Scribbles from Squaw Valley Writers Workshop – part three

So we’ve been wandering through the wilds of Squaw Valley with a variety of writers in my two previous posts and now arrive at a brief conversation about:

Writing from Life

Here lie a few morsels I gleaned from the likes of Alan Cheuse, Lynn Freed, and Greg Spatz:

“Life is a maze. Fiction is orderly.” (Don’t have an attribution for this, but it was one of the three.) The point being that your fiction (based on real life) shouldn’t be a maze for your reader to wander through even if your experience was confusing to you. The process of writing should turn confusion into structured understanding of the mystery that is life. 

“There’s a very narrow path one treads between saints and sinners.” (Cheuse)

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Two sides of the same coin?

I think Cheuse’s point resonates with another post about villains by fellow Dogpatcher, Wes Pierce.

“Write about what obsesses you.” (Freed)  If you don’t do this, it will be tough to hang in there for the long haul that is the writing life.  

Freed quoted Anais Nin: “The role of the writer is not to say what we can all say. It’s to say what we cannot say, otherwise.” Yes! Say what cannot be said in the family or at the family reunion. Say what co-workers cannot say to each other. Say what everyone wants to say but can’t. And say it in a way that makes your readers’ toes curl. (in a good way)

I think the most helpful thought from this discussion was uttered by Spatz:

“Write about what has happened to someone else as if it has happened to you, and write about what has happened to you as if it has happened to someone else.”

So often writers are too close to their material because they’ve lived it and can’t write about the experience with enough distance. But the opposite is just as true. Too often writers can’t get far enough inside the experience of someone else to make it feel real. So writers must put on the mask of distance or the skin of proximity when necessary.

I took an intense afternoon workshop called Finding the Story each day with screenwriter Gill Dennis, so I missed some of the panel discussions. But the benefits of taking Gill’s class far outweighed the detriments. I’ll post about his class at a later time. It was transformational. Thank you, Gill!!

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You’re welcome, Jil!

Now we move on to the daily afternoon open reading workshop with Sands Hall, where I scribbled down a couple of notes about POV:

Make sure your narrators are of the right place/age/experience to say and know what they know.

When in scene, the reader should only see what the character’s consciousness sees or hears, especially if the narrator is a child. Then during exposition, you may pull away from the character, perhaps becoming the older, wiser narrator looking back. This allows the reader to see and understand more than what the character/narrator currently sees and understands.

I often think it’s a good idea for the reader to know more than the character does, unless we’re talking about an unreliable narrator. In this situation, the reader often doesn’t know the “real truth” until it’s revealed through other action/character insights later in the story. 

From the morning workshop with Gail Tsukiyama:

When in scene, a character must act, react or be seen suppressing a reaction.

Your protagonist doesn’t have to change in a story, but he/she must be given the opportunity to change.

Know what the specific issues are for each of your characters, but keep the roots below the surface. “Issues” are often related to things like heritage, family background and expectations. Issues often provide conflict that shows the reader just what the character has lost or could lose.

Gail’s awesome quote: “My mother always said, ‘Don’t draw legs on a snake,’

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otherwise it becomes a dragon…

meaning: Don’t overwrite. Make one line mean all the world.”

Don’t give the reader the “to-ing and fro-ing.” Readers don’t want to watch your character go from one room to another unless it’s important. Give only the significant details through the eyes of the characters. Manipulate your sentences so they do three things at once.

And finally, so much of a story is “seeding.”

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You will often write your way into a story before you really get to know your characters. Then you will need to go back and “seed” the earlier pages with what must happen to make it all work, foreshadowing specific details that reveal more and more about the characters and plot.

Th-th-th-that’s all for now, folks! Stay tuned for the next installment of Scribbles from Squaw!!

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7 Comments

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7 responses to “Scribbles from Squaw Valley Writers Workshop – part three

  1. Pingback: Scribbles from Squaw Valley Writers Workshop – part three by Jilanne Hoffmann | Dear Writers

  2. The “Life is a maze…” one is very similar to a statement I used to repeat to myself when I wrote for the stage: “God writes lousy theatre.”

  3. Leave it to Spatz to steal the day. That guy is so smart. There are some awesome nuggets of writing wisdom here.

    • Spatz’s mind and gaze is penetrating. When he analyzed my story, I felt as if I were lying naked on the page and found wanting. Not a comfortable feeling, but I lived through it–and my story will be the better for it.

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