Residency day 7

We began with a fiction workshop on revision from Corinna Vallianatos. She began with her top ten on revision, with the #1 position comprised of suggestions from the class:

10. Put your classmates’ response letters away. Read them, but don’t keep them handy.

9. Be impatient. Be impatient with your own preciousness. Revision is like waking up with a hangover. You need to have the cold clear gaze of the morning after when looking at your work.

8. Be deliberate. Try to determine exactly what’s supposed to happen in the scene and what it’s supposed to do so it does something unique for the story. 

7. Secure the point of view. Make sure that POV changes are done with intentionality.

6. Sharpen description. Whenever we go to a new place, spend at least one or two sentences describing the place. Keep describing, keep showing, never let up on the showing. Describe everyone in your story, no matter how briefly. Give everyone at least one sentence of description, ideally before they start speaking. Avoid generic description. Show what’s unique or distinctive about a character. Description is a conduit for depicting character.

5. Tighten and sharpen language. Choose an arbitrary goal to trim x words from a story to remove needless words: direction words, redundancies. “he nodded his head” to “he nodded”. If the adverb doesn’t enlarge the verb then get rid of it. Make verbs as active as possible, nouns as specific and precice as possible. Pick a tense, stay in the tense.

4. Be aware of your own tendencies. Know your work better than anyone else. Watch for the unusual words or sentence constructions, crutch descriptions. Vary sentence structures and word choice.

3. Dialogue. Dialogue needs to move the story forward and/or characterize. Look for places where dialogue can be sharpened or excised.

2. Read it out loud. Nothing makes problems more obvious than reading it out loud. It can be interesting to hear your words in someone else’s mouth. “Computer can read it out loud for you if you don’t have a friend” —Steven Paul Lansky

1. Suggestions from class: Know when to stop • Have no bias • Be willing to retype the whole work • Keep your original draft • Remember the small details • Cut up the chapter or story and then rearrange to re-envision the work • Let the text rest • Let a trusted reader comment on it

This was followed by a writing exercise on writing beyond the story:

Have the main character of the story you’re thinking of do the following exercises—as if he/she has his/her own notebook. Try, as much as your sense of decorum allows, to pretend that your character is writing the following, not you:

• Write a diary entry for the time of the story

• Write a diary entry for the time preceding the story

• Write a letter to someone who isn’t in the story about what’s happening in the story

• Write a letter to someone in the story.

Or you might explore places in the story that you haven’t either dramatized or summarized:

• What events happened before the beginning of the story? Before page one? Try writing a scene that comes before the first scene in your story.

• Write past the ending. Write an additional page past where you felt the story’s end was. This allows you (the writer) to understand the ramifications of the events that have already happened.


The rest of the morning was a mentee workshop then after lunch we had the last of the student seminars. I had Resa Albohor writing about leaving the stream of consciousness without drowning and Dan Cox on teaching creative writing in prisons.

Our evening “reading” was a screening of Hal Hartley’s Meanwhile followed by a question and answer session. The star of the film, D. J. Mendel bears a striking resemblance to our own Cully Perlman. He does at least now have an alternative nickname to “Heisenberg.”





3 responses to “Residency day 7”

  1. Michael Andreoni Avatar
    Michael Andreoni

    As to Corinna vallianatato’s precept to provide a description for every character: what would a novel-length work look like if this was faithfully delivered? I think I’d be skipping over the descriptions by page 50. I already know what your characters look like–they look like me except where they don’t. I’m not interested in comfort, I’m not reading to unwind from a long day. Challenge me. Harold Pinter famously said the audience should be expected to do a little work. Endless description takes the reader out of the need to invest anything. That’s what television is for.

  2. dahosek Avatar

    I think you may be misunderstanding what Corinna was arguing. In a novel-length work, most of the characters would have been introduced by page 50 and it would be sufficient to just refer to them by name. It’s only the first on-stage appearance of a character that calls for some description and it should be proportionate to the importance of the character. In any event, none of these are meant to be taken as absolutes. There are always cases where the rules can be broken or bent profitably. Reading James T. Farrell can be a disconcerting exercise since the aesthetics of his day called for him to dedicate almost a paragraph per character of physical description. But really, just a few lines are necessary, just enough to illuminate character and really only as far as it’s necessary to make that character distinct.

    1. Michael Andreoni Avatar
      Michael Andreoni

      Sorry it took this long to reply. I just figured out that you replied. I admit to a certain lack of web site sophistication.

      I certainly understand the received wisdom of main character introduction, and know I’m definitely in the minority, but characters features, dress, deportment, etc. don’t interest me. I’m extremely interested in what characters do, and think. I’ve contemplated writing a short in which the characters identities are expressed mathematically, and then “solved”. Yes, I know. I’m crazy. I’m thinking along the lines of Virginia Woolf’s “Mrs. Dalloway”.

      Of course, characters in my stuff are described, because I like getting published from time to time. I have a story forthcoming in Fifth Wednesday with loads of picturesque verbiage . As a reader, I skip over all physical description. Everyone is me except where it really counts: what they say, do, think.

      My idea of reading hell: George Martin’s “Game of Thrones”. The guy is a serial describer. Not one thing is left for the reader to imagine. It’s like eating at MacDonalds. An hour later I can’t remember where and what I ate. Make me do some work, you know?

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