The first Winter Wheat Literary Festival was held in Portage la Prairie on Saturday. It was conceived and put together by my author friend Leia Getty and Portage librarian Lori Mackadenski, who tapped local playwright Chris Kitchen to act as moderator. The winter weather was bitterly cold, but we still got some guests. Not just random attendees who wandered in to see what the noise was, or to grab free snacks or put in for a door prize; we had budding writers with keen questions. We were asked where we get our character names, what we do about writer’s block and how we go about building a story.
We talked about the choice between planning a story and seat-of-the-pants writing. Many authors plan a beginning and an end, and frame the key scenes in between. Pantsers generally write from the beginning to the end and let the characters and situations lead them from one scene to the next. Both of these methods have adherents. Ron Hore is a full-blooded pantser. For his Houstrap Chronicles, in which he melds detective noir with fantasy, he starts with a title and goes from there.
I feel that am am neither of those kinds of writer. When I started Avians, I certainly didn’t have a plan, because I didn’t even know I was writing a novel. I wrote an action scene with a girl, a glider and an airship. I enjoyed it so much I wanted to write more, so I spent my falling-asleep time contemplating worlds where those things could work together. I wrote more scenes, and gradually started looking for ways to link them in a cause and effect kind of way. This developed into a plot, and only then did I start work on where to begin and how to end. For a while I assumed I was a pantser who was learning to embrace planning, but it turns out there is a name for what I did. It’s called quilting, because you take the pretty scraps of story and sew them together into a pattern. On the plus side, you get to write the exciting parts first, so you don’t have to slog through the middle. The downside for me was that it took a long time to work out how and where the story should begin.
Chris, our moderator, asked how we name our characters. Leia admitted to a fascination with Gaelic names and mystique, and they permeate her Tower of Obsidian, but she concedes she is sometimes urged to cheat on the spelling to make them easier to pronounce. I like to take names from different backgrounds and meld them into monikers like Kayla Singh and Rukia Antonov.
Ron and I did short readings, and I was pleased to get some questions that showed interest. Because my book release is still eight months away, I was the only participant without a book or a poster to display, but people did take a handful of business cards. I have often worried that because my main character is fourteen, sixteen-year-olds might not want to “read down,” making the YA market a tough one to crack. So I was reassured when a woman of eighteen years said she wanted to read it.
After a snack break, Scott lit up the projector and ran through the process of illustrating a graphic novel. From author notes, he works up thumbnail sketches, then pencil versions, then ink, then finals. The coolest take-away lesson for me was that there were different ways to progress from panel to panel. It was all visual, so in contrast to doing re-writes, it was really easy to see the different ways a story could unfold.
I have just two regrets. Not all of our guest speakers were able to make it, so the plan to have a balanced three men and three women didn’t work out, but although we lost some valuable input, I think we did okay. And I meant to take my copies of books by Ron, Scott and Leia to get them autographed, but I forgot them at home.
What made Winter Wheat fun for me was the audience engagement, both during and after the panels. I think the small scale of the event made personal conversations easier.
One other highlight: when I arrived more than an hour early and made my way to the library’s main desk, I said I was there for Winter Wheat. The librarian asked, “Are you the author?”
I’m pretty sure I’m not the author. But it felt great to say, “I’m an author.”