If there is one silver lining of the pandemic, it has to be the shift in virtual learning. While platforms like Zoom were available long before COVID-19 hit us, the pandemic forced us to see virtual learning in a new light. We realized that productive virtual learning is possible. While there certainly are challenges, opportunities are abundant too. We can now converse with people from all over the globe and get experts right in front of us from many different continents (we only have to manage the time zone!). And that’s how I was able to listen to the ideas of Edgar award-winning writer Vivian Vande Velde at Bal Sahitya Mahotsav 2022.
Vivian joined us on the evening of 26th February 2022 straight from her home for a session on writing and storytelling. Spring had settled in; I wrapped myself in a blanket, fixed my computer in front, and was ready to travel to a different dimension. The title of her session, ‘Who Are These People, and What Are They Doing in My Story?’ made everyone in the zoom room curious about what would happen next. Vivian writes fiction for children and young adults. Her stories often have elements of fantasy. Some of her books are: A Hidden Magic, Remembering Raquel, Heir Apparent (the list is super long as Vivian is a prolific writer, do check her website for the complete list).
I was shocked-surprised to learn that Vivian’s book was rejected 32 times, yes 32 times, before the 33rd publisher finally accepted it. She unwrapped her writing journey and shared some nuggets of wisdom, one of which was that if someone says things are moving too slow, understand that the reader is getting bored.
Next, we had a short writing workshop where Vivian shared a series of questions that acted as prompts. Here are a few. Pull out a scratch pad, a writing device, or anything you can write on and try out these questions that might help you create characters for a story, find a scene, or brainstorm.
a. Name three things about yourself, perhaps things you are an expert in.
b. Describe a scene.
Use your five senses
Start with the sense that feels the most important and build on it
c. Pick an image
Take pictures from the internet or elsewhere as a source of inspiration. Take pictures of people you don’t know and observe them. Ask: Does it spark something? I loved this prompt. I am now ensuring my Pinterest cat tab is always on!
d. How to build a character?
Give your character a name, age
– What makes your character happy?
– What makes your character sad?
– What makes your character angry?
– Name one thing your character is good at
– Is there something your character is hiding?
– What is something about the character that you know but the character doesn’t?
Vivian briefly touched on the complexity of characters in stories. ‘Don’t make your villain too evil. Nobody is being bad for being bad. People are being bad to go forward, to win, to do something,’ she said. Some of the most memorable antagonists in literature and cinema are filled with complexities. One character that I can instantly recall is Darth Vader from the sci-fi epic Star Wars. During my long holidays after grade 10 examinations, I had decided to binge-watch the Star Wars saga. Binge-watching was not yet even a thing then!
Star Wars introduced me to the grey area of characters – a break from the usually simplistic labels of good and bad. Darth Vader starts his journey as the young Anakin Skywalker, the chosen one, who is supposed to bring balance. However, that is not how he ends up. Anakin treads into the dark path and becomes one of the most iconic antagonists ever – Darth Vader, a complex and fascinating character discussed over and over. Why did Anakin Skywalker turn to the dark side is a question that will always intrigue me. It closely ties up with what Vivian said – nobody is being bad for being bad. Anakin had his reasons, his perceptions. (Here’s an explainer video from Star War Theory channel.)
The final segment of the session, the Q&A, was a delightful experience, especially, because of the variety of questions that came from the students. It was heartwarming to see young children asking analytical questions that helped us witness many other aspects of Vivian’s writing journey. What truly touched me was how interested the students were in the author herself. They were not just curious about how to write better, they wanted to know Vivian better.
I noted a few questions, and I am keeping this list as a reference to ask such wonderful questions in future sessions, especially on days when I am feeling as though I could not have asked anything interesting!
- Which is your favorite book that you have written?
- Which part of the book do you start writing with?
- How do you find your style?
- What is something new you learned about while writing your books?
- Who is your favorite character from your books? Why?
Vivian’s session gave me ideas to build characters from scratch and to find inspiration in unexpected places. The real challenge now is to write.
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