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ccfinlay

Words of Wisdom, From Kelly Link

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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

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Comments {50}

barbarienne

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from: barbarienne
date: Jun. 2nd, 2006 03:10 pm (UTC)
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Perhaps it is that I am not yet a student ready for the teacher who has appeared, but I don't see where in there Kelly talks specifically about how to do it.

Perhaps I don't write enough stories to really know to what degree my stories are not like everyone else's. I don't think I'm risk-averse (I acknowledge this state as a development of the past several years; it was not always so); I write the stories I want to write.

And yet I am often left with a dissatisfied feeling that they are not very creative. No one seems to be able to explain to me how to be more creative.

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C. C. Finlay

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from: ccfinlay
date: Jun. 2nd, 2006 05:02 pm (UTC)
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Sure she does. I mean I see advice there that says: don't scale down the scope of a bigger story; don't be afraid if readers don't understand everything; don't play it safe; don't tone it down. Then a couple paragraphs later, she has the lists of to-do: put more of you in your work; use the range of your own voice; write stories and characters and twists that can only come from you; write stuff that surprises you, and then find ways to make it even more surprising; trust your reviewers to accept it when you push past their comfort level (and, I would add, if you don't have those reviewers, find them); read widely. Follow your weird. Take risks.

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barbarienne

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from: barbarienne
date: Jun. 2nd, 2006 05:49 pm (UTC)
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Again, I refer you to my theory that I am having a comprehension issue. If my below point-by-point analysis sounds snarky or sarcastic, please understand that is NOT my intent. I am deeply, deeply, horribly, angrily frustrated by hearing this advice over and over and never understanding a word of it. Too many abstractions, not enough concretions in my brain. Where you hear a concrete idea, I hear "wah-wah-wah" of the grownups in a Peanuts cartoon.

I'll take it point-by-point:

don't scale down the scope of a bigger story: this I think I kind of understand; perhaps this is why I tend toward novels instead of short stories. OTOH, neither you nor Kelly is known as a slouch in the short-story department, so I wonder if I'm missing something.

don't be afraid if readers don't understand everything: I try to keep the idea that beta readers will tell me if something makes no sense at all.

don't play it safe: Please define "playing it safe" in concrete terms? I don't know what this means. To me, "playing it safe" means bringing my cane with me when I go for a hike. Applied to writing, is this like "Don't be afraid of writing a sex scene"?

don't tone it down: Ditto. What is "toning it down"?

put more of you in your work: Who else could I possibly be putting in my work? What does this mean?

use the range of your own voice: I kind of vaguely think this might mean "don't be afraid to try different styles"? But I'm honestly not sure what this means.

write stories and characters and twists that can only come from you: Again--who else can they come from? Is this an admonition to not copy plots from other books?

write stuff that surprises you, and then find ways to make it even more surprising: Any tips on how to do this? "Surprise" is by definition unexpected. My characters sometimes surprise me, but if I can think in advance of how the plot goes, then it is not, by definition, a surprise to me. When I can't think in advance of how the plot goes, 90% of the time it doesn't go anywhere at all.

trust your reviewers to accept it when you push past their comfort level: This I think I understand, and I try to do, and damn it's hard. But I agree it should be done.

(and, I would add, if you don't have those reviewers, find them): Do you mean find reviewers who have a lower comfort level than what you're writing, or find reviewers at all?

read widely: This I understand. I don't do as much as I should, but I understand what this means.

Follow your weird.: Please to define "weird" as a noun? And...how does one recognize one's weird, and how does one encourage it?

Take risks.: How do we recognize when we are shying away from a risk? Maybe I'm doing it and I don't know it.

Thanks!

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C. C. Finlay

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from: ccfinlay
date: Jun. 3rd, 2006 10:34 pm (UTC)
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E!

Look, you're finishing books and getting a super-great agent to rep you. Obviously, you're doing most things right. If the language of this post or the explications I make of it don't speak to you or your experience, then you're wasting time, imo, trying to suss it out.

The value of a post like this is the "O man, that's exactly what I needed to hear right now!" reaction. If your reaction is "huh?! wtf?" then it's probably not speaking to you.

You know yourself. You have no problem being yourself. Keep that up. If something in your writing or writing habits isn't working, try something else; which you already do. That's all it boils down to.

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(no subject)

from: iagor
date: Jun. 6th, 2006 04:06 pm (UTC)
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"The value of a post like this is the "O man, that's exactly what I needed to hear right now!" reaction. If your reaction is "huh?! wtf?" then it's probably not speaking to you. "

Poor E.

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floatingtide

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from: floatingtide
date: Jun. 2nd, 2006 05:34 pm (UTC)
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Random thoughts from a person who doesn't know you (hi!):

When you get a weird little idea (two paperclips arguing about the nature of pencils / whether the sun is lonely 'cus it burns what touches it) grab on to it. When you get an idea, you'll probably think: "there's no way I can write a story like that." And maybe, at first, you'll be right, but that's the white rabbit you want to follow. You'll probably surprise yourself, and you're mind will get stranger.

Also, seek out works that feel wonderfully edgy to you. If you only read the safe and comfortable, you'll probably write that way too.

A warning though, don't imitate things that other people tell you is edgy, but leave you going "huh?" People do that unconsiously some times, and mostly they imitate the flaws, not the creative power.

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barbarienne

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from: barbarienne
date: Jun. 2nd, 2006 05:54 pm (UTC)
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Okay, this I can understand, and I thank you for your suggestions, particularly: When you get an idea, you'll probably think: "there's no way I can write a story like that." ... but that's the white rabbit you want to follow.. Any advice on how to encourage the white rabbit to keep moving? I think that may be where I fall down. I get a weird idea and then...nothing.

I'm very literal-minded. I get a weird little idea and then don't have anything for it to do. If I'm lucky, it becomes a bit of window-dressing in something.

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floatingtide

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from: floatingtide
date: Jun. 2nd, 2006 07:59 pm (UTC)
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Nice icon, BTW.

The problem with explaining a technique, is that it can never be -The Way.- At this level, it won't work for a lot of people and sometimes makes a writer look both silly and know-it-all when she says "this is how it's done."

That said-

If you don't grab on to the ideas when they come, they'll dry up and return to the unconscious. At least, that's how it is for me.

When you have the weird-coolness, it's okay for it to just be window dressing. Most stories, particularly short stories, are simple hearted. They follow clean lines of problem-struggle-solution, even if those things are clouded with weird. (Those paperclips I mentioned could have a love-triangle or a quest).

It is best the oddness is integral; it's the window instead of the window dressing. When you hook into an idea, think about the stories that would come -from- it, rather than one that can happen in the same room.

Still, there's nothing wrong with a story happening in the same room as something weird. Particularly if it relates to, rather than distracts from, the real story.

You will have crazy ideas that just don't work, but working with the impossible ones primes the pump for the perfect, unique thing that only you could make work.

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Comfort me with Apples

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from: tanaise
date: Jun. 6th, 2006 04:36 pm (UTC)
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A lot of it is asking 'and then what?" or those stupid journalistic questions--who what where when why and how. You don't need to know where the white rabbit is going when you see it, but you do need to follow it around saying "Are we there yet?" every chance you get.

I think the other really important thing behind what Kelly is saying is that it's better to write a risky story that fails than to stick with the same safe stories and never push yourself, or to hoard an idea until you're 'good enough' to write it. As Chance says, written is better than unwritten. It can really suck, you can stick it somewhere and deny ever having written it, but just by trying, you've learned something from the story, and thus it wasn't a waste.

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