A Conversation with Author James Thayer - Scene Structure
Novelist James Thayer will teach a one-day class for Field's End on Saturday, November 17 at Bainbridge Public Library. "Scene Structure: How to Build a Novel One Plank at a Time" is designed for all writers—beginning or advanced—who want to make the most effective use of their scenes.
Clive Cussler calls James Thayer "a master storyteller," and The New York Times Book Review has said, "Thayer's writing is smooth and clear. Deceptively simple, it wastes no words, and it has a rhythm that only confident stylists achieve." Field's End asked the Seattle author and instructor to tell us more about his class.
Field's End: What is a scene, exactly?
James Thayer: In my years of writing and teaching, this is the best definition of a scene I've come across, from Jack Bickham. "It's a segment of story action, written moment-by-moment, without summary, presented onstage in the story 'now.' It is not something that goes on inside a character's head; it is physical. It could be put on the theater stage and acted out." Each phrase of this definition means something important, and we'll talk about them in our class.
FE: How does a writer make the transition from scene to summary?
JT: A scene is played out in real time in front of the reader:
Joe Smith buttoned his coat and made his way down the sidewalk. He glanced over his shoulder into the wind, and pulled the coat's belt tighter. His foot missed the curb, and he tumbled forward onto the asphalt. He tried to scramble away, but a pickup's fender clipped his shoulder, and Smith's leg fell under the wheel snapping his leg, sounding like a gunshot.
A summary is a condensation, used to get across information quickly:
My mother and father lived on Elm Street, and were happy for many years, until the truck ran over father's leg. He was in the hospital two months, but never fully recovered. I had to get a job at the factory.
Summaries cannot involve the reader in the lives of characters as can scenes. Summaries simply aren't as interesting for the reader. The transition from a scene to a summary is easy; the transition can be nothing more than starting a new paragraph. But that switching from scene to summary is easy doesn't mean that the writer should do it often: the great bulk of the novel should be scenes, not summaries.
FE: How important are the first and last lines of a scene?
JT: A reader can quit reading a novel at any time. The trick is to keep the reader going. The first line of a scene should have a hook that catches up the reader, making him or her want to find out what happens next. The last line of a scene should also have a hook, propelling the reader into the next scene. We'll talk in class about how this is done, and we'll look at some wonderful first and last lines of scenes from famous novels.
FE: How will your one-day class help writers with their scenes?
JT: A lot of writers don't know how important writing in scenes is. We'll discuss the critical difference between scenes and summary, using examples from bestselling novels. We'll also practice the difference with a few exercises I'll hand out. The exercises are short, and are designed to emphasize that moment's topic. We'll talk about the best point of view in a scene, how location and time are used in a scene, rhythmic placement of scenes, and many other scene techniques.
FE: Will there be materials to take home?
JT: At the end of the class, I'll hand out my lecture notes and the exercises. Writers go away from my class with energy and enthusiasm for writing. We'll have fun, and we'll learn a ton.
A Conversation with Instructor Janet Lee Carey - Writing Fantasy
Janet Lee Carey is the award-winning author of eight young adult novels, spanning genres from modern realism to myth-inspired fantasy. Her latest novel, Dragonswood (2012), received starred reviews from Kirkus Reviews and School Library Journal, which called her work "fantasy at its best—original, beautiful, amazing, and deeply moving." Carey has taught college novel-writing classes for ten years, and tours the US and abroad presenting at book festivals, libraries, and writing conferences.
Field's End: Your class is described as an interactive workshop for those already writing fantasy as well as those who wish to start. How could each group benefit from your class?
People already writing fantasy will have the chance to reexamine their current story premise, and take a fresh look at world building, and key character relationships. Those at the idea stage can begin creating from the ground up by tapping into story sources, and using a variety of writing techniques offered in the workshop.
FE: Your class description stresses the importance of rules in writing fantasy. Can you expand a bit on that? How much does the development of World Building and relating Plot to Character depend on rules?
Let's say I'm about to be attacked by a dragon. Suddenly I find a wand in my hand and I make the dragon disappear with a flick of my wrist. The story fizzles out instantly, doesn't it? Use of magic must be carefully balanced. Handled well, magic often creates as many problems as it solves. It must enhance story tension, and never interfere with character growth or plot development.
FE: How do fantasy games work as a tool for teaching writing?
We learn by doing. I can listen to a hundred lectures on how to play the violin, but I won't be any further along until I pick one up and start to play. The writing games will give people a chance to explore and discover how each fantasy topic we cover relates to their own work.
FE: Your fantasy novels have been published by Atheneum and Harcourt, houses known for their excellent fantasy backlists. Have you been encouraged by editors who are especially sympathetic to fantasy?
Believe it or not, it was hard for me to break in. After writing three realistic fiction novels for young readers, I had very little encouragement and a lot of rejection. I knew in my heart I had to write fantasy, so I kept writing books and sending them out. Once I broke out with The Beast of Noor (2006) the door opened for me to sell Dragon's Keep (2007). This year I celebrated the launch of the newest book in the Wilde Island Chronicles, Dragonswood (2012). I'm currently writing the third in the series. After the first fantasy book came out, editors began to give me the kind of interest and encouragement I'd waited for so long. I now have a valued working relationship with what I consider to be the best editors in the business. Every once in a while I have to pinch myself.
FE: Currently, fantasy is an extremely popular genre. What would you tell an aspiring fantasy writer who asks what themes publishers are looking for?
Publishers are asked this at writing conferences, and they always give the same answer, "I'll know it when I see it." This can be frustrating to a new writer, but trends come and go, so the best advice of all is to read everything you can get your hands on, then put it all aside, and write a fantasy that is uniquely yours. Publishers are always looking for "a fresh voice."
FE: Writers are always told, "Write what you know." How does this common advice apply to a genre populated by dragons and heroes with supernatural powers?
I keep a dragon in my back yard. No, seriously, we fantasy writers use archetypal characters like dragons to tell a riveting story. The "write what you know" part has to do with basing the story core on something personal such as our experiences with love, loss, and betrayal. Dragonswood deals with betrayal in family, friendships, and in love. We work to keep the characters' actions and emotions real. That said, even the dragons' actions and emotions should feel real to the reader.
FE: How deeply must an aspiring writer of fantasy drink from "the cauldron of story?" Is knowledge of mythic patterns important to fantasy writers?
It's essential. We will be taking time to cover Story Sources in The Rules of Magic workshop.
FE: Will there be materials to take home?
Writers will take home handouts, character charts, and story bits they've created from writing games. I'm also hoping they return home with renewed vitality and sharpened tools to write terrific fantasy.
Interview conducted by Margaret Chang, Field's End Core Team, August 2012.