Wednesday, May 4, 2011

And I Heard Some Wise Words Over at the Festival

Before I get to the good stuff, let me first bemoan the fact that there was no kettle corn at the L.A. Times Festival of Books. HOW COULD THERE BE NO KETTLE CORN!?! Why do they think I show up to these things? Besides, you know, the books and book-related activities, including the extremely funny Demetri Martin answering audience questions and reading excepts from his book, This Is a Book.

My sister usually goes to the Festival with me, but she ditched me this year because she couldn’t go on Sunday and there was no one who interested her making an appearance on Saturday. But c’mon, sister, it’s all free! Isn’t free an agreeable price to learn about some new and interesting books? To hear some wisdom from authors that you’re not familiar with, but might have some great things to say anyway?

I thought so, and I was right. They had some wise words. I took notes. And because you’re awesome, I shall share some of what I found interesting with you.

Fiction: The Experimental Epic

I wasn’t familiar with any of the authors participating in my first panel of the weekend, but I got a lot out attending just the same. Sitting on this panel was doctor-by-day/author-by-night Chris Adrian who wrote about a floating hospital, Karen Tei Yamashita who for her novel spent ten years researching San Francisco’s Asian-American community following the civil rights era, and Adam Levin who described his book as, “There’s this kid who people think might be the awaited Jewish Messiah...It’s a comedy.”

At the moderator’s prompting, the panelists discussed what they thought “experimental epic” meant. They mostly won’t sure, but two out of three agreed, experimental=weird.

Adrian’s passed on lots of great advice he received from his mentor, the first of which was to read Strunk and White’s Elements of Style. Twice a year. His reason? You have to learn the rules before you can break them. My favorite piece of advice from this panel was that “as the story gets stranger in fiction, the emotional reality has to become stronger for the reader.” That probably struck a chord with me because sometimes my fiction does some strange things.

Yamashita praised the small press who publishes her. They’ve always been open to her experimental tendencies and have kept all her books in print. I thought it interesting that she wasn’t formally trained and didn’t know what “workshopping” a piece of fiction was until after she’d started teaching creative writing. She came into experimental fiction through “trying other voices.”

Levin’s novel “started with voice that could do fun prosy things, then needed to add a plot. Voice comes first.” He stated that he can’t explain how to do plot or teach rules about it. Instead, he suggests thinking “about intensity in a general sense that makes you look at specific words or scenes.” Cut scenes don’t make the book more intense as you go into the climax.

Levin further talked about characters and his use of humor saying he only used one or two flat, stock characters in his book. All his characters want something and have backstory. If they do something funny it has to advance the story. And in case you’re interested, an example of one of those rare flat characters is a security guard that barely says anything.

I’ll post about the young adult panels I attended later on this week. I also went to some comics/graphic novel panels. For more on what I learned there (and actually I think there are some nuggets of advice that novelist can draw from as well as comic book folks) click here.

And don’t forget about Free Comic Book Day this Saturday. You should check if your local comic book store will have some titles to give away (check here for international participating comic book shops) because—I mean, seriously, free stuff! If you’re not sure whether on not you’d be into comics, consider this your chance to try it out at no cost to you.


  1. Thanks for posting all the stuff you learned by going to this festival. I agree with you...what's up with the kettlecorn. You know, it's been a while since I picked up the Strunk & White book. Maybe it couldn't hurt to brush up on some of it.

  2. I haven't even held a copy of that book since, um... the 7th grade? I don't know if I'm dedicated enough to grammar to read it any time soon. (Bad writer! Bad! Bad!) I just constantly look things up at grammar girl;~)