WHAT: David Farland’s (David Wolverton’s) Professional Writers’ Workshop
Dallas, Texas, July 6-12, 2010
SHORT VERSION: Highly recommended
A six-day workshop! How would I ever get away from the family, I mean arrange for someone “to be there just in case” for the family and wait on them hand and foot, for that long? The workshop hotel being only a twenty-minute drive from the house, one would think this wouldn’t be a big deal, but then one does not know MY family and their insecurity whenever I am around the corner and out of sight.
Nevertheless, I signed up and sent in the opening chapters of SONG FROM THE HEART. I knew I needed some pro feedback as to whether working on that one is a waste of time or the possible Key to Publication. I also needed some time among other living writers who are doing this and who don’t think it’s a complete waste of time. Anytime I’m in a classroom with ideas flying, I start channeling the Girls in the Basement, who write down all sorts of stuff, some of which is not even related to what’s being discussed but that proves to be some really useful junk. I also operate under the delusion that something I say to another writer might be the sprinkles that finally top off her new sundae. You never know what sort of offhand/chance remark might spark a trilogy.
We began communicating even before the workshop. I was placed in group “B” and promptly read up to 25 pages e-mailed to me from each of the other seven members of the group. In preparation, I wrote up a two- to three-page critique of each piece along with doing a red-pen line edit. I wondered how we would ever fill a six-day workshop if we only did crits for those in our own group. (Each of us got verbal and written crits from David and either six or seven others [group A had 7 and B had 8 people, because one A dropped out]. Several of us had me placed mentally in group A there for a while, so I did written crits for most of them, as well.)
As it turned out, we spent mornings listening to lectures or doing a craft Q&A and discussing various Big Secrets, and then afternoons were devoted to the prepared crits and to discussing the writing assignments we had done as homework the previous night. We went until three or four every afternoon, and then the group at the hotel met again informally to do the homework and schmooze. I went home to play catch-up and TCB, but I also did the homework. I hadn’t realized how TIRED I would be from sitting in those hotel chairs and just from sitting still all day. And taking notes by hand! I think I have bursitis in my right shoulder from that. Still sore and doing a twinge now and then.
(I have a new respect for school-aged children and other students who have to sit in lecture halls and labs for eight hours a day. How do they DO it? I couldn’t do it again. My back ached from day one, and people were bringing pillows from their rooms to pad the chairs. Everyone else had a laptop going, and I had to giggle at the sight of all those people multi-tasking as they listened to the lectures or crits. I did it all with my little purple ink pen and notebook.)
David had a private consultation with each author. He managed it by having breakfast, lunch, and dinner with a different author each day. It resulted in about an hour with each person to answer specific or general questions about writing and publishing. Some of us got an in-depth analysis of how to rewrite the novels. This was cool. I ended up taking him to this hole-in-the-wall Salvadoran place that turned out to be a really neat adventure. I’m going to take hubby back there sometime when his stomach feels up to it, because they give you all these little dishes that you combine into a meal. I got a small burrito stuffed with scrambled eggs, cream cheese, and some sort of jam, but he ordered carne asada and ended up with seven or eight little side dishes of things like cabbage in tomato sauce, refried beans, tortillas, etc. We also talked about how stinky it is to be someone who has obviously worked on her craft and has been “ready” or “almost ready” for some time, yet can’t get anywhere.
~ PERSONAL REACTIONS/THOUGHTS BEGIN ~ HANG ON FOR WORKSHOP CONTENT LATER
I’m not sure that I agree completely with David’s rationale that “after seven or eight critiques, we’ve heard everything useful and we’re just getting nitpicking or a rehash of what has already been said by the previous critiquers.” I do agree with that as far as the verbal crits during the Main Event. I don’t think I completely agree as far as written markups of our printed work. I always get different line edits or scribbled question marks from different people. There’s always one little typo or nitpick that only one person marks. (Although nearly EVERYONE marked my TruWhite light bulb crack*, and half of the respondents said they didn’t understand why Alan would have to think of England while he did the old grin-and-bear-it bit.) But it was a good idea to limit the time spent gabbling about the books, as I did notice that people started repeating themselves. Except, of course, for the “high-level” stuff that came along at the very end from the leader.
* [Ha! The light bulb cracked!]
You always benefit from listening to feedback about your work, even if people didn’t “get it” or don’t usually read that genre or whatnot. Everyone gave various disclaimers at the beginnings of their critiques. Still, I could see a reason for listening to the people who never read fantasy talking about the high fantasy novels. There were insights that you could use, even if you had to turn them inside-out to figure out what was useful.
David told most of the attendees that they had very marketable books on their hands, and three of them he said had best-seller blockbuster potential and were right on target for the market. Most of them had very fixable problems, such as a wandering POV (head-hopping), telling instead of showing, not getting deeply enough into a close-third viewpoint, having too many characters (one or more of which could be condensed out), and so forth.
During the class’s critique of SONG (which I had just re-titled LOVE IS THE BRIDGE, after Thornton Wilder), I heard a lot of consternation about how the opening is all about the threat from the phone call–a death threat–but in the outline it turns out that the ghost/entity that has taken up residence in Al’s studio computers (where the artificial intelligence programming workspace with the rudimentary expert system has given it a place to roost and a base from which to wreak electronic havoc) actually wants Paige to come to it and take off the “curse” it believes she, as Jenny Lind, has laid on it back 200 years before. The place was a virtual echo chamber, because just about everyone picked up on that.
Now, I believe that the only reason they hit this so firmly is because they’d read the crappy synopsis I had to submit along with the pages. I hate those things (LotR: “short guy with hairy toes takes ring to recycling center”), especially when they’re three to five pages and can’t really explicate too much detail.
I know that the opening lines of the book as they stand dragged a good number of Textnovel readers into the story, and I managed to hold their attention after that. The reason for the entity’s use of threatening language during the first few calls is soon explained: it can’t vocalize at first, as it has not “possessed” a human body but a computer system, and what it has to draw on is the DVD and audio library at the studio, so it uses lines from old Bette Davis and Humphrey Bogart films at first. Soon it graduates to Patrick Swayze in “Ghost” (“Now do you believe in ghosts”) and then to talking on its own (as it gets more settled into the material world). But there wasn’t room in the brief synopsis to cover all that. This in particular is a case of needing to trust that the author knows what she’s doing. Shirley Jackson is great at winning a reader’s trust (see Alicia Rasley’s current post all about this), but another reason that readers trust her is that they know the work is published and thus anointed. So, anyway, I am considering whether the great “hook” value of having the death threat is worth the ‘splainin Lucy has to do later. Everything you hear in a workshop is useful–and if you hear the same crit from three or four people, start worrying. It may not be the line that they’re carping about that’s the problem, but in fact a lack of setup in previous pages. You just never know.
Ahem. But anyway, there were various other small nits that I took care of. Then the biggie hit.
The workshop leader took his turn. “This was nearly flawless,” he began. The class didn’t gasp, but I like to think they moved me up a notch off the bottom in their estimations (grin). “You have obviously been at this for many years and have worked on your craft. The characters are strong.”
Then he said, “I used to judge the WRITERS OF THE FUTURE contest, and I saw the same tropes over and over that writers didn’t realize were worn-out and discarded. One of the tropes we hated was the AI thing. I think the concept of a rogue AI is way overdone. After NEUROMANCER, where could you go with it? SF/F editors are likely to reject as soon as they see ‘AI’ at all; even Donna Andrews couldn’t keep her series going with the talking AI. It’s poison. Also, you use Facebook and Twitter and so forth . . . but will those still be around in a year or two, which is the earliest the book could come out? You’d be dating the book that way, even if readers could mentally translate it to whatever replaces Twitter and Facebook. So I suggest you take out ALL the technology and make it an old-fashioned ghost story.”
He does, of course, have a point. I love a good old-fashioned ghost story, as do most people. And it hasn’t oversaturated the current market. Maybe it’s just the perfect time for a new “Ghost” or “Ghost and Mrs. Muir” to hit the market.
Again, I blame my synopsis for not making it clear that we don’t have a rogue AI on our hands AT ALL. We do have a REAL entity, a “ghost,” if you will, that has crossed dimensions in order to pursue what he thinks is the reincarnation (or the time-traveled original) of Jenny Lind, the Swedish Nightingale from the 1800s. It was casting about for a “mind” to nest in when it came across Alan’s nestling expert system, a rudimentary “baby” AI that wasn’t advanced enough to defend itself, and it landed there as a base. In that way it learned what had happened in the material world since it became a ghost (reading the ‘net and history books that Alan had stored), and it figured out how to communicate with the world using the computer’s abilities of e-mail, texting, phone calling, and the like. Soon enough it figures out how to vocalize through the studio speakers and later the voice phone lines, and no longer needs to play audio clips that only approximate what it needs to say. ANYWAY, all this is to point out that it isn’t a rogue AI story. The AI doesn’t have a consciousness. It isn’t even an AI. It’s an expert system that’s being tested. SO . . . perhaps that’s different, and perhaps it’s a distinction no one else will make.
Also, I use technology to bring them together and put the obstacles in their paths. I believe that people thirty and under were brought up with tech and will relate well to people who rely on it and take it for granted in their lives. Who hasn’t had a Facebook problem or listened to a Twitter feed or podcast? I had fun thinking up ways that the entity could get on the ‘net and make Paige’s life miserable. I could take all of that out, but I feel that I would be taking out a lot of the things that make the story “relatable” and relevant for the younger set of readers. I already have a generation gap going, and this is one way to bridge it. I believe that readers now expect a character to have and rely on a cell phone, email, text messaging, and the like.
Still! It’s a huge issue, if it’s an issue at all for mainstream thriller editors or romantic suspense editors (because I don’t plan to send this one to SF/F publishers; they’ve had their chances to mock me and bop me upside the head, and this isn’t SF at all–just a ghost story, which used to be horror but is now just as mainstream as any vampire tale.) What a mess I may have on my hands.
“It’s never something that I can fix,” I muttered. “If it were a case of, ‘You’re showing instead of telling here and here,” I could fix that. But this . . . what I choose to write about and how I choose to tell it . . . that’s not so fixable.”
“You don’t have to take my advice,” he pointed out mildly, steepling his fingertips in front of his nose. Was that a secret grin behind the “church hands”? “You can do whatever you believe serves your story.”
Yes, yes. But I came here for expert advice. I should at least consider all the ramifications.
I could make it a straight ghost story. But I’d have to rework everything, including the way that Alan and Paige end up getting together on this. The ghost in HIS machine goes after his new client, and he has a vested interest in solving her problem because it’s also locking up his studio, which is his source of income, and he’s losing clients every day that it is closed. It’s a “Ghost in the Machine” thing, sort of, which hasn’t been done in this same way at all, and hasn’t been done at all lately. Technology is super-trusted now, and everything’s taken for granted. I wanted to play with that a bit and get these two together in the process.
Anyway. It’s something to chew over; in the meantime, I’ll work on something else for a while.
I thought it was pretty interesting hearing Our Fearless Leader discuss his experiences trying to get films made of his work and of other work that the production companies had discovered, but I also thought it was rather jumping the gun, because so many of the attendees asked about things like how to keep your videogame rights and about merchandising (your action figures and T-shirts based on characters) and really advanced things about foreign rights. I say this is premature because most attendees didn’t even have a finished book and are newbies to this process. To me, there’s plenty of time to find out any of this stuff once you get an agent and/or an offer. It gets people concentrating on the wrong thing when you have them revved up about that too early, because if they don’t write something that sells, there’s no point in planning all this other stuff. But hell, they’ll probably all get published immediately because they ARE new to this and not all messed up the way I am, so perhaps it wasn’t too early to be talking about those contract issues.
On the last morning before the end of the workshop, the class happened to be talking about film rights. Some of my longtime blog pals may recall that when DULCINEA first came out, I was contacted by a small film production company in Hayward, California, because they were looking for a Harry Potterish property. I sent them three copies of the novel and soon we had worked a deal: $250 for a six-month option and first dibs for me to write the initial screenplay if it happened. Well, the option expired and I never heard from them again, but I figured the anecdote would amuse the class (because they were already planning their outfits for Oscar night.)
David came up to me at the break and told me that he has a friend in a production company who is “a sucker for that sort of story and is always looking for a female Harry Potter” and asked if I had a copy of the book. Of course! When it first came out, I wore it on my person at all times! I brought him a copy of the book the next day, and he promised to let me know whether anything came of it with the producer. I’m not even thinking of it at all because I don’t want to jinx it. But wouldn’t that be great?
It was nice of him to give me that false hope, anyway.
Workshop attendees also recieved a course book of 151 pages, original material all about writing novels and the nature of story and the Sekrit Handshake. I had it copied double-sided over at our local FedExKinko’s and got orange (orange!!) binders for them; I even made a special hand-stamped cover sheet to insert in the “viewbinder” front, but it may have been too girly for some of the guys. Because of the heavy load over at the copy shop, I brought that to the second day’s meeting.
The group staying at the hotel bonded fairly well, I thought. I latched on to groups for lunch every day and talked to people in the lobby during breaks, but it was all I could do to get there for the sessions, so I didn’t do any of the room partying and so forth. That would be a bonus for anyone who did the workshop without having to keep up the responsibilities at home. They tolerated me fairly well, I thought, even though we didn’t become Close Personal Friends. One lady in particular was very good to me, and perhaps we’ll remain in touch . . . it turned out that she worked at several of the same software houses I did back in the Olden Days. It’s funny how E-Systems breeds novelists.
We now have a Yahoo! group and will be keeping in touch that way.
~ACTUAL CONTENT BEGINS HERE~
“We are doing well–but we can always do better.” This was the unwritten theme of the workshop.
What are the basics of storytelling? Editors seem to cry for craft, and agents claim they seek voice, but what sells a book is storytelling over style. It’s all about holding their attention.
Why do people read? For escapism, information, or vicarious experience. Vicarious experience is most appealing when it’s something you wish you could experience but never have and probably never will. It’s a mental vacation. The stress you’ll experience while reading is “play stress,” but you’ll experience a real stress-relief for some time after going through it. This is a major draw for readers. So this workshop leader proposes that you make your book a real emotional exercise for readers.
Did you ever notice that about six months after a really popular TV series ends, books that are like that series surge in sales? I’m not sure I completely buy into this, but here’s a nugget for you straight out of the workshop: when “Buffy” ended on TV, its viewership turned to written vampire books, and this is when Stephenie Meyer (who attended David’s workshop in Utah before writing her books) hit the marketplace. “Lost” is ending this season. If you have thought you’d like to do a book about people like that in such a situation, perhaps this is the time. As I said . . . I’m not sure I buy this. But that’s a freebie to give you an idea of how DIFFERENT some of the ideas you will hear in this seminar will be. That is not something I have ever heard theorized by anyone else at a writing conference or online. Hmm. . . .
He spoke about the kind of book that is most likely to sell and become a best-seller. I’m not going to reveal his secrets or the list of commonalities that he found in most best-sellers, because you can go to the workshop to get that. But I will point out a few pitfalls to avoid.
* Older writers tend to turn to their childhoods for inspiration when doing a middle grade or children’s book. Watch out for this. If you are doing a memoir, this is fine . . . if you are writing something like _To Kill a Mockingbird_ where the narrator is remembering something that happened in her childhood but you are using an adult perspective, that’s fine, but it’s for adults. Modern teens and children will not relate to or connect with the old-fashioned childhood tropes. Sure, when Grandma starts telling you how it used to be, you are fascinated because she is your grandmother and she’s telling you in person. But children don’t want to watch old pepole or adults or read about pre-Twitter lives. They want modern-day children and animals. *However*, you have to be careful using Twitter and Facebook in your novel, as these services might bite the dust within a year or so, and then you’ll have to go back and rework the novel (if it hasn’t sold . . . if it has, people may roll their eyes because of the “old” technology.) No one said this was easy.
* Get the details right. For example: To shoot a rifle, you need to sight it to be accurate. With a shotgun, if you aim in someone’s general direction, you’re going to get them with scatter shot. It’s the Cheney effect.
* “Too literary” probably means your book requires too much thought on the part of a reader, or the style is too poetic or dense. You want the readers to feel that they are having input and thinking (for instance, you show that the character is fidgeting and checking his hair in the shop windows instead of saying he’s nervous) in order to figure out things, and to feel that they are smart and figuring things out, but you don’t want to make them think TOO hard and put the book down because it has stopped being entertaining and feels more like homework or research.
~END OF ACTUAL CONTENT~ WE NOW RETURN YOU TO PERSONAL EXPERIENCE
I’m sure that no one but me has this as an issue. But you can’t even mention that a character is a churchgoer without half of the workshop leaping out of their chairs with “don’t go there” as if you are on top of the table preaching hellfire and handing out tracts. We did a homework exercise in which we were supposed to (overnight) create an argument between two characters. I did a scene between my heroine and her best friend as they left a homeless shelter where a special “music and dinner” night had been sponsored by their church. My heroine Paige argued that there was indeed a point to doing this, whereas her best friend Anndrea argued that the money should go each week to getting one family settled in housing instead of being wasted on one hot meal and this dog-and-pony show. The best friend at one point looks heavenward and says to God, “Sorry, Lord, if You’re listening, but I just can’t do it any more.” They seemed to think that this one line made my book impossible to publish except as an inspirational.
Now, understand, this was just a tossed-off line that showed the frustration of this character. It’s the way churched people sometimes talk. It reveals character (or so I thought). This is not an unusual or outlandish thing, at least not in Texas, and not in the Heartland, either. Most people in the USA either go to church, used to go to church, have neighbors and family members who go to church, etc., and it’s a trope of sorts when used in fiction. Note that I didn’t do any more than that (I didn’t have characters falling to the floor shouting “Amen”) and I still got outraged anger from the row in front of me. I thought it was telling that I elicited an emotion from them, which was what we were supposed to do. Still, you don’t want people rejecting your work because of one little thing like that.
Some readers even felt that the argument my characters had was too “preachy,” because they were arguing about the merits of such “dog-and-pony” programs as opposed to “giving people real help” (which is how the second character termed it). I really got to ’em, but it was also too much.
This was just a homework assignment, the equivalent of a first draft, so I didn’t fret. That scene wasn’t intended for the final book, but was just “an argument scene” that I did while winging it for homework. However, it means that in the final book, I may be dangling rejection-bait if I even mention that one of the characters goes to church at all. Doesn’t matter WHICH church, although I suspect that if an editor said he/she didn’t want any characters who are Muslims, that editor would get into trouble right away. I think it’s silly, because publishing shouldn’t have some big problem with a character who goes to any church as part of her background OR who is a Pagan (for instance) and worships the goddess Athena and has an altar at home OR who has a period of meditation every morning before work. After all, this is part of a person–his or her spiritual life, or lack of it. We shouldn’t default to “no spiritual life” because in real life most people DO have some sort of observation and practice, even humanists! But that’s just me. YOU will be smart and will not have any churched characters, eh? At least until you’re established with a couple of books in print.
The workshop leader is a churchgoer himself and thinks that it’s OK to have a character be a churchgoer, but that’s as far as it goes if you want to be able to sell to the widest market.
He felt that he had seen some tremendous growth in some of the people who read their homework out loud. I thought some of them did a pretty amazing job of the homework, too. So all this stuff is worth your time. It’s like any retreat: you’ll get out of it what you put into it, and a little more. Sometimes a lot more.
If you’re thinking of attending a reasonably priced writing workshop, I suggest taking a look at David Farland’s (David Wolverton’s) website to see what’s coming up. There are various workshops that he holds, some of the two-day sort, and others of the week-long sort. If you take one, be sure to come back here and tell us about your experiences in the comments!