Our first real day of workshop — and that photo above really was what greeted me first thing in the morning — is led by Karen Joy Fowler. She’s fantastic; I love her work, and happily direct you, dear reader, to What I Didn’t See, her alternately harrowing and enchanting new collection of stories. She’s even better in person: wise, funny and totally candid, especially (ulp!) about rejections. If I remember correctly, it was Sarah Canary that was rejected 20-plus times until it finally found its way into the right hands. (Later, Fowler also does one of the best readings of the day, from an upcoming novel: a hilarious and tense face-off in a high school cafeteria.)
We’re off to a good start: a couple of science-fiction pieces — one set way off (Fowler said it was too way off) in the future, another the beginning of a post-apocalyptic saga that starts in the Salton Sea. I dig the fact that one’s a social worker and another’s a lawyer — again, regular folks like me. “Too many adjectives,” the class practically agreed about the latter piece, except that I didn’t. In my head I figure they’ll all slam my piece later for being overwritten and hyperbolic.
Random nugget, out of many: Fowler tells us that in science fiction there’s a certain willingness for the reader to be confused for a while. “But the world can’t be explained directly to the reader,” she says. The characters have to move through this world, and it’s in the showing that the world’s logic emerges.
I write this down in my notes and stubbornly hang on to this because I start my novel with this cinematic and dreamlike prologue that came spilling out of me in a rush and that just about every reader I’ve shown it to could not understand. (You all can see where this is going, right? You can figure out what I’m not hearing, yes?) I cling on to Fowler’s words as talismans: yes! This is my justification! The reader has to be made to work, dammit! Even if I’m not writing science fiction! (Find out on Day 6 how I finally figure this all out.)
After lunch, Janet Fitch gives a “craft lecture” on dialogue entitled “Riding a Unicycle while Spinning Plates” and yeah, yeah, I think I’ve heard this all before. “Dialogue is not for exposition or backstory,” et cetera, et cetera. Silly me. Before I know it, I can barely take notes quick enough as she proceeds to give numerous examples on how the dialogue can be fixed. She proceeds to read examples of bad dialogue from previous workshops and the audience cracks up. In everyday life, Fitch says, conversations are meant to avoid conflict, but in fiction you want to get to that point, to find conflict. (The speakers reveal who is weaker and who is stronger, for instance.) Real-life conversations are of course terribly mundane, but she adds, “a line that anyone could say is a line that no one should say.”
It’s a great nuts-and-bolts talk but at this point I’m on the verge of breaking out in a cold sweat because I can’t remember how the dialogue in my novel excerpt looks like. (Were they, like Fitch’s horrible examples, exchanging lines like “Would you like some tea?” “I would love some tea!” “Do you take sugar with your tea?” “I’d take some sugar, please!”)
And I figure I’d have to come up with some defense of my unthinking use of em-dashes in place of quotation marks, but, really, I could take them or leave them. Honestly, I wasn’t trying to be Cormac McCarthy or something; the em-dashes just came out that way. The great Ron Carlson would later say — and I totally deserved the scorn — “Look at me! I’m making the narrative zip along without those quotation marks in the way! I’m calling attention to the immediacy of my prose!” Or words to that effect. But I’ll save that for discussion of Day 6.
In my notes, and I can’t remember who said it — it may have been from the hilarious conversation and reading by Mark Childress and Anne Lamott later that evening, where they read from their first books:
The first draft is like putting tea leaves at the bottom of a cup: you shake it, stir it, see if there’s some sort of shape.