Posts Tagged ‘Squaw Valley Community of Writers’

Random writing tips from Squaw

August 13, 2011

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. 

At Squaw

August 9, 2011

This place is like Disneyland for writers. Only with Disneyland, you have one, maybe two, days of hyperventilating dawn-to-dusk overstimulation before your parents stuff you back in the car and make you go home. And here it goes on for a week.

I’m up in the Sierra at the Squaw Valley Community of Writers, day three out of six. As my husband put it in an email, “Sounds like your idea of heaven.”

The view from the conference / Photo by Jennifer Murvin Edwards

There are maybe 160 writers here, many from the Bay Area but also many from as far away as Boston and Atlanta. It’s a conference, not a retreat. From 9 in the morning until 10 at night we are talking writing.

The days start with a round-table workshop from 9 to 12.  A dozen of us read and critique short manuscripts from two people each session, led by a different staff person each day – a professional writer, agent, or editor.

The afternoons are filled with three hour-long talks or panels on different aspects of craft. Yesterday we heard Diane Johnson (“Le Divorce”) talking about endings. Then came a panel that included Mark Childress, Dagoberto Gilb, Louis B. Jones and Leslie Daniels talking about creating characters. The previous day there was a fabulous talk by Janet Fitch (“White Oleander”) on dialogue.

Panel with Janet Fitch, Malcolm Margolin, Joy Harris, Andrew Tonkovich and Ben George / Photo by Jennifer Murvin Edwards

Then there are more talks, or readings. Dinner. An evening presentation on still more aspects of writing; two evenings ago it was Childress and Anne Lamott in conversation about the life and craft of writing.

And did I mention that the Squaw Valley Community of Writers is in Squaw Valley? Meaning we are in a wildflower meadow, surrounded by great grey knuckles of Sierra peaks. I’m staying in a rented house with three other participants, and every morning Iook up from my bed to see pine trees.

There are a couple of outstanding and unusual things about this gathering. I suspect it is not an accident that it is called the “Squaw Valley Community” rather than “Squaw Valley Conference.” The atmosphere is friendly, supportive, collegial rather than competitive, pretentious, one-upping. Pretty different from what I remember of my undergraduate writing classes at Harvard!

The level of both critique and writing has been impressively high. In my workshop, people have commented on the work with both insight and respect. No bloody knives. It’s interesting how people writing in vastly different styles (experimental hard-boiled crime; light-hearted coming of age while travelling in Italy etc.) are able to see the other’s work for what it aspires to be, and offer helpful, supportive criticism.

We heard from two panels of agents and editors talking about the publishing industry today, but on the whole the focus is much more on the craft of writing rather than the business of writing.

Tomorrow my own chunk of novel gets the spotlight in our workshop. The next day, I have a one-on-one critique session with writer Elise Blackwell.

But even without anyone having said a word yet about my work, I’ve already learned a ton about dialogue, setting, etc. Just listening to our group critique other people’s chapters that first day allowed me to look at my own chapter in a completely new light. I could go home right now and have fodder for weeks of rewriting.

And this is just day three of six….

The valley of Squaw Valley / Photo by Jennifer Murvin Edwards

Muddle in the middle (of my novel)

July 24, 2011

I’m trying to improve the middle of my novel. When I realized it needed revision, this was the section that called out, “Lifeguard! Police! Somebody! I need help!”

I feel confident in my beginning. And I love my ending.  So it’s just the muddle —  I mean ‘middle” — of the book that needs work.

This isn’t an uncommon problem. Lots of writers run into problems with middles. (Well, so do lots of non-writers but that’s a different kind of middle and it can be addressed through exercise and Weight Watchers.)

James Scott Bell, in his book Plot & Structure, writes:

Writers sometimes refer to the infamous ‘Act II problem,’ which boils down to this: How do you keep the reader interested through that long portion of the novel?

Photo from menwithpens.ca

In my case, I’m still trying to diagnose the problems. I’ve got a bunch of scenes that seem to cascade without enough emotional differentiation. The movement is all in one direction – down, down, down – rather than down-up-down-down-up etc.  There are also probably too many instances where I describe something rather than show it. And feedback from my writing group this week made me take another look at my main character, who may be too passive and just drifting along with events in this section.

Next month I’ll be attending the Squaw Valley Community of Writers – a weeklong conference with dawn-to-dusk critique sections, writers’ panels, workshops, and readings. I’ve heard wonderful things about it and am looking forward not only to inspiration, but perhaps to some discussion of muddled middles.

In the meantime, I turned to my shelf of books about writing and then to what I could find about “middles of novels” on the Internet.

(Classic Web moment: You do a search for “middle of novel” and get a lot of responses that have to do with NOVELS for MIDDLE school students.)

The two best Web posts I found on mid-novel muddles are by a fantasy writer named Hilari Bell. I’d never heard of Bell, and her books aren’t the kind of thing I normally read. But one thing I’ve discovered is that good advice about writing transcends genre. You have to do a little mental translation while you read – a thriller writer may be talking about external threats from terrorists, while your literary novel may involve an internal threat from a failed relationship – but if it’s good advice, it works anywhere.

One of Bell’s posts that hit home for me is about inactive protagonists. Another is about “middle of the novel mud.” They’re somewhat related in that they focus on the need for the main character to act, not drift:

The middle of the novel is, notoriously, a place where writers get bogged down…. Generally, it’s either because they don’t have a big enough problem to drive a whole novel or because their main character is just wandering around while the story happens to them.

This overlapped enough with the comments from my writing group to spark a little “ah ha!” moment.

Now on to some middle-of-the-novel wrestling — or would that be “mid wrestling?”

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Coming Attractions: I’m very excited about my next post — another rabbi interview, this time with Rabbi Andrew Straus, the new senior rabbi at Temple Sinai. I’ve already done the interview, and should be able to post it sometime this week. Stay tuned.