ccfinlay

Words of Wisdom, From Kelly Link

« previous entry | next entry »
Jun. 1st, 2006 | 07:27 pm

Most of you know that Kelly Link is one of the Resident Editors over at the Online Writing Workshop. This month she had a letter to members that she wrote for the newsletter. I thought it was important enough to repost here.

BEYOND COMPETENT AND ACCOMPLISHED: A CALL TO ACTION FOR WORKSHOPPERS

In the past few months, it seems to me that there is a great deal of competent work being posted to the Online Writing Workshop. This month there was a handful of stories that could have been Editor's Choices, and all of them are probably good enough, with minor revisions, to sell to some of the second- or third-tier markets. Some of you will sell -- or already have sold -- your work to _Asimov's_ or _F&SF_. This is one of the largest workshops that I've ever been a part of, and it works. I read the comments on stories, and, like any workshop, there is good advice and bad advice and just plain weird advice being given. Part of becoming a better writer is not only learning what to take away from good advice, but what to take away (or figure out) about bad advice or off-the-wall advice. The only kind of critique that I worry about, in the long run, is the tendency of a workshop to sand off all the interesting edges from a writer. Workshops frequently reward writers of competent prose who can tell stories that are smaller in scope and easy to understand. A group of writers will find it easier to agree about certain kinds of stories -- the kind that ought to sell to magazines, because we've all read exactly that kind of story in magazines -- than about more ambitious stories. The more ambitious or individual a story is, the argument goes, the fewer readers that story will find. So play it safe: tone down the interesting stuff.

The problem with this kind of advice is that there are a lot of writers out there who can pull off an accomplished and enjoyable story. (Like I said, I could have selected a whole handful of pretty good stories this month.) So even though some of you are writing stories that are good enough to be published, you're competing for magazine space with writers who already have readers, and relationships with editors. Your competent stories may not actually be good enough to sell to the magazines that you would most like to be in. So what do you do? You can make a career (and a name for yourself) out of selling work to second- and third-tier magazines. But again, there are a lot of pretty good writers out there. Even at a zine like _Lady Churchill's Rosebud Wristlet_, we have a backlog of two issues' worth of short stories. We have more good work than we can publish. So what can you do?

What I would like to see workshop members doing, now, is beginning to submit more ambitious work. The only thing you have to offer an editor, and readers, is you. Your voice. Stories and characters and narrative twists that only you are strange enough to want to write. Take risks. Some of you are in critique circles that have been going for quite some time. You know each other well enough to have built trust. And it takes trust to show a workshop the kind of ambitious work I'd like to see. Take chances. Write stories whose characters and the endings surprise even you. After you've written them, go back over them and make them even more surprising. And don't think by "ambitious" I mean that the prose style has to be eccentric(although it certainly can be). And read widely -- not just the new stuff, and each other's work, but older work, too. I've been reading through the collection PLATINUM POHL, and there are fantastic and alarming and wonderful short stories in there. Are there some inside you?

--Kelly Link

Link | Leave a comment | Share

Comments {50}

Jason Erik Lundberg

(no subject)

from: jlundberg
date: Jun. 1st, 2006 11:34 pm (UTC)
Link

Thanks for reposting that, Charlie. It's something I've been thinking about lately myself.

Reply | Thread

C. C. Finlay

(no subject)

from: ccfinlay
date: Jun. 1st, 2006 11:57 pm (UTC)
Link

Sure. I think lots of us have thought about this. It's good to hear somebody like Kelly talk specifically about how to do it.

Reply | Parent | Thread | Expand

Melissa Marr

(no subject)

from: melissa_writing
date: Jun. 1st, 2006 11:41 pm (UTC)
Link

Wonderful letter, Charlie.

One of the reasons I am not involved with a workshop was just that sort of thing--mixed responses, better responses on less odd things, micro-text focus on beta-drafts. It was creating self-doubt in me, so I stopped & just wrote. I kept to my less-restrained path, finished 2 novels in under a year, & capped it with that big ol' sale in record time. My take-away? Risks are cool, healthy even. Good to see folks saying that to writers.

Reply | Thread

C. C. Finlay

(no subject)

from: ccfinlay
date: Jun. 1st, 2006 11:50 pm (UTC)
Link

Yeah. I think "take more risks" is the most important advice writers can hear. But it needs to be yanged with "Improve your skills" and too many people take that part to mean "avoid risk! avoid risk!"

Reply | Parent | Thread | Expand

(Deleted comment)

C. C. Finlay

(no subject)

from: ccfinlay
date: Jun. 2nd, 2006 12:13 am (UTC)
Link

???

Is this about having air conditioning during a heat wave again?

Reply | Parent | Thread

(Deleted comment)

Meghan

(no subject)

from: megmccarron
date: Jun. 2nd, 2006 12:53 am (UTC)
Link

kelly is a smart cookie. that is all.

Reply | Thread

C. C. Finlay

(no subject)

from: ccfinlay
date: Jun. 2nd, 2006 05:10 pm (UTC)
Link

Mmmm, cookie.

Reply | Parent | Thread

jorrie_spencer

(no subject)

from: jorrie_spencer
date: Jun. 2nd, 2006 01:00 am (UTC)
Link

Thanks for posting that. It's an especially useful reminder for risk-averse people like myself.

Reply | Thread

C. C. Finlay

(no subject)

from: ccfinlay
date: Jun. 2nd, 2006 05:14 pm (UTC)
Link

No problem. I think workshops tend to make people more risk averse over time too, unless someone shakes things up, and when that happens than can actually hamper rather than promote publication.

Of course, it's my job at OWW to help shake things up. And we have lots of volunteers and staff (like Kelly) that do the same.

Reply | Parent | Thread

Michael Merriam

(no subject)

from: mmerriam
date: Jun. 2nd, 2006 02:10 am (UTC)
Link

This is something I've been thinking about lately, as I wrestle with how much participation in the workshop I will continue to have. It has seemed to me that on those occasions when I do come across something different and a little "out there", there is a chorus of critique admonishing the writer for being too experimental and trying to steer them toward "safer" territory.

I don't want safe territory. I can write competent prose that will sell to 2nd and 3rd tier markets. I want to make the jump out of those markets and into the top tier. I really feel like If I'm going to do that I need to be workshopping with people who either have the same goal in mind and are understanding of experimental or even slightly off-the-deep-end work or have made that leap into the top tier themselves.

And I'm not sure I'm getting that from my beloved OWW these days.

Reply | Thread

C. C. Finlay

(no subject)

from: ccfinlay
date: Jun. 2nd, 2006 02:12 am (UTC)
Link

So give what you want to get!

Reply | Parent | Thread | Expand

(no subject)

from: everyonesakitty
date: Jun. 2nd, 2006 02:15 am (UTC)
Link

Good words. I read it in the newsletter and immediately showed it to my non-OWW friends. Thx for reposting!

Reply | Thread

(no subject)

from: jsgbits
date: Jun. 2nd, 2006 02:36 am (UTC)
Link

That's some smart schtuff there.

Thanks for posting it here.

Reply | Thread

C. C. Finlay

(no subject)

from: ccfinlay
date: Jun. 2nd, 2006 05:15 pm (UTC)
Link

You should know that you've got an open invitation to jump in with any smart schtuff too, any time you feel like it.

Reply | Parent | Thread

The Pea

(no subject)

from: mekkavandexter
date: Jun. 2nd, 2006 02:43 am (UTC)
Link

thanks for posting that, pontouffle.

now tell me what this part of my story needs, cuz it misses the Something.

Reply | Thread

C. C. Finlay

(no subject)

from: ccfinlay
date: Jun. 2nd, 2006 05:14 pm (UTC)
Link

Monkeys!

Reply | Parent | Thread

Rachel Swirsky

(no subject)

from: rachel_swirsky
date: Jun. 2nd, 2006 03:00 am (UTC)
Link

Interesting, and I would agree that there's a bias in workshop against ambitious or experimental work - but is not this bias also present in publication?

Reply | Thread

C. C. Finlay

(no subject)

from: ccfinlay
date: Jun. 2nd, 2006 03:05 am (UTC)
Link

Risk does not necessarily equal experimental.

The risk can be emotional -- to peer beneath the surface of the characters and take a real look inside. It can be in details -- taking the risk to write scenes or settings that no one has written before. The risk can be thematic -- to look at things that matter truly, deeply to you as a person, even more than your goals as a writer. The risks can be plotty -- to eschew obvious solutions or twists and look for the surprising, but perfect and fitting, event.

There is a bias in publication, but it is for these things. Writers that consistently learn to nail one or more of them do better than those who are merely competent.

Reply | Parent | Thread | Expand

Jason Venter

(no subject)

from: honestgamer
date: Jun. 2nd, 2006 03:53 am (UTC)
Link

That letter has a lot of good advice. Yeah, it's important to take risks. It's also important to maintain your focus. When you start writing a story, there's some spark that works for you. Don't listen to people to the extent that you let then snuff out the spark that attracted you to the story in the first place. That kind of goes along with what the letter was saying, I think.

I love the workshop. I will probably remain a member for the rest of my writing life, just out of gratitude for how much it has helped me to grow. Plus, it's great to have willing critiquers on hand. But sometimes, I just have to step away and write on my own, confident in my own abilities. With the workshop, I'm not sure I'll ever post another true work-in-progress. They're not seeing a thing until I have a first draft done.

Reply | Thread

bonniers

(no subject)

from: bonniers
date: Jun. 2nd, 2006 11:27 am (UTC)
Link

Thanks for posting that. It was exactly what I needed to hear today. (I came over here by following a link from matociquala, btw.)

Reply | Thread

C. C. Finlay

(no subject)

from: ccfinlay
date: Jun. 2nd, 2006 05:09 pm (UTC)
Link

You're welcome. And that matociquala is one smart bear. I'm glad she linked to it.

Reply | Parent | Thread

(Deleted comment)

C. C. Finlay

(no subject)

from: ccfinlay
date: Jun. 2nd, 2006 05:07 pm (UTC)
Link

Kelly said all the smart stuff. I just shared it.

Reply | Parent | Thread

(no subject)

from: anonymous
date: Jun. 2nd, 2006 09:07 pm (UTC)
Link

The problem I have as a fairly new writer is that I depend on the workshop and my face-to-face group to tell me what is good to start with. When I start experimenting, I get told it's bad. How does one balance bland, experimental and "I am ghod's gift to writing?"

Reply | Thread

(no subject)

from: anonymous
date: Jun. 3rd, 2006 05:40 am (UTC)
Link

i think you should re-read what Kelly Link is saying. No where did she say that people should be experimental. She's saying to reach down inside yourself and use that difference in *you* to make your story unique, and stand out from all the other stories.

This is what I find dangerous in a workshop environment (especially an online one like OWW). You end up sounding like everybody else. While it's great to get feedback, you have to temper that feedback with some confidence in your own ability and to not blindly follow people's advice (IMO).

Reply | Parent | Thread | Expand

Hilary Moon Murphy

(no subject)

from: hilarymoonmurph
date: Jun. 2nd, 2006 09:25 pm (UTC)
Link

Thanks for reprinting this, Charlie.

I hope you don't mind, but I reprinted it on the message board of the Twin Cities Speculative Fiction Writers Network. I think that this essay needs to be as widely read as possible.

Yours,
Hmm

Reply | Thread

E.C. Myers

(no subject)

from: ecmyers
date: Jun. 2nd, 2006 10:07 pm (UTC)
Link

Very helpful letter! Thanks for sharing it. This is a challenge someone in a writing group recently issued to me regarding one of my stories--she used Kelly's "Stone Animals" as an example of how to take risks with my work, and it's nice to see Kelly further explain how one can go about it. (I came over here via Toby's blog, by the way.)

Reply | Thread

(no subject)

from: ellameena
date: Jun. 3rd, 2006 12:24 pm (UTC)
Link

Can you explain this a little more? "Stone Animals" was a story that simply didn't pull me in. After a couple of attempts to read it, and having been distracted and lost my place more than once, having put it down to do other things and then found myself uncurious about how the story ended or what it was about, I finally gave up. Go ahead and spoil it for me--what kind of risks do you mean, specifically?

I'm an experienced writer, and I'm a bit confused about the term "risk" in this context as well. I think I know what sorts of things Charlie is referring to, but I wouldn't call those risks. I'd call them "details". I'd call it doing deep imaginative work rather than going for the first thing that comes into your head. When I think of risk in writing, I think of politically charged subjects or raunchy sex scenes or other topics that could offend your reader, but I'm pretty sure that's not what Kelly was getting at.

Reply | Parent | Thread | Expand

Jay Lake

(no subject)

from: jaylake
date: Jun. 3rd, 2006 04:02 pm (UTC)
Link

Thanks for posting that for us non-OWWers, Charlie.

Reply | Thread

C. C. Finlay

(no subject)

from: ccfinlay
date: Jun. 3rd, 2006 10:09 pm (UTC)
Link

Sure, Jay. Glad to do it.

Reply | Parent | Thread

Indirectly

(no subject)

from: pickledherring
date: Jun. 9th, 2006 06:53 pm (UTC)
Link

"Are there some inside you?"

God I hope not because that would probably require surgery.




...
(No, really, it was a great post - thanks for sharing it!)

Reply | Thread

(no subject)

from: hasyer
date: Apr. 10th, 2008 10:04 pm (UTC)
Link

Thank you.

---------------------
muhabbet | korku | msn nickleri | msn nickleri | netlog

Reply | Thread