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In our attempt to “never let you go,” we continue with our daily member dispatches from Lit Fest. This time, writer Patrick Kelly shares his tales of social restraint, thievery, and preternatural focus. We’ll say we knew him when…!
So here’s my secret: I was on a mission.
I’ve tried starting this blog entry several times, but in each attempt something wasn’t quite right; I’d stop, read back over what I’d written, and realize I’d more or less been writing in the voice of one of the characters from my fledgling novel. Lighthouse, you done good. Lit Fest is in my brain.
I want to explain why Lit Fest was for me a glorious blur and a launching pad and a life-or-death undertaking, and I want to explain why I probably frowned at you in class or in the hallways. Until a couple weekends ago, I was stuck. My writing was stalled, something I’d unfortunately become accustomed to, and my life was changing in some big ways, and it was shouting at me and I couldn’t concentrate, couldn’t feel my fingers on the keys. I was biting my nails; I was restlessly and unproductively counting down the days until my imminent move to New York. I was pacing the floorboards and climbing the walls. And then with the arrival of June, when I’d almost forgotten I’d enrolled in them at all, my Lighthouse workshops kicked off, and all at once I was living a different life. Like a sleeper agent, I remembered what I was supposed to do. Suddenly I was serious. Suddenly I was studious. Suddenly I was writing again.
Because I’m one of those pretentious “aspiring novelists” you’re always hearing about, I took on a novelcentric workshop load: Bill Henderson’s Novel Bootcamp, Jennifer Davis’s The Heart of the Matter, and Jenny Shank’s one-off Envisioning Your Novel. And here’s the thing: going into those workshops, I thought I already had a novel I was taking in there with me, tucked figuratively under my arm. Not a full manuscript, not even a full first draft, but I came with outlines and fragments and timelines and characters and scenes and ideas and I thought I had something. And technically, I did. I had some scraggly things.
But then maybe about a quarter of the way through the first installment of Bill Henderson’s Novel Bootcamp, early morning Saturday, bleary-eyed, trying desperately to fill the hollow parts of me with iced coffee, I made a list about a couple of my main characters. This was a simple exercise, meant to determine what your protagonist desires, has at stake, and so forth. And amazingly, even after such a basic exercise, I felt closer to my book. I felt like I was starting to step inside it for the first time. And then we kept going. We made longer, exhaustive lists. We made timelines. We ran through drills. We did research. We worked out. Bootcamp indeed. I left that first day swimming through ideas, simmering with possibility. It was like I’d turned on a faucet. I already had so much more than that scattered pile of plot and premise I’d walked in with. I left ready to get lean, get mean, and get down to the bone of my writing.
By that afternoon, after I’d spent another few hours holed up on the first floor with Jennifer Davis and a small group of truly talented writers, I’d written a lovely little paragraph that had my props and objects speaking for me, saying more, and with more subtlety than I’d known I was capable of–right there off the top of my head. Over the course of those four combined days with Jennifer’s guidance I managed to write myself into and out of and through whole planes and realms of my writing mind I never knew existed. I left ready for some soaring experimentation in nuance and subtext.
And so much came out of Jenny Shank’s Envisioning Your Novel for me. I unpacked so much, it feels a little now, in retrospect, like a thousand clowns climbing out of a tiny hatchback. In particular, Jenny’s discussion of “intrigants”—little hooks or tricks or devices or turns of phrase that keep your readers reading—opened up doors and clicked on lightbulbs for me; I started breaking down scenes in my head, looking at each one like a little movie, examining the conflict and the driving force in every little nook and cranny of my plans for a book. And a simple exercise involving listing your character’s skills evolved into a major plot thread I hadn’t considered that’ll pull a whole lot of little messy elements together. I left knowing the “when” of my novel, and the “how long,” and the “in whose voice,” and the “how it all goes down.” You’ll agree, those are some invaluable items to check off any novel’s massive initial “to-do” list.
I write this now on a church-bustling streetmusic Bed-Stuy Sunday in Brooklyn, and with all this reflection I feel a little guilty; I could have stayed to mingle with other writers, I could have schmoozed with an agent or two, I could have lurked around the book fair. But here’s my secret: I was on a mission. I took the money and ran. I made a smash-and-grab job of my little corner of Lit Fest. Because those workshops weren’t light duty and they weren’t a walk in the park; they were hard work, they were a formidable challenge. In two weekends I came so far, and then with barely a day between me and the last Sunday workshop I was on a plane and gone. Because I’ve got a job to do. I’m here in New York for the summer to dodge the distractions of my regular life and to write this damn thing, and with the tools I picked up in my Great Lit Fest Heist of 2012 I feel adequately equipped to get the job done. I hope I didn’t make too much of a mess of the place in the process.
We’ll try to get updates from Patrick when we can. In the meantime, god speed, young novelist!