Monday, July 28, 2014

A Rookie PPWC Experience

By Lise Bennett

My head spun for weeks from everything I learned at this year’s Pikes Peak Writers Conference - or was the spinning due to lack of sleep combined with altitude? Whatever the reason, my first PPWC was an incredible experience. I went into the weekend with the simple intent to soak up as much novel-writing knowledge as I could each day, wring my brain out every night, and be ready to absorb again the next day. Soak, wring, repeat. I left with much more than I’d imagined.

I arrived the first morning to “A Murder in Aspen Leaf” where EMTs, CSIs, FBI agents, and I think IPOs were investigating a death. I had my money on Professor Plum in the bedroom with a belt— the one that matched the ligature marks found on the victim’s neck. The presenters taught us how to set up a realistic murder investigation scene by explaining the flow of events that take place, clarifying who has jurisdiction over what, and illustrating how the various specialties do what they do. I found the forensics portion particularly fascinating. Chris Herndon, the Coroner, explained how rigor mortis follows a predictable time pattern and can be used to estimate time of death. She showed us how the location of lividity, discoloration caused by congestion of blood pooling in a dependent part of the body, can indicate that a body has been moved. After a detailed explanation of the careful observations, examinations, and calculations she uses in her work, she said that in reality, calling time of death boils down to SWAG; coroner lingo for “scientific wild-assed guess”.

Middle-grade novelist extraordinaire and seasoned wrangler of 12-year-olds, Darby Karchut exudes acceptance and support as only a 7th grade teacher can. She’s the kind of person who would be completely unfazed if some guy laughed so hard at one of her anecdotes that he snorted diet soda out of his nose and onto her dress. She’d whip out a tissue, rub the spill and pat the snorter at the same time, and then spin her story in a way that made soda guy look like a hero. She’s that good. She was the perfect person to guide us through the intimidating world of querying, publishing, agents, and contracts. Apparently the fun of writing in stolen 15-minute bursts every single day, juggling families and day jobs, mustering enough courage to slash the things that don’t work, and sweating through the fear of not being able to make up something better is only the beginning of the levity yet to come. I learned that pitching is not for weaklings or those whose stamina is taxed by walking from the computer to the coffee pot. Darby pitched her first book 102 times before she got an offer. Since everything about the publishing journey— from the writing to the waiting— moves at a glacial pace, she encouraged us to acknowledge and celebrate every milestone along the way, from fixing a difficult chapter to typing “The End”. Darby went out to eat after her first book was released reminding herself, “Yesterday I didn’t have a book published; today I have a book published.” I’m just trying to decide how many pages I need to write to justify some dancing and cookie eating merriment.

Hank Philippi Ryan, the ultimate in unaffected coolness, is a mystery writer/investigative reporter. She talked about the way her career in TV journalism has supported her novel writing. She said that any story, whether it’s a three-minute feature on the nightly news or a 400-page novel, has to capture people’s attention and keep them hanging on until the end. That means originally my writing has to excite me, the writer. Does the story move me on a heart level? Is the idea compelling enough to sustain me through the unfolding and resolution of the plot? Hank’s trick for uncovering meaning in the story is to repeat to herself over and over “Why do I care?” It’s also apparently vitally important to say this aloud in a nasal twang to channel the voice and spirit of one of her executive producers. By asking this question again and again with the proper inflection, it will help me discover what it is that I can sink my teeth into without letting go. It will transform me into a literary pit bull for the months or years it will take to tell my story. It will show me where the meat is— or the marinated soy, if I’m in a vegetarian state of mind.

Before attending the conference, I knew that flaws are what make a character relatable and interesting, but Carol Berg, writer of all things demonic, enchanting, and magical, gave us a great tool to discover these flaws. She suggested asking, in terms of our characters, “How do you get them riled up?” Trai Cartwright, screenplay goddess, took a similar, if less subtle approach. Her M.O.? Character harassment. Her eyes gleamed when she told us we can’t really know a character until we put him in a fight. Thanks to her, I now have visions of each of my characters enclosed in an MMA-style chain link ring— with Trai. They don’t have to fight her, though. They could fight their boss, the rain, fate, or a Thin Mint-toting Girl Scout with a kick ass sales goal and a take no prisoners attitude. And if there are multiple main characters, Trai says everyone needs to be messed with!

When I signed up for PPWC 2014, I was expecting to have an enjoyable weekend and learn a lot about writing. I wasn’t disappointed. However, my experience went far beyond that. I met wonderful people with enormous vocabularies and even more enormous hearts, and I think I may have walked away with the Holy Grail— not only for success in writing, but for success in life:

  • Mess with everyone. Really rile them up.
  • Rejoice in flaws. They are more interesting than strengths.
  • Care. (using my best nasal twang)
  • Celebrate every victory no matter its size.
  • Accept that I’ll never have all the answers and then take my best SWAG, because in the end, I’m going to die anyway.
  • Write here. Write now.

About the Author:  Lise Bennett is a transplant to Colorado but is thriving in the reduced oxygen. She won the grand prize in a scene writing contest sponsored by Showtime, was a winner in the Fresh Voices Screenplay Competition with her script, Crossing the Line, and was a finalist in both The Moondance International Film Festival and The Latino Screenplay Competition with En el Nombre de Dios. Formerly working full time in private practice as a naturopathic doctor, she has now gotten her priorities straight and spends her time making stuff up and writing it down. If she’s not behind her laptop, Lise is probably balancing on two wheels or one leg, huffing up a 14er, blowing into the small end of a sax, or compressing and extending her way through West Coast Swing. Lise is currently converting her script, Crossing the Line, to a novel, writing an action comedy screenplay, and is part of a documentary film project called Voices of Grief.