Notes From Squaw Valley Writers Workshop – Day 1


View of Lake Tahoe from Squaw Valley in Winter

As promised, I’m sharing a few notes from this summer’s Squaw Valley Writers Workshop.

If I’m slow in responding, it’s because I’m  participating in NaNoWriMo this month, so I am


In igloo and out of pocket

Hope you can glean something new from these notes that will help your writing practice!

Sands Hall – Author/Actor/Musician

  • Quoting Frank Conroy: “The author makes a deal with the reader. You hand them a backpack. You ask them to place certain things in it — to remember, to keep in mind — as they make their way up the hill. If you hand them a yellow Volkswagen and they have to haul this to the top of the mountain — to the end of the story — and they find that this Volkswagen has nothing whatsoever to do with your story, you’re going to have a very irritated reader on your hands.”
  • Timing: Does the reader need to know this information yet? If not, wait until they do.
  • Pacing: Keep the reader’s interest with slow reveals. Don’t dump the goods in giant clumps.

Peter Steinberg – Agent

  • Often in early drafts, writers will include sections that tell instead of show, a kind of “notes to self” as shorthand reminders. So when we revise, we can recall these details and expand or move the info elsewhere in the story/novel. During revisions, look for these places and decide whether a section is a “note to self” that needs to be shown instead told.
  • Make your query letter dramatic. Make agents want to read your novel.

Publishing Panel: Mark Bryant (Byliner), Carolyn Carlson (Exec Editor Viking-Penguin), Jim Nafy (UC Press, Bears Bookstore Owner – Sacramento), Ann Close (Senior Editor Knopf), Terrence Clark (Red Room Press)

  • Currently, eBooks are “printed” from uncorrected galleys. So there are more typos and formatting errors in eBooks than in the print versions.
  • Every eReader has a different format, requiring publishers to reformat every book (adding cost) for each type of reader. There are “entire floors” of graphic designers now working for publishers. 
  • Many NY editors freelance as editors for self-published authors.
  • Penguin offers “Author Solutions” for self-publishing.

Lynn Freed – Author

Freed’s Favorite quotes:

  • “You can’t clobber readers when they’re looking. Clobber them when they’re not looking.” Flannery O’Connor
  • There is a point in a story when the reader realizes, “The iron was bent. It will never feel/be the same way again.” Frank Conroy

Writing essentials:

  • Find the voice of the piece – It can take years. Freed keeps working on the first paragraph until she finds the voice, so it can give direction in which the piece will be going, like buying a ticket on a train to a certain destination. Finding the beginning is a struggle, but the training happens in the practice. Train the ear to hear the right voice. When the POV tends to waiver, the voice isn’t right.
  • If the reader stops at any point to think—hmmm, what just happened? Why did I stop? The author needs to fix those bumps.
  • Transitions – Where to end a scene? Where to start a new one? Read the masters specifically to study transitions. How did they get from one scene to the next?
  • If you set the scene, you must spend time realizing it.
  • Remember to think before and after you write. When you’re writing, stop thinking and just listen. When you see thinking on the page, you know the writer isn’t submerged in the story.
  • With deep emotion, try to externalize it as much as possible, rather than making the organs (i.e. the stomach, the brain, the heart) do the work.
  • What is the axis around which the story turns? It has to be something tangible. And it has to be in the mind of everyone who’s reading the story.
  • When mixing strands of stories together, the author must think about giving equal weight to each strand.
  • Dialogue is poetry in motion. It is the least literal aspect of writing. Good dialogue is a distillation of what is being said or not said. Conversation is not listening but waiting to speak. Characters don’t listen to each other, they just want to speak their minds. Questions don’t require direct answers. Don’t use dialogue to do the work of exposition.
  • Trust your readers to “get it.” Don’t explain everything to them.
  • There are three rules for writing a novel, but no one knows what they are. The one rule is that you can get away with what works.

Freed’s comments on workshop feedback:

  • Not all opinions are equal.
  • What does the piece really need? Don’t act on all suggestions.
  • Don’t violate the authenticity of the work. Readers respond to authenticity. If it doesn’t feel right, don’t do it.
  • Only listen to those opinions that help move the story forward.
  • Brings stories to workshop that have been through several revisions, so opinions don’t move you in opposing directions.

So folks, that’s the first installment. Stay tuned for additional snow flurries from Squaw.


To be continued…



Filed under Craft

5 responses to “Notes From Squaw Valley Writers Workshop – Day 1

  1. Pingback: More Notes From Squaw Valley Writers Workshop | Dogpatch Writers Collective

  2. Oh, don’t stop there! Keep going! I want to go back to Squaw so am living vicariously through you.

  3. Now I want to go back to Squaw! Thanks for the inspiring notes. I think the team their is brilliant. Sands Hall is an amazing teacher and editor. I hope you got to go to her workshops. I also adore Lynn Freed; she was my one-on-one mentor my first year at Squaw and I was completely tongue-tied in her presence–and she was incredibly kind and encouraging. I will always be grateful that she was so patient and have tried to carry that attitude into my dealings with emerging writers. I love the last pic especially. I will look forward to the next installment!

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