Random writing tips from Squaw

I’m back from the Squaw Valley Community of Writers, feeling a bit like a space station astronaut returning to Earth, exhausted and wobble-legged. Apparently the stock market crashed and rebounded while I was out in orbit. What else happened — wars declared and resolved? Celebrities discovered and abandoned? The Messiah came, looked around, went for a Frappucino?

After my last blog post, some folks asked me to share what I learned about writing from Squaw. Mostly, I gained some new lenses through which to view the sections of my novel that need help. I think the three hours we spent each day critiquing each other’s manuscripts also made me a more attentive reader of other people’s work. (But we’ll let my writing group be the judge of that.)

Here are some snippets of my notes from the week. Pulled out of context, they seem random and trivial. And if you’ve been through an MFA program, they are probably old hat. But they were new and useful to me:

  • Dialogue in fiction is different from dialogue in real life. Tighter, sharper, with every exchange adding to the story in some way. In real life, people spend a lot of time saying things like “Nice earrings.” ” Thanks.” “Where’d you get them?” “Macy’s.” “Really?” “Uh huh.” But if you fill your novel with such stuff, readers won’t need Sominex. Novelist Janet Fitch pointed out that good dialogue is about conflict, reveals character, and illuminates the relationship between the speakers (who is stronger, weaker etc.) “In real conversation, people do everything to avoid conflict,” Fitch said. “In fictional conversation, you want to find the conflict.”
  • Characters who are most similar to you — modeled on you, the author — tend to be flat.
  • The most interesting characters are internally conflicted.
  • Every sentence can probably be shorter. (Thank you, Max Byrd.)
  • When describing a place, don’t just describe that place: Give the protagonist’s sense of that place. (Is that shady forest menacing or relaxing? It’s in the eye of the beholder.) “Use tactile perceptions to tell us about the internal life of a character,” Sands Hall told my workshop group.
  • The final item in a string of adjectives, nouns or anything else is the most powerful. “If you make a list,” Byrd said, “place the most important item at the end.” I flashed on the final line of Tennyson’s poem Ulysses: “To strive, to seek, to find, and not to yield.”
  • Each scene needs to change your main character in some way. This was Janet Fitch again, leading the workshop session that discussed my manuscript. “Once a protagonist has been through a scene, he or she can’t go back to the way they were before,” she said. “If they can go back, you don’t need the scene. A scene needs to start in one place emotionally and end in another.”
  • And more from Fitch: Don’t push the re-set button in fiction. Meaning, don’t have one scene after another where the same thing keeps happening to your protagonist. (I.e., the heroine gets attacked by gnomes and is left injured and confused. Then she gets attacked by rabid wolverines and is even more injured and confused. Then she gets dumped by her boyfriend and BOY is she injured and confused.)
  • Jason Roberts on writing essays: “Every essay addresses a question. But if you have a complete answer, it’s not an essay. It’s a manifesto.”
  • Time and again, we were told the key to being a writer is… writing. That means writing every day, every week, for years, regardless of whether your manuscripts are praised or rejected or utterly ignored by the outside world.
  • Mark Childress: “Writing is about putting your butt in that chair and outlasting the urge to read the New York Times cover to cover or to sign up on Facebook again under a new name.”
  • Anne Lamott: “A writer’s life is about nothing happening for a very, very long time except you sit down in the same place.”
  • And Ron Carlson: “The Internet is the enemy of all writers. Just stay away from it until after two in the afternoon. The Internet is an entertainment and research device for after two in the afternoon.”

Of course, while giving us a week’s worth of rules, the Squaw Valley staff also told us that any rule can be broken for the right reason.

Lynn Freed reminded my workshop group of the famous quote from W. Somerset Maugham:

There are three rules for writing the novel. Unfortunately, no one knows what they are. 

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8 Responses to “Random writing tips from Squaw”

  1. Nicholas Says:

    That was great! I loved the essay.

  2. Janice Dean Says:

    Thanks for sharing, Ilana. Interestingly, I’ve heard my best friend, who recently finished her doctoral dissertation, assert many of these same principles. How neat!

  3. Audrey Ferber Says:

    Heard all this before but it’s oh so helpful to hear again!

  4. Wendy Tokunaga Says:

    Thanks for the great notes and glad to hear that you had a wonderful time. :-)

  5. lindseycrittenden Says:

    I’m going to lift a few of these for the old bulletin board! (And the notes for my next class!) So glad you had a good week, Ilana!

    • Ilana DeBare Says:

      I felt very fortunate at Squaw that I not only was able to get great input from the critique sessions there, but have ongoing feedback through the year at such a high level — thanks to you guys (Lindsey, Wendy, Audrey, Monica, Beth)!

  6. Krista Minard Says:

    Ilana, I don’t think our paths crossed last week–I was in workshop 7–but I just wanted to say thank you for posting this. It’s a delightful summary of a truly magical week! Now if real life would just give me more than scattered 20-minute intervals so I could put all last week’s inspiration to good use!

    • Ilana DeBare Says:

      Hi Krista! I don’t think we met either, but it’s nice to meet you in the cyber-ether. I was lucky enough to have two free days this week without work deadlines, and with family out of town so I was able to plunge in. But then life resumed and it is back to squeezing in the (unpaid) writing.

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