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.

In addition to my workshop, I had two other opportunities to get feedback, both about portions of my novel. Every participant at Squaw Valley is matched with a staff member for a short individual conference to discuss a piece of writing submitted in advance. I had sent in my first chapter and a synopsis of my novel, and I was matched with a novelist who tends to write historical fiction spanning several generations, which is relevant to my manuscript.

She was very complimentary about my writing and the strength of the characters and situation in my excerpt, so I got to glow for a while over that. Then we talked about how the chapter works as the opening of my book. Based on feedback I've received before, I was concerned that the story opens in a challenging place that makes some readers unwilling to get into the narrator's head. She pointed out that a bigger problem is that the opening doesn't do a good job of setting up what the novel as a whole is about. It's a story about a family in a particular setting over time, and the first chapter has a narrow focus that doesn't include much of that. We talked about putting something else before this first chapter that provides a better introduction, and she came up with a very clever idea for an introductory passage that could set things up. The more I thought about it, the more I saw how it might work and fit in with what I already had. I'm wary of prologues (they have a bad reputation because they are often employed poorly), but I think one might be justified in this case, and I'm excited to try writing it.

The other place where I got to test out some of my writing was at the optional open workshop held every afternoon. Attendees were selected by random drawing to read a couple of pages aloud. The listeners broke into groups to discuss the reading, and then a spokesperson from each group reported back on the collected feedback. A supportive community formed among those who kept attending the open workshop, and it was a fun chance for critique with a very different format than the morning workshop.

I was picked one day, and I read from the first appearance of one of my narrators (not the one in the opening chapter discussed above). I'd revised this section not long ago, and when I printed these two pages before leaving for the conference, I thought they worked pretty well. As I read them aloud a week later, I was surprised to discover they weren't very good at all. So that proves I learned something at Squaw Valley! The feedback I received was useful and also kind of amusing ("We weren't sure why the author chose to read these particular pages"). I now realize that the place I start that scene isn't the right one, and I'm glad I can go back and fix it.

Many of you may now be wondering if, after all this workshopping and learning, I'm going to have to rewrite my novel yet again. I hope not, and I don't think so, but I definitely want to review my manuscript while keeping in mind all this newfound knowledge. After all, I attended the conference so I could become a better writer.

Next week I'll go through my many pages of handwritten notes (my writing hand was cramped every night), see if I can decipher my terrible penmanship, and share some of the best nuggets from panels and so on.

Good Stuff Out There:

→ Andrea Blythe suggests Five Things to Do Instead of Being Jealous of Your Favorite Author: "So you've found a book you love, with writing you adore, with delightful worldbuilding, compelling characters, and a smooth plotline. Instead of feeling inadequate in all its glory (as I did), use this as an opportunity to learn something."


Anonymous said...

Go Lisa, go! -Sabina

Lisa Eckstein said...

Thanks, Sabina! I hope all the feedback you got was just as useful!

mamagotcha said...

Finally sitting down to read through your Squaw Valley experiences... not done yet, but that last link made me laugh out loud. I'd just been talking to Bill about "Holes" (Louis Sachar), possibly one of the best YA novels I've ever read. I love rereading it, but each time I do, I seethe with jealousy and despair at ever being able to really write an entire book. Good timing!

Lisa Eckstein said...

I haven't read Holes, but I loved the movie -- what a great story! Glad you liked the link!

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