This past week I attended the Write-by-the-Lake writers’ workshop and retreat, run by UW-Madison’s Continuing Studies. It’s the second time I’ve attended the workshop, and I’m convinced that it’s worth the investment. A nice view of an actual lake is part of the experience, though there was so much learning going on, I didn’t pay much attention to the scenery.
I signed up for Ann Garvin’s session on plotting with urgency. If you don’t already know Ann, she’s the author of three novels, the genius behind Tall Poppy Writers, and the founder of The Fifth Semester writing program. She has a day job, too, as a professor of health at UW-Whitewater.
The workshop was populated mostly by fiction writers–and two of us nonfiction writers. I’m still working on my writing style, trying to get my stories to appeal to a broader readership, so I thought learning about urgent plots would be just the thing.
And it was. Every day when I left the workshop, my head was stuffed with new information and ideas. One of the most valuable lessons I learned was the necessity of writing in scene, which is the current way of saying show, don’t tell. That sounds so easy, but it’s a challenging thing to pull off. Each scene not only has to immerse the reader in that particular moment, but it also has to crackle with tension, which usually has to do with a character not getting what they want. And it has to have an integral connection with the plot. We learned about all those things.
I find writing in scene especially difficult with the kind of nonfiction I write. Because of my training as a historian, I feel an obligation to stay true to the historical record. The scenes I write have to be factual. If I interject anything that can’t be verified by historical documents, I need to be clear between speculation and fact. Historian Simon Schama wrote a fascinating book about this boundary:
My task going forward is to make sure I write about dead certainties in a compelling way. That will be my summer.