The SP Writers workshop at Conclave featured introductory materials penned by the instructors, M Keaton, Michael Andaluz and Anne Zanoni. Submitting writers who attended the workshops in October of 2006 and 2007 received submissions materials with these forewords as keynotes for the entire workshop, as well as one-on-one attention.
The adage goes that, if you give a man a fish, he will eat for a day but if you teach him to fish, he will eat for a lifetime. If you teach a man to write, you had better keep bringing him fish because it is a grueling job for low pay, and it takes a lifetime to learn to do it right.
What a writer does in that lifetime is the most important part of his writing. Most people will say, of course, that he has to write. True, but there are two other duties a writer must perform that are equally vital and often overlooked. First, he must live.
Second, he must learn.
Every writer hears "write what you know" and every writer ignores it. This is especially true in fantasy and science fiction where new writers assume that imagination gives them free rein. In actuality, nothing could be further from the truth; it is this very freedom that requires the author to be intimately familiar with the realities of what he writes. A smack in the mouth is a smack in the mouth, be it from a man, a mule, or an alien mutant.
If a writer pulls the visceral experiences of his characters from "imagination" the reader will know. Worse, a writer who forges ahead without experience is unaware of the full range of options available in his writing. Can a man truly write about despair unless he has passed a "long, dark night of the soul"? Can a writer understand, much less write about, actions motivated by a desperation he has never felt? Experiences can be extrapolated from one circumstance to another and, though no one can experience all things, a writer can acquire knowledge of them from other sources (the art of listening and seeing may be the greatest lost literary skill of this era) but these things must be learned. Learning and living take time. Some writers succeed young while others blossom late; but all must mature.
When he is mature enough, when he has enough life under his belt and fire in his belly, and finally, when the writer has learned to hear and see with a bard's ears and eyes, finding story in everything, then he still must learn his craft. We are the last line of defense in a culture that prides itself on being "post-literate", a word coined by academia to avoid using the more accurate phrase of "functioning illiterate". A generation stands before us that can read an employee handbook if they must, but has lost the very concept of reading for the pleasure of the words and love of the tale. The modern author has followed this trend, too quick to put pen to paper without thought to the tools of the craft of writing. This is most apparent in the new writer, eager to tell their stories and only vaguely aware of the magnitude of the work ahead of them. To write is to enter into a covenant with the reader, to acquire an obligation: if you will give me your time, your most precious commodity in life, I shall give you a story worthy of that investment. It sounds simple. It isn't.
You must venture outside your comfort zone and chosen genre in your reading. You must not only read, but pry apart every sentence and examine the parts as well as the whole to learn the skills of those who have gone before. You must value the music of words as much in your prose as in poetry and song. You must never break faith with your reader, not for marketing, nor sales, nor whim of the publisher, and yet you must also learn to work with an editor and accept honest criticism. You must ignore the public perception that you are a mere entertainer in a dying medium, as many today claim, and never forfeit your larger role in society, your duty to repay the faith of the reader. Even in the simplest of escapist literature, there is great value and great obligation. Your "art" and your "grand artistic vision" for your work are meaningless. It is the covenant of shared time that matters. This is the faith that must not be broken.
Have a point. Know your point. Be certain that the point is worth the work. Communicate that point clearly and concisely. It is that simple and it is that hard.
You must learn how to do all these things with tools and techniques, as surely as a carpenter wields a hammer. You must learn your craft by study, by practice, by work.
This is why we are here, to teach and to learn. We came for the tools; we stayed for the stories.
May there be a road,
MKeaton, October 2006
From the SP Submitters, we get an honest cross section of the average market slushpile. We never get - and hardly expect - submissions to be publishable or marketable as is. Hence our request for the second draft. This is part of the effort to get through to you the writer the most important points: It's not finished. It's not near ready. It's not your best. The work has only started.
We aim to cut through the misconception, that good writing just 'comes off the pen' in one great explosion of inspiration lasting precisely as long as our writers have to commit. Inspiration doesn't work that way. First you might write out some stream of consciousness stuff. Then you hammer it into something that you can read comfortably yourself. You massage it so that your expected audience can first comprehend it, then stay immersed in it, and finally appreciate your individual style while reading it. This is standard procedure regardless of how long it takes.
Parallel to this, it is vitally important to your career in writing that your work be packaged according to the prevailing submissions style, from the typeface to the cover letter. You must submit your work to someone who sees hundreds of examples of such work every day, someone who has no time to recover from the unpleasant shock of seeing things that stick out at them for any of the wrong reasons. You're well familiar with the result, if this protocol is not followed - sometimes to the letter. In this workshop you have the opportunity to hear precisely why a work will ultimately be rejected by the editor, in the name of the reader. Use the information wisely.
The protocol is a simple agreement to create what is expected from anyone, and to go from there - one hopes - exceeding all expectation. And the biggest surprise about this to many new writers is that there should never be any surprises. The protocol doesn't begin at the stamped self-addressed envelope, mind you, or in the cover sheet. The protocol you must follow to get your work noticed is - ironically - every step, from the first mark you make on paper. Maybe even before.
Following manuscript format guidelines is as important as using the same language. There is no other way to open proper communication with your editor than to supply him/her with a work in the form that he or she expects. Neither is there any shortcut; if your work jumps out at a reader in the wrong way, it may as well be jumping off your manuscript and out the window. Your story speaks for itself, and it's a shame if it's unreadable because of formatting errors!
*Style vs. Mechanics
Style is an artform, and mechanics is part of protocol. Nothing a person commits to paper will ever be taken seriously if it doesn't distinguish itself from graffiti, and the best way to do this is to establish your grasp of writing mechanics before you attempt to define your personal style. Don't try to break new ground until you have proven that you can build something worthy of the real estate. In other words, the sooner you prove that you can weave a seamless narrative, the sooner we can get down to hearing the actual story - and not before.
Taking advantage of your fleeting moments of any reader's undivided attention to make these promises:
1)Read on and you will not be disappointed.
2)I have gotten you this far, and I am willing to take you along on this journey.
3)I won't leave you behind.
Write with these promises in mind, and you will keep your reader's attention, throughout all of your writings. There is no such thing as a story that keeps a reader holding his breath from the first sentence - the reader would pass out and never finish. For this reason, begin your story the same way that you'd tell the entirety of it, and write as if you want to keep everyone's attention. Keep your promises.
M. Andaluz 2006
When I'm reading, and something goes awry in the writing... I wonder what the author has read.
Now, in all honesty, that's unconscious, running below my other thoughts when I'm reading. I think about The Elements of Style, Stephen King's On Writing, Damon Knight's Creating Short Fiction, Teresa Nielsen Hayden's Making Book, even William Safire's Fumblerules. These are in the back of my mind. These, and a host of other books. I read proofreading and editing books, you see. And books about writing, as well as the editorials and introductions by editors and authors.
Writing requires study and practice. The glib line about writing your first one million words for practice - is not a joke. Writing requires knowing the basic rules and adhering to them. Grammar, spelling, and punctuation are the basic tools. Every writer needs these.
Without the basics, you may have some great ideas. But they won't get expressed.
Another important basic tool is courtesy to the editor - specifically in following submission guidelines. Submitting your writing is unlike undergraduate college. It is more complex; it is instead a proposal for a business relationship. Also, it should take far more of your time. Remember, you created this.
You can't break the rules skillfully until you know what they are and how to apply them. Breaking the rules in ignorance; well, that just breeds more rejection letters. It implies that you don't really care.
Show me that you care.
I'm not a teacher grading papers. Your future editor won't be a mere spell-checker either. I don't have a list of things that I expect you to do wrong. I want to see everything that you do right; I want the story in your head. I read as a reader, just like you do.
Don't let your reader down.
Use what's been already printed to help you. Don't expect to know everything; that's why we have books for reference.
I'd like to see where you go during that first one million words.
Forewords, October 2007
It is popular to complain about the difficulties of being an author and of making a living by writing. It is also popular to complain about the difficulties in getting published and how it is increasingly difficult to succeed.
Writing is not about doing what is popular.
To write, one must accept that it is a labor, not a hobby, and therefore, as with all work, there is difficulty. The great "secret" is no more than that: to write is to labor.
There is nothing new under the sun. The old ways were no easier:
After review by three hundred men, upon the testimony of twelve true men of country and aristocracy, upon the word of a magistrate-all of which shall attest on conscience that the aspirant has the qualities and attainments requisite for the struggle-and after demonstrating proficiency in the Four and Twenty Games, the aspirant shall be subjected to oral examination. Should his answers suffice, then the aspirant shall be deemed worthy to begin his study of the craft. The questions are as follows:
a.. Who existed before darkness or light?
b.. Where are the roots of the world?
c.. On what day was Adam created?
d.. Whence comes night and day? Why is the eagle grey? Night dark? Linnet green? Why does the sea swell? And, Why is this not known?
e.. What are the three fountains on the mountain of skill?
f.. What is the best deed man has performed?
g.. Who will measure Death? Who can tell the thickness of its veil? The size of its maw? The value of its stones?
h.. Why do the treetops bend and bow? What were the words before words?
i.. Whence comes darkness when the day ends? Where does it go when day dawns?
j.. What makes man a slave?
k.. Canst thou guide and judge?
l.. Will you sow and labor?
This shall be the minimum requirement.
(Paraphrased from The Four Welsh Texts)
That was then; this is now. The requirements have not, essentially, changed in two millennia.
Why am I here?
Why am I reading this story?
Why is important. Why the characters are doing something can be mysterious - but not when I care nothing for them. Whose head am I in? Do I like this person enough to care when bad and good things happen?
Am I willing to put up with being confused, just to stay with this being?
Your protagonist can be a right cuss and I may still stay in his head. But if you have only one character in the story that I like, and she is onstage rarely, that's a problem.
Make me care. Learn from people who teach.
Damon Knight's On Creating Short Fiction, John Gardner's The Art of Fiction, David Morrell's Lessons From a Lifetime of Writing, Stephen King's On Writing - plus many others have writing books. Find them.
Take notes. It's not homework, it's learning your craft.
David Morrell says there is only one answer to wanting to be a writer: because you have to be.
You cannot not write - you HAVE to write. It is that deep a need. Or as Steven Brust once said, "I want to write more than I want to live."
I cannot not read. We are in a partnership, you and I.
Writing is more complicated than just putting words to paper. Just as editing engages different skills than writing. Learn the basics - grammar, spelling, punctuation, and the rules that involve them all - so that your writing will be built upon those.
Remember that I'm not in your head; I can't hear the voices that you hear. Make me hear them.
And then tell me a story.
~Anne Zanoni, October 2007
It's time to make a difference…
There is a difference between writing to satisfy your urge to write, and writing to put bread on the table. Mainly, it's the difference in the time you spend perfecting your work, to the point when any editor that might stand in your way would simply shrug and say, 'perfect. No changes, we'll run it as is.'
Because until that happens, you get no dang bread.
I know, it seems like these days you have more examples before you of horrid writing that gets into the New York Times Best Seller List than there are of honestly good work that goes unnoticed like the pies at the bottom shelf at Big Boy. And the promise of technology is leveling the field more every second.
Hold your horses.
Your public is waiting, yes, but they are not a charitable public. Your work has to leap the hurdle of peer review, before the jaws of public consumption can settle over it. Before the palate of popular opinion can sample your cuisine de jour of smart literature. And before anything your peers might have warned you about beforehand leads your adoring public to a bad case of indigestion.
DO NOT let jealousy be your guide. Hone your craft, sure, bring it out when you know it's piping hot and ready. But you'll only know when others have had a taste. Trust those others - the less they know YOU the better. Why?
Chances are you'll remember those who've done you wrong, more and for longer than anyone who's done you right Now turn the tables.
Don't serve underdone food. You have countless examples of how it was served up to the delight of all, and guess what? You should shoot for this. As a minimum.
Your future patrons have only those who have gone before as a measure of your performance. If you come close it's not good enough. If you try to reinvent the language, ignore the standard, disrespect the tastes of your audience by cramming something new and outré down their throats, or if you're just a bad cook, you will regret it, and they have a long memory. Better have us check the soup.
It's easier to accept objective criticism than you think. Everyone needs it, everyone benefits from it, and the more you get the better. It's the main ingredient in a five course meal of Character, Setting, Pace, Plot and Action. Five great tastes that taste great together!
Wow, I can't believe I just typed this. Look at all that food analogy.
I suppose someone should have had to read this before I got it into print.
Get the point?