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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 {49}

Melissa Marr

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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.

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C. C. Finlay

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

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Melissa Marr

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from: melissa_writing
date: Jun. 2nd, 2006 12:03 am (UTC)
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Exactly. That's why I believe the best way to figure out writing is to read & assess the classics *and* consume a few mechanics handbooks. Some of the most brilliant lit was created by people who were passionate & more than a bit mad. They took risks & wow, the results are incredible . . . not always of course, (Dadaist lit, for ex, is a fine example of the not-brilliant).

It's a hard line to find though. When I tried the workshop bit, I found myself trying to reign in natural tendencies. The first stories I had up for review were the style & sort of subject I ended up looping back too. It got me absolutely no where in the short fic realm, but when I applied it to a novel . . . well, to put it practically, I'm a FT writer these days. Risk, study lit, & read varied things--including grammar/mechanics books.

Just one chick's opinion, of course.

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C. C. Finlay

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

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