More Notes From Squaw Valley Writers Workshop

Hope everyone is warm. Just received a note from NASA, saying they’ve identified the coldest place on earth, where temperatures can dip to minus 133.6 degrees F (minus 92 degrees C) on a clear winter night. No, it’s not in the Grinch’s heart. It’s in Antarctica. The Grinch runs a close second.

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Now that you’re feeling relatively warmer, let’s delve into the notes taken from discussions with Ann Close, Senior Editor at Knopf (Alice Munro’s editor); Amanda Ward, author; and Amy Tan (who’s she?? :D) 

I am not weaving these random notes into an essay with a central point. I hope you don’t mind.

Ann Close

Ann Close believes pacing is critical to telling a story well. Authors should slow down when needed, let the characters deepen. And don’t rush to introduce too many characters at once. Keep the main character in the foreground while letting extraneous characters act as a Greek chorus.

Research indicates that by about the age of four, children have absorbed the basics of their cultural storytelling and its structure. So writers should start with their culture’s “routine” structure and then play with it to find out what works for a piece.

For example, Jane Mendelsohn, one of Ann’s authors, wrote a 250 page book about Amelia Earhart and then decided it was “too usual,” too close to routine structure. So she rewrote it in Amelia Earhart’s voice and shortened it to 125 pages. A 50% reduction–yikes!! The result was more unusual, more to her liking, and has been described as “lovely” and “brilliantly imagined.”

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When you find yourself breezing along in a novel, stop and ask yourself why the reading is going so well. Take a look underneath the hood to see how the author is working their magic.

If you mention two characters in the first sentence or paragraph, this can set the story up for multiple points of view. Or, if you open with first person plural, for example: “We never liked the Sullivan girls in our town.” or “Some of us had been threatened by Colby.”

When asked about including footnotes in any type of fiction she responded: “I would rather be shot at dawn than put a footnote in a work of fiction.” Clearly, if Close had been Nabokov’s editor, Pale Fire

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would never have made it to print.

Amanda Ward 

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Amanda Ward believes that great stories set up a choice between A and B, but then the character ends up doing C.

There is a fake story and the real story. The fake story is often the framework of the piece, but the real story is where the healing, the large gooier questions take place. How do you put the two together? Often it’s not a direct tie, it’s more intuitive. In other words, get out the Tarot Cards and Ouiji Board.

Sometimes readers don’t get an answer to the character’s issue (and they shouldn’t expect to) by the end of the book, but they come away with lots of ideas for potential answers.

Readers should know more about the story than any single character.

Know five things about your characters before you begin to write. For example, can you see them sitting in a chair? How do they pull themselves up after a loss, and do they choose to do so?

Amy Tan

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Amy Tan began by reading a letter she wrote to her editor when asked that inevitable question, “So what is your novel about?” It was a brilliantly written essay filled with humor and insight.  She said that it was difficult to reduce the life of the novel to the mundaneness of character and plot.  She also noted that the book she had written was far more inaccurate and inaccessible that the book she wanted to write. And just before it was published, she sent her friends a mass email asking them not to tell her if they heard or read anything about the book. The one friend who didn’t listen (and only told her about bad reviews) is no longer her friend.

She observed that “I am no longer the same ‘me’ when I read my old work. It feels as if it had been written by someone else, a stranger.” (In this respect, she is very much like Richard Ford, who talked about beginning to write Canada 20 years before he was really ready to write the book.)

In a humorous anecdote, Tan said that she sometimes includes things for her own entertainment that eventually get cut by her editor. She recalled a time when she owned a parrot and taught it words, so she felt like including a scene in her novel where the character taught a parrot a new word. Her editor, quick to spot Tan’s digression, suggested that the bird be let out of its cage and set free. Tan responded that it might be better to let her editor out of the cage. Gotta love that poison pen!

Tan was also quick to describe her own sense of internal disconnect. Sometimes when she looks as something she’s written, it feels like she has two thought and memory centers that don’t communicate and that one is smarter than the other.

She also mentioned that her writer brain is one of images and not words. It feels like a type of synethesia, where loose boundaries in her brain allow for a mix of sensory inputs. That’s why metaphors come easily to her.

She says that she must read the novels she’s written out loud to see what sounds disingenuous and what rings true. Character by character, what is dross and what is essential. Once her latest novel, The Valley of Amazement, was written, Tan eliminated three chapters plus an additional 52 pages to pare it down to 600 pages. And since it’s about courtesans, she had to write a sex scene (at the insistence of her editor who noted that the story was set in a brothel), something Tan had never done. Her first attempt was described by her editor as being “Lawrencian,” and not in a good way, Tan added. (Cue the laughter). So she rewrote it.

Tan also told of an instance where a copy editor told her that a chapter ended too abruptly. Tan agreed, and wrote an additional paragraph to smooth the chapter’s end. But when she had finished the paragraph, she couldn’t tell if it was any good or if it was “cheesy.” She had lost all perspective. It wasn’t until her editor said “it knocked me out” that she could accept it as worthy.


Feel any warmer now? Or are you still sitting out there all alone in the cold? I guess it’s time to get back to your writing. Happy Holidays!


Only the coolest dogs hang out in the ‘Patch

Previous Notes from Squaw Valley:



Filed under Craft

4 responses to “More Notes From Squaw Valley Writers Workshop

  1. Ditto what Laurel said. I feel so pumped up after reading these short, insightful bits. Also, I’d forgotten about “dross,” so thanks for tossing that in, too.

    • Thanks! Glad you find them helpful. And also glad to dust off the word “dross.” It’s fun to do that occasionally, isn’t it? Hope the weather is warming up a bit in the PNW. It’s warmer in the Dogpatch, but I understand the mountains are still chilly. Skiers are not complaining and neither are the ski resorts. Thanks for reading!

  2. Love these notes from Squaw! Please keep them coming!

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