Last week I made a series of posts about my experience attending the Community of Writers at Squaw Valley. To wrap up my conference reporting, I'm going to present some of the many, many bits of wisdom I scribbled down over the course of the week.
I'm attributing these ideas to the people who shared the advice or inspiration, but nothing should be considered a direct quotation. I've taken what I wrote down in my notebook, which was usually a paraphrase to start with, and then transformed the notes into actual sentences. It's also possible I've made some attribution errors if I noted the wrong speaker during a panel or if a person was passing on a suggestion from someone else. So approach this list as a general impression of things that were said rather than a transcript.
With that caveat, enjoy these lessons from Squaw Valley! (For even more, check out Squaw Valley's WRITERS WORKSHOP IN A BOOK.)
On living the writing life:
→ Amanda Eyre Ward: The people who go home from the conference, write every day, and believe in themselves are the ones who will succeed.
→ Martin J. Smith: Writing is the worst-paying career he's ever had, but the best-paying hobby. He's always kept his other day job, because it gives him freedom in his writing by separating the money part from the creative part.
→ Janet Fitch: The people in your life will respond to your level of seriousness about your writing. Make clear that you find your writing time valuable, and they will find it valuable and allow you to have it. Much of writing is defending your time.
→ Martin J. Smith: You need a hide like a rhinoceros, and you need persistence. You know what you're trying to do in your story. If feedback rings true, take it to heart. If not, let it bounce off your rhino hide.
On getting the words out:
→ Amy Tan: She isn't good at explaining what her work-in-progress is about. It's like performing an autopsy on a story coming alive, and she fears the story will die of exposure.
→ Martin J. Smith: His magic formula for what it takes to pursue your dream can be conveyed in four words: "Ten hours a week." That's enough to accomplish something.
→ Janet Fitch: You can't think about writing a whole novel. Instead write a scene, and a scene, and a scene.
→ Teresa Jordan: Her father would say everyone should be allowed to have an experimental child and then drown it. For novels, this is actually practical to do.
→ Janet Fitch: Writing develops a shell when it sits for a while, and it becomes harder to crack into. Check in on your work every day, even just to clean up a few sentences.
On authorial authority:
→ Michael Carlisle: You don't need a license to write, but you do need authority. Readers will pick up a text expecting it to work, and you can't let them down. If there's confusion (in workshop, for example) about what's happening in story, the author has lost control and has to figure out what will regain it.
→ Karen Joy Fowler: There are things to make the reader work for, and things not to make the reader work for. Choose wisely.
→ Sands Hall: As both writer and critiquer, ask of a story: Does the reader need to know this information yet? Or ever?
On story structure:
→ Gregory Spatz: When he gets to the end of a story, he wants to feel that the end and the beginning know each other.
→ Janet Fitch: In a scene, ideally something happens that's irrevocable, and afterwards the characters can't go back to the way it was before. A scene should start with one emotion and end with another, and each scene should have a different emotional journey.
→ Karen Joy Fowler: If you receive feedback that a story ends too quickly, you can either slow down the ending or speed up the beginning.
On crafting dialogue:
→ Dana Johnson: Everybody always wants something. When a character speaks, it must be because they want something, not because you as the writer want them to say something. People never precisely say (or even know) what they want, so a direct request should never be the starting point of a scene, but tension may be created by a character being forced into getting specific.
→ Josh Weil: In first level dialogue, characters say exactly what they mean. This is less interesting. In second level dialogue, both the characters and the reader know what they mean, but they're talking about something else. This is what you'll use most often in writing. On the third and rarer level of dialogue, the reader knows what's really going on but the characters don't yet.
→ Karen Joy Fowler: Dialogue is a very poor vehicle for plot, but a great vehicle for characterization. Dialogue is the part of the story where she allows herself not to be purposeful. Think of the scene in Pulp Fiction where they're talking about the irrelevant subject of hamburgers, and the conversation is in there because it's dissonant to what they're in the process of doing.
→ Mark Childress: When writing dialect, if you want the reader to feel part of the community that uses it, don't make it difficult to read.
On paying attention to details:
→ Janet Fitch: What is a cliche? Everything you have ever heard before is a cliche. Even objects can be a cliche, if you always encounter this object in this setting. There are cliche ways of describing a particular type of character, and cliche lines of dialogue. If there's a line that anyone could say, nobody should say it.
→ Karen Joy Fowler: In writing settings, she has learned not to take her first impulse, because it's usually pulled out of generic imagery. Look for something more specific and different, the detail you would not have known if you hadn't been there yourself.
→ Michael Carlisle: Read your work aloud, and if you read it a little differently than how it's written, maybe that's a better way to write it.
Good Stuff Out There:
→ At Jezebel, Kate Dries looks at the phenomenon of parodying William Carlos Williams on Twitter: "'This Is Just To Say' is magical because of this personal, endless quality to it. That quality is something that has been taken advantage of in a medium like Twitter, where people have endlessly broken the poem down and repurposed it for their own jokes and commentary." (Thanks, The Millions!)