This blog was featured on 11/07/2018
Jewels from an Author Retreat

As a two-time novelist with She Writes Press, I count the synergy of like-minded authors and the educational opportunities continually presented by our publishing team as the richest aspects of my author experience. The sources for professional development include this site, She Writes University, Write Minded podcast, dedicated FB groups and a multitude of other resources brought to our attention by the Press.  The synergy that is so valuable was most evident at the recent author retreat that She Writes Press, Spark Press, and SheBooks put on in Carefree, Arizona.  65 authors with current, former and upcoming books gathered for two packed days of sessions featuring industry experts, “author ambassadors” from within the group, and National Book Award winning author Jesmyn Ward as the keynote speaker and writing workshop facilitator.

Having participated in the She Writes University webinar on voice given by Jesmyn Ward last April, I already knew a little about her focus on this expression of writer’s style. The workshop in Arizona was a deeper dive, and included a number of insights into Ward’s writing process that were both interesting and reinforcing for those of us who are not “plotters”—who don’t begin a book with an extensive outline or a clear idea of where the plot will lead.  The following are the useful takeaways I gained from this workshop. They are clearly mine, and perhaps not the same as others’.  I hope others will jump in with additions or comments! 

In writing toward her most expressive and powerful voice in a work, Ward uses the following techniques.

  1. Place, and how place affects character is the first consideration Ward works from when writing toward her voice in a novel or story or memoir.  She chooses to write in first person to give her more immediacy in this practice. (Not surprisingly then, the sense of place in Salvage the Bonesand Sing Unburied Sing are what I found most compelling and exquisitely rendered in these powerful books)
  2. Ward recommends creating a second layer of texture to establishing voice in a work through details, imagery and figurative language. How do details ground her characters? Here, Ward warns against abstraction and generalization, but instead, suggests focus on concrete details, chosen carefully, from the beginning of a work, which will give clues to later meaning and which will accumulate throughout the story.  She uses imagery, details, and figurative language to “crowd the reader into the story.” Ward is not a fan of minimalist prose— the prohibition in use of adverbs and dialog using only “said.” (This drew enthusiastic applause at the workshop!) She is a fan of linking ideas and images that haven’t been linked before.
  3. The third element of establishing voice and style in a work involves the balance of narration and scene with their corollary of telling and showing. To put the reader in the moment, immerse her in a scene—show. To summarize or provide context, use narration—tell.  Ward questioned the ubiquitous advice to “show, don’t tell” suggesting this is promulgated because good narration is hard to do well. When narration doesn’t immerse the reader in an experience or help the reader see or imagine the world the author is trying to create, it’s better to use scene to show the important moments of drama… behaviors, interactions, conversations, speeches. Alternatively, narration done well, giving background, history, facts, thoughts, emotions, or manipulating time, can be evocative and make the reader want to follow that voice… that narrator.  Ward reminds us that balancing scene and narration is important but that an author needs to go with her strength.. you may be better at one than the other. Finally, she admonishes the writer to go to every scene in a work and ask yourself if “something happens in that scene, beyond which nothing is the same.”  If the answer is no, submit that scene to revision or editing out.
  4. Ward’s final advice had to do with ending a work.  Her “trick” to ending a work well, is to leave with a striking, evocative image that conveys emotion around and offers resolution of something the reader has had to struggle with in the work.  Avoid abstraction.  We should remember that the reader is going to take the last thing they read out into the world.  
  5. The following exercises were offered to workshop participants,

Writing Exercises

  1. Render a tree, capture a forest. Choose a city or town and choose a dozen details. Write a small scene where people are moving and living in this town. Have these dozen vignettes capture the town.
  2. Write a scene and in the first version, write all narration- all telling.  Ina second version, convey everything through scene—all showing—dialog, acting, reacting.  In a third version- incorporate both scene and narration.
  3. Examine a simple event. Describe using the same situation in five completely different ways, style radically different, e.g. psychic difference, in 5-8 sentences, same point of view thru each variation. 

What a great workshop!

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  • Betty Hafner

    Thanks so much for sharing this, Barbara. Was sorry to miss the Retreat.

  • Barbara Stark-Nemon

    So glad you found it useful, Carole!

  • Carole Bumpus

    Thank you, Barb. I appreciate your summary, especially of Jezmyn Ward's talk. Many of those details I did not capture as well, but loved what I caught. This helps! (And when did you have time to do this?) Good going!