Category Archives: Craft

Thoughtful Readers/Reviewers

I’ve been reading Fiction Fan’s book review blog for quite some time, but a recent post piqued my curiosity about why she found a particular novel wanting. For those only interested in writing “literary fiction,” I believe the discussion here is instructive for all writers despite the genre.

I asked in my comment:

Since it didn’t work this time (sounds like the subplots detracted from the tension), I’m curious to hear about when you think it does work for a book to reveal the “what” or “who” and then discover the “why” or “how” throughout the rest? Would it have worked without the subplots/length? Are there other flaws (you mentioned implausibility, but sometimes a little of that can be overlooked if the rest of the book receive high marks, yes?) that kept it from being engrossing? I’ve been thinking a lot about this lately since I’m struggling with this issue in my own work.

Her response, as I should have expected, was insightful: Continue reading

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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)


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!!

Screen Shot 2014-01-08 at 11.36.09 PM

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,’


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.”


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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Every Story Needs a Villain, Part Two

Last time, some of you may remember, we were discussing the lack of villains in the films of Hayao Miyazaki. Hopefully by now you even may have seen some of these films for yourself.

But as a refresher let us review the stock Miyazaki storyline: A bratty young woman on the cusp of adolescence is cut off from her parents or her family situation and must find her way back home. Along the way she will come into contact with a boy about her own age, an ambitious dreamer, usually an orphan, who will help our heroine find her way back. And while our young heroine will appear unchanged on the outside to both family and friends, on the inside she will have grown as a person and become stronger and more able to handle whatever life has to throw at her; though by story’s end she will also be saddened, even a little disillusioned, by the outsize effort that has been required of her.

Now I would like to discuss the most recent novel by Richard Ford, Canada, and the ways in which one artist’s approach to ‘bad guys’ in his story can be so very different from another’s.

Canadian flag

In the story that it tells, Canada is remarkably similar to many of the films of Hayao Miyazaki: a teenaged boy is cut off from his family situation and tries to find his way home—only in his case there is no home to return to. However, and in contrast to Miyazaki’s work, there is a very clear bad guy who drives the second half of the narrative, and who brings about the requisite change in our hero that allows him to complete the journey that is the plot of the novel, as well as his life.

Like any good story, the stakes for the protagonist have to be high, as well as clearly stated, and Ford achieves all this in his opening paragraph:

First, I’ll tell you about the robbery our parents committed. Then about the murders, which happened later. The robbery is the more important part, since it served to set my and my sister’s lives on the courses they eventually followed. Nothing would make complete sense without that being told first…. Continue reading


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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 Continue reading


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Every Story Needs a Villain

It’s an old saying: Every story needs a villain. But if you are a parent to a newly minted child, or even a not so newly minted one, then you are probably aware of the work of the Japanese filmmaker and illustrator Hayao Miyazaki.

The Man Himself

The Man Himself

And one of the more striking aspects of Miyazaki’s work is the (almost) complete absence of villains in his movies. The characters in his films come into violent conflict with one another and (frequently) with their natural environment; but regardless of the depth or violence of the conflict — and it is often visceral and intense — within the story, what is clear by movie’s end is that, though it might have seemed otherwise at the start, there are no clear-cut villains here. Why?

Because everybody has their reasons.

Even characters that lie, cheat, steal — even kill wantonly — by movie’s end will have been shown to be acting for reasons that make sense to them, and for that reason alone are in a way justified in their actions. And the final justification for any, and all, of these character’s actions seems to be that our environment, both natural and social, requires balance in order to operate properly.

An attempt by the end of each story to strike balance, both between the human characters, and between humanity and the natural world, seems to be a hallmark of all Miyazaki’s films.

The only obvious villain that comes to mind in the entire film oeuvre is the murderously efficient government operative Colonel Muska, from the film ‘Castle in the Sky,’ who by movie’s end — and quite unusual for any Miyazaki movie — is destroyed, killed off by his own plans. And what makes Muska so different from most characters in the filmmaker’s catalogue is that he openly works to pursue his own selfish goals of power and dominance at the expense of family and clan interests. Continue reading


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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. Continue reading


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Listening Hard: The Puzzle of the Writing Workshop

~ Guest post by Wendy Scheir ~

The greatest analyst in the world can live his own life only like an ordinary blind and driven human being.

– In the Freud Archives, Janet Malcolm

NYU Film School, circa 1987.

We blink in the dim light of the auditorium, dazed and subdued by the atrocious rough-cut just screened by a fellow student. We are sleep-deprived, beset by a feeling of unreality induced by months working on each other’s insular, chaotic film sets, chain smoking, downing Oreos for dinner, hunching over editing tables. Now we’re showing rough-cuts, itching to get done and out onto the festival circuit—eagerly awaiting our sparkling lives to begin.


The student, Steve (I’ll call him Steve), the one responsible for this mess of a movie, stands up front, face grim and ghostly, peering out at us, his critics.

We’re fidgeting, trying to think up what to say. Someone coughs. Someone fails to stifle a snicker. Finally, a voice rises from front row center.

“Don’t cut a frame.”

The voice belongs to our leader, head of the graduate film school. His words are incisive, his pacing deliberate, his tone soaked in a cocktail of boredom, sarcasm, and the purest disregard. Dick—his name is Dick (really)—says no more.

Steve looks like he’s been punched in the gut. I mean he visibly recoils. His lips quiver. These words, this feeling, will sometimes float to mind even years later, after he has groped his way to a fulfilling career in some distant field.


It’s thirty years later, now, and we’re in a thoughtful, sophisticated writing workshop where critiques come in forms more muted, with less intention to do harm. But they can cut as deep.


What to do with these comments?

Let me pause a moment to say that workshops can be wonderful. They can support, nurture, inspire. They can help a writer find her voice. They can furnish insight into the craft of writing and bring kindred souls together.

But even the most generous and intelligent of commentaries may be unconsciously laced with the residue of hidden anxieties, skewed by distraction, pride, envy, disappointment, confusion, self-doubt, even by fear. Very often comments packaged in one form actually mask something else entirely.


Critiques and Critics come in many guises. Here’s a sampling of a few I’ve encountered:

The Befuddled Psychologist

is fascinated but wants to know more. “I wanted to know more about the grandmother!” she cries. Plunge in, she urges, probe deeper. Uncover the motivation, give back story, furnish flashbacks from a traumatic childhood. Above all: Explain! Explain! Explain!

The Stereotypist

believes there’s only one way a person would possibly act. “A mother would never let a swimming teacher push her child into the deep end,” contends this critic. A fireman would never turn and run from a fire. A farmer would never get attached to his cattle. It would just never happen. Continue reading


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Literary vs. Genre Fiction – The Plot Thickens

Hear ye! Hear ye! The Surgeon General recommends you take a daily dose of literary fiction whether you like it or not!

For Better Social Skills, Scientists Recommend a Little Chekhov,” reads the headline of an October 4, 2013  New York Times article. Scientists find literary fiction improves readers’ abilities to feel empathy, perceive social situations, and respond with higher emotional intelligence.

Lady with a Dog and Chekhov

Apparently, “popular” fiction (implying that literary fiction isn’t popular) and “serious nonfiction” create no beneficial effect. To be fair, the article points out that “serious nonfiction” was not of the “All the President’s Men” variety but more along the lines of “How the Potato Changed the World.”

My thoughts? Continue reading


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Use the Ancient Art of Storytelling to Write Your Next Novel

~ Guest post by Selah J Tay-Song, author of Dream of a Vast Blue Cavern, Book 1 of the Dreams of QaiMaj series ~

Dream of a Vast Blue Cavern by Selah J Tay-Song

Greetings Dogpatch Writers Collective! Thanks so much for the honor of being invited to blog with you. Woof!

On my own blog, I usually ramble along about whatever I’m thinking about at the moment, be it writing, insomnia, or cute cat videos. (You didn’t hear that, doggies). I thought for such a sophisticated pack as Dogpatch I should post something writing-related with a potential craft outcome for the reader.

Okay, you got me, I didn’t come up with that one on my own. This dog park has some leash-laws. No cute cat video reviews. Yip!

So I thought I’d share an epiphany I had this year that had a profound impact on how I write (writing-related, check!), and could just change how you write, too (potential craft outcome, check!).

I’ve been working on novel-length manuscripts since I was fourteen, and all this time I’ve been struggling with the question of how to manage such a sheer volume of words. I write long-winded fantasy epics that tend to explode from one book into five, so for me that’s a lot of words.

Here’s how my writing process has typically worked:

1. Get an idea for story

2. Start drafting from idea

3. Run out of ideas, attempt to outline the rest of the story

4. Draft a novel which in no way resembles said outline

5. Stare in horror at 150K word mess on paper. Continue reading


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Oh Editor, Where Art Thou?

Well folks, I’m back in the ‘hood! Entire buildings in Mission Bay and Dogpatch (two neighborhoods in San Francisco) were either razed or raised over the past five weeks during my holiday. Gone tooooooo long!

I read a few books while traipsing about the countryside. Here’s one that was recommended to me by another writer I met at the Squaw Valley Writers Workshop:

The Artful Edit: On the Practice of Editing Yourself

Bell covers everything from “Gaining Perspective” on your work, to the difference between macro and micro editing. She provides specific examples of how to gain perspective (some you may have heard of or tried before, but others may be new). I think the two most helpful chapters offer checklists for macro (intention, character, structure, etc.) and micro (language, redundancy, clarity, etc.) editing along with examples and discussion of timing for each approach.

Although Bell tends to be a little wishy-washy in her stances, I believe it’s her attempt to say “this may not work for you” or “it may be difficult to do this but you must try.” I also think that she struggles with the very issue she attempts to address: when the writer and editor are the same person, it can be profoundly difficult to do both effectively. Although this book may be helpful to you, I would suggest that you read it and then hand it to your beta reader(s) and have them use it to guide their responses.

I did find the exchanges between F. Scott Fitzgerald and his editor, Max Perkins, especially interesting. It shows how much a good editor can influence a manuscript at both the macro and micro levels.

Bell takes a chapter to broaden her scope, showing how two artists in other fields edit their work: Walter Murch (film and sound editor for movies such as The Godfather series, Apocalypse Now, and The English Patient) and Mitch Epstein (a photographer whose style “brings to mind a marriage of Edward Hopper and Jean-Luc Godard”). I don’t think, however, that the interviews with other writers in this chapter offer much new insight.

She then closes the book with a chapter on the history of editing, interesting but not necessarily helpful for the writer who wants to edit his/her own work.

Overall, I think it’s worth the $15.95 investment. It’s a quick read, and I do think it will not only help me weed out some of my more obvious errors, it will make me a better editor for others’ manuscripts.


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