What an amazing long weekend. Three jam-packed days in the company of like-minded non-fiction writers. Bliss. But in any group of two dozen or so there’s usually one, isn’t there? One who disrupts, or is overbearing, or who just somehow really gets on your goat?
Not in this group.
Everyone was thoughtful, respectful and open to learning more about their craft and themselves. Every single person had a fascinating story that they wanted to tell, and they were willing to work hard – and to learn hard – in order to tell it as well as possible. The course was very well named…
Our instructor for the whole weekend was Nadine Davidoff: industry insider, skilled editor and a gifted teacher. And an intellectual powerhouse! Her energy and dynamism never flagged through three days of careful listening, guiding and teaching.
We dived straight in on Friday and barely came up for air until Sunday afternoon.
As you read, what do you expect of the author?
What do you expect of yourself as a writer?
What is a writer’s voice? How do you identify it? How do you cultivate it? Could you identify the voice of your favourite writers? How? Who are you on the page?
What are the two qualities that are at the heart of compelling nonfiction? Humanity and warmth.
We discussed ‘urgency’ and how we might infect the reader with our passion, infuse the piece with our own voice. We discussed critiquing a work and, briefly, partnered up to critique someone else’s work in progress. The feedback I received was thoughtfully considered and absolutely invaluable (To summarise: What exactly is this chapter trying to do?)
We discussed ‘style’ and ‘narrative voice’ and having the courage to harness our egos, because as readers we respond to candour and bravery.
- own your opinions
- write them
- believe in your identity
- internalize that what you say is important
“Writing is an act of ego, so you might as well own that truth.” William Zinssner
That was just Day 1! On Day 2 we tackled the art of revision, noting that the anchor of good writing is unity: of pronoun, of tense, of mood and tone. The key message was to reduce reduce reduce – we have to be selective.
Then we talked about prologues, openings and – this part was probably the most important for me – the use of dramatic and summary methods. This was something I’d been doing intuitively, yet without fully understanding how it worked.
In the dramatic method an author uses ‘scenes’ and provides a running account of what is happening as it unfolds. The reader feels like an eyewitness. We believe what we see, and we distrust what we are told, so a scene often has a strong impact. It is the cinematographer’s close-up shot and a scene often uses dialogue to show us human interaction. The opening paragraph of my manuscript is a scene.
The summary method, on the other hand, uses description and explanation. It is typical of journalists’ accounts; a summary of what happened. The reader experiences a story being told rather than watching is unfold. It sounds dull but we read an extract from a Joan Didion piece that proved that even summary can engaging and lively.
Ideally, though, good writing performs a constant dance between information and story. Scenes and story are the bricks, summary is the mortar that holds it together. The bottom line: how can I be sure the reader will keep turning the pages? How can I use dramatic tension? What insights am I providing? Are there cliff hanger moments?
“Structure is not a template. It’s not a cookie cutter. It’s something that arises organically from the material once you have it.” John McPhee.
On the third day we focussed on endings, noting that is was crucial to maintain the narrative tone and not rush into an ending. Readers don’t necessarily want answers but they do want resonance.
We also worked on our elevator pitch: a short, sharp summation of what our manuscript was about. As in a poem, every word counted and had to work hard. In the end this exercise was less about the pitch and more about focussing our minds on exactly what it was we wanted our manuscript to be about.
We spent the final afternoon talking about how best to pitch to publishers. Round 2 of the program, in September, will be a seminar where a range of industry insiders will discuss with us just that: the publishing industry and the do’s and don’ts of publication.
I can’t wait.
- I’ve written before about the HARDCOPY program, here and here.
- Some of the people on the course have fantastic blogs. I’ve added some to my list of Best Blogs but may add more as I go…
- My grateful thanks to Nigel Featherstone and the team at the ACT Writers Centre for making all this magic happen.
The ACT Writers Centre is supported by the ACT Government. HARDCOPY has been assisted by the Australian Government through the Australia Council, its arts funding and advisory body.