Last fall, I saw that Locus was hosting a one-day master writing workshop in Oakland, California (where I live), with Kim Stanley Robinson and said to myself, “Hmm. Maybe I should do that.” And then didn’t do anything about it, as one does.
A few days later, Linda Nagata, who is a fellow member of the author’s co-op Book View Café, mentioned the workshop on Twitter, saying she wished it were practical for her to go, which it wasn’t since she lives a couple of thousand miles via ocean from Oakland. I responded to her tweet by saying I was thinking about it, and she replied, “You should go.”
I took her advice, and I’m so glad I did. Stan’s presentation was exactly what I needed. I came home with a real sense of what I wanted to do with the pieces I’m working on. More than that, I came home remembering why writing brings me joy and why it’s my art form of choice.
I don’t know if the workshop worked that way for everyone who attended. It wasn’t a critique session and we didn’t do any writing exercises. Instead, it was a whole day of Stan talking about what he thinks is important in writing. Stan is a good speaker and was once an English composition teacher, so what he said was organized and clear. And he made it clear up front that you didn’t need to agree with him.
In fact, the first point he made was that one of the most important things to figure out about writing advice is what is good for you and what isn’t. In the spirit of the times, I wrote this down as Resistance. And I listened to him with my critical thinking set on high, weighing what he said against what I have figured out myself.
He also said at the beginning that perseverance will make it possible for a writer to become a published author. Perseverance, as I interpret it, is a combination of doing a lot of writing, thinking hard about it on the sentence level as well as the story level, and reading widely. If you make it your ambition to get published writing what you want to write, and you work hard enough at doing a good job of writing what you want to write, you will be successful. That’s a worthy goal.
It doesn’t mean you’ll be able to make writing what you want to write your day job. That involves luck. Stan got lucky, but he didn’t plan to get lucky. He planned to write what was important to him, to get good at writing it, and to get it published.
The more I think about it, the more important I think this advice is, not just for writers, but for everyone who wants to pursue a creative path, and probably for many who want to make the world a better place through activities that are often not well-compensated. You need to set goals that you can meet through work and persistence, not ones that rely on luck or someone important deciding that you’re the greatest thing since sliced bread. Otherwise, you won’t be happy even though you’re doing work you love.
Along with that, he pointed out that your work won’t resonate with everyone. And that is OK. As someone who has always found that in any given critique group someone is going to love my story and someone is going to hate it, I always need to remember that.
Another major point Stan made, the one that really made me sit up and take notice, is that you can do things in written fiction that cannot be done in other art forms, especially not in movies or television or other video. One of those things is exposition.
Stan is quite aware that some people think he puts too much exposition in his books, but he rejects that criticism. One of the advantages of writing novels in particular is that you have room for all that. You can also make judgment calls, even if your character is in the midst of doing something that they don’t recognize is bad. You can include aphorisms. You can use words from other writers that add to all that.
I came home from the workshop and began writing excerpts from a philosophy book by one of the main characters in one of my current projects. By doing that, I realized that the underlying principles of that philosophy work are what ties this story together. I think that will make a big difference.
You have to do all that well, of course. It all comes back to writing well, which takes practice and reading a lot (writers are what they read as well as what they’ve lived) and thinking about the right word for something and the right way to phrase a sentence so that it makes sense. At one point he noted that English, as a language that developed from Anglo-Saxon and Latin roots both, is full of words that are just the right one for the occasion, and suggested the importance of thinking about that.
(Stan is a man who loves the OED and words in general. That is, he was an English major.)
He made a point of rejecting three writing truisms that he blamed on MFA programs (though some of them are common in science fictional writing groups as well):
- Show, don’t tell. Nonsense, he said. One Hundred Years of Solitude is the best work of fiction from the 21st Century, and it’s all about telling. The bigger point is that fiction allows you to tell, so long as you do it well. He says, “Tell, don’t show.”
- Find your own voice. No, Stan said. Find the narrator’s. Even in memoir that’s not really your voice, and in fiction it can be very different from yours.
- Write what you know. Again, no. Write what you don’t know, so that you can figure it out.
For me this was a master class. I may not be a famous writer, but I am far from a beginner. I don’t need tricks and short-cut rules these days. But even though I’m not following the writing path laid down by conventional wisdom, I needed reminding that conventional wisdom is not set in stone.
Which is all to say, I needed to air out my head. And the workshop did a thorough job with that.
Writing workshops are always a crapshoot. I did one about ten years back that was supposed to get me back on track after a stressful time in my personal life, and it did me way more harm than good. I don’t have any good hints on how to separate the ones that will help from the ones that will hurt.
But this one worked for me. I came home inspired.
Nancy Jane Moore is the author of the science fiction novel The Weave, published by Aqueduct Press. Her other books include Conscientious Inconsistencies from PS Publishing, Changeling from Aqueduct, and Walking Contradiction and Other Futures from Book View Café. She is a founding member of Book View Café. In 2002 she made it to Milford and she’s been trying to get back ever since. A native Texan who spent many years in Washington, D.C., she now lives in Oakland, California.