A heartfelt thanks to my clients who were patient while I attended the Viable Paradise speculative fiction writing workshop on Martha’s Vineyard last week.
Many of you know that I was for many years a book reviewer for January and other publications; and most of you know that I’m on the board of the Clarion West Writers Workshop (a six-week summer program in Seattle). But not many people know that I also write fiction.
I studied fiction writing in college (Daily Themes — 300 words, submitted every weekday for an entire semester). I came away from that experience with the conviction that writing every day would make it possible for me to write something substantive — if and when I had something substantive to say. I certainly didn’t in college. But I learned to watch, analyze, and describe the people around me. This led to Columbia J-School and a career in journalism (which is another story).
Back to fiction.
In the early 1990s, I wrote a mystery novella set in a depressed industrial town in New England. Starting a long work is easy; finishing one, difficult but highly satisfying. By finishing, I discovered the shape of a book. However, I realized that it was the wrong book to submit for publication. For one thing, it was the wrong length. Not many mystery publishers want novellas. For another, I didn’t want to get “stuck” in that particular sub-genre. If your first book is about amateur sleuths in New Hampshire, you’re labeled a “cozy mystery writer,” even if your second book is about spaceships, aliens, and an evil computer named Zorg-X13.
I did not want to be a writer of New England small-town mysteries.
Life, as they say, intervened, and about 10 years ago I found myself experimenting with near-future science fiction. Then I dabbled in classic fantasy (magic! elves!), steampunk-flavored alternative history, and urban fantasy. Four years ago, while attending a panel at the Fourth Street convention in Minneapolis, I suddenly “saw” a story. I wrote it, workshopped it, and submitted it to magazines. I got some encouraging rejections from editors, including several suggestions that I develop the story into a novel. So I sketched several stories in that same world and submitted the core story as my application to Viable Paradise.
Of course, what happened at Viable Paradise was not as expected. It was far, far better. I had the good fortune to be with a group of writers that gelled rapidly. In short, I now know 23 people I trust to be superb beta readers and insightful reviewers.
I’m a kinetic learner, and it was only by going through a six-day round-the-clock process of lectures, writing, rewriting, getting critiqued, critiquing my classmates, and hearing both pros and classmates critique the work of others that better ways of doing things sunk in. How much better? I wrote a complete story on the plane on the way back to Seattle. And it’s the best story I’ve ever written.
If you write fiction, and want to move up to the next level, I whole-heartedly recommend a residential workshop.
Apply to Clarion West (Seattle) or Clarion (San Diego) if you can carve six weeks out of a summer.
Apply to Viable Paradise if you can take a week in the fall. I can’t say enough about the nine Viable Paradise instructors (a group of authors and editors that has worked together for years). The staff is a large team of Viable Paradise graduates. They can provide you with anything from an analysis of core works in contemporary speculative fiction to a large sandwich when you’ve forgotten to eat and are verging on the incoherent. (Best of all, you don’t have to ask for the sandwich. They will take one look at you, recognize all the symptoms, and hand you the food.)
Sure, at the end of all this, I had to return home to the leaking window that needs to be caulked, the suspicious behavior of the aging refrigerator, the sink that mysteriously fills up with dishes when I’m not looking, and the lawn that needs to be mowed if and when it ever stops raining. And a few hundred emails.
But now I know what I’m capable of writing, and that’s the best motivation to institute some serious time management that willenable me to write, if not every day, at least three times a week. And I have a network of writing colleagues who share a similar experience and determination.
Speaking of time management: Writing for clients resumes a regular schedule today — barring intervention from spaceships, aliens, and Zorg-X13.