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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}

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?

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C. C. Finlay

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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.

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Rachel Swirsky

(no subject)

from: rachel_swirsky
date: Jun. 2nd, 2006 03:10 am (UTC)
Link

All right, I guess I was trying to slot these comments into a different debate - particularly given that Link's work seems, to me, to qualify as experimental. Given that frame shift, I agree with everything that's been said.

By the way, I enjoyed your story in the recent F&SF.

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C. C. Finlay

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

Thanks, for the compliment and for the perfect example. That's a story that I workshopped a couple times and read aloud in rough draft at Clarion. Every group that critted or heard it was uncomfortable with the introduction of and portrayal of the racial elements to some degree (except maybe my local face-to-face group). But what looked uncomfortable in person probably ended up feeling fairly tame in print. If I'd pulled back any more on that element I would have written out of the story the very thing that made it enjoyable.

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Rachel Swirsky

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from: rachel_swirsky
date: Jun. 2nd, 2006 05:48 pm (UTC)
Link

That's fascinating... Andy Duncan was one of our teachers at CW last summer, and he had some similar stories. I think one of the first stories he work-shopped in his MFA program with Kressel managed to divide the class - 66% hated it, 33% loved it, and Kressel said "Some people in this class have disliked this piece. They are wrong." or somesuch.

I did tell that story to my MFA class at one point -- not because I was necessarily seeing such splits happen to myself or other students, but because I think it's an interesting way to look at the idea of majority rule when it comes to aesthetics. (The frame of that debate was more experimental writing vs. psychological realism, based on Ben Marcus's article in Harper's about Jonathan Franzen.)

Speaking personally, as an infant writer, I find part of the challenge of balancing feedback with passion stems from identifying where passion lies and when it is acceptable. For instance, I'm working on a riff on the Greek tragedy Iphigenia at Aulis in which the main character is sacrificed by her father. All traditional versions of the story deny the girl agency, assigning it to her parents but not herself. Rather than working with the tried-and-true feminist narrative of assigning agency to those denied, I am more personally interested in exploring the effects of internalized denied agency, which is a trope one sometimes finds when looking at women in other cultural contexts (for instance, rural Nepalese women will often talk about themselves as if they are observing actions taken by others). Yet I find a strong, and explicable, resistance to stories about characters without agency, which I don't want to disregard or dismiss.

One certainly also, of course, need not look far for good but contradictory advice – particularly when one writes between genres and is subject to both the literary view of fiction and the science fiction ones, which are often but not always compatible.

Anyway, I’m not saying much new here; I guess it just reinforces the idea that one’s fiction is, ultimately, subject to oneself as an arbiter of taste. And at some point, one must stick up for one’s own passions.

I just, personally, hope that I don’t sometimes use my “passion” as an excuse for not taking good advice. ;)

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(no subject)

from: ex_benpayne119
date: Jun. 3rd, 2006 10:26 pm (UTC)
Link

I love that description of "risk". That's exactly it.

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