The Writer's Life

Tennessee Williams Festival Day One: Learning from the Masters

“Don’t you just love these long rainy afternoons in New Orleans when an hour isn’t just an hour – but a little piece of eternity dropped into your hands – and who knows what to do with it?” ~ A Streetcar Named Desire by Tennessee Williams

Me, excited, in my festive t-shirt

I knew what to do with mine. The plan: learn from the masters. The 28th Annual Tennessee Williams/New Orleans Literary Festival kicked off on Thursday, March 20, 2014 with Master Classes spanning subjects from copyrighting to dialogue and voice to social media. In my festive t-shirt donning those famous words from Tennessee Williams we’re all familiar with – “America has only three cities: New York, San Francisco and New Orleans. Everywhere else is Cleveland.” – I practically skipped to the Historic New Orleans Collection. I began the festival, and the first day of spring, in this gorgeous venue, sunlight pouring through the open windows, elaborate chandelier hanging over my head, and surrounded by beautiful paintings. First up: Marie Breaux, intellectual property attorney, to discuss copywriting for writers.

Marie Breaux’s master class on copywrighting

I’ve seen Marie’s presentation before, and as always, she was informative and engaging. She took the audience through the history of copyright law and discussed laws and cases that have impacted the literary world. Breaux called copyright law our “steampunk law…full of Rube Goldberg contraptions.” She went on to discuss how the digital movement is affecting copyright law, going so far as to suggest that copyright is killing books. Hard fact: it’s easier to find a book from 1880 than from 1980 due to the fact that when books fall out of print, getting rights clearances discourages other publishers from reissuing the title. Breaux thinks it’s time for a new law (and so does the Registrar). She talked about “Creative Common” license, which is what allows folks the right to publish things on the Internet (Wikipedia, for example). My favorite quote? Her final PowerPoint slide asked “Can we put the toothpaste back in the tube?” Breaux’s answer? No. The current copyright law isn’t appropriate for the time we live in.

Zachary Lazar teaching a master class on dialogue

Up next was Zachary Lazar, graduate of the Iowa Writers Workshop and author of three books:SwayEvening’s Empire: The Story of My Father’s Murder, and I Pity the Poor Immigrant (coming in April!), discussing dialogue. He broke down Ernest Hemingway’s Hills Like White Elephantspassage by passage, meticulously dissecting Hemingway’s genius use of dialogue. “Don’t give the conflict away right off,” Lazar said. “Build it up, let the reader sense it beneath the surface.” He also advised not to start a story with dialogue because the reader doesn’t know who that person is yet, and it can seem contrived. He suggested setting the scene first. Lazar also gave his three golden rules to writing dialogue: use subtext, use body language, and include small details that readers will remember. He called Hills Like White Elephants “the perfect story,” and he encouraged the audience to take risks and push the envelope of what’s realistic like Hemingway did with this story. “A scene is much better if it’s not the first time the characters are having the conversation,” Lazar said. “Let the conflict simmer a bit.”

After three hours of lively discussion and learning from masters of law and dialogue, it was time for lunch. Strolling around the French Quarter on such a lovely day was invigorating. Musicians lined Royal Street, and several standing near each other formed bands. Tourists and locals alike mixed company along the boulevards, drinking Antoine’s Annex coffee and strolling in and out of boutique shops and art galleries. New Orleans is the only place where, on any given Thursday at 12:30 p.m., it feels like vacation. Making friends with strangers is easy here, and I found some fellow festival goers who were also looking for lunch to share the time with. We ambled our way back to the Historic New Orleans Collection anticipating what Laura Lippman’s session on voice would be like.

Laura Lippman signing books after her master class on voice

Laura Lippman, creator of the award-winning Tess Monaghan P.I. series, discussed voice and point of view in fiction. Although she writes crime fiction, she focused on fiction in general, stating that all fiction writers can learn lessons from crime fiction. Her first piece of advice was to ignore the old adage “write what you know,” saying, “‘Write what you know’ led me to the start of sixteen novels about a young girl in her 20s that nothing ever happened to.” She said the advice wasn’t incorrect, only ill worded, and she suggested writing what you CAN know and what interests you. Lippman also asserted that crime fiction is only good in its entirety, and the reader should always want more. “If someone can read the first 40 pages of your crime novel and be satisfied, you’ve failed,” she said. She brought the audience through explanations of different points of view, including first, second, and third person, focusing the most on third person limited. Lippman explained that this point of view gets inside the character’s head while allowing some distance to remain more objective than first person point of view. “Think of third person limited as the gargoyle on the shoulder,” she said. “It knows what you’re thinking, what you’re doing, but it has just a small bit of distance from you.” She also stated that writing from different characters’ points of view within the same story actually solves pacing problems and recommended several books, including John Gardner’s The Art of Fiction and James Woods’s How Fiction Works.

Alicia Anstead before her master class on micro narrative

Alicia Anstead, editor-in-chief of The Writer magazine, presented the last master class of the day titled Going Micro with Narrative. In this class, Anstead explored narrative technique as it applies to social media, focusing on Twitter. She encouraged the audience to live tweet during the presentation and to get on Facebook. She began by stating the benefits of writers being on social media, which included reporting and asking questions. “If you’re writing about the Appalachian Mountains, get on Twitter and ask questions about them. You’ll be surprised at how many people out there have information,” she said. She also said to be careful about the information on social media, as “not everyone on Twitter has the ethics or the experience of professional reporters. Watch who you follow.” Anstead gave five tips to Twitter:

1.      Be authentic
2.      Be generous
3.      Trust your story
4.      Tell your story
5.      Don’t sell

She suggested taking quotes from books in progress or discussing the subject of the book instead of tweeting “buy my book.” She also suggested jumping into the social media conversation about the subject of your writing as soon as possible. Be a part of the story, a part of the conversation. “A well told story is better than marketing,” she said. Anstead ended her presentation by saying that you can definitely be happy and successful without social media, but it does add an additional dimension to your narrative. She mentioned Teju Cole, the author that made waves last week when he took Twitter to a whole new level by releasing “A Piece of the Wall,” which was a 4,000 word essay on immigration told in approximately 250 tweets. Cole showed the world that Twitter can be much more meaningful than what you ate for lunch today, and Anstead encouraged the audience to use social media in the same way.

Sitting in the front row, Tennessee Williams t-shirt and bag in hand, I certainly learned from the masters. Follow me on Twitter and Vine @nolafleurdelit as I live tweet my #TWF14 experience! You can also follow the hashtag #TWF14 and @TWFestNOLA, @deepsouthmag, and @odd_words for more festival fun.

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