Jay Bonansinga was a speaker I saw last year, and he was no less engaging this year. Jay, for those of you not in the know, writes The Walking Dead books (co-wrote the first four and solo wrote the last four). The topic was Storytelling Fundamentals for the Digital Era. I don’t think he really covered that topic, since he didn’t discuss anything digital-related, but I still enjoyed the lecture.
It’s always fascinating to hear about other writer’s processes. Jay writes five pages a day, five days a week. If he’s on a roll, he still stops at five pages. If the words won’t come, he pushes himself to five pages. At that pace, he can finish a novel in four months. I assume that’s just the first draft, but I think if a person writes more carefully than, say, I do, then they probably have a lot less revision. This is a sort of an eating the elephant one bite at a time approach. Like any time I hear a writer’s process, I think to myself, I should do that. This time, however, I knew pretty quickly that that particular approach wouldn’t work for me. And since I have a regular writing practice that works for me, I let it go pretty fast.
We spent some time on the concept of less is more. Jay presented to us Hemmingway’s shortest story:
For sale. Baby carriage. Never used.
Gut punchy, to be sure.
Then we worked on two sentence stories. I didn’t write down those examples, but I think I found both on an Internet search (how did I ever live without the Internet??):
There was a picture in my phone of me sleeping. I live alone.
The grinning face stared at me from the darkness beyond my bedroom window. I live on the 14th floor.
Then we broke up into pairs and wrote out own two-sentence stories. Susan Levi and I paired together. Susan came up with a brilliant first sentence:
My husband’s sex doll arrived this morning.
No pressure, right? Then we went through several ideas. I felt the pressure most, since Susan came up with the first line and there was just the two of us. Finally, we came up with:
Her vampire smile didn’t appear until evening.
Not bad, but not exactly right. I know there’s a better verb than “appear” to make the sentence better. Anyway, Jay signed copies of his novel Sick for those who read their sentences out loud. My guess is he’s used to presenting in places where people are hesitant to share. OCWW is not a group like that. Still, a very gracious gesture and the whole exercise was enlightening and fun–it’s always fascinating to hear what others come up with using the same parameters.
Other takeaways from Jay’s lecture:
Use your fears! He started writing horror as a way to conquer his own fear–it’s far less scary to be the one doing the frightening! So, take those phobias, weaknesses, quirks, and fears and develop them into characters and voice and plot.
The true craft of writing is knowing what to leave out. This one particularly resonated with me because I tend to overwrite.
The difference between shock and suspense. Shock is a scene between two people in a restaurant talking about mundane things, and then a bomb explodes. Suspense is a scene where we know there is a bomb under the table as two people in a restaurant talk about mundane things. Kind of cool, right?
The final part of the lecture was a repeat from last year, but definitely good enough for repeating. He breaks down stories into two parts:
1) What if…
2) And then…
The “What if” is the opening to the book, Act I, the premise of the story, all the setup until the first plot twist, when the character makes a decision that sets the book on its course of action. This, according to Jay, is usually pretty solid for writers. If a writer is going to go wrong, it’s usually on the second part.
The “And then” is what happens after the plot kicks in. It’s what keeps the reader turning the pages. If the reader doesn’t turn the page, then the writer has failed. The story isn’t about the premise, but what the characters do with the premise.
My favorite example of the What if/And then concept was from the movie Witness. (If you haven’t seen it, you totally should). The premise, or “What if” of the story is an Amish boy visiting New York City witnesses a murder while in a bathroom stall. But that’s not what the story is about. That’s the setup. The twist (spoiler alert!) is that the killer is a police officer. And then…Harrison Ford’s character knows the boy’s life is in danger and he spirits the boy and his mother out of town to protect them.
All in all, I really enjoyed the lecture! Jay also did some great voices while reading his sentences and telling stories. If you ever get a chance to attend one of his classes, seminars, or lectures, you should go!