Keeping Score: 24 June 2022

I’ve been reading Craft in the Real World and The Anti-Racist Writing Workshop, two books that both approach the issue of how the traditional writing workshop in the US — silent author, readers and teacher judging the work, comparison to an all-white literary canon — was constructed less to promote healthy writing communities and more to reinforce white supremacy in the States.

I confess it’s been hard reading, sometimes. Being confronted with the way I’ve been taught — and taught to teach others — about writing and being shown its racist underpinnings does not make for comfortable reading. But I’m pushing past that white fragility of mine, and interrogating it, and each time what I find at the root is simply fear. Fear that I’ll be the one erased, in the kind of workshop these authors describe. Fear that I’ll become the marginalized. Because the one thing all white people know, even when we don’t want to admit it, is that being in the minority in the Western caste system sucks.

When I face that fear, and name it, I’m able to move past it, and see the workshops they’re presenting as what they really are: places where everyone can take center stage for a time, where each author is empowered with the tools and the confidence to better their craft. Those tools are there for me, too, if I’m willing to listen, and use them.

So I’m testing them out, so to speak. I don’t have a formal writing workshop to go to, but I am trying a new approach with the feedback I give to the other writers in my writing circle. I’m aiming my feedback less at “I liked this” or “I don’t like this character” and more towards highlighting the choices I see them making. Like asking how scenes might play out differently if X were changed, or querying about the symbolism behind the repetition of a certain element. I don’t know if I’m succeeding, just yet, but I’m striving for the kind of centering of the author as an actively participating artist that Salesses and Chavez encourage.

I’m also borrowing some of their practices for my own writing. For this new short story I’m writing, I’ve taken to writing out the new draft by hand, in a notebook. Chavez says she insists her students write by hand, as a way to silence the inner editor and let the words flow onto the page. And so far, it’s working; writing it out has helped me get out of my own way, and make progress on the draft, when staring at the computer screen would feel like too much pressure. Chavez is right: Something about using hand and pen and paper is liberating, making me feel less like every word needs to be perfect and more like the story in my head needs to be written down right now.

As a result, the new draft is taking shape. It’s going to be longer and more complicated than I originally thought, with POV shifts and an expanded world. The side character that I had in the first draft and then gender-flipped has now become the protagonist (!) with all the changes that entails. But where I initially approached this new draft with trepidation, now I’m excited to see it come together.

What techniques do you use, to quiet your inner editor and feel free to write the stories you most want to tell?

Keeping Score: March 5, 2021

Novel’s still chugging along, currently at 33,884 words. I’ve pushed through the first big scene, and am well into the second.

There’s…well, there’s individual pieces of the sequence that are still missing, some connective tissue that I have yet to write. The technique I’ve been using, of skipping around to write those scenes (or sometimes fragments of scenes) that I feel like adding, has a that cost. Eventually I have to go back and write in everything I skipped.

But for now, it’s all big scene all the time, and no connective tissue…yet.

However, the big news this week is that I’ve finally cracked open a story I’ve been working on for nearly four years now. That one started out as just a character and a situation, a piece of backstory for the novel I wanted to write. But it never worked quite as well as I wanted it to, so I’ve kept tinkering with it (and submitting it while tinkering with it, which is a habit I need to break).

Tim Waggoner, during his 15-minute (!) workshop back in January, pointed me to the central problem that was holding up everything else: the motivation for my main character wasn’t strong enough. So on weekends I’ve been brainstorming different ways to go, different versions of the character that would have a stronger push for their actions.

I finally hit on one this weekend that I liked, and in the process of editing the story to match, everything fell into place. I ended up cutting away about half of the story’s word-count, focusing in on just three scenes. But in those scenes I not only lay out the main character’s motivation, I fill in the secondary characters, giving them more life and depth. And I shifted the ending, so it’s now both more complete (in the sense that the current narrative arc ends) and more open-ended (in that the world’s evolution past the story is implied).

I’m going to do one more editing pass this weekend, to clean up language and make sure it all fits together properly. I’d like to have it ready to submit in time for Nightmare Magazine re-opening to submissions later this month.

I need a new title, though; the old one doesn’t fit anymore. Anyone have any tips or tricks for choosing a title you can share in the comments?

Post-Game: Stephen Blackmoore’s Critiquing 101 Class

So this weekend I attended another online writing class, this one from author Stephen Blackmoore (of the Eric Carter series) on how to give and receive feedback in critiques. I’ve been exchanging feedback with other writers for a while now, but never really had any instruction on how best to do it; my techniques have been cobbled together from blog posts and Litreactor guidelines. I wanted to see if, frankly, I’ve been doing it right, or if I’ve been failing my fellow authors by giving them the wrong type of feedback.

It was Blackmoore’s first time giving the class, so it went a little longer than anticipated: 2.5 hours instead of just 2. But those two-hours-and-change were packed with excellent advice.

Some of it I’d learned the hard way, like focusing on the positive when pointing out problems. Or remembering that at the end of the day, the story belongs to the author, which goes both ways: you don’t have to act on all the feedback you get, and you can’t expect other writers to act on yours, either.

But the vast majority of Blackmoore’s advice were things that I had some sense of, but didn’t have a good way of thinking about. Like how you should treat each work not as good or bad, but as either complete or incomplete. A story that doesn’t seem to be working isn’t garbage, it’s just a piece that needs polishing. The difference between bad and good isn’t necessarily one of value (in the work or the artist), it’s a matter of time and effort.

All in all, I took almost twenty pages (!) of notes. Blackmoore did more than cover general ways to handle feedback, he also did a detailed break down of six different aspects of a story to examine when offering a critique, and ways to identify — and talk about — problems in each one.

In short, it was a fantastic class, and one I wish I’d had years ago, before I tried to offer any other writer feedback on their work. I highly recommend taking it if you can, when he offers it again. And I’m going to start incorporating his advice into how I give critiques to others going forward.

Post-Game: Writing Science Fiction in a Post-Colonial World

So the Clarion West online workshop was…interesting.

The instructor, Fabio Fernandes, seems like a fantastic person, one I could easily sit and talk to for hours. I feel this because that’s basically what he did for two hours: talk to us.

Well, I exaggerate. We spent the first hour hearing having everyone in the class introduce themselves.

The second hour — and beyond? he wasn’t done when I had to hop off to get back to work — was him telling us stories, making reading recommendations, and…that’s it. No real writing advice, other than to write what we want to write, rather than what we know.

But his personal stories were fascinating and eye-opening. Like the one where he picked apart a scene in Ian McDonald’s Brazil (which he translated into Portuguese) involving a group of black men and a white woman, talking us through how the race relations displayed in that scene were not Brazilian, but American. Or how he’s considered to be White in Brazil, but in the US or UK he’s Latino, but only to people in those countries who think of themselves as White, because to other South Americans, Brazilians are not Latino, because they don’t speak Spanish!

And he did in general give me confidence (permission?) to write about cultures other than my own. He said we have to find things in our experience that can bridge the gap between the culture we grew up in and the culture we want to write about. And to remember that we are all both insiders and outsiders: insiders for our native culture, outsiders to everyone else (and vice-versa).

So I guess my experience was positive? If a bit less focused than I’d like. And less organized; they said they’d have the recording link sent to us, but it’s been over a week now and so far, nothing.

So I’m not sure I’m going to sign up for any more of the Clarion West online courses. Apparently fifteen minutes is more than enough to get some excellent feedback on a story draft, but not even two hours is enough time in which to give some general writing advice and techniques.

In conclusion: I really cannot wait for the pandemic to end, so we can go back to learning and sharing in person.

Keeping Score: January 29, 2021

‘Tis the season of the writer’s conference.

Had the Apex Magazine 15-minute workshop on Monday, which may have permanently changed the way I approach my writing. I’m on the alert now for some of my bad writing habits, and am currently going through two different stories to eliminate them.

Today, I’m attending Clarion West’s workshop on How to Write Science Fiction in a Post-Colonial World, part of their series of single-day online workshops. Similar to the Apex one, I’m not sure what to expect. I hope it’ll help me with the novel I’m writing right now (and future works), where one of my main characters is from the steppes of Central Asia. I don’t want to appropriate anyone’s culture, but I do want to showcase the diversity of the world, particularly in the time period I’m setting this story (the 18th century), which American writers tend to whitewash.

And I’m considering signing up for the Southern California Writers Conference, which is in two weeks (and also online). It was the first writers conference I attended, back when we could safely congregate inside. I got a lot out of it: I wrote two stories, got tips on plot structure, and met some great people. And now one of my fellow Writers Coffeehouse alumni (Dennis K Crosby) is one of the special guest speakers! I could use that kind of shot in the arm again (vaccine connotation very much intended).

Not that I’m currently having trouble producing, thank goodness. Novel’s at 26,099 words. I’ve patched up the seams in the scenes I’ve written so far, and moved on to the “meat” of the chapter: the POV character’s close encounter with a dragon.

I’m still writing it in bits and pieces, moving up and down the page as ideas come to me and I figure things out. It keeps me from getting hung up on any one part of the book, or worry too much about how I’m going to get from Point A to Point B. I can always make something up 🙂

And after the Apex workshop, and re-examining some of my past short stories, I’m starting to think about the connective tissue between scenes differently. As in, maybe I don’t need it, after all.

That’s not quite right. I think I, the writer, need it. I need to have written it, in order to fully understand my story. But I don’t necessarily need to show that to the reader.

Same thing with exposition. I need to know everything about my world. I need to know what the sunlight looks like in springtime. I need to know how the birds sound in the morning. I need to know which cars are driving by at the end of the day (if this world has cars). So these are all things I need to set down, to fix in my mind by fixing them in text. But I don’t need to relay those details to the reader, unless something stands out to the POV character, and affects their decisions.

It’s advice I’ve heard before, but not really felt in my bones until now. I’d always assumed my readers were lost unless I held their hand, and relied on my brevity to make the explanations palatable.

I think now I can trust the reader more. I still plan to write all the exposition, so I have it straight in my own head. But when editing I’m going to start taking it all out, and only putting things back in if a beta reader complains of being lost. Otherwise, I’m going to lean on actions and dialog to convey everything.

What about you? Is there a piece of classic writing advice that took you a while to fully understand?

Post-Game: Apex Magazine’s 15-Minute Writing Workshop

Apex Magazine is back from hiatus! One of my favorite short fiction magazines for years, Apex has consistently had fantastic stories, as shown by the many (many) awardsthey’ve won or been nominated for over the years.

I’m reading through their first new issue now. I’ll post a full review later, but I can already tell they’ve retained the high bar for quality they’ve always had. The very first story, out of the gate, left me devastated, in a good way: just profoundly moving.

So when they announced they were doing a 15-minute online writing workshop with author Tim Waggoner, I leaped to sign up.

Sure, I had some skepticism. Most of the past workshops I’ve been to have been at least an hour, and even that felt short. How much could we cover in just fifteen minutes?

It turns out you can cover basically everything you need to cover, to dissect why a piece of short fiction isn’t working.

I sent in the first six pages of a horror story I have that I like, that I’ve edited multiple times, but that also keeps getting rejected. I assumed it was a problem with the story, but I was having trouble seeing it.

Tim had no such problems. In just fifteen minutes over voice chat, he went right to the heart of the problem with my story: the motivation for my protagonist is too impersonal. Then he broke down some issues with my style — too many short paragraphs, too much exposition up front — that I realized are habits I need to break, because other readers have mentioned them before for other pieces (different readers saw different issues. Tim saw them all).

I wasn’t all criticism, though. He also gave me techniques to use to prevent making these same mistakes again. Such as keeping a separate document open for exposition, writing it there and only there during the first draft, and then coming back and pulling from that doc while editing, inserting only what the reader has to know, and then only when they need to know it. Or combining the first few pages into a single paragraph, then breaking it up during a read-through, to end up with more natural-feeling paragraphs.

He was spot on, in everything he said. I already started re-drafting the story based on his feedback. Not only that, but I’m also editing a second story with his feedback in mind; when re-reading it after the workshop, several of those same problems leaped out at me.

Many thanks to Apex Magazine for organizing the workshop, and to Tim Waggoner for running it! I learned a lot in a short amount of time, and I’m very grateful.