workshop ’09 day 1: who?

Paperback Writer has got this workshop thing started with a huge bang. Her first post is about high concept, and it’s probably the clearest and most useful discussion of that difficult-to-define topic I’ve ever run into. Really. Also,  it’s chock full of linky goodness. I really can’t recommend it highly enough.

Lynn is one of the most generous people you’ll ever run into, and she’s giving away some incredible stuff in the course of her workshop including (but not limited to) a Sony Reader and a Neo (both things my geekish little heart dreams about).

I’m afraid I can’t match her largesse, but I will draw a name from all the comments to all the posts made during the course of the workshop. That person will get $100 Amazon gift certificate.

My workshop is far less detailed, but I hope it will be of use and interest.

People who live by rules, particularly people who consider themselves literary writers, like to say that character is everything. All writing should start with character and only the characters decide where the story is going.

As with any dictatorial rule, this doesn’t hold up very well if you look at it more closely. Sometimes you can’t start with character.

If you decide to write a novel about [[Ethel Rosenberg]]’s trial,  you first have to decide who’s going to tell the story: Ethel herself? Then you’ve got some work to do, learning about her life and trying to get into her head. A fictional lawyer? The fictional lawyer’s secretary? A private eye who is determined to see Ethel found guilty and executed, or one who is determined to get her off? A grandchild who never met her? (An aside: the best use of Ethel as a character in fiction goes to [[Angels in America]], (first a stage play, then a miniseries) in which she appears as a ghost who visits one of her prosecuting lawyers, the infamous Roy Cohn.)

The thing is, you already know how the trial turns out and about Ethel’s fate.  Unless you’re writing [[alternate history]], you have a set of facts that provide some structure for your story. What you don’t have is a primary conflict (see Lynn’s post). You’d have to start right there.

Many times people start with an event that provides the structure (a particular war, a famous accident or scandal, etc) and build a character who fits into that setting.

The other approach  — the one advocated by the litcriterati — is to build the character first. That means that you put the person together in your head and/or on paper, and as you are doing this, you come up with a concept and a conflict, and following from that, other characters. Here I’m using a very loose definition of ‘character.’  A  central character in your story might turn out to be a city, a river, a storm, or some other challenge small or large.

Building character from scratch is  a useful exercise, simply because it gets your mind working in a productive way. I have done this for myself on occasion and not found a use for the character. And here’s the thing: once created, if the character is strong enough, she’s not going anywhere, even if you don’t use her. I have a couple characters hanging around waiting for their names to be called, people who have been in my head for twenty years or more.

So that’s where we’ll start, but with a bit of a twist.

Write a couple paragraphs (no more than the approximate equilvalent of one double spaced page) about one of the adults in the photo below (your choice). Instead of creating a character isolated from her story, start with an event that provides structure, and here it is: last year’s Republican convention in Minneapolis.

Of course you have to provide  basic information and some insight into what makes this person tick. Interests, goals, secret desires, worse fears, all that good stuff. But you also have to decide how she relates to the convention. Is she a Minneapolis single mom with no interest in politics who is furious that her whole routine has been disrupted by closed streets and high traffic? In that case, what does the conventions symbolize for her? Is she a hard-left progressive lawyer who is there only because her firm insisted on sending her to be available to a big client, such as Dow Chemical? Maybe she owns a hotdog concession that is swamped during the convention. Maybe she stands outside the convention every day with a sign that says: YOU KILLED MY SON or FREE TIBET or SARAH WE LOVE YOU.

So there’s your start: an adult female, the Republican Convention in 2008.

If you don’t want to do the writing, that’s fine. You can just leave a comment to enter into the drawing. You may only have the ghost of an idea about one of these characters, and that’s fine too — tell us what comes to mind.  You can also comment on other people’s character conceptions, as long as your comment is constructive in its criticism.

Preschool Teachers
Creative Commons License photo credit: tiffanywashko

The other participants in the workshop extravaganza (copied from Lynn directly):

Other LB&LI Workshop Links — new links are being added every day, so keep checking the list for new workshops (due to different time zones, some of these will go live later in the day):
From Pantser To Plotter: How I Joined The Dark Side by Kait Nolan — Monday’s topic: Why The Pantser Fears Plotting

About eBooks by Midnight Spencer –- A basic understanding of what eBooks are and what types of readers and formats.

Epubs-wondering where to start? by Shiloh Walker — Info for those curious about epubs and where to start.

Killer Campaigns: Business Cards by Maria Zannini — Design your own business cards

23 Replies to “workshop ’09 day 1: who?”

  1. I have a couple characters hanging around waiting for their names to be called, people who have been in my head for twenty years or more.

    This is very reminiscent of what the character Vida Winter, a famous author, says to her biographer Margaret Lea in a scene from Diane Setterfield’s The Thirteenth Tale (p. 113):

    My study throngs with characters waiting to be written. Imaginary people, anxious for a life, who tug at my sleeve crying ‘Me next! Go on! My turn!

  2. I will try and let something percolate in my brain. The Republican Convention part throws me so I’m going to have to have a good think.

  3. It has been ages since I’ve written anything but this exercise was just the incentive I needed. Thank you for the inspiration.

  4. I wish I had the time to participate! This is so fun, and I had all kinds of ideas popping off like fire crackers, if I could only explain to my 19 mo old Mommy needs some time to write…at least I can enjoy everyone else’s take on the promt, which is fun too.

  5. Here’s my take …

    Angie and Josh, her fiance, are visiting his sister, Emma, and her family, who live in Minneapolis.  This is the first time she meets anyone in Josh’s family.   She’s not quite nervous, but wants to set a  good first impression.  (Angie’s own sister failed to do so, and still rues the day she met her in-laws wearing the combat boots, ripped jean shorts and a Rolling Stones t-shirt.)
    Angie met Josh, 8 months ago, at a New Year’s party at one of her colleague’s house.   She wouldn’t have believed it possible, but she felt the love-at-first-glance when she was introduced to him.  And she was ecstatic to learn, he was attracted to her as well.   While their occupations, he’s an engineering manager at a computer chip manufacturing company and she’s an art history professor, specializing in Native American woven art, are widely divergent, it seems to Angie that they were made for each other – yin and yang. So when Josh asked her to marry him four months ago, it just felt right, and she accepted immediately. But she anticipates awkward conversations regarding their fast-tracked relationship with Emma, whom Josh has described as an over-protective, conservative, sister.
    What she didn’t anticipate was Emma’s announcement, just 5 minutes after they arrive at her house that she will be volunteering every day at the Republican Convention and expects them to go with her. So Angie, to keep some peace, agreed to shadow Emma for one day as she stacks papers, hands out pamphlets, and whatever else she has to do. She has clenched her jaw and “smiled” so many times as she listened to Emma go on about how wonderful Sarah and John will be in the White House that her face hurts.

  6. Is this due today? Well, here goes anyway. And apparently I’m in a mean-spirited, snarky, heavy-handed mood! And, yes, the wrong pronoun form is intentional.

    My sis had been pestering me to bring Mimi for a visit. Mimi had never seen Minneapolis, and I thought it would be educational for her to see a little of the Republican convention. Marsha insisted that we wouldn’t be able to get closer than the sidewalk where all the bigwigs were inside. I still wanted Mimi to have the memory that she could recall as a grownup. And my Mimi is so smart; I give her every chance to expand her mind. Besides Marsha never gets her facts straight, and I thought they would let us in so Mimi could experience the convention.

    So I dressed Mimi in her cute little Shirley Temple dress and patent leather shoes, and curled her hair. Marsha didn’t even say how cute Mimi was, but she doesn’t have any kids. Or a husband. She’s a little jealous of Buddy and I. And off we three drove to the convention area.

    And nothing went right. We needed a pass even to park in one of the parking lots near the convention. So we had to walk a mile. My poor Mimi got blisters on one heel, and I had to carry her. They wouldn’t let us walk on the sidewalk outside that convention hall, even though I said we were Republicans. Now I’m sure not going to vote for the Republicans in November. Then we had to walk all the way back to the car. I got Mimi an orange crush and some cotton candy, she was so hungry. How was I to know she’d get the cotton candy on her dress and then it get rubbed onto Marsha’s car seat?

  7. Not being American, the Republican convention bit threw me off, but I’ll give it a shot:

    Sandra has been protesting at every Republican convention since she was a fresh-faced college student and newly registered voter back in 1996. Originally, she’d only gone to impress her professor of political science, a rumpled veteran of the sixties she’d had an enormous crush on even though he’d been old enough to be her father.

    She’d gone again in 2000, because she’d enjoyed the feeling of community and power protesting gave her. Besides, that time it had been important. Bush Junior had seemed like more of a threat than that old fuddy-duddy Bob Dole, though no one could have predicated how much of a menace he’d turn out to be. One of her fellow protesters had been Matt, an endearingly shy aspiring lawyer from Harvard Law School. They’d spent a few memorable days camping outside the convention building and then went their separate ways. He joined a prestigious Manhattan law firm after graduation and Sandra never saw him again. Though he’d left her something to remember him by. Caitlin, conceived at the 2000 Republican Convention.

    2004: Carrying placards and chanting with a three-year-old in tow. And the niggling fear that the policemen in riot gear would attack, that there would be water cannons and tear gas and maybe even bullets. That professor she’d admired so much in college, he’d been at Kent State with bullets whizzing over his head. And in the 1960s the country hadn’t sunk into government promoted paranoia, seeing a Taliban behind every bush. Besides, Sandra couldn’t afford to take risks anymore, she had a child to take care of. Caitlin had enjoyed herself, though. She snagged balloons from Republican campaigners – oblivious to the irony – and cheerfully sang along with “Stop the War” and “No Blood for Oil” as if they were nursery rhymes, though Sandra had gotten in trouble when Caitlin had attempted to teach the new songs she’d learned to the other kids in kindergarten.

    And now, twelve years after her first Republican convention, Sandra is carrying a placard yet again. Caitlin still sings along with the chants in her little angel voice and by now she understands the basics of what’s going on. She knows that President Bush is a bad man, because he started the war she sees on TV every night, and that Mr Obama will bring change and that they must help him to do that. Caitlin is still enthusiastic, but Sandra is feeling burned out. Oh, she still gets angry when her stalwart Republican mother tells her how much she admires Sarah Palin for being such a good mom – with a sideways glance at Sandra, heavy with disapproval for Sandra’s choices in life, for having and raising her daughter on her own. And seeing Palin parading her poor kids in front of the camera just makes her sick. But then she looks at Caitlin and wonders whether she is really a better mom than Sarah Palin.

    She smiles at her little daughter and says, “Come on, sweetheart, why don’t we go and find out what else there is to see in Minneapolis?”

  8. I will participate at some point this week, but I didn’t have the time or energy, recovering from the flu. But I’ll be thinking about something. Good idea!

  9. Julia wasn’t exactly sure why she was in Minneapolis. Her boss at the Baltimore Sun had sent her as part of the paper’s Republican National Convention coverage. But Julia was a features writer. She stayed away from politics like she stayed away from black licorice–both left a bitter taste in her mouth–and she was still undecided about who to vote for in the upcoming elections. Her assignment: “light and right”, a public interest piece on something, in her boss’s words, “homey” about the candidates. Julia suspected her boss, Jackson, harbored the alterior motive of forcing Julia to take a stand politically. Jackson also tried desperately to force Julia to take a stand on her relationship with Jackson. At 26, and having recently learned that with great love can come great pain, Julia was content to allow Jackson to buy her dinner, enjoy his company, and plant a safe smooch on his cheek at the end of the night. Julia started to realize that the Republican National Convention might be Jackson’s quiet way of demonstrating that those who sit on fences are likely to fall off, or at best, to get splinters in their bottoms and be sent to Minneapolis.

    But Julia didn’t mind terribly much, she was prepared to find something to write about, and would attempt very hard to not think about the fact that she didn’t get an ivy league master’s degree in journalism to write “homey.” Julia had that enviable way of making the best of most situations and tended to just ignore, or maybe repress, the unpleasant parts. Her college roommate, Bess, lived in the suburbs of Minneapolis, and this was the perfect excuse for that visit about which Bess had been nagging for the past four years. Bess had moved back home to marry her high school sweetheart. Julia felt she new Larry, Bess’s husband, initmately. Though she had only met him at the wedding, she had lived the drama of Bess and Larry’s relationship vicariously through the cross country phone calls she could not help but listen to in the NYU dorm room she and Bess shared. Why Bess went east for college to move back to Minneapolis, marry her high school boyfriend, and become a stay-at-home-mom was one of those mysteries that Julia just couldn’t figure out. Though she had to admit, it sure sounded “homey.”

  10. I have to say, I’m impressed. Some of you aren’t so comfortable with the particulars I gave you, but you all came up with something interesting. Now let’s see what happens tomorrow.

  11. Ok, here I am! Late, flustered, and completely out of my comfort zone…(but that’s a good thing, right?) What does a Scottish immigrant in Australia know about the republican convention in America? Just what she’s been googling – that’s what! Ok…here goes…

    Amelia was ready to scream…you wouldn’t know it of course, she was an accomplished actress and well used to being the ever-smiling politician’s wife: – Great cook, wonderful hostess, and decorative enough still on the “interesting’ side of forty to make the required impression when out and about with her “important’ husband.
    But the day was hot, the people were milling around and her face was so sore form smiling she desperately wanted to scowl at someone, just for the relief it would give her facial muscles.
    Bad enough that her husband was one of “the good old boys” in the party heirarchy who revelled in his status and all the public appearances that went with it, but he expected his wife to not only attend them with him but to enjoy it as well.
    When the kids were younger it had been easier to stay at home more, but now she had no excuse. Her life was at his disposal; there was no time for any hobbies, even less for her friends. (they did not fit his idea of “suitable,” and he had even tried to ban them from their home. Not that that was really necessary – they rarely ever visited when he was around.)
    Finding herself with a few stolen moments between photo opportunities and gushing sychopants, Amelia sagged into a chair in a darkened corner, and for the thousandth time wondered just how she had come to this. In college she had been one of the militant crowd; always protesting something, always arguing about the rights and wrongs in the world and trying to stand up for the little guy and the underprivellaged. Harry had been unpopular with her friends, “Too cocky and sure of himself.” they said, “Too arrogant.” But Amelia had seen his arrogance as confidence, and had fallen for him. His politics had come later. Now, she felt stuck; trapped.
    “I’ve sold out.” she sighed, “Completely sold out.” In the distance, she heard her name being called, and wearily she got to her feet. He had sent one of his hangers on to find her. No doubt she needed to stand by his side and play the perfect wife again…a part she knew so well.

  12. Getting lost wasn’t part of the plan. Carrie dug her sneekers into the hard unforgiving pavement, letting her breath steady while she looked around. This was the third street she had turned down and another road block stood in her way. A couple of police officers stood nearby, twin bodies of black and leather. In the distance she heard sirens and the beautiful sunny day was giving way to a cold chill that seaped through her t-shirt. Welcome to America. Carrie blew a breath out. A week into what her mother told people was a working holiday but what Carrie had silently thought of as her salvation and Carrie was already wishing she was someplace else. Especially now. Lost in Minneapolis. During the Republican Convention. That was something not to write home about, she thought. She should have known that when Julieanne had told her that maybe it wasn’t a good time to go for a run that she really was being serious and not just overly cautious. After all, Julieanne wasn’t her mother. Carrie sighed. She felt a breeze blow through her and she turned around. Best to back track, she thought. Back the way she came. She started off slowly, timing her paces. She threaded her way through streets, not sure anymore if they looked familiar or not. Then she spied it, the lake, the one near the Carter’s house. Home, she thought, feeling an uncomfortable knot in her stomach, a stitch making itself known. As she got closer to the lake, she felt a wave of sadness overcome her. A lake with water in it. How about that, she thought. Wishing suddenly that she was standing by another lake, a drought ravaged one and that she had on her favourite black shoes, the ones that made that light clicking sound as she wound her way round the classroom. Instead here she was in front of a lake bountiful with water, her black shoes and classroom long gone, taken by the fire. Carrie pulled her eyes from the lake. She hated it, every last drop of water in it.

  13. “Well! Mash me down and call me Shorty! hollered Pauline as she stooped to bear hug Nadine and Olivia at the Minneapolis airport amid the convention throngs. “You’ve grown a foot, Olivia!” Whereupon the pixieish little girl worriedly looked down and counted only two of them, then she grinned as she understood Mammaw’s greeting.

    Nadine was hot and flustered as she juggled all the carry-ons and searched for the baggage claim checks. Why her mother decided to marry and uproot to Minnesota was life’s most recent mystery, and life’s biggest change for Nadine since Olivia was born. Half the farm house they shared in Tarkiln Valley, Tennessee was now converted to an apartment and ready to rent to…well, somebody who really wanted to be inconvenienced, isolated, and awoken at dawn.

    Pauline and Nadine were accustomed to Rupert’s ear-splitting crowing since Claude Pate had leased the farm and rebuilt the coop lean-to on the adjacent equipment shed. Rupert was, ahem, “cocky”. Proud and protective of his ladies, he was ready for action early! Nadine’s begrudged this annoyance for the steady supply of greenish, brownish and yellowish fresh eggs. That, and the endless amusement the rooster, hens, and chicks gave Olivia. Claude gave Olivia $10 per week for gathering eggs, tending the roosts, mucking out the coop, and feeding and watering the flock. Olivia was saving up for a “waptop compooper”. (Nadine was saving up for speech therapy for Olivia.)

    Rural life, of course has many rewards. Nadine liked the relative quiet and peace of the REST of her day at home and in her studio. Her last gallery show in Asheville had been a success, netting her enough money to pay the bills for a few months. Her mixed media work was receiving some regional recognition, and she had a strong online presence and was developing a killer online and USPS mailing list. Things were looking up, but Nadine was still in “starving artist” mode and was beginning to talk to herself as she worked. There are only so many books on tape you can get at the library. The weekly “salon” at Bonnie’s loft in Knoxville was Nadine’s social outlet. “Pathetic!” she thought, “I gotta get OUT of here for awhile!

    1. Wanda marie, I loved your opening! If that was a book it would have hooked me right away!

      1. Thank you, Maggie! I’ve enjoyed this workshop so far. Thank you, too, Rosina! This is the first fiction I’ve written since high school…a long time ago!

  14. I had immediate ideas when I saw the photo, but lost them with the Convention since I don’t know anything about it. Also, my first thought was from the little girl’s pov.


  15. I came up with something, but remember that I write Science Fiction so there’s a twist coming.


    Killing him would be easy. Standing up there in the spotlight. People cheering him.

    Abbigal Belle’s stomach clenched as though hit. Bile scalded her throat.

    Cheering that drunken murderer. He didn’t remember so it wasn’t his fault. Crap. So what if he didn’t remember, she did. She remembered finding Rachel’s tiny sneaker in the grass, bloodied, still tied. She remembered Ma screaming and dropping into near-catatonia. She remembered her little sister’s four year old smile and haunting laughter.

    For a moment the images were so vivid that the brightly colored crowd around her vanished.

    She stumbled, blinked the past away. A woman in an orange top surged past her, knocking her aside, chatting gaily with a gray-haired man in a suit. Trembling, she waded through the streaming crowd to take respite against the brick corner of a building, on the cusp of the entrance to the stadium. Her gaze found the banner.

    “Republican Convention, 2008” it screamed.

    Her fingers clenched against her sweaty palms. She could do this. She would do this. He deserved a public execution for leaving Rachel there to die alone in the mud.

    A square in the open marked the entrance, bright flags and balloons dancing in the summer wind. She swallowed hard. Would the guard stop her? The sunglasses made him more menacing. No, she told herself. She was just another student. Just another student. More expensively dressed people passed her.

    She took a shaky breath. They would stop her, with her wrinkled green shirt and messy ponytail. She fingercombed her hair back and reclipped it. There. Nice and neat. Tidy and calm. She licked her lips and stepped into the stream of people, absently patting the plastic 9 mm. She forced a mask of calm over her features.

    Then she saw that the box entrance was a giant metal detector.


  16. Inhale.


    There are few things as satisfying as a cigarette when you’d been busting your @$$ running ragged all day. Whenever Ronnie took a cig break she would take a minute and say a few words into her voice recorder. She was working on a book about coordinating events and managing volunteers. She hoped to create a process that she could patent and consult on one day. Consulting is where the big money’s at.

    “Few realize how grueling being part of a Bid Committee is, or how hard you have to work as part of a Host Society once your bid is selected.”

    Ronnie knew, as part of the Consortium responsible for bringing the 2008 Republican National Convention to the Twin Cities, she had been working on this project for three years now. Only two days into the actual Convention and everybody was feeling the strain–things would get downright hellish before the end of day four.

    Her phone beeped. Another text from Bill. She missed the twins’ first day of kindergarten yesterday. How dare he try to make her feel guilty because she was busy working. Again. She was starting to hate her husband as much as she hated these Republicans.



    Only two more days…

  17. Jeanine Stoddart. 43. Mother of two teen-aged boys. A military wife and probably military mom one day. Woman on the right in the photo, taken in the church basement on Labour Day weekend, following the Republican Convention in 2008 . She’d not say she’s ‘on the right’ however – she describes herself as a bleeding heart liberal. The Convention, and the turmoil it brought to her life, sticks in her mind not for political reasons, but for make-up reasons. Very specifically: Mary Kay Cosmetics reasons.
    Jeanine was an Independent Beauty Consultant with Mary Kay Incorporated at that time. This meant family and friends had been avoiding her for years. Low self-esteem and a belief in a higher power, as well as an inability to truly balance a chequebook made her easy prey for the local MK Director in her red cadillac. Her husband trained pilots in computer simulators – so while she rarely worried for his physical safety, he was indeed ‘out of the picture’ enough for her to attend evening sales training sessions, colour application seminars and lose weight, going door to door, offering her services in skin assessments to harried military moms. Especially since Iraq and the reservists trying to skill up.
    And then the Republicans blew through town, like a, well, very like a hurricane. Such a memorable weekend. Her husband was always jumpy and wanted to be on base whenever there were major weather issues, regardless, but since Katrina, there’d was an element of ‘just in case they need me’ that she knew meant he did miss being active in the field. So he hadn’t been available to take the boys to see political celebrities arriving downtown. Only mom could do it. They cajoled her the way they do, singing her praises, and she grimaced and grabbed the keys. They bussed from one of the shuttle spots at the malls, to get close in. The boys had some odd notion of seeing a Bush twin. A story at school or some internet encouragement, she wasn’t sure which. That’s when Cindy McCain helped Jeanine Stoddart leave Mary Kay for good. Just something about the attitude, the application, and she was overcome with feelings she had suppressed for years. Or was that the onset of menopause?

  18. Melanie waited anxiously in front of the south entrance outside the Republican National Convention. She scanned the crowds not knowing who she should be looking for. The meeting place was her idea. She thought she would feel safe here in this very public place. No one would be bold enough to bring harm to her here not with all the media and security. It was also far enough away from her family as not to endanger them, but close enough she could return home without causing suspicion as to her whereabouts. Her family. They would be shocked to see her here not because of her lack of interest in politics, but because she lied to them. People could count on Melanie; Mel to her friends and Mom to her daughter. She made monthly appointments and kept them. She knew her daughter’s schedule forwards and backwards to the point other parents often called her when they needed to know the when and where of their children’s events. She would pick you up at the airport and know the fastest route. Her husband wouldn’t question her if she said she was going out with some friends after work. She told him she’d rather spend the evening at home on the couch with him, but she was invited and didn’t want to be rude. That’s so Mel, never wanting to hurt feelings or put anyone out. She liked being that person, giving the people she cared about the things she never had growing up. Security, dependability, encouragement: those things equaled love to Mel.

  19. She is a single mother of a child with disabilities who has fallen through the cracks of the educational and healthcare systems. She is on the fence about who to support in the upcoming election because she doesn’t trust people in power. In an effort to seek out answers – and hopefully, to make the best choice for herself and her child – she has decided to go to the conventions of each political candidate to listen to what they have to say and separate the wheat from the chaff.


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