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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.


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}


(no subject)

from: floatingtide
date: Jun. 2nd, 2006 05:34 pm (UTC)

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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(no subject)

from: barbarienne
date: Jun. 2nd, 2006 05:54 pm (UTC)

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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(no subject)

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

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

(no subject)

from: tanaise
date: Jun. 6th, 2006 04:36 pm (UTC)

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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