Monday, January 31, 2011

MFA Monday: Nixing the Flashbacks

One of the requirements of the correspondence semester is to read 20 books (in my case, mostly novels) and write critical analysis of some aspect of craft in about 12 of them. This is the majority of my work besides writing (or in my case, revising) and so this is where a huge amount of learning is supposed to take place.

I will admit, I was skeptical. I read all the time. A lot. I read a lot. I'm sure to some extent it has made me a bit better of a writer, but I'm not sure it's been any kind of significant amount better. It's one thing to read and identify which writers you think are good, and another entirely to be able to understand what it was that made them good and how you can do that yourself.

And I stink at critical analysis. Really. Ask my undergraduate teachers. I could write fiction like the dickens, but ask me to write about someone else's fiction, and I was a mess. I think I always assumed you should find some deep, hidden meaning in a book, some great thematic elements in an author's body of work, which as a writer I thought was a bunch of hooey.

But our assignment is not to write academic scholarly papers. It's just to write about what we learned about how an author manages to do something really well, or not so well, in a novel. And it turns out, when I take away the stress of making it sound smart and scholarly and just write about what I got out of it, I can write a lot.

And it's been through that writing about others' works that I'm learning. A lot. Tons. Mind-blowing stuff. So much, that I'm tempted to make writing about novels a part of my routine, even when I'm out of school, because taking the time to identify specifically how an author has mastered some aspect of writing is enlightening in the most remarkable of ways.

Case in point: One Day, by David Nicholls. This was the first book I read for the semester, and the first paper I wrote. I set about to write about the unique use of structure in the book: the fact that the book is written in chapters that take place one day a year, one year apart, over the course of 20 years. It seemed the logical choice to write about, because it's such a huge, noticeable part of the book that the title even references it.

As I wrote about how that structure worked for him and this story, I realized that one of the major hurdles the author had to overcome was capturing in each chapter what had occurred to the characters in the last 364 days of their lives. Major events happened in those times. New jobs, new boyfriends, marriages, babies, travel, deaths. The important events of their lives didn't necessarily happen on the one day the book highlighted, so how in the world did the author manage to catch the reader up on what had gone on? And as I examined that more closely, I realized, he managed to do it nearly completely without the use of flashbacks.

Holy cow.

If you are a writer, think back through what you've written and see if you can pinpoint places where you've had to use flashbacks or backstory to catch the reader up to speed, or fill in information from the past they need to know for the current story. My guess is that most of you have.

I know I have, In fact, my entire first chapter, as Kat comes back to town, is full of filling in what the reader needs to know about why she left. I thought that was important. That IS the story. Without knowing why she left, the reader won't care how hard it is for her to come back, and what it is she needs to reconcile. So even though I knew there was backstory, I justified it.

Until analyzing how Nicholls managed his need for backstory.

For example, when Nicholls wants the reader to know that Emma is now in a long-term relationship with another character named Ian, he doesn’t recap that information. Instead, he works it into the current situation. One example of this is a day several years into the relationship of Dexter and Emma. At the end of the previous chapter, Emma is still love-struck with Dexter, who is dating another girl. When we leave her, she is alone and pining for him. In this next chapter, however, we open the scene with a previously minor character named Ian, who is waiting in a restaurant for his date, and is musing about his luck in getting here. “But the best, the very best thing about Sonicotronics was that during his lunch break he had bumped in Emma Morely… Date number two and here he was in a sleek modern Italian near Covenant Garden. For writers, this is a great lesson in use of back-story. Nicholls manages to relay the events of the past year without lapsing into traditional flashbacks. 

There is a huge realization, too, of how much information is needed. Which is, in fact, very little. Did Nicholls see the whole year in his head? Did he see how they met, and how Emma slowly came to fall in love with Ian, and how she managed to start getting over Dexter? Very possibly. And very possibly, for a while, the author thought all of that was important. But the fact is that it isn't. We readers don't need to know that. All we need is to be caught up to speed, fast, and in the present.

Letting go of the need to tell everything is the huge hurdle writers face. It goes along with the idea of cutting that I struggled with last week. When we write, every word is necessary. But as we revise, we should be able to sift the important from the filler. And most of the time, flashbacks can be filled in with a sentence in the present that brings a reader up to speed without sending them through a time warp to the past, breaking the magic of the present. A critical aspect of writing, even in literary fiction, is to keep the story moving forward, and back-story does the opposite.

I'll end with an example of one such flashback I cut from my own first chapter. It was hard to cut, because I thought it was so important to spell out the relationship between Kat and her step-father, and to reveal the past with her biological father. On this one I didn't need to do much more than cut. Everything I needed was already there. The flashback only slowed the forward motion of the scene.

Three miles more and she turned into the housing development where her mom and Dan lived. She’d never come to think of him as Dad, even though he’d offered that title up to her once.
“You can call me Dad, if you want,” he’d said on the day he married her mom, kneeling in front of her and smoothing the bridesmaid dress she’d worn.  She stared at him defiantly and he’d stood up, smiling in that forced way adults do when they’re trying not to show their true feelings.  “Or you can call me Dan.  How about that?  It’s less formal than Mr. Dan, anyway.”
She continued to look at him without speaking, and he knelt back down again and took her hands in his.  “Look, sweetie. I don’t care what you call me. I love your mom, and I love you. I know I could never replace your father. I don’t want to do that. I just want to be a part of your family.”
She nodded and he smiled again, a more real one, and patted her on the head. She’d just called him Dan after that, not because he couldn’t replace her real dad, but because to her, a dad was a person who kissed you at night smelling of whiskey and one night left while you were asleep and never came home again. And maybe, just maybe, if she called him Dan, he wouldn’t be that kind of dad.

This is the revised version:

Three miles more and she turned into the housing development where her mom and Dan lived. She’d never come to think of him as Dad, even though he’d offered that title up to her once. Not because he couldn’t replace her real dad, but because to her, a dad was a person who kissed you at night smelling of whiskey and one night left while you were asleep and never came home again. And maybe, just maybe, she’d decided as a little girl, if she called him Dan, he wouldn’t be that kind of dad.

The truth is that I cut about six flashbacks, some long, others just sentences, without hardly any loss or adjustment necessary to the text. All those events I thought were important, weren't. At least not in detail.

If you're struggling with too much back-story or flashbacks, I encourage you to cut and paste a chapter into a new document and just start cutting them. Leave just the one or two sentences that are needed to relay the information, and cut the details, and see if it makes sense. My hunch is that, while you might miss the lovely details for a while, your readers won't.

Friday, January 28, 2011

ThunderSnow: Or How To Live Without Electricity

This is why I've been offline the past two days. I realize there are parts of the world in which this is nothing, but for us, and our apparently wimpy trees and power lines, this is something. It's not a lot, mind you - this picture was taken in the first hour the snow started falling, but in grand total I think we only garnered about 8 inches - but it's heavy. Like bring-down-trees heavy. A lot of trees.

I'm not sure why the weathermen here feel it's necessary to name every snowstorm. Do they secretly wish to be novelists and be able to come up with great titles? Do they have characters in their head that demand names? These are the questions that keep me up at night while I'm waiting for one of those big trees to come through the roof and kill me in my sleep.

The first time I remember the snow naming was back in 1987, when three big storms came one right after another, and they were dubbed, "The Triple Whammy." They've gotten much more creative since then. Last year, of course, when we broke all records with our some three feet of snow all at once, it was "Snowmageddon." This year, it's "ThunderSnow."

Why, you ask? Because the snow storm came with thunder and lightening. I know! Who ever heard of that??? It was crazy, me and the kids rushing out of the house to see the lightening crashing through the clouds as the snow was raining down on us with fury. And the thunder sounded like jets booming overhead. Thunder and lightening.... and snow. Very weird.

It was eerie at night. All the power was off by then, and the snow muffled almost all noises, but the trees were creaking and snapping and falling, and it felt a bit like Armageddon.

So we lost our power, which meant Wednesday night we had no lights... and no heat. Even our pellet stove runs by electricity, so the temps in the house we down to 50 F pretty quickly. We also are on a well system, which means no water without electricity too. It makes for an interesting time.

Thursday I cooked hot dogs on the grill outside and made hot chocolate in a fondu pot, just to get something warm in us. We slept under 7 layers of quilts and comforters. We went outside to shovel the driveway to get warm. We played a lot of board games, and huddled under covers on the couch reading. Our driveway and roads were way too bad to consider going out and finding someplace warm, even if I had taken a shower and looked decent enough to get there.

It's funny how just a little bit of snow can confound us. Commuters in DC left work at four in the afternoon and didn't get home until after midnight. 13 hours it took some people to travel a mere 20 miles.

And as I write this, the snow is coming down again. The weathermen haven't named this one yet. I think they hope if they don't name it, it might not add up to anything worth remembering. We've had enough of that for one week.

Wednesday, January 26, 2011

Books of the Week: Room and The Glass Castle

One of the assignments I have for the semester is to read about two books a week, and to write a commentary about the use of some aspect of the craft of writing in at least one of them. I thought, since I'd be reading so much, I'd share with you each week one or both of the books. I always like to hear about book recommendations (most people now buy books by word of mouth, and I found that's true of me most of the time, too), and I'd love to know what you thought of them if you've read them as well.

So this weeks books:

Room by Emma Donoghue

Summary: Five-year-old Jack and his Ma live and eat and play and sleep in one room--an 11×11-foot space that is their prison--captives of the terrifying man Jack calls Old Nick. But as Jack grows older and more curious, it becomes clear that the room will not be able to hold him and Ma forever.

My Impression: This was one of the few books I've ever bought as a hardback as soon as it came out. I'd read about it first in Entertainment Weekly, and then later in other places, and the premise really drew me in, along with the high praises. I suppose, if you were an agent or editor, I can imagine this is the kind of unique idea that would immediately catch your attention. 

I have mixed feelings about this book, which is typical of any book I come to with really high expectations. The book is a little over 300 pages and there was a point in the first third in which I started to get a little bored and wondered if the entire book was going to be nothing but recounting, minute-by-minute, what this little boy and his mother do to entertain themselves in an 11x11 foot room. But there is a point right around page 100 where the book takes a rollicking turn that speeds up the heart-rate and becomes nearly impossible to put down. And you realize, somewhere along the way, that all that filler information in the first 100 pages is necessary to understand the last 200.

This book is written from the point of view of the 5 year old, a boy born into this prison world, who knows no other reality beyond their windowless room. And therein lies the brilliance of this story, and it's downfall. The brilliance is that, by seeing the world through his eyes, we as readers know the room is prison, but he sees it as safe. We know the world at large to be freedom, and he views it to be scary. It's a complete turn-around that forces us as readers to see everything from a point of view we'd never consider, and it adds such a depth to the story. Such a better choice for the author than choosing to tell the story from the point of view of the mom - a teenager when she was kidnapped.

On the other hand, reading from the point of view of a 5 year old can be tedious. The language the author uses, in my own opinion, can quickly get grating. Lines like this:

I count one hundred cereal and waterfall the milk that's nearly the same white as the bowls, no splashing, we thank Baby Jesus.


Eggsnake is more longer than all around Room, we've been making him since I was three, he lives in Under Bed all coiled up keeping us safe.

The voice is certainly strong and distinctive, but it's hard to read with no breaks in this kind of talk, and often, it seemed to me that even a kid raised alone wouldn't talk like this. His only exposure to language is a mom who is clearly educated and doesn't use baby-talk with him, and the TV. He is also quite precocious, which is sometimes contradicted by the way in which he arranges his words.

Overall, I really enjoyed this book, but I think the writing will put some people off. My advice is to read the sample pages on Amazon to make sure you like the style before buying it.

The Glass Castle by Jeannette Walls

Summary: In The Glass Castle, Walls chronicles her upbringing at the hands of eccentric, nomadic parents--Rose Mary, her frustrated-artist mother, and Rex, her brilliant, alcoholic father. To call the elder Walls's childrearing style laissez faire would be putting it mildly. As Rose Mary and Rex, motivated by whims and paranoia, uprooted their kids time and again, the youngsters (Walls, her brother and two sisters) were left largely to their own devices. But while Rex and Rose Mary firmly believed children learned best from their own mistakes, they themselves never seemed to do so, repeating the same disastrous patterns that eventually landed them on the streets. Walls describes in fascinating detail what it was to be a child in this family, from the embarrassing (wearing shoes held together with safety pins; using markers to color her skin in an effort to camouflage holes in her pants) to the horrific (being told, after a creepy uncle pleasured himself in close proximity, that sexual assault is a crime of perception; and being pimped by her father at a bar).

My Impressions:  This is one of the only non-fiction books on my list this semester, and I chose it to give me insight into a child raised in a neglectful, somewhat abusive family. The thing is, Walls never views herself as neglected or abused, and her spunk and lack of emotion about the horrors and poverty of her childhood make this book fascinating, and yet hard to attach to. It was hard, at times, to bond with Walls because I seemed to feel more strongly about the awfulness of her life than she did.

I vacillated between anger and disbelief while reading this. For several chapters I wondered if I was being hoodwinked by a Frey-like mix of fact and fiction. The truth is, even in memoir told brutally honestly, there is still an element of memories being filtered through a person's own perception and what they choose to remember and how they remember it, which might not actually be exactly as something happened.

In the end, though, I did believe life for Walls was very much like she explained, and so the anger at her parents prevailed as my overall emotion, and I was in awe for her and her siblings and their ability to escape the life they were raised in and become the people they hoped their parents would have been. 

I love memoirs, and if you do, I'd recommend this book. It's gritty and real and hard to read at times, but it's also engaging and well-written. Each family member is so well-drawn you'll feel you've met them, and their realities are so starkly real you'll feel cold, hungry, and sick. It's hard to believe sometimes that people live these kind of lives here in the US, and yet they do. Walls' story should not only be a reminder of that, but a call to compassion and action as well.

Monday, January 24, 2011

MFA Monday: Economy of Language

"Sometimes the story is not about what is told, but what is not told."

One of the biggest things I've been learning to do in my writing is cutting out the fluff. Sitting in workshops looking at others' writing, it was clear who had this talent down, and who still loved all too many of their words (that would be me). The great writers have the knack of knowing exactly what to say, and when to stop saying it.

We looked at so many paragraphs where writers brilliantly show something, and then ruin it by ending the paragraph telling us what they just showed us. It's as if we don't trust the readers to get it, or trust ourselves as writers to show well enough.

Here's an example from the section of my novel I've been working on this past week. The first is the original:

She lingered in the car for a minute, rubbing her hands in front of the heater, staying a little longer, more for warming up than for not wanting to go in.  Although that was there too. 

The thing is, I'd spent the previous two pages describing her drive back into her hometown, and how she didn't want to be there. It should already have been very clear that she was hesitant about seeing her family again. So I cut it down to this:

She lingered in the car for a minute, rubbing her hands in front of the heater.

It says everything I need it to say, and nothing more. As a paragraph of its own, it now stands as a punctuation point to the drive through town rather than a muddled musing. 

Here's another example:

Home was not the word Kat would use anymore. Home was Chicago, now. With her own apartment and her real friends and her career. And if she thought too much about it, she’d argue that this house, here in Hicktown USA, had never felt like home. 

This is just too wordy. It's like I'm trying too hard to create a history for the reader that they don't need to know yet.

Home was not the word Kat would use. Home was Chicago. And if she thought too much about it, she’d argue that this house, here in Hicktown USA, had never felt like home.

I'm not sure this is perfect. I still may delete that entire last sentence, but I haven't decided on that yet. Still, just a few words here and there make this paragraph more succinct.

Especially in first chapters I have the tendency to want to get the whole story in. Why this girl has come back, and why she left, when this is more interesting for the reader to get in small bits over time. What is not told is more interesting than what is, because it creates tension for the reader, forcing them to wonder why.

Here's a paragraph in the first few pages that I initially used to get the reader to understand why Kat left town and why she harbored such bitterness. She's run into her old best friend, and just found out she's married now to her old boyfriend. This is the original scene:

There was an awkward pause as they both remembered the last time they’d talked, the day Jeb told Kat he’d fallen in love with Lisa and asked for his ring back.  She'd taken it off, the cobalt yarn still wound around the inside so it would fit her finger, and thrown it into the tall grass by the train tracks. “You want your ring, you can go crawl on your hands and knees to find it,” she’d spat at him before she stomped off. She wondered if he’d ever found it.

I decided to cut the entire paragraph and replace it with this:

She noticed that the diamond Lisa wore now was miniscule. Still, it was a diamond ring, and it should have been hers.

In that replacement, I've taken out the backstory (or flashback) and replaced it with something in the present, something that hints at a past but doesn't give it all away.
Learning what to cut isn't an easy thing for me. I've been looking at this novel for a year now, and only now can I see how overwritten places are. Only after some distance can I recognize that words I love need to be deleted.

The trick is to go slowly, see each paragraph on its own, and ask yourself, does this move the story forward? Is it crucial? Does it repeat something I've already made clear? And am I leaving enough room for the reader to breathe or am I dictating exactly the path they must go down?

As writers we need to love words, but love the story more.

Thursday, January 20, 2011

Books of the Week: Bel Canto and One Day

One of the assignments I have for the semester is to read about two books a week, and to write a commentary about the use of some aspect of the craft of writing in at least one of them. I thought, since I'd be reading so much, I'd share with you each week one or both of the books. I always like to hear about book recommendations (most people now buy books by word of mouth, and I found that's true of me most of the time, too), and I'd love to know what you thought of them if you've read them as well.

So this weeks books:

Bel Canto by Ann Patchett

Summary: In an unnamed South American country, a world-renowned soprano sings at a birthday party in honor of a visiting Japanese industrial titan. His hosts hope that Mr. Hosokawa can be persuaded to build a factory in their Third World backwater. Alas, in the opening sequence, just as the accompanist kisses the soprano, a ragtag band of 18 terrorists enters the vice-presidential mansion through the air conditioning ducts. Their quarry is the president, who has unfortunately stayed home to watch a favorite soap opera. And thus, from the beginning, things go awry.

 My Impression: I must be one of the few people to never have heard of Ann Patchett and this story, judging by the responses I've gotten just carrying the book around. A friend recommended I put it on my book list when I was asking for suggestions, and the idea of it greatly intriqued me. It sounded like a subject ripe for interesting story development. A writing professor once told me, "If you want to write an interesting story, stick a bunch of random characters in a small space they can't get out of and make them interact."

Some reviewers are put off by the fact that this book came out of the Japanese Embassy crisis in Lima, Peru in 1996, but I don't have a problem with books that develop out of a news item if they are creative and unique enough. What writer among us hasn't seen something on the news and thought, "Wow! That would make a great story!"? While this story certainly has it's similarities to that event, it has it's own twist on it as well.

This is not a fast moving story, despite that it's a story of kidnapping and hostage taking. For the most part, the action occurs right at the beginning, and after that, it's a story of a group of people with nearly nothing in common (including language) biding their time waiting for the terrorists and government to come to some kind of agreement.

What is great about it is the character development, and the relationships that are built against seemingly impossible odds. The prose is lyrical and there are lines you will want to just hover over and take in. I highly recommend this.

One Day by David Nicholls

Summary:  The episodic story takes place during a single day each year for two decades in the lives of Dex and Em. Dexter, the louche public school boy, and Emma, the brainy Yorkshire lass, meet the day they graduate from university in 1988 and run circles around one another for the next 20 years.

 My Impression: I loved this book. I loved it so much more than I thought I would. I'd been eying it for a while in the store, but not until I was packing for school the night before the plane took off did I realize I wanted something really interesting and fun to read on my Nook, so I wouldn't have to pack a bunch of heavy books. I looked this one up and it was an incredibly low price, so I downloaded it and started it the minute I got on the plane.

I read for the entire trip, through two airports, two airplanes, and a shuttle, until I was almost done by the time I arrived in Seaside.

The book has its critics. The characters are very real, and very flawed. They spend the entire book circling each other until you are about mad with frustration that one doesn't just SAY "I love you already."  And yet, I loved this book. My heart broke the entire way through it, but I was never without hope that it wouldn't somehow end okay - it is a book after all, and not real life. Why write a book about two people so clearly soulmates if they never realize it? I will say, though, that the end shocked me. In that kind of way where I nearly lost my breath, had to get up and pace around the room a second before returning to it. I didn't at all see where it was leading, and this, while it seems to upset some readers, was part of what made the book so good for me. I like not seeing the ending coming.

I was intrigued by the structure of the book - picking just one day a year for twenty years to write about, but Nicholls does this flawlessly, balancing important events on that date to the seemingly mundane which still shed light on their relationship and manage to move things forward.

I thought this was a really great book, and I highly recommend it!

So as for you... have you read these? Do you want me to keep writing about what I'm reading, or is that the kind of blog post you tend to skip over?

Tuesday, January 18, 2011

Residency Day 10

Day 10 is now passed. The workshops wrapped up, the class notes filed in a convenient place to look back over as I work. The clothes – all those sweaters! – and handouts and empty soap and shampoo containers packed in Oregon and then unpacked here at home. The first residency is done.

Above are some of my new dear friends - all writers from my workshop group - all smart and talented and fun. I will miss long lunches with them and heady conversations about craft and critiques and hopes and books. It was all good.

The last day ended the week as it should. The first class of the day was probably my favorite of all of them: a lecture on building scenes by Debra Gwartney, a non-fiction author whose book Live Through This was one of my favorite reads last year. Her advice on how to create great scenes was so practical I opened a separate page on my laptop while taking notes to add my own flurry of thoughts about my own revisions, so I wouldn't forget them.

By lunch I could tell we were all already starting to go home in our minds. The usually raucous conversations that had us all talking over each other at times was less rowdy: quiet and introspective. We were all thinking not so much about the day anymore, but about the days ahead.

The last class of the day was an appropriately timely one on publishing. It was depressing, as the internet and most publishing information is depressing. 80% of all books are unprofitable. Agents only offer contracts to 1% of the writers who query them each year. Only 1% of all books published find a shelf in a brick and mortar bookstore. Borders is surely going under. Mid-list authors fear for their stability in the industry. You, as a writer, need a web presence.

None of this was new to me. Sitting in a room with mostly graduating students, though, it felt a bit morbid: Here you go, guys. You've just mortgaged your home to finance a future that probably isn't even there. 

But in the end, the lesson is the same one Janet Reid constantly states: Above all: write well. If you can do that - not just well but very well - you have a shot. Because books are being published. Because when the rest of retail tanked 9% last year in revenue, books only dropped by 2%. Because people still like reading.

So that is my goal this year. Not to get my next book published. Not to secure an agent. But to write well. And that, itself, feels a bit like a homecoming.

Saturday, January 15, 2011

Residency Day 9

I woke up this morning knowing that today is my last day of this residency, and although it's full of classes, meals and activities, still, I know it's the last for six months, and there's a bittersweetness to that. I've come to realize that no two residencies will ever really come close to each other. Every semester, a group of us graduates and leaves, and every semester a new group of faces comes in. It's an ever-changing sea and tonight I will say goodbye to some new friends I will likely never see again.

But yesterday was the preparation day for the leaving, in many ways. Besides the usual classes (a great one on scene building and another on what you should cut from your writing), there were meetings with our faculty advisors to sign off the study plan for the next months and determine due dates during the correspondence semester. There were graduate readings, in which we had the opportunity to hear some of the work graduates are using in their thesis.

This was an amazing opportunity, although it came late enough in the night that many didn't stay and many of us who did were a tad droopy eyed. The fact is, it would have been easy to pick their writing out as that of the graduates; it was tight and lean and lyrical and focused. Every aspect of it was above the level of writing we saw in workshop, and for that I'm encouraged and inspired. Writers get drastically better over their two years here, and there's a sense of excitement and hope in that.

As I sit in classes, I can see my first chapter in front of me, dying to cut, clip, trim, add. I finally know exactly what is wrong with it, and what I want to do with it. The funny thing is, before I came, I didn't know anything was wrong with it. And now, as classes go on, I'm scribbling in the margins of my notes lines to put in, directions to go, characters to build. It had gone from theoretically practical to literally practical.

Of all the learning that goes on in classes and workshops, though, it's impossible to take out how great the people are, and how incredibly motivating and fire-under-your-butt-lighting it is to sit for hours and talk to them. Last night a group of us - eight in all - went to a diner called Pig N Pancake. I later found out it's a chain, but for us it was a "must-do" here in Seaside if only for the fun and uniqueness of the place. We sat for two hours over pancakes and omelets and halibut and salads, eating and talking and making plans for the next six months. They are not just fellow students; they are friends.

Friday, January 14, 2011

Residency Days 7 & 8

This is the "Promenade" that runs along the beach between the sand and the hotels. I haven't seen the sun, though, in a few days. The big beach bonfire, scheduled for tonight, had to be cancelled due to high winds and rain.

I've gotten behind in blogging. The last days have been incredibly busy, but I've loved that. Every day is packed with classes with titles like "The Theater of the Sentence," "Revision: A Personal Look at Re-envisioning the Work," "The World According to Everybody: Text, Subtext, Agenda, and POV," "Structure is Everything: Some Thoughts on Literary Engineering," and "Everything I ever Needed to Know I Learned for Alice Munro." Heady stuff, eh?

As much as I love the classes and am stuffing my head with tools to use when I get home, the workshops have been one of my favorite parts. I mentioned yesterday that I'd had my own piece workshopped. The piece I submitted was a section of the novel I finished in November. Initially, I'd thought I'd start something new with this first semester, but after the workshop I saw such possibilities, not just for the section I'd submitted but for the book as a whole. Little changes that could make a big difference. Larger changes that would take the book from good to spectacular.

I started thinking: I know I can write a book. I've written three. I can make add the words up sentence after sentence until I have 320 pages full. I can create satisfactory plots and characters. What I really want to do is know how to do all of that well. Not just well, but amazingly.

On my application I wrote that I wanted an MFA to help me take my writing to the next level. I could write something new... or I can take what I've written already to the next level. Learn what to do with what I've got. How to revise that baby into critically-acclaimed-quality writing.

So yesterday the advisor-student pairings were announced and I'm THRILLED with the faculty advisor I have! We had lunch today and talked about the idea of replacing my original plan of beginning a new novel and revising Prodigal and he thought it was a fantastic idea.

So now I have a plan. Specific things I want to work on in the book, and great tools to approach it with. My reading list, which he really liked, will stay the same with one minor substitution I made and one writing book he suggested. With a plan in place for my semester, I can finally feel this residency coming to an end.

Our workshops are over now, but the last two days are still cram packed with classes and meetings. I can't believe how far I've come in such a short time.

Thursday, January 13, 2011

Residency Day 6

This is the hotel from the edge of the water. It doesn't look like this today. Today, it's raining. A lot. All the better to get work done, right? :)

Well, I've finished the sixth day and am now more than half done with my first residency, which leaves me just a bit melancholy. I miss my family, and my home, the puppy and the snow that's coming down there. But still, there's a little part of me that doesn't want this to end. Back home there will be no classes every morning, no group of fellow writers to spend hours discussing stories with and then spill out into the cafe with to grab delicious food made by someone else to spend more hours over that food talking even more about the things that are so important to me, but not to anyone else I know at home. At home I will have to do the hard work of learning instead of the fun work of absorbing. Before I came, I thought ten days was a massive chunk of time, and now, I'm already missing it.

What a glass-is-half-full idea, eh?

Maybe it feels that way because Day 6 was such a breakthrough, relevant day for me. For one, my story was on the chopping block to be workshopped, which was a terrifying prospect for me and ended up not even coming close to my expectations but blowing them to smithereens. It's one thing to be a part of that discussion on someone else's story and think you have some hope that you are contributing to it, and another thing to be on the receiving end. I didn't really know what they would criticize, but I felt like I walked out of that room actually seeing my own writing for the first time.

Suddenly my head is spinning with the possibilities. For the first time, I can actually see HOW I can get to be a better writer in this program. I can see how far I have to go, but I think I see the first steps of how to get there. I have a new possible plan for my writing which I should be able to let you in on once I clear it in the next day or two. It's a complete switch from what I've been thinking. I'm excited. Charged up. Ready to blast forward.

The classes today were on revision, and I can say I've never been so excited about revision. I'm a huge believer in revising; I love revising. And now I have some real tools to help me do it well.

I am starting to get exhausted. I don't know if I'm still struggling against the time zone change or it's all the busyness of the day that makes it so hard to focus once ten o'clock comes. I still have an Alice Munro story to read for Thursday that I've been putting off in light of more pressing assignments. It's now become the more pressing assignment.

I think I'm not doing the blogging thing very well right now - not giving you much of anything concrete about what I've learned, but that takes time I just don't have right now. Not that I'll have it later.  Maybe in two years.

Okay - before then. I promise. But tonight... sleep.

Tuesday, January 11, 2011

Residency Day 5

We don't have a lot of downtime, here, which is good. We've only got a short amount of time, so I'd rather use it sitting in classes and scribbling notes furiously and soaking up every ounce of learning I can before I head home to do so much of that on my own. Call me weird.

But we do have some off-time. In the afternoons, the graduating class presents their thesis, which everyone is able to sit in on if they want, or they can take that hour off. I usually take it off because it's one of the few times of day to get something done, but on Day 5 I went to listen to two students I'd hung out with on Karaoke night. Hearing them present their critical introduction and read part of their final project was inspiring.

Normally, though, during that time I'm working on homework. Welcome back to school, right? It's not as though there is piles of it yet; most of that will come during the correspondence time back home. But here we are supposed to write critical reviews of each class we attend - kind of proof that we went and can apply the teaching to our own writing. The first one or two that I wrote took a long time, but I'm getting better at them now. I can hammer one out in 15-20 minutes.

My workshop group also has writing exercises, which I've found tremendously fun. Since I didn't come into this residency working on a project, it's been nice to have something to work on anyway. Yesterday's was a non-fiction writing called "glimmers," which I said in the last post I'd write about today, but I'll put it off to later, because I think I could fill a whole post with it. Anyway, today I have to write a scene with 26 sentences... each sentence starting with words that begin with progressive letters of the alphabet. In other words, the first sentence starts with A, the next B, the next C, and so forth. One sentence has to be only one word. One must be over 100. It sounds daunting but it's been really fun to work on so far.

I have a class in two days on Alice Munro's story Runaway, which I am only partway through, so I need to finish reading that, too.

Some people are still working on critiquing the stories for workshop, but I did that before I came, so each night I just read back over the ones on the chopping block for the next story and see if there's anything else I want to add.

If the weather is nice, I like to walk out on the beach, too. Yesterday there was a little boy and his dog playing in the frigid Pacific water and they were so precious. I probably stood watching them for half and hour.

So all this I cram in before classes start in the morning (I'm ready to go by 8:00, so I have about 50 minutes in the morning), during the hour in the afternoon, and after everything winds down at night, which has been anywhere from 9:00 to midnight, depending on the evening activities. Wednesday we have most of the afternoon off, as that's when the faculty all gets together to make the final student/faculty pairings for the semester. They have tours and excursions planned, but I haven't made up my mind what I'll do  yet. I may just hang out with a few friends wandering the beach and hunting for the best cup of clam chowder. Sounds a little like heaven to me. :)

Monday, January 10, 2011

Residency Day 4

Today I woke up to snow on the ground. Technically, I think it was lintball-sized hail, but it looked like snow none-the-less, and, anxious to see snow on the beach - a first for me - I hustled out as the sun was rising to snap a picture before it all disappeared.

Walking along the beach to grab some clam chowder for dinner, a new friend and I were talking about the sound. It isn't really silent. The wind is howling and the waves roar in this constant, echoing concussions of thunder. But there are no cars. No airplanes. No machinery. Very few people peppering the vast expanse of sand, so that if they were making noise, it would be lost before it reached us. It's a quiet that isn't.

I've about had it with my foot today. I decided I did not want to drag that hulking walking cast through the airport nor find myself the target of some ambitious TSA agent wanting to frisk me or naked-x-ray me in order to find if I had hidden drugs in the monstrosity. Also, I hoped that by the time the residency ended I wouldn't have need of it, and I certainly didn't have room in my suitcase to pack it for the trip home. So I left it. And now I'm kicking myself with my one good foot. Truth is, the hobbling all over the hotel, beach, and downtown, in conjunction with the hours of just sitting while all the blood drains down to it, have started to take their toll. I woke this morning in pain, my foot swollen worse than in days.

The first class of the day was a non-fiction one, so I opted out and sat on my bed with my foot propped up under ice, rereading the workshop story for today and finishing some reviews that need to be done before I leave. During my hour break at 4:00 I iced it as well, and right now I have it under the bag again. It feels awesome to have the cold numbing it, and it helps immensely. I hobbled much less today.

I hate that I'm limping around. On top of that, I've got a lingering cough from my pre-Christmas flu that makes me sound like a TB patient, and every morning I wake up thinking, "Do I want to be the one that sounds like they need to call infectious controls on, or do I want to be the girl that smells of old-lady menthol cough drops?"  Trust me, this isn't an easy choice. Add all this to my blood checking and insulin pumping and I'm surprised no one's run a yellow hazmat tape around me to cordon me off from society.

I had two more classes today and another workshop, which were incredible and which I'm still somewhat processing. I haven't been writing lately, and I miss that. I need to find time to jot some things down while I'm here. I thought finishing PRODIGAL before coming would help me have a fresh start, but now I feel aimless and without a project. It's not cool to be here a writer without a story.

Tomorrow I will try to find time to tell you about the idea of glimmers, and the exercise one of my advisors is having us work on. For tonight, it's time to go off-line and get a little more work in before I hit the hay.

Sunday, January 9, 2011

Residency Day 3

No surprise, but I've been so busy I haven't had time to catch up with the blog! I don't know why I thought I would, but somehow I thought I'd have a few minutes to jot a few things before I went to bed at night. Ha!!

Day three went just as well, if not better, than day two. By now we're settling in to a routine and I have a fair confidence in being able to follow the schedule. I've met a lot of people. Everyone ahead of time said the people are the thing that make the program so special, and by now I'd have to say I agree. Every single person is so cool, so friendly, so talented, so motivating and encouraging. We laugh. A lot. More than I've laughed in a long time. It's not particularly good for my coughing, but it's great for the soul. :)

The classes today were mind blowing. I'm sure in the coming weeks I'll share more about what I learned, but suffice it to say that by ten o'clock in the morning I wanted to retract everything I'd ever written and revise them. The morning session, on line editing, was the kind of game-changing learning I was hoping for. How to make your writing leaner, tighter, more focused and strong. It was practical and immediately helpful.

We had our first workshop as well. Workshop is when the student body divides into small groups with an advisor to review each others' writing. My group has ten students, and we'll do 1-2 pieces a day, each student getting an entire hour devoted to discussion on his or her story that was submitted (and critiqued) prior to residency. This was such an incredible time! My group is so talented, but more importantly, such fantastic readers. The conversations was like your dream book club, where we sat for an hour just talking about the story: the characters and setting and plot and themes and imagery and what we thought certain things meant and what was done superbly and what we'd have done differently to make it better.

We're meeting in a hotel, and there aren't enough conference rooms for the 12 workshop groups, so most meet in modified rooms. This is ours:

There's a fireplace going in there!! So toasty warm! And in case you can't quite see the view out the window, I took a picture of that, too:

Yes, that's the ocean. The sand comes right up almost to the window. It could have been extremely distracting if it weren't for the great discussion going on in the room!
We rounded the evening with more author readings, and then the tradition Karaoke night at Pudgy's down the street. Yes... Karaoke. Everyone I knew decided to bail on me. It didn't start until 9:00 and people were tired, more work due the next day. But it was traditional! I recognize that a great part of this program is social... networking and making friends and possible critique partners and future cover blurbers. I didn't want to miss out on part of what makes this program great, and so I went. I was adopted by a group of second semesters before the shuttle even came, and by the end of the night, I was dancing and singing and probably making a fool of myself, and in general, having a blast. 

Night came fast and late, but I could honestly say I'd squeezed everything out of the day that I could. And in the end, I can't ask more than that!

Saturday, January 8, 2011

Residency Day 2

This is where I'm studying. I know, it hardly seems fair!

Day 2 really felt like day one... the first classes, the first time venturing out of the hotel, the first author readings and orientation meetings. It felt like one long adrenelin rush, and I kept saying to myself, "I can't believe I'm so lucky to be here! This is such an incredible program! I should have done this years ago."

But, of course, years ago I wasn't ready, and it wouldn't have been the same. So here I am, still amazed that I get to be in this fantastic group of people who function more like one huge student body rather than separate cohorts of classes. All of us - first semester through last - take the same classes, sit in the same workshops, eat meals together.

There is a lot of laughing. It is a group with a fantastic sense of humor, and one which has clearly shared jokes from residencies past that keep cropping up. Us new people are being folded in, joining the past, creating a future.

The schedule is simpler and less daunting than it seemed when I got it in the mail. Every morning starts out with "Craft Talks" which are like lectures led by the faculty. My impression of these authors only continues to get better. I could sit and listen to them all day. They are inspiring, motivating, talented and insightful.

After the first class is workshopping our fellow students' writing. That won't begin until day 3, since day 2 had orientation in it's place. That's good, because I've met most of my fellow workshop students now (and eaten with them, chatted with them, photographed that sunset above with them...). After this in lunch together. The meals are huge... I'm sure I'll gain 10 pounds just being here and eating three time a day.

After lunch is more classes ("Craft Talks" and Roundtable discussions) and then there's a slot of time where the graduating students get to present their critical thesis and read from their final project. It's very exciting. Students don't have to attend these, but I love seeing where I hope to be in two years.

Then it's dinner, author readings (which are WAY more fun than it sounds!!), and then student readings wrap up the day at 9. I didn't stay up for them this time, but I plan to do that from here on out. Jet lag is still a bit clingy, and I wanted to get a start on some of the work due next week.

So that's the day.

I'll leave with you with a few thoughts I liked from the craft talk this afternoon about memory and how it influences fiction writing.

"Writing is a means of discovering what it is we have to say."

"If we remembered other things, we'd be someone else. We are our memories, our perceptions."

"What we remember and what we forget do the same thing for us: define for us what is important and what is not."

"All writing is part memory and part imagination. To know only one of these is to know the world only by half."

A story might begin in memory (autobiography, fact, experience) but then become imagination (pure invention, heart, musings), but it should eventually circle back around so that it joins the two. They feed each other.

We as writers give away all our secrets. If we can't do it straight out, we disguise it with a little imagination.

Friday, January 7, 2011

Residency Day 1

I'm here. After 11 hours of car, planes, and bus, to say nothing of the months of anticipation, I am finally in Seaside, Oregon for my first residency.

It is, so far, everything I secretly hoped it would be. I woke up this morning and thought, "Holy cow. I'm doing this. I'm actually getting on a plane and leaving my family and heading to spend ten days with a group of people among whom I know not a single soul. What in the world have I gotten myself into?"

Something amazing. That's what.

Okay, I haven't done much. I spent most of this first day just trying to get here. That part of the trip was a classic game of fortunately/unfortunately, including the downs of being one of the last on the plane and finding that there's no more luggage room and having to check bags I totally didn't want to check, walking MILES of airport concourses with an aching foot, and feeling like I was on the verge of starving because there was a suspicious lack of food in the gate areas and none on the plane. On the plus side, both of my flights ended up with me in a row by myself on an otherwise packed plane, arriving in Portland early with plenty of time to catch the shuttle which was otherwise looking like a tight shot, and downloading a book on the spur of the moment that kept me utterly engaged the entire way.

Once at the airport, I met some of the faculty and students, and learned everyone is so friendly, and you'd think by the hugs of the established students that they were all the very closest of friends.

The hotel is incredible, right on the Pacific Ocean, and my private room is HUGE with all kinds of amenities. I had enough time to check emails (but not necessarily write back) and clean up a bit and then went to a new student "mixer" in one of the big conference rooms. The great thing about starting with just the new students is that NONE of us knew anyone, so it was really easy to jump into conversations ("Where are you from?" was the most used ice breaker) and I didn't see anyone standing around without someone to talk to.

An hour later all the rest of the students joined us for dinner, and you could tell the shift in energy level as they all arrived with screams and hugs and non-stop talking. And some were awesome in engaging us newbies, too.

At nine there was supposed to be a gathering of all students and faculty, but by that time people were trickling off to their rooms. Most people, even those from out here on the west coast, had spent a long day traveling and tomorrow begins the relentlessly long days of classes and workshops and writing. I hung out for an hour with a few new friends, and now I'm turning in myself. Jet lag is kicking in.

I am not the oldest, by far, but on the whole I probably do raise the average age of the group. I feel funny mentioning marriage and kids when I've hardly met anyone so far old enough to have husbands or wives or kids. And I haven't embarrassed myself fashion-wise yet, either.

But then again, the residency is still young. :) I have plenty of time for embarrassment.

Wednesday, January 5, 2011

T Minus 1 and counting

In 24 hours I will be on a plane, winging my way west to Oregon and Pacific University and my first residency. The MFA program kicks off the two year schedule with ten days of classes and workshops taught and led by some amazing authors. I've heard it's intense. I can't wait!

My plan from here is to try to write a little each night about what's gone on that day, and what I've learned. Activities go pretty late into the night, so I don't know how reasonable that plan is, but I want to document my time there, not just for you, lovely bloggers, but for me.

I think there's a part of me that's hoping this is a lot like a two-year writing conference. Authors, lectures, workshops, good friends and hotels and food I don't have to cook or clean up after. Well, at least for the residency portions. I'm hoping what I learn will blow my mind.

So the house is now in order, groceries have been bought, I've read the short stories I needed to read before two of the classes, and finished critiquing nine other students' writing that we will workshop while I'm there. That last part took much longer than I'd have liked, not because I don't enjoy critiquing but because I feel like I should move faster through them, especially if I decide some day I want to be an editor. I have no idea if I did too much on them or not enough, but I can't really know that until I'm there.

All that's left now is packing, and according to my facebook friends, I own too many sweaters. It didn't even occur to me people wear things other than sweaters in the winter! I managed to fit my bandaged foot into a pair of duck boots this morning, which I think will come in handy in the forecasted Oregon coast rain. I have my ipod, my laptop, my camera, too many books. I stayed up all night panicking about all the stuff I might potentially leave at home that I need - like insulin supplies and test strips. I know I'll forget something. I just hope it's something that isn't important!

So that's where I am. I probably won't be doing too much blog reading the next ten days, and if you write me, I might not be able to get back to you right away. But hopefully each night I'll be here, if only for a few words, and let you know I'm surviving.

Please... let me be surviving!!

Monday, January 3, 2011

MFA Monday: Learning to Let Go

I'll admit it: December wasn't very good to me. Two weeks after breaking my foot and spraining my ankle, I came down with the flu that led to a nasty sinus infection and multiple days of cry-in-a-darkened-room migraines. Seriously. The fact that I managed to make it to Christmas dinner at all was a miracle.

Now that January has arrived, I'm on the mend. For the first time in a month I managed to shed the ugly walking cast and eschew my class-A pain killers and swallow the last of the antibiotics and appear nearly normal.

Which is good, because in four days I climb on an airplane and head to the west coast and my first residency.

While the timing of the foot/flu wouldn't have been my first choice, I have to admit - now that I'm on the other side of it - that there's definitely a silver lining. I learned something last month that I desperately needed before leaving for school.

I learned it's okay to let go of some things.

It is possible to host a fairly large gaggle of family for Christmas dinner. Even if the house does not look perfect. Even if the kitchen sink faucet breaks the night before said hosting. Even if the person bringing dessert also comes down with a cold and can't come and all you have are frozen cookies you made early in the month in a moment of uncharacteristic enthusiasm. Even if not all the presents are beautifully wrapped (or wrapped at all), or you have to make a executive decision that due to lack of mobility there will not be a turkey at the table this year (other than your husband and brother-in-law).

It is okay if the kids clothe themselves and do their own hair. Even if nothing matches and it looks like a blind person put the pony-tail in.

It's going to be necessary to learn to say, "I'm sorry, I'd LOVE to play that board game with you, but mommy has to lock herself in her room and do her homework before she can play."

I learned that when it's important, my family can totally take care of the puppy.

All of these things I needed to know before I left for school. Like a weight lifted off me, I watched from the sidelines as my family did all the things they needed to do to keep moving without me. It wasn't always the way I wanted, or without pain, but they did it.

I need to let go of wanting everything to be perfect, and accept that some days, just making it to the end of the day all together is all we can ask.

I won't be making any New Year's Resolutions this year.

I won't be perfecting any super-mom role. I won't be promising myself this year I'll get everywhere on time, I'll bake fresh cupcakes for every school party, I'll keep the house sparkling and the lawn green, or that I'll make healthier dinners every night. I'm sure not promising you I'll write wittier, more thoughtful or more regular blog posts.

I'm thinking, based on the amount of time it's taking me to critique these nine stories that we'll be workshopping next week in residency, that probably all of that will suffer.

I can't be everything to everybody. It's true.

And something about learning that is freeing, even if it takes the excuse of a broken foot and the flu - or school - to teach me.