Inhuman Swill : Writing : Page 6

The process of critiquing partial novels this week and of having a partial novel critiqued this week has made me think a lot about what a workshop is and what it isn't. I've particularly wanted to share those thoughts with the writers who are attending a Blue Heaven–style workshop for the first time, because talking about novel fragments the way we do is a very different thing from what happens in workshops more oriented toward short stories. It's not my style to take anyone aside and put an avuncular arm around their shoulder, and I don't know that that's necessary anyway, but I do want to say my piece.

Your workshop (any workshop, really) is a tool. Your workshop is not a pronouncement from God. Especially when we're doing fragments, you're going to hear suggestions for improving your manuscript that sound absolutely plausible, that are uttered with complete conviction and even vehemence, and that would serve to make the first fifty pages of your novel more involving and exciting and enticing to an editor. But those comments may still be absolutely wrong for the novel you're trying to write.

Your job as a writer is to keep your vision for your novel first and foremost in your mind. Yes, your first fifty pages may not be as involving and exciting as they can be, and they may be setting the wrong expectations for the story that follows. Your job, though, is to measure all those comments against your vision for your novel, and to use them as a guide to telling your story in the best way you possibly can. What the comments tell you are where your novel is failing to create the sort of understanding and response in your readers that you are trying to achieve. They are a calibration tool for letting you know how far you've strayed from the mark you're trying to hit. They amount to a differential guide, not to a bible.

You very well may end up using some or even a lot of the suggestions you get in the workshop. That's okay. But use them only if they bring you closer to achieving your vision. Remember that only you know what that vision is. Use the workshop to help you craft an opening for your book that clearly and immediately sets the stage for the unfolding of that vision.

Remember also that it is a very rare book that appeals to every reader. When people that you respect and admire don't really get or respond to what you're trying to accomplish, it may be that it's because they simply aren't the right audience for your book. Some of their comments may still be useful, but you will probably want to give more weight to the critical comments from people who are the right audience.

And when someone doesn't get what you're doing, it may also be that it was just the wrong day for them to be reading your book. I don't know how many times I've picked up a book and utterly failed to connect with the material, but then picked it up a few weeks or months or even years later and found myself sucked right into the story. No reader is static. We all change, and we all have moods that affect the filters we bring to what we read. In many cases—and this is something [info]bobhowe and I used to talk about a lot—it may that a critique is simply an attempt by a reader to find an intellectual justification for something that is really more of an emotional response to the material.

This goes for all workshops, of course, but I think these things are even more important to keep in mind when the critiquers are reading only a partial manuscript. We as readers don't know the story's destination. All we can do is offer our impressions of how willing we would to keep walking with you based on what you've given us. You're the one with the map. We've handed you some measurements to help you assess how far astray you've led us.

It's your vision, not ours.

Workshop day two

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Our second day of workshopping was much like the first. Four first-fifties were done over the course of the day, with a delicious catered lunch of quesadillas in between. Everyone seems to be settling in and getting more comfortable, though as a result the critiques went longer yesterday than they did on day one.

Afterward a handful of us went shopping for a few things that were lacking in the rooms here, including half-and-half, real coffee beans, toilet paper, and sufficient beer. Then most of us converged once more on the balcony at the Zane Grey Ballroom, where the beer, as I may have mentioned, is ridiculously cheap, at least by the standards I'm used to.

In the late evening, we convened back here for pizza (I'm not sure how, but I exercised unprecedented willpower in making a salad for myself instead), beer (did not abstain at all), and an informal discussion about certain aspects of the publishing industry. I would say more, but what happens at Starry Heaven stays at Starry Heaven. If we decide it should stay at Starry Heaven.

This morning we're all heading over to the house where most of the men are staying, where Brad Beaulieu is making us breakfast. Then we'll stay there for our critique sessions. Today will be the last day of first-fifties, and my book is last. I haven't been very nervous until now, but I'm started to feel it a bit. I probably won't be able to eat a lot of lunch.

Tomorrow we begin breaking up into various groups of three for in-depth critiques of full novel manuscripts. That's when things really start to get intense! Can't wait.

Workshop day one

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The first official day of Starry Heaven went very well, I thought. We critiqued the first four of our twelve first-fifties. (For those curious, we spend the first three days looking at the first fifty pages of everyone's novel, on the theory that those pages have to be strong when they go to an editor or agent as a proposal.) Many helpful comments were offered and received, and there was a satisfying and comfortable lack of drama. Everyone here knew at least one other person prior to the workshop convening, and some of us knew a lot of the other participants. It looks to me like everyone is managing to fit in, which is good. (And we were all glad that E.C. Myers, who had the worst travel luck of any of us, finally managed to make it here late Saturday night. It was too bad that he missed dinner, though.)

Starry Heaven convenes Lunch yesterday was catered. We had delicious little baked burritos, spicy tomato soup, and chips and salsa. After the afternoon session, a few of us hauled our stacks of stuff still to read down to Macy's and sat around chatting as much as reading for a couple of hours. Then the whole gang convened the Zane Grey Ballroom at the Hotel Weatherford and milled about on the balcony listening to reggae from the festival down the street, and later watching police, fire, and ambulance converge on the crowd. I hope whoever had the emergency down there was okay. Also, we saw a few trucks equipped with snorkels pass by in the street below. (I wish I had one of those for my car in Chicago on Friday. The water in the depression under the Metra tracks at Foster and Ravenswood was well over my axles.)

A highlight for me at the Zane Grey was getting to meet Mike Kelly, our organizer Sarah K. Castle's husband. Mike is James Patrick Kelly's brother, and since I also (entirely coincidentally and unconnected to the science fiction world) know Dan Kelly from Brooklyn, I have now met three of the Kelly brothers. My new goal in life is to collect all four! But quite apart from his Kelly family connections, Mike is a charming and fascinating fellow in his own right, a textbook-writing geologist who also designs interactive museum installations.

Oh, and the Zane Grey also had Lagunitas IPA on draft! $2.75 a pint!

After Zane Grey, we schooled over to the Black Bean Burrito Bar & Salsa Co. for a late dinner. Then it was home, where I crashed disappointingly early. Maybe they stay up later and drink more beer over in the other house. Going to have to find that out tonight.

Okay, now I'm going to put on the 2006 FourPlay String Quartet album Now to the Future (which [info]frogworth kindly sent me) and get another critique written.

Sparkly heaven

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In other news, I arrived today in Flagstaff, Arizona, to attend the Starry Heaven novel workshop! I'm here with my poor half-finished novel Technomancers, which I hope my fellow workshoppers give a swift kick in the ass. I was hoping that at 70,000 words I'd be close to finished, but as it turns out I'm only about halfway through the first draft.

But anyway, Brad Beaulieu and I ended up on the same flight from Chicago and rode together in the 90 mph shuttle van from Phoenix. Sarah Kelly picked us up with Gary Shockley and whisked us off to lunch at the Beaver Street Brewpub where we met up with Sarah Prineas, Sandra McDonald, and Greg van Eekhout and Lisa Will. A pitcher of Lumberjack Lager couldn't get to our table soon enough!

Then we checked in at our B&B, where the room Greg and I are sharing pretty much boggled our minds with its palatial dimensions. Blue Heaven will henceforth have a lot to live up to! A trip to the supermarket and our fridge is stocked, although it was pre-stocked with bagels and cream cheese and milk and OJ and coffee and syrup and the cupboard with cereal and pancake mix and stuff when we arrived.

Okay, I'm starting to gush. We hear via Twitter that Eugene Myers is having extreme travel complications, but with luck he'll be with us late this evening. I'm now drinking a Four Peaks 8th Street Ale and signing off. The week begins!


The mighty Dave Slusher has posted the new episode of his fine Reality Break podcast, an interview series focusing on science fiction and other genre literature. In this eighth episode, he talks to yours truly about writing and podcasting The Accidental Terrorist.

This interview was recorded in 2007 but has not been heard until now. Besides my own book, we talk about memoirs in general, writing after 9/11, my experiences growing up Mormon, and how those all have informed my fiction.

Dave is a terrific interviewer, and while I usually wince when listening to myself, I'm very, very happy with the way this session turned out. I hope you'll have a listen. If you enjoy it, thank Dave!


Listen for me today on a radio near you!

I'll be a guest this afternoon on "Doing Time with Ron Kuby" on the Air America radio network. We'll talk about my memoir, The Accidental Terrorist, and about the new podcast in which I'm serializing it. Again.

That's today—Tuesday, April 14th—at 5:00 pm Eastern. I hope you'll tune in.

To find your local Air America station, or to listen to the live online audio stream, please visit:

AirAmerica.com

Memoir-go-round

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In 2006 and 2007, over the course of about 30 episodes of my "ShunnCast," I read my unpublished memoir The Accidental Terrorist, the story of how I, as a young naive Mormon missionary, came to be arrested for terrorism and permanently banned from Canada. The response was enthusiastic and overwhelming. Each chapter was downloaded thousands of times, and the memoir continues to be a great draw at my website. If you've listened before, I thank you for your support.

The Accidental Terrorist Now I'm serializing the book again, from the beginning. Why? As popular as those episodes were, the sometimes lengthy bracketing chatter about other aspects of my life and work made it impossible for listeners after the fact to sit back with every chapter and listen to the book straight through from start to finish.

This new podcast will change that. Starting April 7th and continuing throughout 2009, I'll post a new chapter from The Accidental Terrorist every Tuesday morning. Most of these will be excerpted from the original "ShunnCast" episodes, but a handful in which I've made significant revisions since the first podcasts will be newly rerecorded.

Most Friday mornings, I'll post a short "Setting the Record Straight" installment, also excerpted from the original episodes, in which I'll talk about what elements of Tuesday's chapter may have been slightly exaggerated in the writing of the book, and which others hew close to reality.

By then end of the year, you'll be able to listen to The Accidental Terrorist straight through, without any editorial interruptions from me. But don't worry—if you like the longer, more chatty episodes, I'm continuing to do that in my occasional "ShunnCast" outings, along with readings of short stories and other materials.

The premier episode of the reconstituted Accidental Terrorist podcast is up and available. I hope you have fun listening, whether or not it's the first time.

ShunnCast #54

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Epidode #54 of "ShunnCast" is now available, in which Bill, in celebration of the first Hugo nomination for John Klima's Electric Velocipede, reads the earliest of his four stories to appear in that fine little 'zine so far.

http://www.shunn.net/podcast?id=54

See also [info]shunncast.


I'm a little startled every year to see how many people I know well show up on the Hugo ballot. Congratulations to you all, Charlie, Paolo, Cory, Toby, and everyone else!

But I want to give an extra huge shout-out to John Klima, whose excellent Electric Velocipede receives its first nomination this year, for Best Fanzine. It may seem odd that one of the increasingly fine and acclaimed short-fiction venues of this decade is recognized in the fanzine category, but that only speaks to the outsized mark it's been making on the field relative to its subscription base.

John's been a great champion of my short fiction over the years. I'm proud to have had stories in a good quarter of EV's issues, not to mention having had a chapbook published by his Spilt Milk Press. With a couple of World Fantasy Award nominations and now a Hugo nomination to his credit, I'm glad to see so many other people championing John's work.

And this news comes a week after John and Shai welcomed their second child, Easton Cade, to the family. It's a big week at the Klima household. Congratulations!

Flogging "Flog"

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Proper Manuscript Format Illustrated - Click here. For well over a decade my manuscript formatting guide "Proper Manuscript Format" has been available online, with the result that I've fielded hundreds of questions on the subject from writers around the English-speaking world. For years now I've wanted to share those letters and my responses to them online, on the theory that for every question I receive there are probably ten times as many writers with the same question who don't email and would find the discussion helpful.

I've finally done somthing about it. My new, low-volume blog FLOG will feature my answers to readers' (and writers'!) questions about manuscript formatting, both newly received and mined from my email archives. Come on over and argue with us.

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