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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: barbarienne
date: Jun. 2nd, 2006 05:49 pm (UTC)

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.


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C. C. Finlay

(no subject)

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


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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from: iagor
date: Jun. 6th, 2006 04:06 pm (UTC)

"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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