Asking For More

What struck me most about my Taos Toolbox experience, I think, was how straightforward the lectures were. That’s not to say I didn’t learn more in-depth tricks or benefit from discussing different story elements over an intense two weeks—I did and it helped crystallize a lot of concepts for me.

But I do think you reach a certain point with craft, where there’s really nothing more to say. You either know it and use it, or you don’t. We all know we need that balance between character, plot, and emotion. And we have scenes and grammar to fashion our stories. But at a certain point, it simply comes down to doing.

At Taos, I learned that I’m doing many right things in my writing, at a high level. I also learned that I need to be doing more of it. At the individual story level and across stories. As I was told in my consultation at the end of the workshop (paraphrasing), “You can write. You need to stretch yourself and see what hits.” In other words, I know the basics, even beyond, and it’s time to stop being precious about my individual projects and start producing.

Wait, you want more from me?

As guest Daniel Abraham told us, “Publishing is a casino,” and you never hit the jackpot if you aren’t showing up everyday plugging quarters into the slots.

Time for the big girl pants.

That’s a scary thought. I feel a little like Dorothy in that I’ve realized I’ve been able to write all along. But if that were true, I’d like to think I’d be a bit further along in my writing journey. So there must be something else I’m missing, some missing piece of the puzzle.

I do think part of it comes back to output. I’m not a fast writer. I like to stew over my stories ideas and get lost in the different worlds. I’ve gotten faster at writing in the last year and a half, and I’ve been pushing myself to get there, but still other writers can write three short stories in the time it takes me to write one.

I also don’t move onto new projects quickly enough. I like to tinker, I like to figure out how to make my stories the best they can be, and sometimes that means I’m holding onto a sinking ship expecting to be rescued when really I should have taken that life raft and be onto something new. But if I don’t care about my work, how can I expect editors/agents/readers to?

Kristine Kathryn Rusch had a recent post on “Perfection” — it’s worth a full read, but I want to focus on something she said:

Keep writing, keep learning, keep improving. But for god’s sake, don’t look backwards. Those books are done.

How do you know when a manuscript is done? That’s trickier. I think you should trust the process, fix the nits, and move to the next book. Writing is a subconscious art, not a conscious one. You heard your first story before you could speak, so your subconscious knows a lot more about writing than your conscious brain ever will.

Trust that.

Many writers don’t believe what I just wrote, and that’s fine. You need to define it for yourself. Set a limit on revisions, set a limit on drafts, set a time limit. (My book must be done in August, no matter what.) Then release your book on the unsuspecting public.

The book will never be perfect.

And that’s another hard thing for me. I want to write a perfect story. I want each of my stories to be perfect. And I work hard to revise them, chasing after some nebulous concept of perfection, when maybe I should be sending them out and moving on to the next story.

Of course, an exception to Rusch’s position is Andrew Porter, who wrote “Looking Back” for the latest Glimmer Train bulletin. An extensive revision of one of his older stories has gone onto being his most successful, wining him the Pushcart. He says:

I think most writers have a tendency to discount their early work, especially those pieces that were written when they were first starting out, when they were just figuring out how to write a short story in the first place.

In some cases, we’re probably right to discount those early efforts. I know, for me, there’s a certain cringe factor involved. Sometimes simply remembering the basic premise of one of those early stories is enough to make me shake my head and vow never to look back. Still, I’ve recently begun to wonder whether my own tendency to always look forward—to always believe that my best work lies before me, that the fiction I wrote five years ago isn’t nearly as good as the fiction I’m writing today—doesn’t prevent me from recognizing the potential value in some of those old unpublished stories that are just sitting there on my hard drive or collecting dust in a folder.

So writers should always be moving on to the next project, except when they shouldn’t. Hmm.

So what makes the difference? Fellow Toolboxer Catherine Scaff-Stump may have stumbled upon the answer in her post-workshop post on Technique versus Vision (also worth a full read). In it, she talks about how workshops can teach technique, but they can’t teach vision, and how the critique process can muddy the two.

I’m going to work my ass off regarding technique. And…so what if my vision is different? Different can be the next thing. If I find myself doubting my technique, I should. I can fix that. If I find myself doubting my vision, that’s the end of the story. That’s the death knoll for my writing, right there.

So maybe it’s not about writing lots just to write lots or revising things to death because you can’t bear to send something out less than perfect. Maybe it’s about finding your vision and finding ways to bring that vision to life. And if your older stories have solid vision, it’s about updating them craft-wise as your skills as a writer develop. That’s not stepping back; that’s bringing them to life.

I like to think I have vision with my stories. Now it’s just about making them come to life.

I guess no one ever said this whole writing thing was easy.

Happy writing!
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Taos Toolbox Postmortem

I came. I survived. My head hurts.

I’m still processing much of my Taos Toolbox experience, but I’m feeling inspired, if overwhelmed, by all the information and feedback that was crammed into fourteen days as well as all the new writer comrades I made.

Every workday, we met in the common room at 10am for a morning lecture by Nancy Kress. That was followed by critiques of people’s work, which usually straddled lunchtime. Then there was an afternoon lecture by Walter Jon Williams. The rest of the day was reserved for critiquing, assignments, and drafting a new story for Week 2.

Critiques followed the Milford model, where the authors must remain silent as the rest of the writers take turns sharing their thoughts on the story. It was an intense process but ultimately very helpful as I start to contemplate revisions for the projects I shared at the workshop.

We also had a frank and informative guest lecture by Daniel Abraham on what it takes to have a successful career in SF/F. Hint: Multiple brands (ie, writing in different genres with associated pennames) to hedge against the quirks of the marketplace.

Weekends, I took every opportunity to hike in the Taos Ski Valley during the day and at night I drank my share of New Mexico made Gruet Blanc de Noirs champagne and discussed the writing life with my fellow participants. After all, this workshop was a celebration of sorts—rewarding how far I’ve come and acknowledging future opportunities, so long as I’m in a position to capitalize on them.

For some participants, this was not their first workshop, but there were others like me who had no preconceived ideas what this experience would be like. Though there was a range of experience levels, everyone was dead serious about perfecting their craft and learning what it takes to be a professional writer. And I’m proud my fellow attendees will be my publishing peers to come!

For more insights into the Taos Toolbox experience, check out fellow Toolboxer Catherine Schaff-Stump’s evolving collection of interviews and links of participant experiences.

Finally here are some tidbits I gleaned from the lectures over the last two weeks, which are hopefully as helpful to you as I found them:

  • Sometimes it’s more important to be interesting than clear when writing SF/F 
  • You can almost always cut “locomotion” writing that gets your characters two and from the real scenes 
  • Exposition works so long as you’ve earned it 
  • If scene(s) don’t build towards the explosion at the end of an act or the book’s finale, cut them 
  • The end of a sentence, paragraph, section, chapter, book is the power position 
  • If you get stuck, ask yourself what else can go wrong 
  • Attach emotions to observations
  •  A writer’s only job is to set reader’s expectations and then meet them 
  • Readers shouldn’t be worrying about what is happening in your story—they should be worried about what happens next.

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Taos Bound

I wrote this on Sunday after arriving in Taos for the writing workshop that will takeover the next two weeks of my life.

To say I’m anxious would be an understatement. I’m not quite shaking in my boots though because as intense as the workshop will be, I know it’s also the next logical step for a writer in my position. I’m no longer a newbie, but far far far from being an expert, and that’s exactly who this workshop is tailored for.

And you’d be surprised at just how much the knowledge that this is the right time for such a step settles the nerves.

After spending the last week and a half reading other participants’ work, I know that they are all in that in-between place I’m in—with different strengths and weaknesses—and most importantly, with things they can teach me. This is a self-selected bunch of serious writers, and I’m proud to count myself among them.

Add on top of that, two SF legends as our teachers, and there’s no excuse for me not to learn something. A lot of somethings…

I know all this. But still…scary.

As I mentioned in Know Your Genre, I fear I’m not as well read as I should be. Then when Week 1 submissions were expected sooner than I anticipated, I sent out a panicked SOS to my CPs and local group. Of course, everyone was very helpful, and I managed to apply their feedback and suggestions in time to send my work off to the workshop participants. But instead of feeling relieved, it just made everything seem more fraught.

Then there’s the fact that I know no matter how positive a workshop experience could or should be, there’s going to be some hard parts too. People will point out things about me and my writing that’s going to be hard to hear, and sometimes, even worse, harder to fix.

But I guess the whole point of something like this is leaving yourself open to new experiences. Giving yourself every opportunity to learn, and when it’s all over, find ways to adapt and change and better yourself and your craft.

So that’s me for the next two weeks. I look forward to catching up with you when I get back.

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