Tag Archives: Squaw Valley Writers

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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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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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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Dogfight: “The Hippocratic Oath” by Jilanne Hoffmann

medical symbolHello from the Dogpatch, and welcome to the dogfight! Here’s a selection from a short story by our own Jilanne Hoffmann, followed by critical yips and yaps. Dogpatch Writers Collective occasionally posts these excerpts of our group critiques of work in progress, and we’d love to know what you think about the excerpt or what we had to say about it.
And, woofs to Jill, who is soon headed to show this story at the prestigious Community of Writers at Squaw Valley!

photo: 123RF_Arina Habich

By the age of eight, I’d seen my share of farm animals give birth and die: chickens, cows, sheep and even a horse. In one memorable birth, Dad had reached in to a cow and tied a rope around the leg of her stuck calf. Then he heaved mightily, pulling the entire heifer out. She and the mother both survived. But when it doesn’t work out and they die, they go silent and still, as if the air in their lungs were the only thing that distinguishes them from stuffed animals with glass eyes. 

I knew that this ewe could die, and it was OK since she wasn’t one of our pets; she didn’t have a name. I think its one of the many ways children who are raised on livestock farms learn to cope with the death that surrounds them. If each one were a tragedy, a pet dog or cat, we would have been emotionally paralyzed from early on. As it is, this kind of emotional distance is itself a form of paralysis, one that leaves a certain aspect of the soul a little unreachable but safe. A human survival trait that allows us to function in the face of tragedy. And if we aren’t vigilant, it is a trait that also allows us to kill.

—from “The Hippocratic Oath” Continue reading


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