Leaving Lawrence

I drove off the campus of Kansas University at about noon, playing my new Boxcar Satan CD louder than is strictly necessary. I went south on Highway 59 for a few miles until it crossed 56, which seemed to be going more or less my direction. It was an older stretch of road, more inclined to roll with the terrain rather than blast through it. Around Baldwin City I stopped and applied sunscreen (only a little too late) and carried on, enjoying the rolling hills and the barns. There are a lot of barns on that road; large and small, stone and wood and brick, red and white, ramshackle and tidy.

Traffic was light, polite and scrupulously obeyed the speed limits. I’m on the Santa Fe trail, which appeals to me, because Santa Fe is my next stop.

Jim Gunn asked me if I’d learned enough at the workshop. I said I’d learned all I could, but we’d have to see if that was enough. My brain is like a glass, I said, and knowledge is beer. Right now the foam is up to the rim; once it settles we’ll see how much beer is actually in there.

While saying goodbye, several of my fellow writers said (more or less) “You have to finish your novel! I have friends that will love it!” That’s encouraging, and flattering, but now I have to write the damn thing. These other good folk have constructed in their heads what the story will be like, and they like the image. But can I live up to those expectations? I don’t have a single chapter in final form yet.

I guess time will tell. All I can do is string the words together while wearing a quirk of a smile on my face, and hope the funny comes through in the darkness. For there will be darkness.


One Day To Go

Thursday evening. I sit now in a quiet bar near the campus of Kansas University. Man, I’m tired. The physical fatigue is one thing, but even more mental fatigue is slowing me down. My brain is full. I’m glad I did it this way; the two workshops are quite different. I haven’t had any real training in writing since high school, and probably I should have sought help from peers and professionals before now. I came to Kansas very comfortable in what I can do, and having no idea what the next step is.

The novel workshop is oriented toward works in progress; under the guidance of Kij (rhymes with midge) Johnson we worked together to shape ideas into well-structured novels. It was an organic process, and the novel I brought to the table was really more complete than was ideal. Massive changes to the story are par for the course. I have some work to do. The best part of the workshop is that through the discussions a great deal of the why of the craft comes out, things that are obvious once you hear them, yet they strike the grey matter accompanied by a choir of angels. So that’s good.

The short story workshop was a more traditional round table discussion, with each writer bringing three stories to the table to be critiqued by all the other authors in turn. After all the attendees hold forth, Jim Gunn, the leader, added remarkably incisive commentary, peppered with anecdotes from his sixty years in the business. During the workshop each author revises one story to be sent through the grinder again. The opinions in this group can diverge wildly, but each participant is expected to know what they are doing when they sit in the circle, and to be able to provide helpful (if sometimes painful) feedback on almost three dozen stories. Grace under criticism is a valuable asset, and I’m more than a little relieved that I managed to achieve that.

Kij had a formula for survival: Hours of Sleep + meals + naps >= 8. I didn’t hit that target very often.

So here I am, one session to go, brain full, tired as hell. I’m hiding right now. Not one but two conferences are coming to town this weekend, and our quiet workshop haven is being invaded by the hordes of people coming to talk about writing. It’s an important opportunity for me, a chance to make connections. But not tonight. There hasn’t been much alone time for me in the last two weeks, what with having a roommate and no other place to hide. I’ve been pretty good at being social so far; the other people are right friendly and I’ve had a great time getting to know them, but tonight I need a little time to myself. There is baseball on the television, the announcers are saying stupid things, the local pale ale is not bad, and the fizzing sound in my brain is receding.

The question, of course, is what I bring home from this shindig. My brain is full, but in the next weeks we’ll see whether I can install enough shelving up there to store most of what I’ve learned.

Let the Workshop Begin!

It’s the morning of the third day, and I’m still alive. That bodes well; one could extrapolate that trend over the duration of the workshop and conclude that I’ve got almost two weeks of life to look forward to.

Monday was my Big Day. I’m actually in two conferences, one in the mornings in which novelists whack on each other’s work, and one in the afternoon for short stories. The two workshops are run quite differently. The novel bash is a moderated discussion in which everyone participates in a guided discussion, working out rough spots in the story outline, brainstorming with the author. The author is then given specific goals to achieve over the next few days, to be shared with the rest of the group in week two. The format of the short story workshop is simpler but more direct—each writer submits three short stories before the workshop begins, and each story is critiqued briefly by each of the other participants and two leaders. At least one story will be revised and critiqued again in the second week.

On Monday, thanks to lucky scheduling, my novel was treated in the morning while one of my short stories was whacked on in the afternoon. Quite a baptism for someone who has never gone through this before. My novel is unusual in that it is much more complete than any of the others; the workshop is really more oriented toward working out kinks earlier in the writing process. I think this made people a bit nervous about suggesting too sweeping of changes. Overall, three comments stand out over a host of other useful tidbits: The dialog and language are excellent, the story is woefully lacking in setting, and my other materials do not sufficiently communicate the full scope of the work. There were many other suggestions as well, some relating to specific parts of the story, some relating to overall technique. I won’t give you the full list here; it is rather long and some of them I’m still internalizing some of them myself. Although there is the minor issue of deleting the first two chapters (and probably more). One comment in particular about establishing setting stands out as one of those obvious-once-you-hear-it things that can really raise my game. That alone was worth the price of admission, in my book. I still get excited thinking about the possibilities.

The process was friendly but rather stressful; it’s not easy to have your baby scrutinized that way. The instructor was a bit worried about my reaction, I think; seeing as I was new to this and all and that some of the changes would require a pretty massive rework. On the way to lunch she sounded me out, saying that my dialog in the part she read was the best she’d seen in a workshop in years, and that if she wasn’t confident in my ability to reproduce it she might not have suggested all those changes. (Or something like that; after the ‘best dialog in years’ part there was a humming in my ears that drowned out the rest.)

The afternoon format is more traditioinal for workshops, as I understand them. It is less collaborative; one person speaks his piece about the story in question, then the ball is passed on to the next. Critiques are necessarily short and of course are focussed on what cold be better about a story. There were some good stories that afternoon, heavy with symbolism and metaphor, commentaries on the human condition. Then there was mine, a short humor bit. As the other stories were dissected, I sat with a growing knot in my stomach. There just wasn’t enough in my piece to scrutinize like that. It was lightweight.

My moment came. The first person said, “This was funny, but…” and gave some constructive advice. The next person said, “I laughed out loud, but…” and also had some good comments. And so it went. Some of the folks were more critical than others, but no one tried to judge the story as anything other than what it was. By the end of having people tell me what was wrong with it, I was smiling, both from relief and from the knowledge that with some revision it’s a story a larger audience will enjoy.

So, what with all the good advice I’ve already received and the insights I’ve gained critiquing other people’s work, I’m glad I’m here. There is certainly something to be said for hanging out with other writers now and then.

The Moment of Truth

I’m preparing for a writing workshop right now, a place where people like me, people who love to write and would like to take it to another level, sit around and try to help each other become better at our craft. One must meet certain quality standards to be accepted, so the group is not spending its time on people who have a way to go to imagine actually getting paid to write.

So what we will be doing is this: criticizing each other’s work. The criticism may or may not be useful for the recipient, but in thinking about the writing of others we should each learn more about our own. In the short-story workshop, each the dozen participants has submitted three short stories. Now I am reading them all, and trying to come up with helpful advice and explanations for exactly why certain things don’t work. Already this process is changing the way I feel about my own work — sometimes for the better, sometimes… not so much.

I have not read all the stories yet, so there may be an exception waiting for me, but even if it’s not universal, the trend is certainly obvious. At the moment of truth, at the time when life is on the line, I’ve been reading a lot about the character’s actions, whether running or ducking or fighting or whatever, but nothing about their reactions. No heart beating out of the chest, no urge to scream, not even breaking a sweat. No blind panic or tunnel vision, and god forbid someone should pee their pants when an alien is kidnapping them. At the critical moment in the story, the tone becomes oddly dispassionate.

My own submissions for this adventure are, alas, also lacking in this regard, although to be honest I think I come closer than most. (It wouldn’t surprise if all the other writers felt the same way, feeling emotions that we all think are implicit in our work but are in fact in the writer’s head.)

When I give myself this better-than-average rating I intentionally don’t include one of my stories, a relatively fluffy bit that would not benefit from the protagonist peeing his pants. Only… actually, that would be pretty good. He’s the narrator and he’d never admit he did, except he’s under oath. He’s promised to tell the whole truth.

Dammit, even that story could benefit from a bit more viscera.

Just About Ready to Roll

Tomorrow evening my travels begin. The to-do list was extraordinarily long this time around, and when I get on the plane to London tomorrow evening I think there will still be things un-done. It didn’t help that I picked up a couple of small jobs to earn a little cash, and of course the one that paid the least turns out to be a time-sucking monster. (It’s an interesting time-sucking monster, however.) Still, I said I would do it so I will. It’s not done yet but the client knows that I will finish it when I can.

But all the important things are checked off now (except two, which I will be heading out to do in a few minutes). Tomorrow night I arrive in London; after two nights there I hop a plane for California. Then I have some freedom for a while, but somewhere in there I have to do a bucketload of reading and critiquing the writing of the other workshop participants.

I’ve been a bit of a stress monkey the last few days, especially over the paying gigs, but there comes a time when there’s just nothing left to be done about it anymore except take a deep breath, relax, and get on the plane.

Kansas, They Say, is a Good Place to Write

It’s getting close to official; I have verbally committed to attending a writing workshop (actually two of them) this summer in Lawrence, Kansas. Pending acceptance in the second workshop, I’ll be spending three weeks there — the first two weeks working on short stories and the last two weeks on The Monster Within. For those who have already done the math, yes, that’s a pretty intense middle week.

As I write this, I’m pretty excited. Criticism is something I don’t get enough of; I have a core of friends I tap from time to time and they are great, but it’s time to broaden my circle, to actually venture out and become part of the writing community, to learn to give criticism gently and accept it gracefully. And praise, I suppose — it would be nice if there was some of that as well. Some of these people I meet may well be influencing factors in my pursuit of a Master’s degree as well.

And maybe, just maybe, I’ll be able to stand among writers, say, “I, too am a writer,” and not get the feeling that I may be exaggerating a little bit.

So, the goals are many, the opportunities prodigious.

And, heck! Kansas! In the summer! What could possibly be better than that?