Guys, There Was a Scarf Dragon

1/26/2015 03:30:00 PM Lexie Dunne 0 Comments

This is not from the writing seminar. I just really liked this sink in the bathroom at the Mexican place last night and thought I needed to share.
If in this I have been tedious, it may be some excuse, I had not time to make it shorter. – William Cowper

Mary Robinette Kowal came to St. Louis this weekend to do a free workshop called Short Stories Explained. I love listening to the Writing Excuses podcast (thanks, Lou!), so I signed up and attended with a couple writerly friends. Now, a little backstory: until a couple years ago, I’d never even attempted a short story. I stood in awe of those that could wield brevity like a scalpel, cutting away fat and telling the story in its truest, shortest form. I liked room to sprawl. Thousands and thousands of words to say what I needed to (this is still depressingly true, which is why my first drafts are about 10,000 words longer than my second).

What changed?

I wrote a story nearly half a million words and could have kept going for another half-million easy. It knocked the wind out of me. I remember standing on the finish line I’d been forced to build for myself, looking back over the littered corpses of the words behind me, and thinking never again. The only logical conclusion from there was to try new things: ergo, short stories (and also historical fiction, but let’s not talk about that).

Anyway, now that we’ve got that backstory out of the way, let’s get back to the subject at hand. Mary Robinette Kowal! In St. Louis! Doing a writer workshop on short stories!

It was standing room only, which was cool. If you ever get a chance to see Mary speak, you should jump on it because she’s fantastic. Plus, I think you’re pretty much guaranteed puppets. I love puppets.* She had us do exercises throughout the four hours we were there, describing the room in third person and treating ourselves as a character. Later on, we wrote descriptions of the room where he had to make the character’s job obvious, and then we had to write the character’s reactionary emotions to the room (Anger, Dread, Delight). And then there was some breaking down of Little Red Riding hood (which was really fun because I very recently watched Into the Woods and thought Red was a little snot).

There were two principles discussed that I found interesting. The first was an Orson Scott Card** technique called the MICE Quotient, which is that a story can be broken down into four types. Milieu, Idea, Character, or Event. Milieu stories are about the world your character inhabits, idea stories are about the information your character needs to uncover, character stories are about the internal changes your character needs to make, and event stories are something happening/how it happens/what needs to happen to return to either the old or a new status quo. So you have your adventure world stories, your crime novels, your internal conflicts, and your disaster stories, to narrow it down. I don’t exactly have time to explain it further, so here’s a good podcast about it.

The second principle was four statements she wrote on the board.
No, and
Yes, but
A story, she explained, is essentially what your character needs to achieve. So you break it down further using those four examples. Her example: Character’s in bed, wants a glass of water. Does she get out of bed? Yes, but she steps on a roller skate and it sends her shooting across the room. Does she stop in time? No, and she hits her against the wall. Is she going to fall? Yes, but she grabs the faucet. It snaps off and water goes everywhere. Can she get her glass of water now? Yes. The story, she explained, is over when you answer the question with a definitive yes or no.***

So yeah, those were the two things that were not new to me, but I’d never actually thought about them in that context. I’m primarily self-taught (I minored in screenwriting, but most of my writing knowledge has been gained by writing and reading). There is so much about writing that I have internalized but that I couldn’t officially name or quantify. Ask me to put it into words and I’ll stumble (Mary actually brought this up), but that’s why I like seminars. I like hearing writers explain what ‘that thing with the stuff’ is officially called. There’s always some contextualizing of things I might be doing by instinct or repetition and might not really have to think about.

Unfortunately right now I am way behind deadline and won’t have time to really sit down and absorb the new ways to think about these principles for a while. And knowing my incredibly porous brain in the middle of manuscript mode, there’s a strong chance I’m going to forget about it completely until I’m rooting through my computer in a post-editing haze and discover a file called MRK Notes.doc.

So did I learn a lot? I think I did, and I would recommend attending anything put on by Mary if you can. She’s a great instructor and she’s hilarious. Also, like I said earlier, you walk away with random puppetry knowledge, and you can’t beat that with a stick.

Well, you could. But only if you’re Punch or Judy.

Stay sexy!

* I do not like ventriloquist dummies or dolls, however, and will retaliate to the addition of these to my life in ways that I see fit. Which is usually violence.

** Apparently she feels similarly about the man as I do.



Please keep it PG. My mom reads this blog.