Sunday, June 22, 2014

Writers of the Future, Quarter 2

Another honorable mention to add to my pile. I knew it was coming. I've been entering this contest long enough that I have a pretty good feel for how my submission is going to place. Of course, I don't set out to write an honorable-mention story. That would be stupid. Every time I set out to write a winner, but the end result often doesn't bridge the gap with my original idea.

In 22 quarters of entering Writers of the Future:
  • Finalist: 1
  • Semi-finalist: 1
  • Silver honorable mention: 1
  • Honorable mention: 12
  • Rejection: 7
I'm finishing up my final edits on my Quarter 3 entry, which I'll submit sometime in the next few days. After that, I'll get back to the novel I started at the workshop earlier this month.

Saturday, June 14, 2014

Campbell Conference

The novel workshop wrapped up Friday morning with a "what do I do next?" discussion. In the afternoon, the Campbell Conference began.

I'm accustomed to SF conventions, but this is an academic gathering sponsored by the Gunn Center for the Study of Science Fiction at the University of Kansas. It's quite awesome that a university has a center for studying science fiction, and has for decades, which is thanks to James Gunn.

The conference is intimate, a few dozen people as opposed to a convention that can draw hundreds or thousands. (I bet the Denver Comic Con this weekend is in the tens of thousands.) Everyone here is thoughtful and intelligent, and invested in the field of science fiction.

Last night was the banquet and awards ceremony for the Sturgeon and Campbell awards. This morning, most of the novel workshoppers and our fearless leader Kij Johnson went to a coffee shop in downtown called Aimee's that, if I lived here in Lawrence, would become my place to get a cup of coffee and write. Here's a detail shot from the coffee counter. I love the stuffed animal and the Doctor Who mug:

After breakfast, we went to the KU Union for the conference's morning session, "science fiction in the real world." We had an interesting and insightful discussion. I took lots of notes. I also took a panoramic photo of the room before we started. Soon enough, every one of these chairs was filled.

Next was a quick lunch, and then a book signing in the KU bookstore. I sat with Bryan Thomas Schmidt, author and editor of several anthologies, including Raygun Chronicles. Fellow Raygun contributor (and all around great writer) Robin Wayne Bailey was also there. We signed quite a few books. Several of my fellow novel workshoppers bought Raygun. They are very sweet people.

I'm now taking an afternoon break. Tonight, more activity.

Tomorrow, I'll be packing up, saying my goodbyes and hitting the road for home. It has been an amazing two weeks. I can't say yet whether the experience will be life-changing, but it certainly feels like it could be. I've made some good friends, and over the coming months, I will take everything I've learned to write my first novel.

Tuesday, June 10, 2014

Novel Workshop, Week 2

Week Two of the workshop is about building on the work from last week. Vague, I know.

After last week's session, for my project, I did a lot of work over several days on how magic relates to the real world (the project is urban fantasy), on one of my two protagonists, and on the newspaper angle.

Today was my second time in the hot seat. Our group talked about the internal workings of my magic system, which I appreciated because I was having trouble with it by myself, and my other protagonist that I hadn't tackled last week.

The immediate work I have ahead of me is world-building. This doesn't surprise me because world-building has always been a weak spot for me. Or maybe it's not a weak spot; I just needed someone to encourage me to do it. The work I've done here at the workshop has been fun and opened up interesting opportunities for the story. In fact, I have more material now than I have room for in one book. I also have several pages in my notebook full of general wisdom about writing.

I have gotten what I wanted out of coming here and more.

And we're not done yet.

We have two more days of workshopping, and then the Campbell Conference this weekend.

Saturday, June 7, 2014

Novel Workshop Days 5 & 6

The weekend is break time, but not really. We don't have scheduled sessions, but we're all spending time in the workshop room working on our assignments. There are storyboards in various forms on almost every inch of wall space. Most of the couches and comfy chairs were filled this morning with writers on their laptops, me included.

My storyboard (in its very early state) is in the photo. It's a giant piece of butcher paper covered in different colored Post-It Notes that signify different things.

I've never plotted a story in such a visual way before. For me, this is an experiment.

The hardest part of the process has been creating major turning points for the plot, the moments when something happens that changes the goals of the characters and the direction of the story in a drastic way. It has helped to give the story a specific framework (based around the news cycle) and to zero in on the major themes.

I've also been working on deepening the characters and the world-building. I've been proud of my progress on my magic system. But over lunch, people raised questions that I don't yet have answers for.

When we're not hard at work on our projects, there's a lot of socializing going on, as you would expect. Also last night, a group of us went to see "Edge of Tomorrow," which was better than I was expecting. In a couple of hours, we're heading out to see the new "X-Men" movie. Two movies in two days is absolutely unheard of for me. I might see that many movies in a theater in a year.

Thursday, June 5, 2014

Novel Workshop Day 4

I woke up this morning to seriously dark skies, lightning and rain. I also woke up with a migraine, which meant, no matter the weather, I had to trudge up to the KU Union for coffee. The caffeine does a better job for me than any medicine of curing a headache. An hour later, the headache is fading. I hope it's not a sign of more headaches to come.

Yesterday was the first of two sessions during this workshop in which we tackled my project. Rather than be deflating, the discussion was fun and eye-opening. My notebook is full of details that I won't get into here. The three main points I came away with:
  • I haven't yet done enough work on my worldbuilding. I have a lot of questions in my notebook in regards to the magic system I've created.
  • I need to (almost) completely rethink one of my two main characters, who at this point in the process is pushed around a lot but doesn't make things happen.
  • The aspect of my project that my instructors and classmates latched onto the most is newspapers/journalism. I'm too close to my own profession to think that the details are interesting, but for people who don't work in a newsroom, it's a different world and one well worth exploring. Just ask Aaron Sorkin. This is an exciting revelation to me. I'm passionate about journalism and the need to preserve newspapers and their unique role in society in a world that is increasingly moving toward a 24/7, social media-based news cycle. This project can become an opportunity for me to explore and share that passion without hitting readers over their heads with "message" anvils. Because, ouch.
I have an assignment for the week that is due Sunday night. I'm more excited about my project now than I was 24 hours ago. Even though I will be starting over (almost) from scratch.

And, of course, I'm also learning from the discussions of my classmates' projects. Everyone here is so creative and smart. We all bring different strengths and interests to the table.

I am disappointed with myself about one thing. I didn't know before coming to the workshop that I had to provide written critiques for my classmates on their outlines and chapters. This is my fault. If I had stopped to think for 10 seconds, I would have realized the obviousness of this. So now I'm paying the price. I have been rereading everyone's submission and writing critiques during my free time instead of relaxing or working on my own writing. Last night, I was in my room writing one of the critiques while my classmates were gathered in a common area watching a movie. Their frequent bouts of raucous laughter reached me through the air vents. Whatever they were watching must have been hilarious.

Wednesday, June 4, 2014

Novel Workshop Day 3

This morning I wandered downtown to the bagel shop for breakfast and walked back to the residence hall along a new route, through a neighborhood of old, beautiful houses. The road and sidewalk were both paved in red brick and lined with big, shady trees. I took a couple of photos:

Yesterday is when we started "novel-bashing." Not to say we took a hammer to our projects. Rather, the term comes from kit-bashing, which is the practice of taking pieces of different model kits and putting them together. This is the process of taking pieces from different places and fitting them together to make something better.

But, if the first day of serious workshopping is any indication, the first step of the process is more like ripping off a Band-Aid. It needs doing, but it hurts a little.

I won't go into the specifics of other people's novel projects. That's not my place. I will say my fellow seven workshoppers all have fascinating ideas, and none of us has similar ideas, which keeps it interesting. I want to see every one of these projects get published. At this stage in the process, though, all our projects -- mine included -- need some work to turn them from ideas into stories.

Yesterday, that entailed discussions on what's cool about each project but also where the flaws are and what each of us needs to focus on and flesh out over the next few days.

My turn in the hot seat comes today. I spent last night and this morning brainstorming on my ideas and characters, going into more detail than I have before. Some of it will get discarded, some will stay. I thought about the generalized questions that came up in yesterday's session that I haven't verbalized the answers to in my own project: What is it about this story, more than any other, that makes me want to write it? Which aspects are nonnegotiable? Which aspects are flexible? What are the themes? What is this story really about?

I suspect some of my fellow workshoppers thought I was overreacting with my work ethic last night, but my creative process works best on deadline and under pressure. I don't love being on the hot seat, but that's oftentimes where I do my best stuff.

Tuesday, June 3, 2014

Novel Workshop Day 2

The first day of class was very insightful and already worth my time coming here. I'm a novice when it comes to plotting a novel. Until about three months ago, I had never made the attempt. And no one has ever showed me how to do it, so I blundered through on my own, thinking I had the Best Outline Ever. OK, I know it wasn't that, but I thought it was pretty good.

Well, no.

From what I learned yesterday, I have an outline for about the first third of a novel, through the end of the first act. I'll need to start over almost from scratch, keeping my core elements, and see where it goes.

Also, I started in the wrong place.

That's why I'm here. To learn to do it right, so I don't waste my precious writing time working on a project whose basic structure is flawed.

For the first hour of class, Kij Johnson explained to us the main elements of developing a plot. A lot of it I had heard before, but she said some things that are new to me, and I took copious notes. Then we spent the rest of class brainstorming with Kij and Barbara J. Webb to build a big-picture novel structure from a core idea and two characters. It was fun and eye-opening, and I'm looking forward to working through the process on my own novel.

On another topic, I think these two weeks will get me the rest of my way to my weight-loss goal. I don't have access to a pantry here, which means I'm not snacking on chips, crackers and cookies for half the day. My plan is: bagel and fruit for breakfast, salad for lunch and a big dinner at whatever restaurant we choose that night. Plus, there's quite a bit of walking; we are on a college campus, after all. Of course I have no scale to measure my weight until I'm home in two weeks, so it's all guessing until then.

Monday, June 2, 2014

Novel Workshop Day 1

Day 1 mostly involved driving across eastern Colorado and Kansas, Denver to Lawrence, which is a drive I haven't done since my college days when I continued on to Columbia, Mo. I had a George R.R. Martin audiobook to keep me company. Western Kansas is like driving on a treadmill, except that the crosswinds are a bear.

After about 10 hours on the road, I parked in front of the residence hall on the KU campus about 7 p.m. Here's the view from the street:

I went inside to find that I was late. The combined novel and short-fiction workshops had already finished dinner and were going through the logistical need-to-know stuff for the next two weeks. The groups split up, and we novel workshoppers talked for a while about how the process will go. It's going to be exciting, but also nerve-wracking, intense and a lot of hard work.

I just have to remind myself, when it comes my turn for the hive mind to pick apart my outline, that failure on my first attempt at writing a novel outline is expected and that if it were perfect, there'd be no reason for me to be here.

By the time I headed upstairs to my room to unpack, I was exhausted. But being in a new place with strange noises (I'm right next to the elevator, which means every time it goes up or down, it sounds like it's doing it in my room) and a hard bed, I didn't sleep well. At least in the suite I'm sharing with a fellow workshopper, we have our own bathroom.

This morning so far has been: find a bagel shop with free coffee refills (to compensate for my no-sleep-zombie state), go through my exercise routines, shower and do some grocery shopping.

The walk downtown to the bagel shop was nice, but humid. After six years in Colorado, I'm not used to the humidity east of the Great Plains. It's like breathing soup.

We're about to head to the KU Union to get some lunch, and then it'll be time to start the workshop in earnest this afternoon.