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! 

Turkey City Writers’ Workshop

Turkey City 2014
I didn’t blog last week because I was preparing for the Turkey City Writers’ Workshop, which happened Saturday, October 18. I found it to be a useful and positive experience. It is also a ton of work. They don’t call them workshops for nothing.
Turkey City has been around since the early seventies, and its participants through the decades are a who’s who of genre writers, especially cyberpunk. This workshop is geared for advanced writers, and is known for its tough love approach. The expectation is that all the attendees have mastered the basic techniques of writing and storymaking. I found this to be the case for the most part. Even the less experienced participants brought material worth discussing, in my opinion.
For the past few years Chris Brown has graciously hosted it in his amazing home. He also participated with an excellent story that sat right at the intersection of genre and literary and wonderfully captured the gestalt of Austin hacker scene.
This year the word limit was 10,000 words, and with twelve people participating, well, you do the math – that’s a lot of preparatory reading. Not everyone turned in a novelette, but since my regular crit group limits pieces to 5,000 words, I did relish the opportunity to submit something longer.
We were six men and six women, and with strong female voices such as Patrice Sarath and Stina Leicht attending, I found the opinions and insights well balanced along gender lines. Anil Menon and Jasmina Tesanovicalso provided international and literary perspectives to our pieces. All in all there were plenty of fascinating, quirky, and useful opinions to go around.
Corey Doctorow even stopped in at the after party as he was in town for the Texas Teen Book Festival (which is becoming quite a thing BTW).
I was determined to bring something new to my first Turkey City and worked hard to complete a 9,000-word novelette from a previous fragment. It was pretty green. If I’d had all the time in the world, I would have taken it through one more revision before submitting it to group critique. It got dinged on the things I pretty much expected it would. Elements of the story are a little pat; the characters tend toward types. Subtlety and nuance, for me, tends to blossom in revision. The first pass is usually about setting the storyline and expressing the characters basic traits. (I’m one of those weirdos who likes revising way more than pounding out the first draft.)
I also got some excellent food for thought, especially from Bruce Sterling, who was the idea man of the critique group. He threw out all sorts of alternative scenarios for my story and its characters that really freed up the way I was thinking about it. The novelette is taking a well-deserved rest this week. Next week I’ll pull it apart and revise it and get it out there into the world.

Am I Writing a Novel?

New words in the new binder.
I’ll be honest, as much as I love writing; the idea of writing a novel has always intimidated me. There are a myriad of reasons, mostly the stock ones, that have kept me from embarking on a novel (the time commitment, the complexity, it’ll suck and all that work will be wasted, I won’t have time to write short stories). Yeah, they’re all lame, and I do want to write a novel – hell, I’d like to write a novel a year if I could just work out how to tackle this first one.
I have notes, ideas, and nascent plans for a couple novels in my journals, but I keep finding ways to put off actually starting a novel. The top reason that I haven’t started this year is because I have a couple unfinished stories that I’m struggling to complete. I wanted to clear the decks before attempting a novel, even though in the back of my mind I have a suspicion that this is just another way to punt this new challenge down the road yet again.
I don’t know why I am so cagey about settling down to write a novel. Yes I love short stories, yes they are their own distinct form, and yes will always want to write them too, but novels offer a much greater canvas and I think I’m more than ready to explore the unique challenges that long form story telling has to offer.
But wait, it appears I am writing a novel.
At my last two in-person critique sessions, I’ve brought sections of one of my troublesome “novellas.” Both times, more than one Slugtriber said they felt the material they were reading feels like it is meant to be a novel. Both times, I heard a chorus of we want to spend more time in this world and with these characters (among other constructive critiques).
Considering this novella’s obstinate problems in light of expanding it to novel length makes a host of issues suddenly look manageable. Like my crit group, I also want to spend more time in this world and get to know these characters better. So, I’ve decided to go with it and just let this story be the novel that it is (hopefully) meant to be.
It appears I’ve subverted my reluctance to start a novel by inadvertently starting one. Hey, whatever works.
The time commitment still seems intimidating, but I suspect (again) that might be the panicked part of my brain trying to set up a last line of resistance. I’ve already written about 16,000 words, which just leaves 74,000 words for a 90,000 word first draft. If I set everything else aside and write 1,000 new words a day (excluding weekends) I’ll have my draft complete by October 24th.
The only real sacrifice will be setting aside my other open projects for that time. I always want to write everything all at once… 

Leaving weekends out of my plan is a kind of safety valve. I’ll have weekends for catching up or downtime, or if I get lonely for the short story form I can write a quick piece of flash fiction.
Well, that’s the plan anyway. Here we go!

Workshops, Critique Groups, and What Works for You

OK, my writers’ group doesn’t look exactly like this… Dance of Apollo with the Nine Muses by Baldassarre Peruzzi
If you are a writer and are planning to attend Austin’s own ArmadilloCon Convention, this is your heads up that the deadline to submit work and sign up for their excellent Writers’ Workshop is fast approaching. Get your 5,000 word diamond in the rough together and submitted by June 15, 2014!  I have participated in this workshop the past few years and found it to be both inspiring and useful: well worth the price of admission (which, by the way, also gets you into the con).

For those of us who don’t have the time or the funds to go for the big name workshops like Clarion or Odyssey, know that many local consrun writers’ workshops that will give you a chance to read and critique other people’s work and get a critique of your own project.

I’ve blogged about the usefulness of critique before. For me, it is invaluable to get someone else’s eyes on my work at some stage in the process. Also, since I enjoy the chance to socialize with other writers, my regular in-person critique group keeps my daily writing routine from feeling too cloistered. 

I also use the Online Writing Workshop. OWW charges an annual subscription fee, which, I feel, inspires a greater level of commitment and participation. And, in the end, better crits. The site is well run, and I’ve made connections with writers from all over the world trading crits there.

Over the past couple years I’ve built an informal schedule for regularly critiquing and getting my own work critiqued. This has helped me grow as a writer in several ways:

  1. Informal deadlines – Slugtribe meets on the second and fourth Tuesday of each month. I try to bring something in every 4 to 6 weeks. If a piece takes longer to get to a critique-able stage, I can just move that deadline out another two weeks. Still, having a meeting to go to gives me something to shoot for when I’m planning my daily writing.
  2. Regular face-to-face critiquing – Learning to articulate what is and is not working in a piece of writing has taught me more about writing than anything else. Having to think on the fly (at Slugtribe we read the work at the meeting) and put my ideas into words hones a different kind of assessment skill. Hearing what other people in the room think of the same piece of writing is also illuminating!
  3. Regular written critiques – With the online option, I can read a story over twice, make notes in the margins, and then put my thoughts into written form in a more coherent way. I try to put something up online every couple months, too. If, after a Slugtribe critique, I’ve made major changes to a story, I’ll submit the revised version to OWW to get fresh eyes on it. Other times, I’ll submit something new for a critique on the first or third week of the month.
  4. Making connections with other writers – I’ve met lots of other writers in all stages of development. We commiserate about the writing life, and trade tips and techniques about anything from punctuation to how to fit our writing in around kids and significant others.

Wherever you live, check out the resources around you. There may already be a critique group meeting at your local library.  If so, sit in on a few sessions and see if their style suits you. If it doesn’t you can always start your own group. There are also several other online options Lit Reactor is another subscription based site for writers. Critters critique group is free and can be a good place to start (though I found the critiques there varied pretty wildly as far as quality).

The important thing is to find the groups and people and schedule that works for you. You’re looking for a support system that inspires you to write and finish more material. 
In person or online, remember that it’s you who’s auditioning the group, not the other way around. While there is no perfect group (as they are all made up of humans after all), find or create a network that supports you and keeps you moving forward.
Mary Wollstonecraft Shelly