Friday, March 11, 2011

Allen Wold's Workshop- Creating a Barbed Hook

Stellar Con part 1- the Allen Wold workshop.

Allen Wold assigned the workshop members to take ten minutes and write a hundred word hook to a story.  I arrived late and Allen took me out in the hall to explain that they'd already started and he didn't allow people who weren't participating to sit in. Did I understand?

Me (all paraphrased, of course)- Absolutely. I'm so sorry for interrupting.

Allen Wold- The assignment is to write a hundred words introducing a character, a conflict, a setting and a hook. We can't have spectators, only those participating can be in room.

Me- Yep. *hangs head, feels mopey for missing out*

Allen Wold- So do you think you can do that?

Me- Wha-at? You mean I can there? In the workshop?

Allen Wold- Um, yeah.

We shake hands and I thank him, then ask him to repeat the four parts, explaining that I didn't realize he was letting me stay.

Allen Wold's thoughts (purely conjecture)- Why else do you think I was explaining the assignment to you!?

So, I got a seat on the edge of the room behind a very awkwardly placed column- awkardly placed as in near the center of the room, so in a way, everyone had a seat behind the column. Then we all listened as workshoppers read their pieces and the panel (Allen Wold, Danny Birt, Barbara Friend Ish, Debra Killeen, and Darcy Wold.) commented after each reading.

Here's my first draft-

The needle presses into my finger as I force it through the canvas. I sway with the waves and pull the material tighter, knowing that however neat my stitches, the saltwater wil rot the canvas, same as it rots the lines on our ship.
A cannonball at my father's feet will pull his body down to the ocean floor, same as it had my mother's two years before. The sharks will feed, but I keep my needle moving.
A hundred words in ten minutes is about ten words a minute- not a big deal, right? I was able to string together 60. It was harder than I expected to write on real paper, plus I was all jazzed up from walking in late and feeling embarrassed. But I though it was okay.

The feedback-

My apologies for not including name tags, but I was listening too hard to take notes on who said what, so if I remember, I've included it, but they were pretty much in agreement.

-present tense, REALLY? Never ever use present tense unless it's completely necessary.

-nice detail with the rotting lines.

-Danny Birt commented that he thought the needle pressing into the flesh was going a different direction (like self-mutilation) at first.

-Allen asked me if I'd ever been on a boat, emphasized how important it is to write what you know. Not, he said, that anything was wrong with my details, just to be careful. He also asked if I'd been shipwreked. Yes to boating- I grew up fishing in the Gulf and Keys on my dad's boat (so, for instance, I know how to disembowel a Florida lobster using his own antennae. It's as gross in real life as you're thinking it sounds.), but no to being shipwrecked.

-Someone else commented that perhaps crabs would be more likely than sharks to eat a dead body on the ocean floor. I think I could support sharks- they are scavengers and sharks are found with rotting body parts in them all the time, and I was thinking that once the canvas bag rots, the body would float (I think it takes six weeks for a body to decompose enough to become buoyant. Or is it six days?) Anyway, I agree that crabs sound more likely.

-Several people commented on the fact that there is no larger plot, nowhere to go. It's a vignette, not an intro to a larger story. True.

The revision- (about 200 words)
The needle presses into my flesh as I force it through the canvas. I sway with the waves and pull the material tighter, knowing that however neat my stitches, the saltwater will rot the canvas same as it rots the lines on our ship. No, it’s not our ship anymore. It was never really mine. 
This crew won’t straighten their backs and pause, waiting for my nod. I don’t have my father’s steely gaze, his iron arms. Excepting me and this mutinous bucket, all he’s left is his blade, too heavy for my thin arms to wield.
I tuck a cannonball gently between my father’s cold feet, though it matters little whether I am rough or not. When they slide him down the board and he lies down with the crabs, he'll feel nothing. I pull the stitches tight, then tie off. The cabin will go to the next captain, so I poke around for a keepsake to take with me. 
There's an old hatbox in the cabinet, and, opening it, I discover letters my mother wrote and other personal affects. I blow my long, tangled hair out of my face. No one nags me anymore to present myself better than a night siren.
My heart doesn't believe that he's gone.
My head believes that crabs must eat, too.
My heart tells me to be gentle with this canvas bundle.
My head tells me to load my mother’s gun.

Allen Wold explained that there's a difference between a hook and a barbed hook. A hook catches the reader's attention and makes them want to read on. A barb turns everything you thought you knew upside down and compels you to continue. It's a flip in perspective, a flip in meaning.

That's what I've tried to do here. The girl is mourning. She's preparing her father's body for burial at sea. She's vulnerable. She's weak.

But she has a gun.

I get what the panel said about present tense being so hard to pull off and usually unnecessary, but I don't know that I'm going to do anything else with this story, and I didn't want to bother. Is that sad? I did try to switch the POV to third person past, and that POV didn't work- the emphasis on "our" was too involved to translate into third, so I left it.

And check out Teresa Frohock's piece from this workshop- it gives me chills! She was asking for anyone else who participated to send her a link, so there may be more on her blog from other participants.

Any thought on hooks vs barbed hooks? What's the best hook you ever read?

PS- I'm sure you're all just as upset as I am about the earthquake in Japan and the tsunamis. If you are looking for a way to help, consider making a donation to LDS Humanitarian Aid. Because they are staffed by missionaries and the church provides buildings and warehouses, 100% of the donations reaches those affected in a disaster. Supplies are distributed to all in need, regardless of religious affilitaion and usually in conjunction with the Red Cross and other secular and government organizations.

The cool thing about LDS humanitarian aid is that they preposistion caches of food, water, and medical supplies all over the world, so wherever a disaster strikes, relief isn't far away (which allowed them to be first responders after Hurricane Katrina and after the Haiti earthquake, among others.) Plus they use Paypal! You can set up a monthly donation in any amount if you want. That's all. End of message;)

Happy Writing!


  1. I just started a new project, and despite being scared to death of comments like the one you got, I'm writing it in present tense. Necessary? I think so. I have my reasons. (Rant: I think writing in past tense is weirder than present. We think in present tense, we act in present tense, and most of the writing normal people do is present tense. Take this comment and your blog, for example.)

    I love the barb, by the way. I think it really works. Thanks for that post.

  2. Thanks for sharing what you learned at the workshop. Your hook was intriguing.

    I feel so bad for the people in Japan and will donate to the church's humanitarian aid.

  3. Hey Ben- I know what you mean. Does anybody read the Hunger Games and say "too bad it's in present tense?" *shrugs* Nope. It's just a good story.
    Good luck with your WIP. My new project is in present tense so far, but I'm not sure if it will stay that way. Like you, I have my reasons for trying it- one character is in the present, one is from the past, and I think it will help the reader separate their stories.

    Hi Jen- thanks for not laughing;) It's still a rough draft, doesn't have the flow I'd like it to. And Japan-so sad.

  4. Thanks for sharing. I would have been freaking out if he took me out in the hall like a kid in trouble. You handled it very well, and I love your hook! Very cool idea. :)

    I'm so thankful our church has a humanitarian aid program. Those people in Japan are going to need it. :(

  5. Hey Chantele- I blush really easily, so it wasn't as graceful as I would have liked. But I was REALLY late- like 30 minutes, so it was the price of admission.

    And I'm grateful for the humanitarian aid program, too. It's so much better to be able to do something than to watch the tv and feel helpless. My donation wasn't much, but is was something.