I was interviewed on today’s episode of the Scott Edelman’s podcast, Eating the Fantastic! That in itself is pretty fantastic. In case you don’t know, Scott’s a writer, editor, foodie, and the driving force behind the podcast, Eating the Fantastic. Over scrumptious meals (and you ALWAYS want to go to restaurants he picks out), Scott interviews science fiction, fantasy, and horror writers, as well as editors and other creative types about how they got their start, what they’re working on now, and whatever else comes up. I’ve been enjoying his interviews for well over a year.
Now it was my turn to be interviewed over lunch at Momofuku. This relatively new restaurant in downtown D.C. has made a big splash. I get what the fuss is about. We’d both highly recommend it. Such fond memories of these pork buns:
But anyway, I hope you’ll listen to the podcast as it was my chance to talk about attending Clarion and Taos Toolbox, writing for Analog, doing readings, and other topics before unveiling my major new writing project involving dinosaurs. I hope you’ll listen. I’ll blog more about my latest project in a few days. Until then, Scott has the exclusive.
Years ago at Clarion Writers Workshop, one of my instructors talked about there coming a time when a writer stops writing. For years! Hah, I immediately decided that none of this could possibly be applicable to me. Though he was trying to be reassuring, I tuned him out. I was so wrong. Due to a massively demanding job, I ended up not writing any fiction for about ten years. Now that I’ve taken up the fiction gig once more, I’ve been thinking about my own experience as word comes of several other writers I know who are setting aside their own writing due to work and family commitments and competing priorities.
If you’re thinking about taking a break, it can be scary. Here’s what went through my head during my own writing hiatus.
- Will I ever go back to it?
The answer was yes. Once I left the demanding job and had recovered from a bit of burn-out, I began gradually by pulling out a couple of stories abandoned in progress. After ten years, they didn’t look all that bad. In fact, I could see ways to work with them, which is a compelling reason to never toss any work in progress. This led to my second fear.
2. Will I forget how to write fiction?
Nope. In fact, my demanding job had required much writing and editing. That made the resumption of fiction writing easier than ever. Those half-finished stories were a great starting point, as I could see immediately how to improve them starting with the title. In fact, I’ve sold a couple of them.
3. What can I do to help myself get back into writing fiction?
First, I resolved to write only what really interested me, like dinosaurs, and not what I thought was trendy. Second, I resolved to write about cool stuff even though I hadn’t spent decades researching a particular topic. Fact is, there will always be someone who knows more about paleontology, or many other subjects, than I do. So what? Even if I spent time learning a ton more, that would still be the case.
Second, I decided to attend a terrific writers workshop–Taos Toolbox–to get back into the swing of things. I recommend it highly.
Third, I wrote down my specific, measurable objectives in terms of words written, completed stories, etc. I started a spreadsheet to track my output on a daily, weekly, monthly, and yearly basis.
Now I’ve received word in the last month that no fewer than THREE other writers who had taken lengthy hiatuses have returned to the pen monkey gig. What’s more, they are all older than me. Truly, there’s no time like the present.
What can a non-dinosaurphile learn from a journey, however brief or prolonged, into the Mesozoic? How many dinosaur species existed? How can we extrapolate so much about dinosaurs and so much about the history of the Earth based on, well, a handful of decayed carcasses? Or do we have other clues? What do we not know about dinosaurs and need to know and why do we need to know?
These were a few of the thought-provoking questions that Carl Slaughter asked when he interviewed me for SF Signal. While I pondered my answers, I learned a couple of things, myself. First, it’s a lot more fun to be interviewed about a topic that you love, particularly when the interviewer’s comes at the subject in a way that you hadn’t quite considered before. I hope you’ll check it out, particularly if you’re like me in that you’ve never lost your love for dinosaurs. And while you’re at it, I hope you’ll read Diamond Jim and the Dinosaurs in the April 2016 Analog.
Now is the time to apply to writers’ workshops. Now that I’ve had several weeks to let the dust settle from having attended Paradise Lost, and having attended Taos Toolbox last year and Clarion several years before that, I’m eager to plunge into comparing and contrasting these three science fiction and fantasy writers’ workshops. They obviously differ in the time commitment, ranging from three days (Paradise Lost) to two weeks(Taos Toolbox) to six weeks (Clarion & Clarion West).
Which is best for you? First and foremost, you should give some serious thought to whether you have the mental energy to complete them. At Paradise Lost, you’ll have a few weeks in advance to critique roughly four works of 5000 words apiece (20,000 total). At Taos Toolbox, you’ll have about a month to critique 15-16 novel beginnings of 10,000 words each (150,000-160,000 words total) and then another 5000 words per piece submitted during Week Two, which comes to somewhere around 230,000 total words. Clarion can be more variable, but I’m guessing you’ll read and critique around 250,000 to 300,000 words of stories over the course of six weeks. If you’re a slow critiquer, which I am, the time commitment is considerable. And that’s just for critiquing! There’s also the time you’ll need for your own writing, attending class and critique sessions, and socializing with other writers. What invariably gets shorted is sleep. I think it fair to say that the difference between the workshops is much like the difference between a sprint, a medium-distance run, and a marathon. Beyond that, they all shine at:
1) Providing topnotch classroom instruction by some of the best writers in our field.
2) Teaching you how to identify what’s working well and what could be improved in others’ stories, which can translate into improving your own fiction,
3) Supplying you with critiques of your stories by experienced professional writers and other workshop participants.
4) Removing the preponderance of day-to-day distractions from writing, such as your day job, your family, etc.
5) Fostering genuine friendships with other newbie writers or newish pros who know what you’re going through and can provide moral support and insightful critiques for years to come. Don’t discount the value of this as you embark on a solitary endeavor.
And yet, if you’re looking for a magic potion, you’ll find that these workshops cannot:
1) Make sure you keep on writing daily, weekly, monthly, or ever,
2) Force you to finish all – or any – of the stories or novels you began in a burst of enthusiasm,
3) See that you press the ‘submit’ button, and keep doing so each time a rejection comes back.
So back to the question – is one is for you? Here are a few more considerations:
1) How much time you can take away from family, job, friends, and your day-to-day life?
2) Can you afford it financially? Clarion does have scholarships that help a great many attendees.Paradise Lost has also begun to offer a limited amount of financial assistance.
3) Are you psychologically prepared for a bunch of smart students and an established professional to (hopefully gently) suggest that the child of your creativity is clumsy or merely ordinary or in need of so much more work? If you are already in a critique group, be prepared for a more intense experience.
4) Where are you in your career, and what you are writing? Clarion is a great starting point if you’ve never been published and are writing short stories. Taos Toolbox is terrific if you’ve published a story or three but feel you have more to learn, particularly about novel writing. Paradise Lost is good for those who’ve been to either of the other two workshops, and are seriously thinking of a career in fiction writing.
One last thought, Clarion, Taos Toolbox, and Paradise Lost are all head and shoulders above trying to muddle through by learning your craft in isolation. Yes, it is possible to do it on your own or via an MFA or on-line program or some other way. Many fine writers have done so. Then again, many other fine writers attribute their initial success to one of these workshops.
I’m participating in my first blog-hop, in which writers are answering questions about their own creative processes. But before I get to the questions, let me say that I was invited into this process by the remarkable Anne Leonard, whose first novel, Moth and Spark, was just published by Viking Press. It’s not your usual fantasy tale of romance and adventure, for the prince and a gifted seer must set out to free the dragons from bondage. Check out her blog at anneleonardbooks.com.
So without further ado-
1) What am I working on?
As usual, I have several projects all clamoring for my attention simultaneously. First, there are several more time travel stories to the Age of Dinosaurs, featuring the characters from my July/August 2013 Analog story, Not With a Bang. I’m also in the midst of three linked romance and adventure novels set in a fantastical world of my own creation, featuring capricious and powerful creatures and the bold men and women who must find a way to live among them. Then there is my novel-length rewrite of the Trojan War and its aftermath, in which I take issue with Homer’s perspective, as well as Vergil’s.
2) How does my work differ from others of its genre?
I come at creating science fictional and fantasy worlds differently from most authors. My training is as an archaeologist and cultural anthropologist. Hence, the physical landscape and climate come first – plains, mountains, coastlines, rivers, jungles, etc. The peoples who inhabit those places are inescapably shaped by their environments and natural resources, whether it be a particular locale on the planetary surface or a space station or a generation ship. Nor is it realistic to create a mono-culture across vast distances. I’m also not fond of defaulting to the social organizations of modern western societies, as I find it far more interesting to look at how other societies organize themselves in response to the constraints imposed on them by their environments, by their level of technology, and by the other societies around them. It makes a fair bit of explanation necessary, but I wouldn’t have it any other way. Lastly, I am not fond of static societies, particularly in fantasy worlds, where life hasn’t changed much culturally or technologically in thousands of years. I simply can’t think of anything less realistic than that. Societies undergo change all the time, whether people are doing their utmost to create that change or to repress it, due to climate change, technological advances, population growth or decline, war, peace, disease, feast or famine, religions, and any number of other factors.
3) Why do I write what I do?
I write about ideas, people, and situations that interest me. As I hope you’ve figured out by now, I’m interested in coming up with a different take on things than the usual answers. I’ve loved dinosaurs ever since I first saw their skeletons in the New York City Museum of Natural History when I was five years old, so I’ll always write about them. Also, I’ve always been fascinated by mythologies from various cultures. Hence my story The Fifth Sun, which is about Quetzalcoatl. Though I can’t say I’m overly fond of zombies, they’ve found their way into my work, too. Check out The Zombie Limbo Master, appearing in Bastion SF in May 2014.
4) How does my writing process work?
It always begins with an idea, followed by the setting. Then I have to do a casting call for a protagonist capable of handling the situation I intend to throw at him or her. Next I write the first scene. Characters, snatches of dialog and scene fragments emerge, in no particular order. From this chaos, I can usually cobble together a scene-by-scene outline. Even with that done, I can’t manage to write the story in order. I’ll typically write the ending next, then the climax scene, then fill in bits and pieces in the middle, rewriting my earlier work as discoveries hit me along the way. Hence, I do quite a lot of rewriting before I’m ready to show it to my first reader, followed by my writers’ group. By the time I submit it to an editor, I’ve gone through at least five drafts.
So now, it’s time for me to pass these questions along to three other writers: Tom Doyle, Josh Roseman, and Carmen Webster Buxton. Tom’s and Carmen’s posts will be going up on April 28, and Josh’s on May 19. Check back to see what these interesting writers have to say.
Tom Doyle’s first novel in a three-book contemporary fantasy series from Tor, American Craftsmen, will be published on May 6, 2014. He has a short fiction collection out from Paper Golem Press, The Wizard of Macatawa and Other Stories. His blog is at http://www.tomdoyleauthor.com/news-and-blog/, and the text and audio of many of his stories are also available on that website.
Josh Roseman (not the trombonist; the other one) lives in Georgia (the state, not the country). His writing has appeared in Asimov’s, Escape Pod, and the Crossed Genres anthology Fat Girl in a Strange Land. His fiction has been reprinted by Dunesteef Audio Fiction Magazine and StarShipSofa, and his voice has been heard on two Escape Artists and four of the five District of Wonders podcasts. He is a 2013 graduate of the Taos Toolbox writing workshop. When not writing, he mostly complains about the fact that he’s not writing. Find him online at roseplusman.com or on twitter @listener42.
Carmen Webster Buxton was born in Honolulu and experienced a childhood on the move, as her father was in the US Navy. She has been a librarian, a teacher, a project manager, a wife, and a mother, although not in that order. She now lives in Maryland with her husband, her daughter, and a cat with the unlikely name of Carbomb. She is an eclectic reader of science fiction, fantasy, historical fiction, mystery, romance, and mainstream fiction. Carmen writes science fiction, mostly set in the far future, and the occasional fantasy. The Sixth Discipline was her first novel to be published as an ebook, and its sequel No Safe Haven was published shortly after it. Several books have followed. You can find her at: http://carmenspage.blogspot.com/p/about.html
I spent two weeks in Taos, NM at the SF/fantasy master class called Taos Toolbox. It’s a master class in several senses: it’s taught by two indisputable masters of the field, Walter Jon Williams and Nancy Kress. It’s definitely a master class in terms of the quality of the students’ stories that we critiqued. In short, I felt privileged to be in such fine company. Oh, and I will never grow tired of staring at the New Mexico mountains. One day, a black bear made an appearance on the hillside behind our lodge. We were told this was a good sign for our future sales.
I came home with my brain feeling very full, the way it did when I took dance lessons and tried to put into practice dozens of different instructions all at once — head up, shoulders back, breath, smile, firm frame, don’t rush the beat, 1-2-3, etc. But hey, writing is easier for me than dancing in that I don’t have to get everything right all at the same time. I can make multiple passes through a story focusing on different things – evolving character motivations, scene structure, reveals, evocative description, realistic dialog, and on and on.
I’m plunging back into the revision of a novel with so much more to consider. Plus, I believe in that black bear.