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Tin House Writer’s Workshop: Day Four

This day began with me waking up at about 8:30 for the 8AM breakfast and getting caught up in conversation in the cafeteria to the point where I was almost late for the opening talk of the day. Instead of being in the usual place (Vollum), the morning lecture was moved to the chapel in a nearby building called Eliot, which made me think of T.S., though I don’t know if it was named for him. Most likely not. Anyway, I got to the talk with three other people. We ended up being 5 minutes late, so it wasn’t too bad. But in case you don’t know this about me, being any less than 15 minutes early to a place is late to me, so I was a bit embarrassed about being late.


The lecture given by Pauls Toutonghi was filled with laughs and some really great advice. You may be wondering what the talk was about, seeing as how the title of the talk is more than a little discouraging. Basically, the program said that “We will discuss when to give up, how to give up–and the converse of this: How to make your novel premise engaging enough, interesting enough, and self-sustaining over the long haul.” So basically, the talk was about how to avoid having to give up writing a novel for one reason or the other. This was interesting, seeing as how I have only tried to write two novels in my life, one I actually completed. Unfortunately, the novel I completed was written when I was a Junior in high school and was a blatant rip-off of John L. Parker’s novel, Once a Runner. I’m glad for the fact that I was able to receive these very helpful tips before starting my first “for serious” attempt at writing a novel. As always, I took notes on the talk and will give them in a list. If any of the notes aren’t clear or you would like more details about any of the notes, feel free to message me or comment on my post and I’ll get back to you. Now, for the notes:

  • Even great writers go through periods of self-doubt. (Feel free to either gasp in amazement or mutter “No shit.” under your breath.)
  • Come up with a clear, strong premise for a novel.
  • The premise is the key to unlocking your manuscript. Without a premise, there is no promise. (I actually coined that last phrase!)
  • A good novel premise includes these 4 things:
  • 1. It’s not about you.
  • 2. Contains the clear sense of the book’s main antagonism/Contains a quest for the protagonist.
  • 3. Reflects a barely contained passion for the subject matter.
  • 4. It is set in a specific place.
  • Don’t write against your passion.
  • Don’t fear failure.
  • Have a ceremony for your book if you decide to quit it. Closure good, regret bad.

Now, in case you were wondering about the track record of Toutonghi, I have good news. He quit writing at least 4 different novels. And he has had one novel published. His short fiction has also appeared in really great magazines like, Zoetrope: All Story, One Story Magazine, Glimmer Train, and others. Toutonghi is also a great speaker and passed out a card reminding you that, should you decide to abandon your novel, “Pauls Toutonghi absolves you from guilt.” It was a great crowd-pleaser.

10AM: Workshop

I must admit that each day this is what I looked forward to: another two and a half hours with the awesome Ben Percy! He is a freaking genius. That’s pretty much all I’ll say about him in order to avoid sounding very fanatical. This day Ben began the class by talking about dialogue. Each day we seemed to get a new slew of golden lines focusing on a different aspect of craft each day. The previous day it was a talk on the importance of setting. Today it was dialogue. We were given lots of awesome ideas to take home, which I will now dispense:

  • Only trouble is interesting in fiction. Characters should discuss the trouble, but not directly.
  • Never open with dialogue.
  • Only use “said” when necessary. (Ben Percy is a bit conservative in this respect, which he admits himself. He believes that the only dialogue tag necessary is “said” and even that should be used sparingly unless more than two or three characters are participating in the conversation.
  • Dialogue is staccato, narration is legato. Both are necessary to the musical tone of the work.
  • Give your characters something else to do when talking. Don’t have them just sitting at a bar across from each other yapping. Percy used an example of a married couple discussing their deteriorating marriage (indirectly) while re-painting their home porch.
  • Characters shouldn’t talk about exactly what they’re talking about. Percy used the quote that no character should speak directly to what is said before. Characters should always be speaking on different levels or in different directions about the issue.
  • Conflict begins with self. In order for conflict to take place, the character must have something unaddressed within himself that must come out and be acted upon by the world.


All right, now this panel was extremely interesting, for more reasons than one. The first reason being that this was the first time I had ever seen Joy Williams in person. For those of you who don’t know what she looks like, Joy Williams looks like the female version of Bob Dylan. In a word: badass. She wears black almost all the time, wears leather boots, and never takes off her sunglasses. She is a very mystical person who gives completely awesome, off the wall answers to questions that seem to be very straightforward. I was also excited to see Charles D’Ambrosio speak because I had read many interviews with him and he seems like one of the closest people to my own personality. But then again, subjectivity taken into account, he could be highly unlike me to everyone else! Anyway, back to the talk. If you’re anything like me, the title of the panel alone is enough to bring up interest. The panel, according to the program, “will discuss how ideas are generated and refined, and how to keep the momentum going long after the initial spark of inspiration has withered.” A very mystical talk in the end, I could see why Joy Williams and D’Ambrosio were asked to be the panelists.The main points I found interesting and helpful are as follows:

  • The missing thing in young writers is the authority inherent in the voice.
  • The sound of the story is crucial.
  • The writer has to have respect for the story. That he is willing to do what he must to tell the story.
  • With fiction, you can’t be angry. You need control in order to create worlds and to accept them.
  • At some point, you have to remove yourself from the story.
  • If you don’t live with your story, you won’t reach a truthful ending.
  • Don’t trust going toward the ending. You shouldn’t have a ending in mind. If you do have an ending in mind and suddenly your characters steer the story in another direction, go with it. Trust it.
  • If you know where you’re going, turn left.
  • “I went to Iowa. I guess something happened there.” Humorous quote from Charles D’Ambrosio.

In case you’re wondering about the idea of ideas being refined and whatnot, that wasn’t addressed too much in the end. One of the most confusing and befuddling aspects of the craft shouldn’t be too easily bottled, I think. But even so, some great nuggets of wisdom came out of the talk, including one that lines up with one of Pauls Toutonghi’s aspects of a good novel premise: “It’s not about you…Remove yourself from the story.” Pretty cool, eh?


This talk suckered me in with promises of discussing the use of various time travel mechanisms in fiction, like Proust’s souvenir involuntaire and the repetition and convulsion of Alfred Hitchcock’s Vertigo, which was actually adapted from a book. Any time I hear Hitchcock, I come running. The program said, “We will focus on that which relies upon the presentation of a specific character, a magnetic temporal agent, in whose presence a protagonist finds himself obsessed, transported, and ultimately transformed by an involuntary journey into the past.” Sounds awesome. And it was. Samantha Chang’s breadth and depth of knowledge just astounded me as she talked. And I actually got one of the best kernels of advice from her talk, which I will share now.

  • Flashbacks should not be used in service of the present story, or at least considered a sticky subject. This idea is quite complex if not phrased or expounded properly. What she is saying is that you should not bring a moment from the past out simply to enhance the present story. The past story needs to be a part of the story in order to make a flashback necessary or appropriate.
  • The past should be evoked in a moment of action.
  • The present exists in service to the past. The past does not exist in service to the present.
  • Repetition of actions by a character should occur from not-knowing, not on purpose.


This reading was the shit. That’s pretty much the extent of it. First off was Maggie Nelson, whose recent book The Art of Cruelty got her on the cover of the New York Times Book Review. In her reading she gave us a sneak peek by reading from a selection where she discusses a number of artists, including Andy Warhol, whose art depended on a certain volume of cruelty perpetrated on others, either the participants or attendants, but hardly ever upon the artists themselves. This was food for thought in itself. Then the man from Tijuana, Luis Alberto Urrea (roll the “R”s), threw down the gauntlet. Stepping up to the podium to read from his new novel, Urrea made a dramatic show of flinging his book from the podium to a spot on the ground twenty feet away. Then he commenced to recite an entire chapter from his latest book, wherein a father shows off in front of a crowd during his daughter’s quincinera. It was the coolest thing ever! The crowd then engaged in a standing ovation. I can’t explain how bad I felt for Steve Almond, who was still yet to read. That was a terribly tough act to follow. After the ovation, Steve Almond got up in front of the crowd and bowed to Urrea in mock supplication. He then got up to the podium and said, “Luis, I really didn’t want to do this, but…” and dropped his paper on the ground, signaling that he was going to recite the story. And then, Steve said, “Wait, what was the first word?” And this drew a raucous laugh from the crowd. Steve then read a really great story of his from his latest book, God Bless America, which is also the title of the story. By now the sun had gone down and the lights were turned on. Steve’s story then rose and peaked at the crescendo of the story. Suddenly, from the woods behind Steve, a guy wearing a Bob Marley T-shirt and baked out of his mind emerged. Everyone broke out into laughter and Steve turned to look at the guy. “Hey man,” he said. “What’s up?” The guy came closer and stood with Steve at the podium until he was convinced to come and sit down in the stands of the amphitheater. Finally, Steve was able to finish his story and the reading was over.


After the reading, I went back to my room to change, as the weather had turned a bit for the worse. It being much colder than the previous couple days, I was forced to go back for warmer clothes. I changed quickly and came back. On my way back to the party at the halfway point, I saw a figure stumble clumsily into the light. Suddenly a short coughing noise came from the figure and a white mist burst into being right where he stood. Once he was in the light, I recognized him–the dude baked out of his mind from the reading had somehow gotten his hands on a fire extinguisher and was spraying it in a hallucinogenic-riddled stupor! I nearly laughed out loud and hurried back to the party with a new story to tell. There are more details to this story, but I’m afraid I must stop here!


About rydowney

What’s up party poetry people?! Welcome to my poetry blog. This is my rambling intro to you. My name is Ry. Ry Downey if you’re interested in googling me (giggity) but I’m not sure it will turn up anything interesting. I’m a citizen of Planet Earth and I might be from Mars. Or Venus, because I believe in love more than I do war. Yes, Venus. Definitely Venus. I love the thought of aliens and space–I’m a lover of nature and sunshine and laughing so hard I cry. I love my friends and my family and anything that makes me feel love and appreciation and gratitude for having lived this long on this beautiful rock floating through the stars. And then comes poetry.

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