Tuesday, February 22, 2011

C.M. Mayo on The Techniques of Fiction

Guest blog post by C.M. Mayo

C.M. Mayo will be teaching the one day only "Techniques of Fiction" workshop this Sunday February 27 from 1 - 4 pm right here at The Writer's Center. In this post she gives us a little preview of what to expect.

For both beginning and experienced fiction writers, ""Techniques of Fiction"" focuses on generating new material with exercises addressing specificity, point of view, synesthesia, imagery, image patterning, plot, rhythm, and the use and misuse of dialogue. The goal is that by the end of the workshop, your writing will be of notably higher quality.

Date: February 27
Time: 1:00-4:00 P.M.
Days: 1 Sunday
Genre(s): Fiction
Level: All Levels
Location: Bethesda

C.M. Mayo is the author of the novel The Last Prince of the Mexican Empire, which was named a Library Journal Best Book of 2009. She is also the author of Miraculous Air: Journey of a Thousand Miles Through Baja California, the Other Mexico, a travel memoir of Mexico's Baja Califorinia peninsula; and Sky over El Nido, which won the Flannery O'Connor Award for Short Fiction. She is editor of a collection of Mexican literature in translation, Mexico: A Traveler's Literary Companion. For more about C.M. Mayo and her work, visit www.cmmayo.com.

Learning to write fiction is a never-ending, ever-deepening process, and yet, because of the way the human brain is wired, the same very few but very powerful techniques have provided, provide, and-- barring bizarre genetic mutations-- will continue to provide the most effective instructions to the reader to form, in John Gardner's words, "a vivid dream" in his mind. That's what a novel is: instructions for a vivid dream. Sometimes I get all Californian and call it a "mandala of consciousness." But whatever you call it, a novel is about providing the experience of someone else's experience: Anna Karenina's, Madame Bovary's, Scarlet O'Hara's, Harry Potter's, [insert name of your main character here].

How do we, whether as readers, or as any human being (say, folding laundry, or maybe digging for worms with a stick) experience anything? Well, last I checked we are not free-floating blobs of consciousness (except maybe when we have out-of-body experiences and/ or when dead); we are in bodies. We experience what we experience through our bodily senses: sight, hearing, taste, smell, touch-- and I would add a "gut" or intuitive sense as well. So any fiction that is going to be readable -- a successfully vivid dream--- needs to address the senses.

The reader responds to specific sensory detail such as the color of the sweater; the sound of the wind in the ficus; the droplet of honey on her tongue; the mustiness of the refrigerator that had been left unplugged in the basement; the cottony bulk of an armload of unfolded towels; the sudden twinge of tightness in his throat just before he picked up the telephone.

There are an infinite number of techniques, but this -- the use of specific sensory detail --- is paramount.


He was sad.
He sank his chin in his hand. With his other, he reached across the table for a Kleenex.

Poor people lived here.
The hallway smelled of boiled cabbage and a bathroom that needed scubbing.

Rich people lived here.
Everything gleamed and behind her, a pair of white gloves pulled the door shut with a gentle click.

She disliked him.
The sight of him made her grit her teeth.

She ate too much at Mrs Ward's party.
She didn't leave one crumb of Mrs Ward's crumbcake.

The neighbors were obnoxious.
Though the Hip-Hop came from three houses down the block, she could feel it in her breakfast table when she put her hand on it.

Here's my favorite quote about detail, from a letter by Anton Chekhov:

In descriptions of nature one should seize upon minutiae, grouping them so that when, having read the passage, you close your eyes, a picture is formed. For example, you will evoke a moonlit night by writing that on the mill dam the glass fragments of a broken bottle flashed like a bright little star, and that the black shadow of a dog or a wolf rolled along like a ball. . .

In this Sunday's workshop we'll cover this technique, as well as several others, among them, imagery, dialogue, point of view, beginnings, and plot. I'll also address how to identify and cut clutter. I hope to see you then.

P.S. For some fun exercises to generate specific sensory detail, check out "Giant Golden Buddha" and 364 More 5 Minute Writing Exercises. See also my recommended reading list on craft.

And: many more resources for writers here.

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