July 30, 2013

Starting Jane Austen

It's been a while since my last post related to my START HERE project, but I've been proceeding with the next couple of authors, though it's taken a while to finish in the midst of all my other reading, writing, and conference-attending.

I started reading Jane Austen prior to embarking on this project, but it was only last year. When I read PRIDE AND PREJUDICE, I was very pleasantly surprised to discover a classic that I actually enjoyed.

PRIDE AND PREJUDICE is funny. It has a nicely constructed plot that keeps the story moving along in a compelling way. It offers a look at the stifling social customs of 200 years ago, and while these are strange and foreign to readers today, the commentary on the annoying ways people behave is perfectly relevant and identifiable. (For those familiar with the book, I recommend this Slate Book Club discussion of the story and why it remains popular.)

The reading pathway for Austen, suggested by Amanda Nelson, starts with SENSE AND SENSIBILITY and puts PRIDE AND PREJUDICE second. Now that I've read SENSE AND SENSIBILITY, I have to disagree with that ordering, because if it had been my first Austen, I wouldn't have the same feeling of finally understanding why her work has stood up through time.

SENSE AND SENSIBILITY is Austen's first novel, and maybe that's why it didn't hold my attention nearly as well as her next book. I often found the story slow going, and I wasn't as invested in the outcomes of the various romances that form the plot.

Still, the sarcastic social commentary is in there and is the book's big strength. I enjoyed cringing along with the main character as she experiences the unpleasantness of being forced to spend time with tiresome people. I just would have preferred that the novel didn't dwell quite so long on making this point.

I guess I haven't mentioned what either of these novels are about. Most people are probably already aware that both focus on the question of who is going to marry who, while demonstrating the economic importance to an upper-class woman of making a good match. In my opinion these aren't particularly romantic stories -- the characters never have an opportunity to get to know each very well before declaring their love, because that's how society worked at the time -- so I don't recommend either reading or rejecting Austen based on whether you're interested in a love story. The books are really about how a particular part of the social structure works and how people manage to find even a little bit of love within its constraints.

The third book in the pathway is EMMA. I do intend to read it, but not right away.

Good Stuff Out There:

→ Ann Morgan completed A Year of Reading the World and relates what she learned from the experience: "In the hands of gifted writers, I discovered, bookpacking offered something a physical traveller could hope to experience only rarely: it took me inside the thoughts of individuals living far away and showed me the world through their eyes." (Thanks, Louise!)

July 26, 2013

Not Bad At All

I'll admit I had some concerns that when I got back from Squaw Valley and looked at my novel in the light of everything I learned, I was going to want to rip it apart and embark on a new giant revision. You'll all be relieved to hear that this is not the case. I'm still pleased with the state of the manuscript as it stands. I do plan to make some changes to the beginnings of the storylines based on feedback I received, but beginnings are always problematic things that need a million rounds of tinkering, so this is no big setback.

It took me a while after returning from the conference to actually get back to work, but I've been plugging away these last couple of days, and it's going great. What I'm doing now is what I've been doing for the past few months (with quite a few chunks of time off for travel and other activities): fixing continuity errors and tightening things up and dealing with all the other miscellaneous issues that crop up during two years of rewriting. I'm making excellent progress, and it won't be long now.

Today I added in a bunch of minor details that needed to be set up sooner than they were. I was pleased with how I worked these in. I trimmed some conversations that went on too long and fixed some sentences that didn't quite mean what I wanted them to.

Most excitingly, I read a scene that made me teary-eyed and another that made me laugh. I think I've got something good here.

Good Stuff Out There:

→ Scott Lynch offers a strongly worded reminder that there is no shortcut to being good: "How long does the process of hard work + self-awareness + perseverance take? I don't know; how long is a string? There is no RIGHT path. There is no IDEAL way. There is no PROPER length of time. There is only your right path, your ideal way, your proper length of time."

July 23, 2013

Wisdom From Squaw Valley

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.

July 19, 2013

Feedback From Squaw Valley

Yesterday I wrote about how the workshops are structured at the Community of Writers at Squaw Valley. As I mentioned, we had a wide variety in our group in terms of writer experience level and the style and content of the work under consideration. Approximately half of the manuscripts we critiqued were short stories and half were chapters from novels.

Though I spend most of my time noveling, I've been getting more interested in short stories lately and have been trying to read and write more of them. I was aware that it's less complicated to workshop a complete story rather than a piece of a larger work, so I decided to challenge myself to write a new story I could bring to the conference. I wrote one during the couple of weeks beforehand. I thought it was pretty good and was curious how others would respond.

When I arrived at Squaw, I learned that my story would be workshopped on the final day. At first I was concerned that I would spend all week in nervous anticipation, but I soon decided it would be nice to wait and hear feedback after already knowing a lot about the general tastes of each group member. And honestly, since I'd written the story so recently, I didn't have as much invested in it as I might have if I'd submitted a chapter from my novel. So I didn't stress about it.

During the conference we received some great advice about workshops from several of the staff members. We heard that while there's value in having your work critiqued by others, it's by far more useful to be the one giving feedback. The reason for this is that when a writer suggests improvements to a story, they are really stating how they would change the piece if they were writing it. But the author under critique doesn't want to write more like someone else, and the advice often doesn't wind up being applicable to their manuscript as written by them. The advice giver is the one who benefits, by thinking about an assortment of stories and forming opinions about strengths and weaknesses that can later be applied to their own writing.

This isn't to say that all workshop feedback should be ignored. It's up to the writer to decide what suggestions to take and how to implement the ideas. We heard that the best advice might be the stuff that resonates right away (you already knew it was a problem), but it can also be the feedback that you're angry about hearing until two months later when you realize it was right (deep down, you really knew it was a problem). One leader said that if we use five percent of the critique we receive, we had a really good workshop.

So, what did I hear when my story was workshopped? Overall, people liked my story, and they had a ton of suggestions for how to make it better. I think that's the best possible outcome of a workshop. There was some good debate about various aspects of the characterization and plot, and I've written down a bunch of conflicting opinions about scenes to shorten or lengthen or add or delete. It'll take me some time to go through all the notes and marked-up manuscripts and compile all the information, and then I expect I'll put the story aside for a while, but I think eventually it could become something much stronger than it is.

July 18, 2013

Squaw Valley Overview

I spent last week attending the writers workshop run by the Community of Writers at Squaw Valley. Yesterday I reported on some highlights, and today I'm going to cover the basics of how the conference is run.

First off, as I discussed a couple months ago, I did have to apply and be accepted in order to attend this program. Then I had to pay a sizable fee for tuition and housing. I feel fortunate that I was able to afford this (and even pay extra for my own room and private bathroom), and I'm happy to say that I also feel I got my money's worth. Scholarships are available, and from talking to people I got the impression that financial aid was offered to a fair number of participants. Details about all this stuff is available on the FAQ.

The conference was held at the Squaw Valley ski resort, with all the events taking place in one large building that serves as the main dining and drinking area for skiers during the winter. Lodging is either at the Squaw Valley condos (The Village) or in vacation rental houses nearby. I had very convenient housing in the condo building closest to the meeting area, so my commute was the shortest possible, about a two-minute walk. Some people were a mile or more away and had to either walk that or drive in each day. I shared my condo with two other women, and we had a good time hanging out in the evenings.

Each morning from 9 to noon was spent in workshop. I was with the same group of 12 workshop members all week, but every day we had a different staff member lead our discussion. This gave us the opportunity to benefit from a variety of perspectives and discussion styles. The organizers clearly took great care in arranging the schedule of group leaders so that every workshop had a chance to work with an editor and an agent as well as several types of writers.

For each workshop session, two manuscripts were up for critique, and the bulk of the morning was devoted to discussing these, though often the leaders also gave some time over to a small lecture or writing exercise. The schedule of manuscripts was set in advance, and again there was a deliberate system behind which participants were paired with which professionals.

I'm sure effort also went into assembling a workshop group that included a variety of backgrounds, writing styles, and experience levels. As I said yesterday, my group worked together very well despite having such a mix of people. Over the course of the week, we got to know each other's tastes and opinions, and many of us left with ideas about who we'd like to exchange work with in the future.

July 17, 2013

Squaw Valley Highlights

I'm back from the Squaw Valley Writers Workshop, and wow, is my brain full. I had an amazing time, and I learned so much.

Before I start reporting on my week, though, I have to mention something even more exciting. Yesterday, my new nephew made his way into the world. It was very thoughtful of him to wait until I was home and had the day free to do nothing but wait eagerly for news of his arrival. I'm looking forward to going back east to meet him -- and play with his big brother again -- later this summer.

I have so many things to say about Squaw Valley that I plan to do a series of posts over the next few days. I thought I'd start off with a list of high points, and later I'll go into more detail about various aspects of the conference.

In no particular order, the highlights:

→ I spent three hours every morning with a dozen people tasked with pointing out faults, and it was wonderful. I really lucked out in having such a smart, insightful workshop group that got along well.

→ I got to speak casually with several authors I already admired and some others I didn't yet know I was in awe of.

→ A successful novelist read the first chapter of my novel, praised it repeatedly, and then told me why it's not the right place for the book to start. She blew my mind with her brilliant idea for a better opening, and now I can't wait to get back to work. The best news? It doesn't involve changing everything!

→ For eight days, pretty much every conversation I had was about writing and books. It was heaven.

→ The writers, editors, and agents who make up the staff shared their wisdom and talent in panels and readings so compelling that I attended almost every one, despite the warning that it wasn't possible to do everything.

→ I witnessed Amy Tan playing the ukelele and chatted with her about The Rock Bottom Remainders. (She also gave a couple of inspiring talks.)

→ Whenever I went outside, I got to gaze at gorgeous mountain scenery, and during our afternoon off, I had time to both visit one of the peaks and get down to the Lake Tahoe shoreline. Photo album here.

More to come about the format of the conference, the process of receiving feedback, and the knowledge I gained.

Good Stuff Out There:

→ At Beyond The Margins, Kim Triedman offers advice on how to prepare your loved ones for your book release: "People will take umbrage at things you never even imagined could be offensive. Your agent will quietly bristle at the way you describe the inner workings of the publishing world. Your neighbor will take offense at the ugly living room furniture you describe, recognizing it -- correctly or incorrectly -- as her own. Your sister will assume that all the emotional dysfunction you've heaped on the fictional sister in your book is your way of getting back at her for being the free-loader in the family."

July 5, 2013

Workshop Around The Corner

Well, I finished up that short story I was writing, so now I'm all ready to head to the Squaw Valley Writers Workshop on Monday morning. I'm so excited!

The schedule for next week is completely packed with workshops, talks, panel discussions, and opportunities to learn from other writers. I expect it will be a little overwhelming at times, but it should also be amazing. Hopefully somewhere in there I'll find enough free time to check out Lake Tahoe (I've never been!) and the gorgeous surroundings.

Besides that, I don't have much else to report. Up until I switched my attention to the short story, I was hard at work on my novel. Recently I've made some great improvements that really pull things together.

Right now I'm in the midst of a long holiday weekend, enjoying time with my loved ones before I leave for a week. I hope all of you are also getting a few days to relax and have fun.

I'm sure I'll have a million things to talk about when I get back from the workshop. Until then, stay cool, and stay cool!

Good Stuff Out There:

→ The Guardian Books Blog is creating a literary clock of quotes from literature that mention specific times. They already have quite a collection and are looking for more submissions.

→ Minh Le of Book Riot crunches the numbers on lists of favorite novels, most-hated novels, and the books people keep meaning to read.

July 1, 2013

Book Catchup

I feel like I've been cramming books into my eyes nonstop over here, though most days I actually don't get to read as much as I want because I have to devote time to writing, and also to occasionally interacting with my loved ones. But I have been doing a lot of reading, especially during my recent travels. As a result, I have various half-written book-related posts in the pipeline, including more from my START HERE project, which I haven't forgotten about. Those will be coming later in the month.

Today, I'm catching up with a few quick recommendations of books I've read in the past couple of months. If you follow me on Goodreads, you may have already seen these, but I wanted to share them on the blog as well.

NOT SO LONG AGO, NOT SO FAR AWAY by Trisha Slay - Erika is a shy, awkward teenager in a small Ohio town in 1977, and her already crummy life has just gotten worse. Her best (and only) friend runs away from home, leaving Erika to deal with the fallout. Her controlling, criticizing mother is treating her more awfully than ever. And the kids at school taunt her through the final days of the school year. But everything changes for Erika when she sees the hit movie of the summer. Star Wars gives Erika a new hope, and all she wants to do is watch it over and over, so she volunteers at the local theater in exchange for unlimited viewings. There she meets the band of rebels who will become her friends, learns that some of the problems she's facing are more complicated than she thought, and also discovers that she has the power to fight back.

Erika and the other characters in this book are wonderful and multi-dimensional. I felt great sympathy for Erika in her struggles and kept rooting for her to recognize her own great qualities. Her emotions often seemed excessive to me, but I think it's an accurate portrayal for an adolescent character. The story has several subplots that work well together, including some romance and a bit of a mystery about what's going on in Erika's town. It always kept me engaged. The book is written for teens but can be enjoyed by anyone.

Trisha was one of my local NaNoWriMo buddies, though she's since moved away. She started this novel during NaNo long ago, and I'm glad that after years of effort on the book, she's released it into the world. Congrats, Trisha!

HOW TO GET FILTHY RICH IN RISING ASIA by Mohsin Hamid is a beautifully written work with an intriguing style and structure, though it falls short of fully succeeding as a novel. As the title suggests, HOW TO GET FILTHY RICH IN RISING ASIA pretends to be a self-help guide. It's a good premise, and I enjoyed the clever self-consciousness of the narrator who provides the instructions.