I promised you all a third installment of my speaking series on crafting your message when talking about your writing (part 1 and part 2 are about developing your speaking skills), and you shall have it.
But not right now (teacup pig).
This post is speaking-adjacent, though: As I write it I’m sitting at LAX on my way home to Austin from speaking at the wonderful 2022 Writer’s Digest Novel Writing Conference in Pasadena—my first in-person conference since the pandemic.
And yes, I encourage you to attend a writer’s conference for all the usual reasons: not just the knowledge, experience, inspiration and illumination about writing craft and business from industry pros, but for the chance to talk to other writers and find the support and encouragement of a writing community.
But that’s also not what this post is about. Today I want to talk about an element of story and also life that’s key to making both areas vivid and meaningful.
Like Soylent Green, it’s people.
The Overwhelm of the Madding Crowd
A lot of writers tend toward the introvert end of the spectrum. To make matters more challenging, “peopling” has become even harder since the pandemic.
Even for those of us who may skew a little toward the extrovert end of the scale (I come in about 51%/49% extro/intro on personality tests), walking alone into a big group of people can be a little overwhelming—which was how I felt arriving at the conference.
Luckily my first presentation was the first one on the first day—which let me focus on what I was doing rather than how I was feeling, and planted me in my comfort zone: talking to writers about craft.
And then a couple of writers came over afterward to chat with me. I met Callie, working on an intriguing-sounding genre mashup, whose lovely comments and tweets about both of my presentations over the weekend gave me great feedback on what was landing well—and helped set me at ease.
I talked to Jamie about a subplot in her story that we both realized sounded more like a key part of the plot—but I also got to hear about her writing journey, and about her TV editing career (editors gravitate to editors).
I had several wonderful conversations with Doug, who made me feel welcome my very first night, when I sneaked name-tag-free, pre-registration, into the bar for a glass of wine to take to my room and he unexpectedly greeted me by name, revealing that he’s attended several of my online workshops—and I got to put a face to a screen name.
Later in the weekend we were joined by married couple Louise and David, both writers, and the four of us not only shared our writing and writing paths, but memorable personal stories about careers and relationships and kids.
I had lunch with Jill, an online friend who became an IRL one, and Jorgeana, a fellow presenter, fellow actor/voice/improv talent, and fellow lover of Georgia’s transcendent piney woods (about which we waxed ridiculously rhapsodic). I talked with Ken and Seth and Fayyaz and Saida and Sonali and Vanessa and Michael; John and Amy and Robert and Taylor and Josue (the indispensable AV hero who ensured the sessions ran smoothly).
Connections like these can be transformative for your writing and writing career: I’ve made many friends at conferences over the years, many of whom have gone on to be multipublished authors, to head writers’ orgs themselves, even to start her own small press in one case. I’ve met fellow editors and agents and other industry pros who have become colleagues and collaborators.
They can also be life-changing: One of my closest friends now was the first person I wound up chatting with my first time at the Writer’s League of Texas Conference in 2007 (a trip that also resulted in my moving to Austin).
While “people”—that great featureless crowd—may make us feel anxiety or nerves or intimidation or disconnection, it’s often easy to connect with a person. By the time I’d begun to make these personal connections, it didn’t feel as if I were adrift in a sea of anonymous strangers, but among friends, all of whom shared a love of story and language and creativity.
It’s the human/relationship version of the old saw about how you eat an elephant (a repulsive proposition, incidentally): one bite at a time.
How do you connect with people in your writing community, even if you aren’t a “people person”? One person at a time.
So How Does This Relate to Your Writing?
One author pitfall I see not infrequently in manuscripts is that characters may not feel fully fleshed or real—especially supporting and minor ones. I suspect it’s because of a version of the above phenomenon: We may initially tend to see these people in generalized terms, in the role we assign them: the best friend, the spouse or parents or kids, the boss, the bagboy, the security guard.
This can result in impersonal, vague, even cardboard characters who may feel like placeholders, not people.
But if you spend time with each of them one-on-one, you get to learn the person they are. You can put that on the page, even for the most minor character, and make them real and vivid and memorable—and bring your story world fully to life.
Think about Kali Rocha’s hilariously punctilious flight attendant in Meet the Parents, who makes a distraught Ben Stiller wait for his boarding group to be called as he flees his fiancée’s family, even though literally no one else is waiting to board the flight.
Think of Laura San Giacomo’s hard-edged but fiercely loyal Kit, Julia Roberts’s best friend in Pretty Woman, iconic for all her scenes, but especially “Cinder-fuckin’-rella.”
Think of Bill Murray’s masochistic dental fanboy in Little Shop of Horrors; or the feisty marital dynamics of Miracle Max and his wife in The Princess Bride (Billy Crystal and Carol Kane); Bronson Pinchot’s pretentious, persnickety museum curator Serge in Beverly Hills Cop; or the entire distinctive ensemble cast in a show like Friends—including nearly every single supporting character and cameo role, from Gunther to Estelle to Janice to Fun Bobby and countless more.
These characters aren’t just martinets plugged into the story to fill a certain role, literally and figuratively. They become relatable, memorable people who exist as individuals whose lives happen to intersect the lives of the individuals that story happens to be focusing on. In a multiverse somewhere they are having fully fledged lives of their own. That brings them—and this story they happen to feature in—to life.
Most of us who love stories and writing got into it because we’re fascinated by people and what they do. Our stories are love letters to humanity and the human condition, celebrating it in all its glory and transcendence and ludicrousness and pathos and flaws.
We may feel overwhelmed by “people” in the aggregate—in person and on the page—but if we take the time to get to know them a bit, one character at a time, big or small, they will reward us with connections and camaraderie that can add rich depth and texture to our stories—and our lives.
Over to you, authors. How do you handle the “peopling” aspect of our craft IRL—at conferences, book events, festivals, meeting other writers and readers and industry folk? How do you approach it on the page in developing and deepening your characters, major and minor?
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