Yale Writers' Conference: Day 6, Amy Bloom

Had a master class with one of my all time favorite short story and novel writers, Amy Bloom. I took lots of notes, because she had a lot to say. She lived up to all of my expectations.  She was straight-forward, smart and sardonic, but one of those funny people who doesn't smile at her own jokes.

Here are some of the things we talked about, in order of appearance:

"Turn off your phone unless you are an emergency worker or a surgeon. Second, even if you are brilliant writer, I will not be delivering your manuscripts to The New Yorker after the workshop."

She warned against bad similes: "The rain came down like a prostitute's tears."

She recommends a book by Ursula LeGuin called Steering the Craft where LeGuin talks about what she calls expository lumps, this challenge all writers face in trying to weave narrative info into the story so that it makes sense. She advises making even this information as good as possible, and if it's not, if that story about what happened to you in fifth grade does not move the story forward, you can cut it.

Since your reader is not your mom, don't expect her to wait around for the prose to get more interesting.

Re-read Joyce's "The Dead" if you want an example of a very closely told, intimate story that opens out and out and out into the world on the last page. Endings are your final prism, one more place where the reader can read something of new significance.

Your default voice is the one that you start writing in, your most comfortable voice, the first draft person who gets the words on the page. "My default voice is mid-career Maggie Smith, for some reason." This is the voice that doesn't take any risks. Everybody has it. "It's like an unfortunate relative who has entered the room and you must deal with it and keep going."

She is arch. She wears gold hoop earrings and a simple V-neck black shirt with khaki pants. She is lovely. She has a bobby pin in her hair.

Someone asks her a question about how to tell the story of a person who is fighting change She recommends reading Olive Kitteredge. The writer says, "But Elizabeth Strout is a brilliant writer." Blooms says, "Well, I could recommend a mediocre book so you will feel better about your own writing or I could recommend someone who does it really well and, in that way, you can improve your craft."

Another way to deal with exposition, particularly in a genre novel (like  sci-fi), is to write down a list of all of the things you think the reader needs to know to understand your world and see if there's a way to weave that in along the way. This actually could work for any story. Do we need to see another flashback about dad drinking or do we need to know what the character does for a living?

She does not recommend relying on a prologue.

She said something about how it's very, very hard to write a good short story and how short stories are not necessarily practice for learning how to write a novel. How Hawthorne and Poe didn't sit down to write a bunch of short stories in preparation for the real writing, their coming of age novel.

About revision: "Writing is this: you get up, fall down, get up, fall down, get up, fall down. And you get up on more time. It's like being a pretty good boxer."

You don't choose what elements will work best in your fiction like it's the difference between cake or ice cream. It's not structure or style, character or dialogue. It's all of the elements working together.

In fiction, each scene must be doing at least two (and, in the best case scenario, all three) of these things:

Illuminating character
Advancing plot
Being interesting in and of itself

She mentions how great it would be to create a workshop glossary--this book that would tell you the difference between what people are saying in workshop, and what they really mean. For example, "Consider having just one point of view," would be translated to mean "it's really hard to write multiple points of view and you may not yet be up for it."

Someone asks what to do if your character doesn't seem to acting, but just sitting there being passive. She says, "Send her out into the world. Get her to the grocery store or the emergency room.  See what she does."

Endings of chapters should be like a good kiss, leaving you thinking, "That was amazing. I want more."

A few more suggestions.

1. Ban the adverb. At the very least, take out those that do not add to the sense of scene.

"I love you," she said flatly. (OK)
"I love you," she said warmly. (No).

She mentions that another writer recommends taking out every adjective except color.

Same goes with action, essentially. Say goodbye to the mundane stuff we already know as humans who live in the world. "He dialed the nine digits of the phone number and pressed send. He walked left foot, right foot, left foot, right foot and then pushed the horizontal handle on the square wooden panel to get out of the room." Not only is much of that extraneous (hey couldn't you write, "He walked across the door and opened the door?"), if it's not necessary to see him exiting the room, go ahead and move on to the next scene.

At least during one of your revisions, see what happens if you pare the narrative  down to the bare bones. You can always put back in that vivid description of the Popeye tattoo and why the dude got it, but see what the story looks like stripped of any word, deed, or line of dialogue that's not working its hardest to earn its place.

This takes us to about half-way through the class.  Come see me if you want the rest, but read her work.

After class, I went over to introduce myself and tell her that I am at the writing conference now because of her. When I saw her name on the list, I sent in my application. She said thank you. She signed my book and asked me if I used an accent. I said no. I remained stage struck and she remained gracious, as I'd hoped she'd be.