In an invigorating “New Voices, New Stories” panel discussion on June 7 at the Bay Area Book Festival in Berkeley, five newly published authors were led in a discussion by Bill Petrocelli, owner of the Bay Area’s Book Passage bookstores and author of The Circle of Thirteen.
Each of the panelists has recently had a book of fiction published. The authors and books included Andrew Roe, The Miracle Girl; Aline Ohanesian, Morhand’s Inheritance; Jan Ellison, A Small Indiscretion; Marian Palaia, The Given World; and Angela Pneuman, Lay It on My Heart.
Character, Plot, and Story
Petrocelli queried the authors about whether they thought story and plot mainly flowed from a character or whether it worked in reverse. Most of the writers said they began with a strong character, but not a clear vision of the plot.
Ellison believes plot is “an urgent reason to tell this story right now,” while Palaia said, “Having a story is one thing, and having a plot is something else.”
Ellison spent ten years writing A Small Indiscretion, most of the time not knowing what her plot would be, but then it came to her. She urged other writers to keep an open mind. “When the plot comes knocking on the door, open the door and let it in,” she said.
Pneuman said she reads commercial fiction—in particular the work of Ross McDaniel—to inform her about how good plotting works. “One of the great gifts of commercial fiction is plotting,” she said.
The writers agreed that the themes for their novels either emerged as they wrote their books—through an issue of self-discovery—or were voiced later by readers who expressed their own personal and varied opinions and interpretations.
Advice for Starting to Write Fiction
Petrocelli inquired about advice the authors would give to members of the audience who might be considering writing fiction and was met with a string of small gems.
Ohanesian’s advice: “Read. Write. Persevere. Repeat.” Ellison said, “It’s not about belief. Set goals that you can control.”
Pneuman said she always has two projects going on at a time. If she starts loosing momentum in one, she starts in on the other. She believes some books start out with a question about what your character wants. But that opens up more questions the reader may have. Pneuman quoted the first part of this quote by Ralph Waldo Emerson:
“In every work of genius we recognize our own rejected thoughts; they come back to us with a certain alienated majesty.”
Petrocelli voiced his opinion. “There is no specific way that you have to do it.” He said to start when you’re ready and find a block of time to devote to all of your characters.
Roe encourages writers to set a ritual. For him, it’s coffee. He writes very early while his “brain is funny and not working rationally.” He said being a writer is like being a long jumper. You have to go back and read what you’ve read before.
“Learn to love the vision,” Palaia said.
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