Grab Bag by A.M. Jenkins

Note:  This is Amanda’s post, not Sarah’s.  Sarah is merely the conduit.

As I work away on The Novel That Is Beyond My Capabilities But I’m Damn Well Going To Write It Anyway, I find myself very much looking forward to the upcoming residency. Why? The lectures given by graduating students. Grad lectures are always a juicy grab bag of writing topics; it’s like getting to pick the brains of 20+ very smart writers who have read and thought about things that I either haven’t gotten around to, or am completely unaware of.


I remember in July 2012 sitting in Noble Hall listening to Mary Winn Heider’s lecture on the use of dreams as a narrative tool. At this point, TNTIBMCBIDWGTWIA had a single dream stuck in there somewhere around the one-quarter mark. I say “stuck” because it stuck out like a sore thumb, and when I thought about it I had a lump in my stomach knowing that it was just plain dumb, a cheap way to shoehorn in backstory. But as I listened to Mary Winn, it began to occur to me that the dream (which I loved very much, although I was embarrassed about it) could actually be used to deliberately drive the story forward.


So here I sit a year later, with four dreams in the story, each one serving the triple purpose of providing backstory, raising stakes, and cranking up the emotional tension for my MC (and, it is to be hoped, the reader). 


And as I finally (finally!!!) reach and pass the tipping point of understanding TNTIBMCBIDWGTWIA, so that I am now merely floundering in the usual writing sense rather than in desperate, give-it-up-you-fool-you-will-never-be-able-to-write-this-book panic, I recall with much gratitude Ingrid Sundberg’s mind-blowing lecture on the architecture of story (you can read some of Ingrid’s ideas at her blog: One of the keys that has helped me move past my ms’ tipping point was seeing my story as not as one plotline, but two–two questions/hooks that have to be kept in the reader’s mind, two that can have their own (perhaps multiple) “threshold scenes” as the book moves into the middle and beyond. 


Here’s Ingrid, bringing to our attention a quote by John Truby, from The Anatomy of Story:


Three act structure and Aristotilean terms (i.e. rising action, climax, denouement) “are so broad and theoretical as to be almost meaningless…they have no practical value for storytellers…[They are] surprisingly narrow…extremely theoretical and difficult to put into practice…Three act structure is hopelessly simplistic and in many ways just plain wrong.”


To this I say, “Yeah. Yeah! Thank you, Ingrid!”


I never know, going into residency, which lectures will have a seed that sparks an idea for me, or gets me over a writing hump, or introduces me to a new writer, or affirms an instinct I was leery of trusting. Sure, we get a list of lecture titles and descriptions beforehand, but you never really know. The deliciousness of the grab bag lies in the range and depth of its surprises.


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2 responses to “Grab Bag by A.M. Jenkins

  1. Yes! I’m excited, too! It’s inspiring to think we students aren’t the only ones learning . . . If our advisers are still learning, it pretty much guarantees that we will never, ever get “bored” with our writing careers, yes?

    Thanks for the inspiration, Amanda. I aspire to be as tenacious and forever as hungry to discover as as you are.

  2. Ingrid and Mary Winn are both awesome, and have inspired me in my WiP. (I miss VCFA!) Ingrid helped me realize that I never gave much careful though to my plot structure. I just went with a well-known structure and ran with it. And Mary Winn helped me realize that I could include dreams in my story to help with the theme.

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