- 8 am: Critique sessions for Amy and Heather
- 930 am: Lecture by James McDonald on plotting
- 1100 am: Lecture by Teresa Nielsen Hayden on Expository writing
- lunch break
- 130 pm: Colloquium get those writing assignments
- 3 pm: 1on1 with Elizabeth Bear
- Afternoon/evening: go to grocery store; dinner; do my critiques
- 9 pm: Heroes-watching and party
- 1230 am: crash
I had to be up early enough for an 8:00 AM critique session. 8:00 AM?!?! What, am I here to work or something? This will not be a vacation, I think. Of course, I didn't expect (or want) it to be.
The critique session was led by Steven Gould and Laura Mixon. We critiqued two stories by Heather and one by Amy. The group agreed that all the work had a very strong and interesting core and that there were mainly issues in the execution that blunted the core of the work from shining.
I was very impressed by the level of critique given within the group. Even though we each only had 5 minutes to comment on a work (in fact, 2.5 minutes for each of Heather's stories), every person gave a well-reasoned, interesting, full and helpful critique of the story. Wow. These people are serious about this stuff and are really thinking about it. This is so cool.
Lecture: Jim McDonald, "Plotting by Example"
After critique we returned to the main room for a lecture by Jim McDonald, called "Plotting by Example". Jim used various games or activities to show some of the basic elements of plotting.
From chess, we learned that you have to get your pieces moving early (especially the powerful ones), get them into the middle of the board and "on the job", put them in a position to be effective, and then let them work their magic or havoc (whatever the case may be). A reference book for this is "Logical Chess: Move by Move" by Irving Chernev (Amazon).
From a model of a house, we learned: details make it real (even details that only you know about); you set things at an angle because it helps imply the world (less artificial); you need to believe in your world fully.
From magic tricks, we learned: adding meaning to tricks creates story and interest; if you have one "find" and 100 "reveals" then you have 100 tricks; and that story involves indirection, misdirection and revelation. A reference book for this is "Magic and Showmanship" by Henning Nelms (Amazon).
This was a good lecture by Jim with lots of useful and practical concepts and ideas.
Lecture: Teresa Nielsen Hayden, "Expository Writing"
Teresa talked about how science fiction and fantasy carry the burdens of character and plot like other literature, but SF/F also carries a tremendous expository burden. This is something that every SF/F writer needs to handle gracefully and well.
Part of world building is both opening up lots of meanings and closing off lots of possibilities. You have to be very careful that you don't open up too many meanings or they become a burden the reader has to carry around with them the rest of the story (or until they're closed off). The reader is always filling in the gaps, and you are braiding threads together to create those gaps.
An interesting note: in SF/F, the metaphor is NOT your friend, the word "like" opens up the possibility that the comparison is actually true ("she was like a tiger" could mean she IS a tiger).
The reader can only stomach so much weirdness at once. "Don't over-weird the pudding", or "Maybe I used too many monkeys". Unresolved things multiply and create confusion. Don't hold off all your surprises, spring them now; burn some story.
Names are very difficult in SF/F. Do everything you can to get them right. Google names to check associations.
If you have other areas you're unsure about, ask an expert (especially for horses, guns, and ammunition). Cultivate people with areas of specialized expertise. Don't give nitpickers an opportunity to argue. To hedge your bets, add the word "modified" as in "a modified Glock."
There are natural occurrences of exposition that you can use to avoid the "As you know, Bob" problem such as: change, misunderstandings, disagreement.
Ursula LeGuin's "Inventing the Ansible" is a good discussion on creating something interesting and how you can use it.
While my notes haven't done a good job capturing this lecture, it was very interesting and enlightening and something that I will continue to mentally refer to as I move forward in my writing.
We received five writing assignments in total. Combining them into one assignment was completely allowed and in fact, encouraged.
Assignment One (Cory): Person, Place, Problem. Each participant wrote down a Person, a Place and a Problem on three separate pieces of paper. Each pile of Person, Place, Problem was mixed up and each participant then chose a Person, a Place and a Problem. The assignment was to write an opening paragraph using all three.
I got "a man named Gray Martin" (Person), "the street" (Place) and "war" (Problem). Pretty general.
Assignment Two (Bear): Write an opening and closing sentence, where the opening raises a question in the mind of a reader and the closing exhibits "circular resonance" with the opening sentence.
Assignment Three (Jim): In summary, an editor calls and says "I need a story for an anthology called SET, I need it to be 5K-8K words, and I need it by Thursday." Depending on your group, your story had to have a certain description.
For my group, the description was "I like those sensitive romances you've been doing. The story must be science fiction, no aliens, no FTL, near future, off earth." You also had to use your item from Monday night (my item was a "monocle").
Assignment Four (Steve and Laura): We got two assignments but only had to do one. Steve said he wanted the climactic scene from a subgenre that you dislike the most. Laura said she wanted a scene from the viewpoint of a character whose political, religious and moral ethics you found repugnant. But you had to make them sympathetic and make them human; they could NOT be an animal.
I decided to try both, using "military SF" as my subgenre and "Dick Cheney and Kim-Jong Il" as my anti-character models.
Assignment Five (Teresa): Take 4-6 things from the Evil Overlord list AND 3-7 things from Murphy's Laws of Combat. Work them into a story either as is or as the converse, either straight or metaphorically.
By the end of the assignment period, I pretty much had my story concept. The one line elevator pitch would be: "During the East-West war in space, Dick Cheney and Kim-Jong Il fall in love." With a description like that, it pretty much writes itself!
1-on-1 with Elizabeth Bear
Bear said we were going to go for a walk and talk about my story. We walked down the road and towards the beach. On the way, she said that I did a good job with plot and moving the story along and putting words together. However, the story was in the end shallow, the mystery was too easy and the character was not personally involved.
The real question for me was "Want versus Need". What did the main character want? What did he need? How did his wants change during the story? What is the conflict for him? How did people get in his way and interact? What were his decision points?
Once we got to the beach we walked around a bit and Bear also said I needed more of the physical sense of place in my story. I had visual sense of place fine, but what did it feel like for the characters to be there? How do people move through the universe? The characters need to be grounded.
For Homework, she said that I needed to use the section of the beach in a paragraph where the reader learns something about the character by the end of the paragraph.
Bear was right. I have had "concept flies" buzzing around my brain with respect to the "Killer Dog" story, things that I knew weren't quite right. What Bear did was pluck two of them out and put them in front of me. I immediately recognized them for what they were.
On the way back she said it's time to practice "directed learning", where I concentrate on certain specific aspects of the craft in order to get better at them and expand my abilities. These things are want/need and physical grounding.
I also had Bear read "Owl, Cat, Cigarette." She said it was fun but slight and that I needed to understand what the story meant for Cat. The ending could express this meaning. It goes back to want and need and how the Cat feels about what happens in the story.
The Rest of the Day
After that I was ready for a break, so I took Mark, Kim, Julia and Dorothy to the grocery store and the liquor store to load up on food and drinks. Once we got back, I worked on my critiques until dinner. Dinner was comfort food (chicken, potatoes, vegetables). I went back to the room and finished my critiques for Tuesday.
At 9, a bunch of folks came over and watched "Heroes". It was fun to watch in a group, chat about what was going on with the show, laugh at it, and be generally geeky. After the show, several folks hung around until 11:30 and we just talked and had drinks and fun. By that time, I was getting tired so Mark and I cleaned up the room and both crashed about 12:30 am.
And thus ended the first day. It was fun, it was intense, it was long, but it was interesting and enjoyable. An entire day was spent in the craft of writing SF/F. That's still an amazing concept to consider. I liked it.