Blue language

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Though I've been involved with local writers' group on and off in the time since, I hadn't attended a formal away-from-home writing workshop for nearly 21 years—well over half a lifetime, and all of my professional writing career. So it was with excitement and some trepidation early this year that I accepted Charles Coleman Finlay's invitation to attend Blue Heaven 2006 on Kelleys Island, off the Ohio shore of Lake Erie.

Excitement because this would be a peer workshop focusing on SF and fantasy novels, and I was having definite trouble transitioning from short fiction to longer work. And also because I'd be hanging out with some first-rate writers and rising stars.

Trepidation because, for all that I sometimes get worked up online and probably don't come across as bashful, I'm fairly reserved in person and don't usually say much in a new group until I'm comfortable, if then. And also because I'd be hanging out with some first-rate writers and rising stars.

The immediate benefit of Charlie's invitation was that it sparked me to write a hundred more pages on my novel Inclination in something under a month, which for me qualifies as a blistering white heat. The next benefit was the chance to read the first fifty pages of ten other nascent novel manuscripts that ranged from cool and fun to fucking awesome.

But the real benefit came at Himmelblau House on the island itself, which I reached the morning of May 13th together with Toby Buckell, who had very kindly put me up at his place the night before. Himmelblau, a B&B owned by Dagmar Celeste and operated by Marvin Robinson, sits maybe twenty yards from the island's eastern shore and only a stone's throw or two from its airstrip, and that's where, sometimes interrupted by the drone of an arriving or departing mail plane, we tore into one another's manuscripts.

I don't mean to conjure any negative image with that verb. We thoroughly talked over the strengths and weaknesses of each novel in turn, but in a collegial way that underscored the notion that we were all there to make each book the best and most saleable it could possibly be. Even with the one or two works I was initially cool toward, the tenor of the discussions awakened an enthusiasm in me that made my critiques better, or at least helped me put them across in a better way than I might otherwise have.

A lot of the credit for this has to go to Charlie Finlay, who's about as thoughtful and generous a writer as I've met in this biz. He's not just serious about craft and about business; he's serious about putting good heads together so that everyone involved can get the most out of the deal. I had observed this online in some of the SFWA discussion forums, and I was not disappointed in my expectation that this would carry over to the workshop. Charlie has put a lot of thought and hard work into Blue Heaven, and I think a lot of its success comes from the tone—serious but fun—he set for the group.

No less credit to Paul Melko all his effort helping to organize this year's shindig, and for wearing the mantles of focused, incisive, practical critic and indefatigable quipmaster both with equal aplomb.

Here's how it worked. For the first four full days of the workshop, we gathered in a circle each morning in the Himmelblau sitting room to critique one or two first-fifties. After a lunch break, we did one more. The critiques were Clarion-style, and focused on shaping the best possible opening chapters to submit with a novel proposal.

For the next three days of the workshop, we met in smaller groups to discuss full manuscripts (or what existed of them) in more depth. Each of us had been assigned to read two other novels, though we were free to read more than that and sit in on the respective discussions if we had the time and inclination.

I think everyone both gave and received excellent feedback on the work that was turned in, and speaking for myself it was on target and invaluable. I went into Blue Heaven somewhat clueless about the process of composing a novel, and here on the far side I feel I have a much better grasp. I also have an eagerness and enthusiasm for the work, and better than that: a deadline and a plan for finishing my book. For that, I'm profoundly grateful.

Of course, there was more to Blue Heaven than just work. I doubt the group's yin would have functioned as well as it did without the yang of the camaraderie we found outside the workshop sessions. But I've gone on long enough for now, and for that I'll have to make another post later.

Brenda Cooper posts a group picture here. Left to right: Back row: William Shunn, Paul Melko, Tobias S. Buckell, Greg van Eekhout, Tim Pratt Second row: Sandra McDonald, Mary Turzillo, Brenda Cooper, Catherine M. Morrison, Sarah Prineas Front: Charles Coleman Finlay Far Right Background: Sela the Amazing Rock-Fetching Canine
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This page contains a single entry by William Shunn published on May 23, 2006 7:11 PM.

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