Shaping the Longer Prose Manuscript

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Finding good critique for a book-length manuscript can be a challenge. Peruse the classifieds in any issue of Poets & Writers, and you will discover editors willing to do the job for a fee. If cost is an issue, you can always swap manuscripts with a literary friend. But what if you want to be an active participant? Most prose workshops – fiction, creative non-fiction, or memoir – offer a workshopping environment for a roomful of writers armed with roughly 30 pages each. While critique of an individual chapter might provide the writer suggestions on how to polish their prose or set up a chunk of time meant to be inserted into a longer narrative, this doesn’t address overall structural issues. Nor does it touch on narrative drive. The writer can’t know if their longer manuscript is even working.

Writers David Ulin and Amy Wallen have put their heads together over this conundrum to come up with the Big Picture Workshop, focused on manuscripts up to 200 pages in length. This two-day class is hosted by Wallen and takes place in her San Diego living room. She usually whips up one of her signature savory pies for the event. Ulin, former book editor of the Los Angeles Times, serves as lead critic, though everyone contributes to the discussion. All participants are expected to arrive prepared to comment on work on the table. Yes, this does mean there is a lot of preparatory reading, though it’s worth the effort. I’ve pushed three manuscripts to the next level after taking them through this process.

More recently, I stumbled upon the hospitality of Kate Moses, a writer and editor who got her start with North Point Press in Berkeley during the 1980s, right after she graduated from University of the Pacific. She’s the author of Wintering: A Novel of Sylvia Plath and Cakewalk: A Memoir, among other things. When I first spotted her ad for a writing intensive through Birds & Muses: Kate Moses Literary Services, I had a collection of short stories underway, one that had already received a fair amount of critique.

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I’d workshopped the manuscript with David Ulin during his Big Picture workshop. Ulin always passes written notes to the writer in the hot seat, once the verbal critique is over. He encourages other writers in the class to do the same. So when I returned home, I sorted through these sets of comments before embarking on a another rigorous rewrite. As I proceeded to break the manuscript down, I removed one story Ulin thought should be lengthened into a novella (it’s currently being submitted as such). I wrote a number of new stories—and I reorganized the whole collection. I also linked these stories (a suggestion from Amy Wallen). I handed this new construction to novelist, Patricia Santana, and she inked it up some more (in turn, I worked over one of hers).

I wasn’t really looking for another workshop, but when I noticed how Kate Moses was offering time to write, plus a full manuscript reading and consultation, I decided to bite. By this time, my work-in-progress had swelled from 200 to 260 pages. Since I’d linked my stories—moving characters in and out of thirteen different plots—the manuscript had morphed into something between a novel and a set of stories. Some of these pieces were pretty autobiographical—others completely made up. I didn’t know if my design worked, so I was eager to have the collection assessed as a whole by a genuine editor. Indeed, in my application I noted I wanted to prepare the manuscript for publication, give it a final polish.

Kate Moses read my entire manuscript, scrawled notes all over it, and discussed it with me throughout the week-long intensive. This added up to hours of one-on-one guidance. She assisted four other writers during the retreat, yet she never set up a workshop environment, as Ulin does. Each writer worked with Moses separately. Days were structured so we could get in plenty of writing time, while evenings were reserved for social interaction. The six of us enjoyed dinner together (more on that later). And after our bellies were full, Moses usually led a discussion based on a writing-related issue.

While Moses didn’t exactly line edit my work-in-progress, she did talk me through her detailed notes, allowing me to absorb them on the spot and make some decisions of my own. She’s a fine editor. As I interacted with her, I jotted comments all over a separate copy of my manuscript. At the end of the week, she handed me half of her copy to take home. We plan to go over the rest – one way or another – when she has time. Yet even if she ends up mailing the last six stories with written comments, she’s already given me more than enough to prepare for a good scrubbing. I even managed to write the draft of a new story while I was with her—one to round out the manuscript.

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As for logistics, the intensive was held in the historic Kenney House near Elk, California. The place offers inspiring ocean views and ample room for retreatants. It’s situated on a working ranch boasting a trail that winds past a herd of highland cattle into an adjoining forest. BTW, Kate did all the cooking for the six of us. I’m pretty sure she could have changed things up on the spot and switched our week to a cooking intensive, should we have asked. She’s an outstanding chef—truly creative in that regard. We did not go away hungry.

In My Hometown—Davis, California

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It’s been eerie to move back to my hometown after being away for over forty-two years. I haven’t been here long, and it has taken virtually no effort to slide back into a familiar groove, a visceral knowing of this place. And yet, I am well aware I’ve missed entire novels describing the time between 1976 and today. Most people I once knew remain frozen in their teen visages. I probably won’t recognize many, even if I walk past them in the grocery store. When I do bump into a Davisite from my youth, their childhood photo tends to pop up. This doesn’t happen with other people I went to school with—the people I watched grow into adulthood. Their adolescent faces faded long ago.

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The novel that is my own life moved into the Pacific Northwest. After spending some twenty-five fulfilling years up there, I returned to California to work as a librarian for Cuyamaca College in San Diego County. During that pivotal year it actually felt like I’d moved to a brand new state. I’d relocated to Southern California, not the California that houses ghosts of my ancestors.

One line of my family has particularly strong roots in Northern California. My great-great-grandparents emigrated from Ireland. Their daughter, Katherine (my great-grandmother), was born in California in 1866. She actually spent time in Red Dog. For those not in the know, Red Dog is no longer a town. It’s a graveyard and a monument. I still haven’t figured out if my great-grandmother was actually born in that gold mining camp, though I have evidence she once lived there. Three more of my great-grandparents settled in Northern California. Two emigrated from Norway, and one moved out west from Rhode Island. This is a heritage that refuses to be ignored—it doesn’t care that I moved on to other regions. Yet I do feel completely chopped up by place—Oregon, Washington, Southern California. I guess you could say, I’m a veritable West Coast mutt.

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Still, I was born Davis. Well, I was born in Woodland. There wasn’t a hospital in Davis back in 1962. I was born in Woodland, but my parents took me home to Davis. I lived in Davis from birth to fourteen, enough time to absorb what this city was. Davis has continued to be my core, even as aspects have faded from memory. For me, a new story began at the age of fourteen—in Southern Oregon. Other stories followed. And now I’m beginning yet another one that will play out in a town where certain buildings, certain trees, continue to trigger flashbacks. I’m not sure how long I will stay. I’ve moved back to Davis to tie up loose ends, keep an eye on an aging parent, as I also take advantage of my free time the way I once did when I was kid. Yes, I have returned to my hometown a card-carrying member of the AARP, though I recently decided to call myself a tweener.

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After retiring from Cuyamaca College in 2017, I got a taste of full retirement. While those months were good for my health, it wasn’t long before I began feeling too young to be hanging out at home 24/7 (though I did get a lot of writing done). I found myself missing my profession. I was conflicted, because slowing down felt right for my recent breast cancer survivor status. The solution: I’ve just been hired to work as an adjunct librarian for Sacramento City College. This should afford me time to work on my writing and my health, while also giving me the opportunity to continue contributing to my profession. I should add, it’s great to be back at work—wonderful to embark on a new adventure in a familiar land.

Swan Song

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Getting ready for Amahl and the Night Visitors – performed by the Porthole Players and the Newport Symphony Orchesta.

I just scrolled through my own Tweets to revisit “2018 in the Life of Kari Wergeland.” As a breast cancer survivor, I have vowed to live as fully as I can, to refuse to “go gentle into that good night.” Well, it’s been a good year. I launched my first “real” poetry chapbook—I published a handful of other poems in journals and anthologies. I received acceptances on two short stories and one essay (due out in 2019). I sang in a holiday concert with the Central Coast Chorale in Lincoln County, Oregon. And I joined the Porthole Players in conjunction with the Newport Symphony Orchestra to perform as a soprano shepherdess in Amahl and the Night Visitors.I also landed some adjunct librarian hours with Sacramento City College. This will allow me to move into a swan song phase of a career I’ve loved and participated in since I first took a paraprofessional position in the Ashland Branch Library (Ashland, Oregon). I was still in high school at the time.

I must confess, Amahl and the Night Visitors takes the prize in terms of personal satisfaction. I worked with a vocal coach (Rhodd Caldwell) and a director (Bonnie Ross) who were upbeat, supportive, and instructive. I shared this experience with an enthusiastic cast and a group of fine musicians, people who were kind, talented, professional, and a whole lot of fun. We performed to a full house both nights. It felt like we burst to life on opening night. I suspect our troupe came away feeling pretty good about the whole thing. If I never get to do this again, I can now say I checked that box. This was a bucket list item for me.

I continue to think about my bucket list, because my days seem permeated with more intensity than the life I lived prior to breast cancer treatment. It’s been over two years since my last radiation zap, and I’m still finding a heightened sense of meaning in almost everything I do. I don’t want to waste another minute. I try to toss out anything that feels extraneous. I continue to feel gratitude for the opportunities that come my way. Maybe I’m more often noticing what is worth living for at all. Small things like how the ocean looks silver beneath the midday sun. Or how a muted winter landscape reveals its own kind of magnificence. As we were preparing for Amahl and the Night Visitors, our director Bonnie made a point of telling us that people sometimes ask her, “Why do you direct plays?” She said she did it to put some beauty into the world. She followed that thought with another one, “The world really needs this right now.”

Aesthetic considerations may seem inconsequential in the face of political turmoil, wildfires, floods, war, and famine, but I’m with Bonnie on thinking about how we can achieve acts of beauty in a troubled world. As a writer, I continue to ponder the purpose of my voice. What do I need to say? How should I say it? All sorts of thoughts come to mind—some are on my bucket list. Yet no matter how I end up answering these questions, I’d like Bonnie’s sentiment on beauty to be amongst any other reason I might have for writing or singing (or Tweeting or dealing with the public from the reference desk). How a person chooses to use their voice – even in the face of terrible conflict – can potentially move us all toward that fabulous choir sound, which can include major dissonances and minor chords, even as it transcends stalemates born of cheap lines.

I’ll be singing in 3 holiday concerts on the Oregon Coast…

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Wishes & Candles Annual Holiday Concert - Central Coast Chorale

Voice Break Reprise

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Amahl and the Night Visitors performed by The San Diego Ecumenical Opera, December 2010.

I’ve been calling myself semi-retired, from the library world anyway. I’m not completely ready to stop working. A community college in Northern California interviewed me last summer, before putting me on their adjunct list—they may have some hours for me spring semester. If all else fails, I can always work part-time for my old school in San Diego County. Meanwhile, I’ve been taking a breather in my cabin on the Oregon Coast, working on my health, and getting a lot of writing done. I’ve certainly begun promoting my new chapbook, Breast Cancer: A Poem in Five Acts. And I’m back in the Central Coast Chorale. We’re preparing for a series of holiday concerts slated to take place in Lincoln County, Oregon, this December.

I was waiting for our second rehearsal to begin when one of my sister singers told me about another coastal production scheduled for December, Amahl and the Night Visitors. This was going to be a joint effort between the Porthole Players and The Newport Symphony Orchestra. The people sitting near me continued to natter on. Apparently, there is one day where individual performances of Amahl overlap with the choir concert—somewhat. “No matter,” one singer said. “We’ll run up to Lincoln City to perform the matinee concert, and then we’ll return to Newport to get ready for Amahl.” I must have looked interested, because she went on to tell me when auditions were (that same weekend). Then she informed me where I could locate the music online—for the audition.

I found myself mulling the possibility over. I’d performed in the chorus of Amahl and the Night Visitors in 2010. This was a student production, directed by my voice teacher, Esther Jordan. I actually outlined my road to this unlikely opportunity in my memoir-in-verse, Voice Break. I decided I could probably remember my old part for the audition—get it ready for the next day.

It felt a bit eerie to enter the smaller performance studio in the Newport Performing Arts Center, a room rimmed with black curtains. While I’d auditioned for three choirs in the last ten years (a process that generally consists of singing scales and exercises revealing how well a singer sight-reads), I hadn’t tried to audition for a show with a prepared song since the age of 25 (and for the record, I’m now 56). However, I had been working on my singing. Before leaving San Diego County, I studied with my voice teacher for more than seven years. And I now have almost five years of choir singing under my belt—time with the three different choirs.IMG_3366To repeat, I had not tried out for a musical theater production since my twenties (and by the way, I was never cast in a musical back then). I did get to taste a small speaking role in The Taming of the Shrew at Lane Community College (in Eugene, Oregon). And I appeared in a few dance concerts, but I never sang on stage during my initial tango with the performing arts. My passion for all of this eventually fell by the wayside when I became serious about my library career. I began working for the Seattle Public Library in the late eighties—my first librarian job—and this took up the bulk of my time.

But now I’m a retiree!

When it was my turn to audition for Amahl and the Night Visitors, I handed the music for Come Ready and See Me to the accompanist and then moved to stand before the director, Bonnie Ross, the producer, Rhodd Caldwell, not to mention a handful of other hopeful performers. They were a friendly bunch—I didn’t feel too nervous. Besides, I’d just run through the one-minute selection twice in my cabin with no wobbles. Yet this time when I sang the first few measures, I immediately felt my start was weak, maybe not a wobble, exactly. The acoustics felt weird. As I continued singing, I strove to focus, work better with the accompanist. I was thinking I was settling into the song. But when I was finished, the director said, “Now sing it like you want to sell it.” An ouch? So this time I tried to put pizazz into my stance and sing with more gusto. After a few seconds she said, “Thank you very much.”

On to the music for Amahl.

The night before, I’d prepared for the chorus, soprano part. That was all I wanted to shoot for—nothing huge. There were two other women in my group, both trying for soprano. First, the director had the three of us sing the soprano line. Then she had me and one other woman sing the alto line. Then she moved me back to soprano. She invited the men to join in. At some point, we all sang as a chorus. After this grand finale, I was able to breathe a sigh of relief and head to Starbucks. They were moving on to cast the leads.

A few weeks later, I got the call. The director offered me the part of singing shepherd. Retirement is an adventure, I guess.

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Amahl and the Night Visitors will take place on Saturday, December 8 at 7:30 pm and Sunday, December 9 at 2:00 pm in the Newport Performing Arts Center.

The Central Coast Chorale will be performing their annual Wishes & Candles holiday concert in three locations:

  • Lincoln City Cultural Center – Saturday, December 8, 2 – 4 pm
  • Yachats Commons – Saturday, December 15, 2 – 4 pm
  • Newport Performing Arts Center – Sunday, December 16, 2 – 4 pm
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Getting ready for Amahl and the Night Visitors – performed by the Porthole Players and the Newport Symphony Orchesta.

 

I’ll be signing at the Florence Festival of Books

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Signing books in Toad Hall (Yachats, Oregon).

I will be signing copies of my books at the Florence Festival of Books in Florence, Oregon, on Saturday, September 29th between 10 am and 4 pm. The festival will be held in the Florence Events Center on 715 Quince Street.

What to Reveal at the Book Launch—and Subsequent Readings

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Last month, I launched Breast Cancer: A Poem in Five Acts in the backyard of my close friend, Patricia Santana, a writer in her own right. Patricia and her partner, Jack Madowitz, went all out with the food and drinks—the ambience. They set up extra tables and chairs. They took charge of my sales so I could mingle. And though it is difficult to relax into a party when you are the planned entertainment, I was able to enjoy the good wishes and hugs, the repast even. I hadn’t seen many of these folks since my retirement from Cuyamaca College, over a year ago, because I left San Diego County to embark on various adventures while also designing my next leg of life. It was nice to catch up—celebrate the summer, not to mention Patricia’s own more recent retirement from the school. Yes, they were expecting me to read—and then sign books. That was whole the point.

I was pretty relaxed as I stood, book in hand, about to deliver sections to an audience for the first time. I felt honored to be introduced by a writer I admire, particularly for her willingness to be honest. I’m certainly proud to be her friend. What I wasn’t expecting, though, was this on-the-spot realization I’d opened myself up for personal questions. In writing the book, I’d had complete control over what I focused on and what I left out. Besides, a book becomes an organic boundary between writer and reader, a place to stow painful revelations that don’t have to be openly discussed.

As I scanned the familiar faces, the thought came to me that anything could come up during Q & A. While this may seem like a no-brainer, I hadn’t contemplated how it would feel to discuss the finer points of what medical personnel did to my left breast—this to a group of colleagues and friends. I made the decision then and there to lean toward openness. I did wonder if I’d regret it later, squelching the bout of awkwardness that flared as I rambled into my “time for questions” line. I found myself signaling a willingness to answer things about my medical situation in order to put people at ease. If a person needed clarification about some aspect of this painful disease, I was going to try and offer it. I was the one who’d opened the door to this possibility.

I was already finding the evening a bit of a balancing act—being sensitive to those I knew had gone through breast cancer (or were going through it) while also responding to those who’d never dealt with the disease. I’m well aware breast cancer victims have varying experiences with their treatment. I also know my situation isn’t the most painful case on record. I didn’t want to upset anyone whose condition was worse than mine.

People went easy on me. Maybe they felt awkward, too. Most questions were of a philosophical nature, “How have things changed about the way you view your life, now that you’ve gone through breast cancer?” Or something to that effect. I was happy to explore this territory instead of inquiries like, “Did chemo make you puke?” Still, I haven’t changed my mind about answering the puke question—or ones like it (though I’m sure I’ll discover where my line falls, should I continue to share this book in person). I don’t want to tuck this side of my life out of public view, because I’ve learned so much from the nitty gritty tales that unrolled before me as I began heading down this road. I’m still collecting anecdotes and probably always will. Some people’s stories allowed me to mentally prepare, some helped me work through specific aspects of treatment, and some diverged from what I actually experienced. All were worthy of contemplation, maybe a stick of incense. There is a certain density to this sort of storytelling that has the capacity to cushion cancer victims, not to mention those who love them.