Learning to Write in Scene

This past week I attended the Write-by-the-Lake writers’ workshop and retreat, run by UW-Madison’s Continuing Studies. It’s the second time I’ve attended the workshop, and I’m convinced that it’s worth the investment. A nice view of an actual lake is part of the experience, though there was so much learning going on, I didn’t pay much attention to the scenery.

WBTL 2018

I signed up for Ann Garvin’s session on plotting with urgency. If you don’t already know Ann, she’s the author of three novels, the genius behind Tall Poppy Writers, and the founder of The Fifth Semester writing program. She has a day job, too, as a professor of health at UW-Whitewater.

The workshop was populated mostly by fiction writers–and two of us nonfiction writers. I’m still working on my writing style, trying to get my stories to appeal to a broader readership, so I thought learning about urgent plots would be just the thing.

And it was. Every day when I left the workshop, my head was stuffed with new information and ideas. One of the most valuable lessons I learned was the necessity of writing in scene, which is the current way of saying show, don’t tell. That sounds so easy, but it’s a challenging thing to pull off. Each scene not only has to immerse the reader in that particular moment, but it also has to crackle with tension, which usually has to do with a character not getting what they want. And it has to have an integral connection with the plot. We learned about all those things.

I find writing in scene especially difficult with the kind of nonfiction I write. Because of my training as a historian, I feel an obligation to stay true to the historical record. The scenes I write have to be factual. If I interject anything that can’t be verified by historical documents, I need to be clear between speculation and fact. Historian Simon Schama wrote a fascinating book about this boundary:

My task going forward is to make sure I write about dead certainties in a compelling way. That will be my summer.




Write-by-the-Lake Writer’s Workshop and Retreat, June 26-30, 2017

Winter weather already getting you down? Looking forward to spring?

Image result for snow storm(WABC)

Registration has just opened for a great writer’s retreat on June 26-30, 2017, in Madison, WI.

I’ll be leading one of the new workshops, Writing Women’s Lives. Plan now to join me!

The 19th annual Write-by-the-Lake Writer’s Workshop & Retreat has expanded to 14 sections. There are several new instructors and topics, including children’s picture books, poetry writing, and a new step-by-step system to plotting fiction with urgency.

This national retreat offers something for all writers. Most of all, it offers the opportunity to work, work, work on your writing.

Plus, by popular request from past attendees who didn’t want the week to stop and who wanted ideas for their next steps, the program added a new special bonus Saturday workshop on July 1 with Tim Storm.

And the famous writing doctor, Kevin Mullen, is back!

Wait, there’s more! Someone who got her start here and is now a big success–hitting the USA Today list with her fiction–will deliver the keynote address and teach one of the new sessions. That’s right. Wisconsin’s own Ann Garvin is on board this year.

UW-Madison’s Memorial Union and its lakeside terrace have been renovated just in time for us to test out the new amenities. We can watch the sailboats go by as we share writing ideas over a glass of something good or a cone packed with the famous Babcock Dairy ice cream.

Image result for uw madison memorial union terrace

Please join me and your fellow writers from across the country.

Enrollment is limited in each section to maximize the attention on your writing.

Click here for full details.




Write by the Lake: Day 5

Then it was Friday. Summertime weeks speed by; this one seemed to go doubly fast. Just when we got started, there we were, wrapping up.

I’d barely been able to finish my homework for Friday because of the author event at Mystery to Me on Thursday night. That turned out well. (Except for the drive into Madison, at the tail end of rush hour, causing me to arrive just in time.) The cozy crowd included my husband, a long-time academic friend who was also attending Write by the Lake, and a new friend from the workshop. And there were a few others, too, and some of them stayed around to chat a bit after the q&a with journalist Doug Moe. Doug asked great questions that allowed me to talk about Angels of the Underground, which I love to do. It all lasted for about an hour and a half, and Joanne kept the cash register open long enough for me to buy the new novel by fellow Wisconsin writer, Ann Garvin.


So I didn’t get to my workshop homework until Friday morning. But I got it done. During the session, we read through some of those completed assignments and worked on another writing exercise. To wrap things up, the instructor talked a bit about the querying process involved in finding an agent.

Overall, this was a good experience. There is great value in connecting with other writers (our workshop was a great group) and on developing writing skills. I wish there had been more of that latter thing, especially as applied to our individual projects. The six of us in the workshop all have book projects started. We need to keep going.

Throughout the week I kept thinking about how I would have structured a writing workshop. At the top of my list: have the attendees do a lot of writing, critiquing, and revising. Our homework assignments and in-class exercises were quality assignments for honing our skills of observation and description. We should have then applied what we learned to our manuscripts-in-progress, with the goal of writing 5-10 pages per night. Copies of those new pages could have circulated within the group for critiques and rewrites. That would’ve been a wonderfully productive workshop.

Now, the rest of the summer looms.