Mimsy Were the Borogoves

Book Reviews: From political histories to bad comics, to bad comics of political histories. And the occasional rant about fiction and writing.

La Jolla Writers Conference wrap-up

Jerry Stratton, November 9, 2011

Gull picking at scraps: A gull at the La Jolla Writers Conference, picking at garbage.; La Jolla Writers Conference

An author at the conference picking at the scraps of the print industry.

A quick wrap-up of interesting remarks and recommendations from this year’s conference:

Mark A. Clements told us that the best lies are the same as the best fiction. To lie well, you need to think about things that you don’t want to think about.

Everything starts with a “What If?” In Pet Sematary, the question was “What if my child were to die young?” and the question that made it stand out was “What if I could bring him back?”

Some questions are less obvious outside of horror or fantasy, although I’d say that it’s not that you can’t ask a question like that outside of horror/fantasy, but that you have to be willing to look at the question from different angles. On Sunday, Mike Farris used Million Dollar Baby as an example for his adaptation class, and that’s kind of a non-magical answer to “what if I could bring my child back?”

In something like Pet Sematary, the lies get bigger as the story goes on. Small lies are put in place early to service bigger lies later. Kinda like Shattered Glass. The size of the lie must be commensurate to the size of the question.

A lot of writers told us to write everything in the first draft: don’t limit in the first draft, spew it all out, reminiscent of Stephen King’s advice in On Writing. Steven Boyett said “Give yourself permission to suck.”

Mark Clements: “You have a responsibility to face your fears on behalf of your characters and your readers.”

When it’s time to cut, Clements asks “Does it carry its own weight? Is it worth the detail?” And this is a question that’s easier to find an answer to after the first draft is done. Sometimes you don’t know if it carries its weight until you see what else it’s holding up.

There was a lot of resonance at this conference, more than I remember happening in previous years. Clements used the kite-flying scene from Pet Sematary to illustrate his example; in Steven R. Boyett’s Craft of Fiction class, the very next class I went to, he used the same scene.

Then Boyett read from Tim O’Brien’s The Things They Carried, and in the next class Dean Nelson mentioned it as well. Both also used Stephen King’s Misery as examples, although in that case they used different scenes.

Boyett also said, “I think you can learn art. I don’t know that you can teach art.” So he finds it more effective to talk about craft. The next day during the lunch keynote, Raymond Feist said that “you can learn to write… but no one can teach you to write.”

At the late-night read and critiques, Clements referenced “grotesqueries”, quoting some other author whose name I didn’t catch. These are turns of phrase such as “his eyes crawled down the front of her blouse.”

It made me wonder if you could write a horror short story filled with nothing but these kinds of grotesqueries.

Mike Sirota always has great nuts-and-bolts classes. He recommended Orson Scott Card’s Characters & Viewpoint.

I added a lot of books and movies to my list of things to read. (Which is almost as big as my shelf of things to read.)

Clements recommended James Lee Burke, for his extraordinary dialogue. Boyett recommended David Mitchell, especially Cloud Atlas. He always recommends Cormac McCarthy, and in this case Blood Meridian. He also recommended The Catcher in the Rye, Raymond Chandler, Roger Zelazny, and Moby-Dick.

Warren Lewis, of course, recommended movies: 55 Days at Peking is one I hadn’t heard before. Raymond Feist recommended The Thief of Bagdad.

“Writing a novel is like carving through a mountain with a spoon.”—Steven Boyett

In response to La Jolla Writers Conference, 2011: Score one for Apple’s non-removable batteries. I have an awesome Olympus Pen in my bag… and the battery is sitting in the charger back in my apartment. Which means I’m using the lesser camera in my iPad. So I’m not sure you can see the rain in this photograph that’s keeping the lawn free of lounging authors.

  1. <- Reading after midnight