ArmadilloCon Writing Workshop T-Minus 36 Hours: Letting Go

The aphorism, “A good conversation never ends, it’s only interrupted” comes to mind. I feel the same about the stories I write. Creators, artists, and writers are always striving to improve their craft. Reaching for perfection, always falling a few inches short. This is why it can be hard to determine when to call a piece you’ve struggled over finished. For me, it’s more about knowing when to let it go.
Creating something is its own reward and its own punishment. Every story starts with some nugget of inspiration, a character, a mood I want to capture, a moment I want to bring to life. It’s this vision that compels me to create the first draft. Invariably, after writing it out, and working through however many revisions, what I end up with is NEVER what I originally imagined. I won’t say it’s better or worse, but it is different. Even when I am happy with the final result, there is always a tiny nagging feeling of missing the mark.  
If you keep writing and working to improve, you will look back at old stories, even the ones that are published and see ways that they might be improved. I remind myself that that was the best story I could produce last week or last year or three years ago. M. Rickert says her old stories are like snapshots of the writer she was at the time she wrote them.
It’s important to strive for excellence, at the same time once you feel you’ve made a story the best you can – let it go. It may be flawed, have some element that you wish you could manage more astutely, but if it’s viable (i.e. has a plot with a beginning middle and end, a character who changes or comes to a realization, etc.), then it’s time to let it go (today, that might mean sending it to the ArmadilloCon Writing Workshop). Submit somewhere for publication and move on to the next story with the goal to make that one better.
Whether I see you at the ArmadilloCon Writers Workshop or not – I hope you go forth and write story after story. I look forward to reading all of them out in the wild! 

Here’s Ursula K. Le Guin’s Fiery Speech from Last Night’s National Book Awards

Give that woman an mic so she can drop it! Last Night the National Book Awards honored Ursula K. Le Guin with the Medal for Distinguished Contribution to American Letters. You can read more about it at NPR and Motherboard. It would be enough that one of my favorite feminist, science fiction authors won a prestigeous literary award, but then she gave a speech that encapsulates and articulates the zeitgeist of the world of letters right now.

She starts out by recognizing the importance of fantasy and science fiction in literature, and then wades into speak truth to the world of publishing. This vast and chaotic, somewhat broken machine that commodifies our art and letters for mass consumption. She uttered a battle cry that both gave no quarter and inspired hope – at least in this writer.   

According to NPR, at the after party, Le Guin said of her speech: “I hope it goes outside this room.”
Parker Higgins transcribed her entire speech. I’m reblogging most of it below. Check out his post for her speech in its entirety, and stick around to check out his super cool parker higgins dot net blog.

“I rejoice at accepting [this award] for, and sharing it with, all the writers who were excluded from literature for so long, my fellow authors of fantasy and science fiction—writers of the imagination, who for the last 50 years watched the beautiful rewards go to the so-called realists.
I think hard times are coming when we will be wanting the voices of writers who can see alternatives to how we live now and can see through our fear-stricken society and its obsessive technologies to other ways of being, and even imagine some real grounds for hope. We will need writers who can remember freedom. Poets, visionaries—the realists of a larger reality.

Right now, I think we need writers who know the difference between the production of a market commodity and the practice of an art. Developing written material to suit sales strategies in order to maximize corporate profit and advertising revenue is not quite the same thing as responsible book publishing or authorship.

Yet I see sales departments given control over editorial; I see my own publishers in a silly panic of ignorance and greed, charging public libraries for an ebook six or seven times more than they charge customers. We just saw a profiteer try to punish a publisher for disobedience and writers threatened by corporate fatwa, and I see a lot of us, the producers who write the books, and make the books, accepting this. Letting commodity profiteers sell us like deodorant, and tell us what to publish and what to write.

Books, you know, they’re not just commodities. The profit motive often is in conflict with the aims of art. We live in capitalism. Its power seems inescapable. So did the divine right of kings. Any human power can be resisted and changed by human beings. Resistance and change often begin in art, and very often in our art—the art of words.

I have had a long career and a good one. In good company. Now here, at the end of it, I really don’t want to watch American literature get sold down the river. We who live by writing and publishing want—and should demand—our fair share of the proceeds. But the name of our beautiful reward is not profit. It’s name is freedom.”

Neil Gaiman presents Ms Le Guin with the Medal for Distinguished Contribution to American Letters

More Advanced Reading for Writers

Briton Rivière (1840-1920) A Saint, from the ‘Jackdaw of Rheims’

Before I get to the books full of thinky thinks, my story, “The Horses,” is the featured link at the TTA Press Advent Calendar today. Check it out and leave a comment on their boards if you like. They’re posting links to stories all month, so be sure and check back for more goodies!

I enjoyed my own personal Not Exactly NaNoWriMo and will be blogging about the experience in its entirety soon. Today’s post is a bit of a NaNo corrective. After a month where everyone is focused on producing reams of quick and sloppy pages, I wanted to luxuriate in a few of my favorite books that dig deep into the art and craft of writing.

Artful Sentences: Syntax as Style by Virginia Tufte. Beyond the nuts and bolts of grammar, this entire book is devoted to sentences. I’m letting my geek flag fly here, but if you love sentences as much as I do and want to think deeply about them, check out this book. Soak up chapters like: Sentence Openers and Inversion, Free Modifiers: Branching Sentences, and Syntactic Symbolism. 

About Writing: Seven Essays, Four Letters, and Five Interviews by Samuel R. Delany. This book is a brick of writing insight from a master of genre fiction. In fact, SFWA just declared him the 2013 Damon Knight Memorial Grand Master for his contributions to the field. And about time! If you don’t feel like reading about writing, check out one of his novels. I’m partial to Dhalgren. It was the first book of his I read way back when.

Samuel R. Delany

Anatomy of a Short Story: Nabokov’s Puzzles, Codes, “Signs and Symbols” Edited by Yuri Leving. I’m actually currently reading this one. It’s straight up academic literary criticism. Maybe I’m just missing my college days, but I think it’s worthwhile to go deep into the workings of a single short story. It’s kind of fascinating to see just how many interpretations the ivory tower types can spin out of a couple thousand words. Nabokov’s correspondence with the editor of the New Yorker over the publication of the story is a fascinating chapter as well. 

If that’s not your sort of thing, skip the book and listen to Mary Gaitskill read Nabokov’s brilliant story at the New Yorker. For some lit crit lite, the podcast includes a discussion of the story with Deborah Treisman, the New Yorker’s fiction editor.

ArmadilloCon34 Writers’ Workshop Tomorrow!

Tomorrow is the ArmadilloCon Writers’ Workshop. I am really excited to participate again this year. This convention knows how to do workshops right! It’s all morning and afternoon tomorrow BEFORE the convention actually starts, so I don’t have to miss any panels to participate. I’ve been working all week on my critiques for my fellow workshoppers, who I’ll meet tomorrow. It’s a little nerve wracking to write critiques for people I’ve never met but it’s a good practice. It’s also refreshing to critique work from writers I don’t know.

I attended ArmadilloCon and the Writers’ Workshop for the first time last year and had a great and productive weekend. My pros last year were none other than Paolo Bacigalupi, Lou Anders and Mark Finn. They all provided great advice and insight. This year I’ll be sitting down with Liz Gorinsky (an editor at Tor), Stina Leicht and Cat Rambo!

Manuscript page from J. G. Ballard’s Crash

Okay that page is a revision not a crit, but it was just too cool to ignore! I’ve been putting together some thoughts about why I think workshops and critiquing are valuable and will be posting that soon.

Meanwhile, I’ve been re-reading Bradbury’s collection of essays and remembering that while I’m working very hard to hone my craft, writing should always be fun, more than fun, thrilling. His enthusiasm is truly inspirational.

This morning I watched the long and gorgeous trailer for the upcoming film adaptation of David Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas.  I don’t know if they’ll pull it off, but that was a beautiful six minutes. It made me want to read that book all over again.

Story as Gift

My patron

Today’s title is not a metaphor. My daughter has commissioned a story for her 7th birthday. She would like a story about dragons -from space. Nice.

Every successful creative person creates with an audience of one in mind. That’s the secret of artistic unity.     ~ Kurt Vonnegut, The Independent, 1977

I’m finding that it’s one thing to imagine, as an actor might, your ideal reader and something completely different to write a story for someone in particular. And the stakes are high. Sylvia is a discerning reader. She has to read eight books (or chapters) a week for school, so we get a pile of books from the library every week. After reading this one she tossed it aside with the critique that:

“Nothing happened, he just goes to the Aquarium.”
I said, “Did he at least see a shark?”
“Yes,” she said, “but there should be a problem for it to be a story.”

She’s already nailed the most basic element of storytelling. So, dragons from space with a problem, check. I’m on a tight deadline, her birthday is March 17, so I’m using this story to practice writing my first drafts more quickly. I’m finding that drafting by hand might be my best method. I type faster but have a harder time turning off my inner-editor when I’m composing on screen. So, this story is getting put down on a yellow legal pad first.

I decided to use the Hero’s Journey as a framework for my outline (I am SO an outliner, but let’s talk about that in another post). I haven’t explicitly done a Hero’s Journey type story, and this one seemed like a good opportunity. That said, there’s a lot of truth in FILM CRIT HULK’S great response to the Hero’s Journey model. It’s worth reading for some balance and because HULK WRITE MANY GOOD ESSAYS! Who knew?

I’ve been wrestling with theme and character, dragons and princesses for a week now and there’s still much to do. Writing is hard work. It’s serious fun.  I’m beginning to believe that no story worth its salt gets to the page without a fight, but it’s worth it. I’m learning a lot, not the least of which is that every story is a gift.

I found this awesome picture here.

How I Stopped Worrying and Learned to Love Grammar

If you want writing to be your career, then mastering grammar is your job.

Did you know there’s a National Grammar Day? Well, there is and it’s right around the corner. Sunday, March 4th is the official day to “speak well, write well, and help others do the same!” I have to admit grammar has never come easily to me. Years I wandered in the wilderness, too timid and frustrated to write, because I knew I would make grammatical mistakes. I felt I would never comprehend the many rules of grammar.

Of course I was taught grammar in school, but the level of instruction was merely adequate. It was fine for those with a natural affinity for the subject, but for those of us for whom grammar does not come naturally, there was zero follow-up. Only years of bleeding red papers and no further instruction. When I finally started taking my writing seriously, I knew that meant taking on grammar. I was just going to have to slay this dragon, even if I had to build my own armor and smelt my own sword.

Alas, the personal metaphor that set me on the path to improving my written English has nothing to do with dragons. When my daughters were babes I got into knitting, like WAY into knitting. I borrowed scads of books from the library and learned numerous techniques. I knit like a banshee until we were hip-deep in knitted items of every description. Today, although I don’t knit as much as I used to, I do know my way around a pair of knitting needles, a skein of yarn, and a knitting pattern. 

After getting notified (with kindness) from my writers’ group that my grammar needed work (and after a nice long scotch to dull those old feelings of frustration). I told myself that, if I can master a lace pattern and turn the heel on a sock, then I can master the rules of grammar. In fact the metaphor continues to serve as grammar and knitting have a lot in common. They both have a core of unbreakable rules (just watch your scarf unravel when you miss a stitch), and they both use pattern and repetition to create infinite variety of garments.

Since that day, I’ve devoted ten minutes a day to grammar. While I’m far from perfect, I am no longer the grammar idiot that I once was. I am a journeyman traveling on the road to mastery. And you know what, it’s getting fun. The more I know the ins and outs and the whys and wherefores of the rules the more it feels like play when I’m crafting sentences.

There are so many resources out there. As with any real course of study you have to find the method and the materials that work for you. Everybody knows about Strunk & White, but honestly, they are not my favorite. Currently, I use The Only Grammar Book You’ll Ever Need for general checking,

and Garner’s Modern American Usage for more detail.

Grammar Girl Podcast

The Purdue Online Writing Lab‘s Grammar site is useful as well.

I have several apps on my iPod including The Grammar App, making it easy to get a quick ten minutes in on the go and the Grammar Girl podcasts count too.

Not only is good grammar central tool for writers, it is a fascinating topic in its own right. Language is a living thing, a moving target. Because of its variable and elusive nature, I know I will be studying the rules and history of grammar for the rest of my life. 

P.S. I’m sure there are grammatical errors in this post. You’ll have to take me where I am.