Key points: you need lots of practice to become a writer, but some pointers about the right things to practice can make it much more effective. Workshops, podcasts, online resources, books -- they can all help. Don't miss the Turkey City Lexicon! Learning new tools and using them consciously can be difficult -- it doesn't mean you should quit. Try focusing on three tools that you want to master, starting with the hardest.
[Howard] This is Writing Excuses, Season Six, Episode 22, recorded at DragonCon. We are talking about getting additional education as a grown-up.
[Mary] 15 minutes long because you're in a hurry.
[Dan] And we're not grown-ups.
[Howard] And it's Sunday morning.
[Mur] For wannabe fiction writers! Sorry, that's the wrong show.
[Howard] We are joined by the inimitable grande Dame of podcasting for writers in genre fiction, Mur Lafferty.
[Mur] Hi, guys.
[Dan] We're delighted to have you here with us, Mur.
[Mur] I'm delighted to be here. I've been a big fan of this show. This is all exciting.
[Dan] Well, it's really not that exciting.
[Mur] Exciting for me, okay? Let me have my moment.
[Dan] Okay. We'll try to be a lot more interesting, when you're in town.
[Howard] Okay. So, Mur, you brought this topic up. The question is where do you go as an adult to get more education about writing.
[Mur] Well, a lot of times I talk about just... Usually what you need to do is just write more and write more and write more, but there are benefits to going outside and going to school, as we remember. But when you have your day job, and you have your kids, and you have other things to do, you may not know where to go. So that's why I wanted to bring this up. I'm a... I don't know if you call it a graduate, but I went to Viable Paradise in 2006, which is a weeklong science fiction workshop in Via... Not Viable Paradise... Martha's Vineyard, and got a lot out of that.
[Howard] I just wanted to point out that the idea that writing and writing and writing and writing is the best way to become a writer is a perfect, perfect idea. You need lots of practice. But as has been demonstrated, the very best performers in any field are the ones who practice the right things. Sometimes getting that education, getting those pointers early on, before you spend another million words doing the wrong thing, will make your practice that much more effective.
[Mary] Yeah. I have a theory that a sizable part of talent is recognizing your mistake and being able to correct it. I think that going to a writing workshop gives you the tools to understand where mistakes can be. So I've found... I went to Orson Scott Card's Literary Boot Camp, which is another weeklong workshop, and found that enormously helpful. I felt like before that, I just kind of backed into a good story. After that, I was able to do them on purpose. In fact...
[Dan] Which is a good skill to have as a writer.
[Mary] Well, yeah. There's nothing wrong with finding your way and feeling a story, but there is... You know, relying on getting lucky? There are certain circumstances where that might be okay, but I don't think that writing should always be one of them.
[Dan] Okay, are you guys ready for a sports metaphor?
[Mur] Go for it.
[Dan] I think this may be the first time we've ever broken one of those out on this podcast, but... Tiger Woods. Tiger Woods, after he had already broken virtually every record in golf, decided that his drive was flawed. So he got a teacher and re-taught himself from the ground up how to drive a golf ball.
[Howard] We actually broke that metaphor out a couple of years ago. That exact one.
[Dan] Well, I think it's an excellent metaphor, though, isn't it? Is the point.
[Howard] It is a good one. The problem is, it's not a metaphor.
[Dan] Sure it is.
[Howard] It's an anecdote.
[Dan] It's a metaphor in my mind. I'm a verbal descriptivist, Howard, remember?
[Howard] I'm not going to spit take this time.
[Dan] Dang it. Okay. The point is... That I'm trying to make is at any point in your career, aspiring or well-established author, you can still get a lot of benefit from going to a teacher or workshop or a writing group or something.
[Mary] Yeah. A lot of times, what happens at these is that they articulate something that you already know, but they articulate it in such a way that it goes from the nonverbal intuitive part of your brain into the verbal part of your brain, which then will later allow you to pass it on to someone else. Or it's easier sometimes to remind yourself, "Oh, yeah, I need to make sure that there is actually conflict in this scene," instead of "Mmmm, this scene doesn't feel crunchy enough." Like... Crunchy?
[Dan] I should put more corn chips into it. So, okay. We know that they're useful. We've mentioned a couple of them. Let's throw out some more names. What are some valuable workshops that people can go to?
[Mary] There's Clarion and Clarion West. And those are...
[Dan] Tell us about those.
[Mary] Those are a serious commitment of time. It's six weeks long. Each week you have a different guest instructor. These are people like Nancy Kress. Next year they've got George RR Martin.
[Mur] Chuck Palahniuk.
[Howard] When you say six weeks long, this is six weeks of live-in at Clarion? You are...
[Mary] Six weeks. It is...
[Dan] It's like going to a summer camp.
[Mary] A summer camp where they torture you with writers.
[Howard] I'm going to go ahead and say that regardless of the actual cost, the expense of taking six weeks off is going to be out of reach for a lot of people.
[Howard] So this one... So Clarion is at the very top of the things you could do.
[Mur] The way I've been trying to look at Clarion, this is what James Patrick Kelly told me, was this is an MFA, condensed. Is the time and the money you would spend on an MFA... Maybe not the money, an MFA is probably more, but...
[Mary] Just a little.
[Mur] It's still... Condensed tightly into six weeks. It is intense boot camp type thing. But it's... I've heard... I knew a night time ER doctor who carefully rearranged his life and his circadian rhythms to go to Clarion one year. It was fascinating to watch his LiveJournal, how he tried to do all that. It's one of those things where... I mean, this year it's Chuck Palahniuk, Connie Willis, George RR Martin, and... I think Nancy Kress, this year, also.
[Dan] Yes. It's an enormous expenditure of time and money, but it is worth it if you can manage it, which as we've said, a lot of people can't. Okay. What are some easier ones?
[Mary] Well, we've mentioned Literary Boot Camp, Viable Paradise, because those are both only weeklong things. Most conventions, not all conventions but most conventions that have a literary track also have a writers workshop where you can just do a one day, or you just take in one story... Like at Norwest Con, Fairwood Press has a writers' workshop where you can sit down with your story and three professionals. The three professionals critique your story. So you get to hear very... Sometimes wildly different opinions about the story. We try not to make you cry. But then you get to take that away. Sometimes it's a novel excerpt. But most conventions have something like that. So if you can't afford to do... And those are usually free.
[Dan] Yeah. I have done one of those at a convention in Utah, and will probably be doing another one again. It's LDS Storymakers.
[Howard] So who critiqued you?
[Dan] You did, just now. No. It was a lot of fun. It was be with five other writers. They submitted chapter 1 of their book several months in advance, and I got to go through and just... Make them cry, like Mary said. In the nicest, most possible... Best possible way. One of them has since sold the book, so I take full credit for that.
[Howard] Fantastic. Do we want to take a moment out for a book of the week now?
[Mary] That sounds great. I'm actually going to talk about a book that I get the audio narration for, Gus I thought that the book was great. It's actually a series by Seanan McGuire. The October Daye series. The basic premise is that October Daye is half fairy, half mortal. She's a changeling. She lives in San Francisco. She solves... She's a private detective. So she's solving cases in Fairy. It's written in first person. I adore October Daye. They are good, fast reads. At least a couple of them have serious, hard-core tearjerker moments. It starts with Rosemary and Rue. Then... There are five books currently recorded.
[Howard] Fantastic. So, head on out to audiblepodcast.com/excuse, and look for the October Daye series by Seanan McGuire, narrated by our very own Mary Robinette Kowal.
[Dan] Wonderful. All right. So let's throw out some other names of workshops. For example, we've plugged this one on this podcast before, Writing Superstars, that Kevin Anderson does. Is not so much a how-to-write conference although there is some of that. But it has a lot of business-related stuff that a lot of other conferences never get into.
[Mur] A lot of people don't get into that kind of thing. That's fantastic.
[Dan] Eric Flint has a presentation where he goes through how contracts work, which is stuff that a lot of published authors don't even know. It's fantastically valuable.
[Mary] Yes. I was astonished by some of the things that I was learning at that particular thing. Odyssey is another good one.
[Dan] I've heard of Odyssey. Tell me what it is.
[Mur] Odyssey is a lot like Clarion, I believe. It's another six-week residential type thing. It's just... They have a slightly different focus, though. Isn't Clarion only short story?
[Mary] Is it?
[Mur] I think so. I think you write a short story a week.
[Mary] Yes. Clarion is only short story.
[Mur] Odyssey may be either.
[Mary] I think Odyssey... Yeah. There's also Taos Toolbox which is run by Walter Jon Williams. That one deals with novel and short, I believe. His theory is that you go in and you learn a whole bunch of different tools that you can then take and apply to the types of writing that you're doing. I think that's only a week long, but that's also residential.
[Howard] There's a... I forget who puts it on. I want to say it's put on by NASA, but it's a...
[Howard] Launchpad! That's the one.
[Mary] Launchpad. I've done Launchpad. Did you do Launchpad?
[Mur] No. A friend of mine did. I haven't done it.
[Howard] Is it put on by NASA?
[Mary] It is NASA funded.
[Dan] NASA has funding?
[Mur] They used to.
[Mary] At one point.
[Howard] For authors, not for space shuttles.
[Dan] Oh, okay. For imaginary space travel.
[Mary] The theory with that one...
[Dan] I'm just waiting for you to start talking again, so don't rush...
[Mary] Yeah, as soon as I stop laughing at you. So, the thing about Launchpad is that it is targeted at writers. Not just prose science fiction and fantasy writers, but stage writers, screenwriters, editors... There was a copy editor there the year that I was there... Comic artists. The idea is to teach science literacy... Astronomy literacy, specifically, through fiction. Because what they've realized is that most people get their information through narrative. So that's why so many people are like, "Oh. You blow up when you go out of an airlock."
[Dan] That's cool.
[Mary] So it's designed to counter that.
[Howard] Neptune and Pluto are like next-door neighbors because they're the outermost two planets.
[Dan] They're right next to each other.
[Howard] Travel between the two of those should be very fast.
[Dan] Okay. So, I think that if... We can't possibly mention every workshop that you can go to. So at this point, let's just say...
[Dan] Workshops are awesome. Look them up online. What are some other venues? I know for example...
[Howard] Writing Excuses.
[Dan] Writing Excuses. I figure most of our listeners are probably aware of us.
[Howard] I hate to sell it too hard, but I have learned more doing Writing Excuses. The stuff I've learned about writing in the 15 minutes per week on the average I spend with you guys is way in excess of anything I learned about writing in the previous 30 plus many years of my life.
[Mary] Well, there's also a really good podcast by this woman named Mur Lafferty.
[Dan] I've heard of her.
[Mary] Yeah, yeah.
[Howard] I shouldn't... No, I wouldn't... What is it, Mur?
[Mur] Oh. You know. She started so long ago, it's just like old stuff. It's I Should Be Writing. It's a... I don't consider myself a pro, I do consider myself somebody who's able to... Tell somebody that just because you get a rejection letter, it doesn't mean your writing career is over. There's so many beginners who fear that. But because I'm not a pro, I do like to get pro's on the show, as the two of you have been on the show. I'm pointing at Howard and Mary because Dan just ran away.
[Howard] Yeah. Dan stepped out because... Hey, it's DragonCon and somebody walked by wearing body paint. Either that or he's trying to run down Jonathan Mayberry.
[Mary] Next cast.
[Mur] But I talk to pro authors every week and I've learned an awful lot from that as well.
[Howard] And as you've learned things from them, obviously your listeners are going to learn things from them too. You've been doing I Should Be Writing for 4 and a 1/2 years now? Five?
[Mur] Six years.
[Howard] Six years. Oh my gosh.
[Mur] Yes. Started in 2005 in August. So...
[Howard] You started before I knew that podcast was a word.
[Mary] The other things are online resources. Sifwah, SFWA dot org has an information center that has lots of just nuts and bolts things about writing. And things like the Turkey City Lexicon, which is...
[Mary] Oh, have you never played with...
[Howard] I did not even know what Turkey City Lexicon is.
[Mur] It is awesome.
[Howard] Oh, I get to learn something new. Okay.
[Mary] Yeah, the Turkey City Lexicon has things like... The said book ism is in there, which is where everything is, "She said brightly." Then there is...
[Howard] "Oh, no," Henry ejaculated.
[Mary] So basically it's a list of phrases that are talking about common errors that people make. Mary Sue which is when the main character is too good and perfect and a reflection of who the writer wants to be. So that's...
[Howard] So it's an enumerated list of common literary pitfalls, tropes...
[Mary] With pithy phrases attached to them.
[Howard] Pithy phrases attached to them.
[Mur] Right. Don't call a rabbit a smeerp.
[Mary] Magical Words, which is a group blog with David Coe and several others. Bookview Café also has some really smart things about writing. Then books! Like, we've talked about Character and Viewpoint by Orson Scott Card, Nancy Kress has several wonderful books...
[Howard] Stephen King's...
[Mary] Stephen King's...
[Howard] Is it On Writing?
[Mary] On Writing. The 10% Solution by... Wonderful book, and we'll put the name of the author in the liner notes.
[Howard] Ah. Liner note job for me.
[Mary] That's why we have those. The one thing that I want to say, because I think we're getting close to wrapping up, is when you go to any of these, the thing that I see happened to a lot of people when they come out is that you suddenly have all of these new tools. They're tools that you have to think about consciously because you've just learned them. So for the first year after you go to one of these workshops, writing becomes difficult. Because it is suddenly a conscious process. It takes a while to internalize these tools to a point that you... It's unconscious again.
What frequently happens to people is that they mistake the "this is difficult because I'm thinking about it" for "I can't write" and they stop writing. So if you go to one of these workshops, recognize that when you come out of it, things are going to be hard because you have new tools. You have not suddenly become a bad writer.
[Howard] Yeah. The advice that I would give is to take... You're going to learn dozens of things at these workshops or from these podcasts. Take three Post-it notes, and write pithily one lesson on each of those Post-it notes. Attach those to your monitor. Then write. Allow yourself to only pay attention to those three for now. Basically that will let you focus on those things. If you feel like you've mastered those, if you feel like you're doing better with those, then pull one of them off and put up another one. You will have internalized the one you took down.
I think it's important for us to recognize that the people who do the finest professional work are the people who have learned to practice the things that were, at the outset, the very most difficult for them. So if you go to one of these workshops, if you listen to one of these podcasts, and you find out, "Oh, my gosh. I've been doing this one thing all wrong," and "Wow, that's really hard." Start there. Start with what is most difficult because that is how you will make the very most progress.
We are out of time. Mur, I'm going to go ahead and lean on you for a writing prompt.
[Mur] Of course you are.
[Mary] That's just mean.
[Mur] It is mean.
[Dan] It's cruel.
[Mur] Well, the writing prompt would be... Someone who wants to go to a writing workshop, but they get held up, unfortunately, by chicken and waffles. Whether that's really chicken and waffles, or metaphorical chicken and waffles, or what Dan thinks is a metaphor for chicken and waffles, that's up to you.
[Howard] Perfect. This has been Writing Excuses. Recorded in front of an empty hotel lobby in DragonCon. You're out of excuses. Now go write.