A fiction writer’s job is to convince the reader to turn the page, I was told by a New York Times best-seller fiction writer last Saturday.
I spent the day learning how to accomplish this challenge by joining a hundred other people who honed their craft during a writing conference sponsored by Wordcrafters of Eugene, a literary group.
Only I came away convinced that I’ll never be a success, excusing my inability to attract fiction readers because of my life-long experience writing the objective report as a newspaper journalist. Fabricating is a no-no.
A year ago after retiring as a freelance newspaper reporter and teacher, I decided to tackle a formidal task: Become a fiction writer. I confess that I saw book sales and dollar signs as part of that objective. Unfortunately, too many siren songs beckoned on the fiction path, and thus far I apparently have failed to pick the right one to embrace. (I like the word, embrace, because it has a sexual ring, which I’m told is an important element in fiction writing.)
I walked into the conference room early Saturday feeling as though I would discover the key to success as a fiction writer. A short time later eight successful fiction writers took turns assigning 30-minute writing exercises.
Unfortunately, I didn’t have a laptop computer. So, I wrote by hand. I was surprised when I was among the first to complete an assignment. As a result, I spent a lot of sitting, looking and watching other writers at work. I worried, however, certain that I was missing a secret ingredient for success.
I tackled the first assignment by creating an internal contradiction in a protagonist. I had difficult getting started, however, because I realized that I had just written a 50,000-word novel in which I failed to create an internal contradiction in the protagonist. The day went downhill from there.
Next, one of my favorite fiction writers directed me to fantasize my life by writing about a childhood memory that could be turned into magic. The first childhood memory that popped into my mind was milking cows twice daily, and I didn’t see much magic in that. So, I thought of the night I crossed a wooden bridge near our farm home and thought I heard the headless horseman, which jump-started my career as a runner.
Another of my favorite authors talked about syntax and employing other mechanics of the trade. She then assigned us to write a 200-word sentence. I was rather pleased with my mine, which begins: Andy walks into the office wondering whether he has gathered all of the information needed to write the story about why the city councilors had taken 45 minutes debating the pros and cons before deciding to place the issue on the ballot, knowing that residents would quickly choose sides and begin splitting apart a community (etc.)
On reflection, if I had turned in a story with a 200-word sentence while I was a newspaper journalist, the editor probably would have reassigned me to work on the obit desk or dumped my story in the trash can.
Another instructor urged us to draw on humor by using metaphors, similes and malapropisms, a word I had never heard of and may best be defined by referring to what I drink as “decapitated coffee.”
The keynote speaker ended the day by urging us to create a symphonic conclusion, which I am rather good at doing because I like writing news and feature stories that end with what is called a “kicker.” These are concluding paragraphs that may leave a smile on the reader’s face or a tear in the eye.
So, I wrote a kicker that best reflects what I learned during that one-day fiction writing adventure: “If at first you don’t succeed as a fiction writer, turn the page.”