisting Claire in breaking the key in the coded letters Jamie was hijacking. Mr. Willoughby came about because of the need for an acupuncturist to keep Jamie from being seasick throughout all of Voyager.
Of all the characters mentioned so far, some of them became known as “onions” – characters with revealed multiple layers. The two most obvious are Claire and Jamie, but Mr. Willoughby is another with his layers revealed slowly throughout Voyager – the largest petals peeling back onboard the Artemis during the telling of his reasons for leaving China.
I’ll take the opportunity here to add more of Covadonga Vega’s (@CovaBroch) beautiful artwork with her vision of Mr. Willoughby.
And now, back to class. As an interesting note, Ms. Gabaldon further spoke about Claire and Jamie’s evolution across the series, pointing out how in each novel they became a different character with new layers to be revealed in each story. And as she’s talked about in the past – all of the characters being “her” – she shared that she would not have been able to write A Breath of Snow and Ashes and An Echo in the Bone at an earlier age. She needed to ‘live’ Claire and Jamie’s lives through her own before writing theirs.
Of the other type of characters – the required kind, there are those referred to as “hard nuts.” Examples of hard nut characters are historical figures such as Charles Stuart and King Louis XV. For them, characterizations can be derived from personal letters and memoirs. Otherwise, you are stuck with them as-is.
Brianna was also referred to as a hard nut – a definite and necessary character in the story. Her coming of age is what dictated Voyager’s structure, and her characterization required a lot of work, having aspects of her personality derived from each parent.
Whether building a required character, mushroom, or onion, you want to find the crystallization points of each person – those specific expressions or mannerisms that help to distinguish them. We all remember one of the most famous from the Outlander series: “Jesus H. Roosevelt Christ!” I’m sure there are several others that come to mind.
C) Using the correct dialect and/or cadence for each character is the next must-do. Obviously, for specific geographical regions, you want to make sure you use the correct ones. Identify the regional ‘particle words’ such as “eh” or “aye.”
Identify how you want or need your character(s) to speak. Is he or she a speechmaker? Are they pithy? It’s the small details that are more important than the straight description. Let the physical details of the character demonstrate a specific attitude.
Use other characters’ perceptions to relay a description. Euphemisms are a welcome way to describe a character, either through narrative or cognitive means. Incidental mannerisms also add color such as biting nails, smoking, thighs rubbing together while walking.
Together, all these details bring your character(s) to life and make them individual.
D) Animating a flat character. These are the corpses in your story. Sometimes the best way to deal with them is to live with them for a while and let them come to life on their own. Help them along by giving them idiosyncratic or colorful histories or perhaps a ‘strange’ or unusual cultural aspect or two. By giving them interesting backgrounds, their characters will start to emerge from the pages.
After the networking lunch break, classes resumed. I attended Ms. Gabaldon’s next workshop: How to make them turn the page. The other selections were Howard White’s Publishing in the Digital Age and Ursula Maxwell-Lewis’s Write About Travel: Are We There Yet?
I’ll keep it simple because the Outlander novels speak for themselves, which is why Ms. Gabaldon read a number of selected excerpts to exemplify her points. By the by, here is one more picture I managed to remember to take:
The important use of cinematography to lay out a scene was again discussed. You want to change the reader’s focus from a close up on one character and his or her small movements, or ‘pull back’ to a medium shot to capture the intimacy or companionship of two more characters in a scene. And finally, you want to add wider shots to establish where the scene is taking place, what is going on around the main center of attraction.
As vital as details are to characterization, it’s the small observations which make the scene come alive. Body language is a powerful tool to capture a reader’s attention. Something as subtle as turning a head or touching a knee will draw the reader into the scene. You do not want to overdo movements such that they distract or detract from the dialogue or emotional ‘performance.’
May I ask you a question? With that simple query, I captured your attention, and that is the key to keeping a reader riveted. As a writer, you want to ask and provide answers to maintain your reader’s interest.
SPOILER ALERT: I make major mention of a MOBY excerpt in the next two paragraphs, so be forewarned.
Of course, we’re talking about the small questions, such as – What will her reaction be when he tells her about his wife who is still alive? What will she think of his babies dying? Will she forgive him his past life? Will she marry him?
If any of these questions sound familiar, it’s because they are questions asked and answered (for the most part) during the MOBY excerpt between Young Ian and Rachel when he tells her about his still-living Mohawk wife, Emily. All the questions posed, except the marriage one, are slowly and masterfully answered throughout the scene. Whether or not they will or can marry is the bigger question which will carry the reader through the book – at least as far as Young Ian and Rachel’s relationship is concerned.
You’ve all heard the saying ‘less is more.’ That is the lesson to take away from this workshop. Subtlety is your friend. Keep the reader wanting more by giving them less – but not too little. Find just the right balance, and you’ll have them under your spell.
Following the workshop, Ms. Gabaldon joined a panel of writers to discuss Carving Your Writing Cave Out of the Chaos. The other authors (from left to right in the photograph below) included Ursula Maxwell-Lewis, David Essig, Deanna Kawatski (a local Salmon Arm author who acted as moderator), Ann Eriksson, Diana Gabaldon, and C.C. Humphreys.
Due to the title of the discussion, the first question raised was – where did each of the writers do their writing? A number of panel members live on islands, which gives you a good idea of their means of escape from the regular grind. All talked about ‘going into their caves’ when writing, making it difficult for family members to approach – but still did not prevent them from trying. Unless they are on a deserted island, interruptions are a hazard of the job.
Another question asked of the panel was, what sacrifices have they made for their craft? One of the most popular answers was sleep – no surprise there. Keeping expectations low was another answer such that whatever successes the author achieved were greatly appreciated.
Daily rituals performed by the authors was a curiosity of one of the audience members. Most of them talked about the set hours during which they write. Ms. Gabaldon revealed the ritual she performs before beginning work, reciting these words to herself, “Let me see what I need to see. Let me do what I need to do.” Seems to work pretty well for her.
Inspiration is almost always a favorite topic among writers. Like for the rest of us, inspiration can come from anywhere at any time, say . . . an old television show, a picture postcard, an obscure reference in a book. Whenever, wherever. Grab it and go.
The audience also wanted to know who the authors’ biggest supporters were. No surprise, they each answered their spouse and/or other family members. Writing groups got a nod of appreciation as well.
SEX. Got your attention again, didn’t I? No, the panel did not discuss sex, but it’s time to move on. Keep in mind, you never want to rush through a sex scene – unless it’s poorly written, of course – but rushing to it is another matter. So, without further adieu . . .
Oops. Less is more. First, let me wrap up the first full day of the festival. After 8-hours of workshops, Blue Pencil Café sessions, and the panel discussion, the authors were kind enough to sign autographs from 4:30 to 6:15 before the awards banquet – an inaugural event.
At the banquet, the 1st and 2nd place winners of the Askews’ Foods’ Word on the Lake Writing Competition were awarded. All winners, as well as the Honorable Mentions, were published in the Word on the Lake anthology collection. The contest had four categories:
- Fiction: 1200 – 1500 words maximum
- Non Fiction: 1200 – 1500 words maximum
- Poetry: Up to three pages with one poem per page
- Young Adult: 1200 – 1500 words maximum
The evening’s entertainment included an original and hilarious a cappella song, Word on the Lake, – to which I wish I had the lyrics – performed by the ladies of SAOW. Outlander and Diana Gabaldon were made mention. Said author also made closing comments and was presented with an appreciation gift. Then we were treated to more Bluegrass music by David Essig, which was fantastic, and a performance by C.C. Humphreys, which included beer, a sword and Shakespeare – not usually the safest combination, but he made it work.
The next morning the venue was changed from the Prestige Inn Harbourfront Resort to Okanagan College. The keynote address was made by Ann Eriksson: Endangered Places, Endangered Words. Unfortunately, I was unable to hear most of it because I had a scheduled Blue Pencil Café session with none other than – Diana Gabaldon. What did we discuss? What did she say about my writing? What did I learn? Sorry, but this is where I leave you wanting more. And what better way to distract you than with SEX?
Sex is a tough topic to beat (no pun intended). Up against Ms. Gabaldon’s workshop How to (and How Not to) Write Sex Scenes was Gail Anderson-Dargatz’s The novel can be an intimidating form and Carolyn Swayze’s The Path to Publication: An Agent’s View in a Time of Rapid Change. Once again, both workshops were of interest to me, but how could I pass up on sex?
First of all, I’m going to admit the only thing I wrote down in my notebook was the title of the workshop. Once it began, I found myself too engaged to take my eyes away from Ms. Gabaldon and the class. This is where I “worked the workshop” by watching the reaction of the women as Ms. Gabaldon read her steamy excerpts. She learned long ago the best way to teach is through example.
SPOILER ALERT: I make mention of scenes from Voyager and The Scottish Prisoner, so be forewarned – if you’ve never read either book. Sorry. Nothing from MOBY.
For her first reading, Ms. Gabaldon selected a verra popular scene between Jamie and Claire which takes place aboard the Artemis. It has been a long time since they’ve seen each other. Jamie, naked, is performing a bit of ablution while describing to Claire, in great detail, what he intends to do to her once they are alone. The scene is rife with bantering dialogue – one of the most crucial elements to a successful sex scene. The fact they aren’t having actual sex, but merely talking about it, is what makes the scene so scintillating. We react the way Claire reacts.
During the reading, I had the additional entertainment of watching the women in the audience as they listened to Ms. Gabaldon. There were a handful of ‘virgins’ listening with wide-eyed, rapt attention. [It’s been a few days since the workshop. I’m sure they are all on the path to losing their virginity by now.] What I gleaned from my observations was – they got it. They were drawn in by the cinematography, subtle movements, and dialogue. They giggled at the appropriate times and even squirmed in their chairs during specific moments. All in all, a successful lesson.
For her second reading, Ms. Gabaldon selected a #sodomylicious scene from The Scottish Prisoner. Again, the characters are not actually having sex but are talking and thinking about it with anticipation. The scene takes place in the languid aftermath of Lord John Grey taking Stephan von Namtzen from behind. They are discussing what von Nantzen wants to do to Grey in return. Told from Grey’s point of view entirely, he expresses both excitement and trepidation due to the size of the other man.
First of all, what is special about both these scenes is the connection between the characters. A well-written sex scene is uniquely for two specific people and cannot be used in substitution with other characters. Secondly, sex scenes are not about sex. They are about revealing a new layer of one or both characters during their most vulnerable moment.
In The Scottish Prisoner, Stephan von Namtzen is essentially coming out of the closet. Lord John Grey, while comfortable with his sexuality, is quite literally willing to put himself in a vulnerable position for von Namtzen’s pleasure – and his own, even though it’s not his position of choice.
In Voyager, the revelations are not so penetrating. <g> Claire learns she makes squeaking noises during sex, according to Jamie. I can’t really think of a reveal for Jamie – other than he seems to enjoy talking about sex almost as much as he likes having it with Claire – so if anyone has a good one, I’m all ears. I welcome your insights and comments.
Dialogue. Emotion. Senses. Physical details. Metaphors. In the simplest of terms, those are the key ingredients for writing a successful sex scene. I’m not going to repeat or try to teach what Ms. Gabaldon so perfectly writes about herself in her blog post: HOW TO WRITE A SEX SCENE. The post includes wonderful excerpts from Outlander and A Breath of Snow and Ashes.
For additional reading, she is planning to publish an e-book aptly entitled, HOW TO (AND HOW _NOT_ TO) WRITE SEX-SCENES. She mentions the status of that steamy project in her WHAT NEXT blog post.
As the festival came to end, so does this posting (finally). I have a few thank you’s to make before I go. The first one is to Shawn Bird for inviting Diana Gabaldon to the Word on the Lake festival. I’d also like to thank her for inviting me. I had a wonderful time and wish it could have been longer. Thanks also to Ms. Bird and Eneke Hughes for shuttling me to and from the airport.
The second THANK YOU goes to my brother, Sam. Without him, I wouldn’t have been able to attend. He found out about the festival through our mother and insisted on paying for the entire trip. Thank you, Sam. Rest assured, it was worth every penny!