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Creating A Novel Workshop

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Jun. 3rd, 2006 | 01:59 pm




So last night I was having (yet another) discussion about Blue Heaven, the weeklong novel writing workshop named for Himmelblau, the Kelleys Island bed and breakfast where we meet. (We also use the facilities of The Eagle's Nest B&B.) And I thought I should just blog about it so I can stop repeating myself. I'll start out by giving some background, then the structure, and the schedule for it. If anybody wants to copy what we've done, here's the model.

SF has a tradition of face-to-face workshops: Damon Knight's Milford workshops, John Kessel's Sycamore Hill, Walter Jon Williams' Rio Hondo, to name a few. Because the tradition of SF comes out of the short story, all of these focus on short stories or excerpts from novels. But I began thinking some years ago that we needed a workshop for novels instead. I've seen people spend hundreds of dollars attending a weeklong workshop to fix a couple thousand word story that they sell for maybe $150. It didn't make sense to me. On the other hand, novels represent such an investment of time and career. It seemed important to have a chance to network with other writers to improve individual books, share ideas on craft, and compare notes professionally on things like publishers, agents, and marketing.

So in 2003, with the help of Karin Lowachee and James Stevens-Arce, the only two published novelists I knew well at the time, we held the first Blue Heaven. Ten of the twelve people attending had never published a novel before, but most of us had published short stories and had agents or publishers interested in our work already. Most of the same writers came back in 2004, some with the same books. Seven of the twenty novels workshopped over the first two years have since sold, and many of the ones that didn't haven't been finished yet or sent out for various personal reasons. Writers who attended the first two years included me, Chris Barzak, Tobias Buckell, Lisa Deguchi, Roger Eichorn, Karin Lowachee, Paul Melko, Chance Morrison, Nancy Proctor, M. Rickert, Ben Rosenbaum, James Stevens-Arce, Amber van Dyk and Lori Ann White. In 2006, we held the 3rd Blue Heaven: the writers who attended were me, Tobias Buckell, Brenda Cooper, Sandra McDonald, Paul Melko, Tim Pratt, Sarah Prineas, William Shunn, Mary Turzillo, Greg van Eekhout. Mike Jasper was also supposed to attend, but had to cancel at the last minute. Eight of us had sold a novel in some form already, and most of the others had been nominated for one of the major awards.

Which brings me to my first point about structuring an event like this. I think it's important to get writers who are at about the same spot in their craft, with maybe just a couple outliers in either direction. We were able to help each other so much the first two years because we were all struggling with similar issues. This year the feel was a little different, but just as good; once again, we were working through similar problems of craft and had a lot to offer each other. Blue Heaven is in invitational workshop. That means that each year, we (meaning me, as organizer, and whoever I ask to help me) give some thought as to who to invite: there needs to be a balance between types of genre for cross-fertilization, between men and women, between high energy people and thoughtful types, between writers we know and writers we've never met, between east coast and west coast. Different writing strengths. All these things factor into who we invite. It's not a perfect system, and there are more people that we'd like to have attend than we have room for. Personalities are important: if you're going to spend a week holed up in bed and breakfasts on an island with somebody, you want them to be interesting and fun and capable of getting along with everyone else. Still, sometimes personalities clash. And there are always some people who are mad at you because they weren't invited. That's how it goes. I talked with Walter Jon Williams and John Kessel about this when I was at Rio Hondo a couple years ago, and the fact is, you do the best you can and live with it. Twelve is the perfect number of people for the workshop the way we structure it. I'll talk about that more below.

Each writer who attends is responsible for critiquing the first-fifties of all eleven other writers. Each writer also commits to critiquing at least two other complete MSs. In turn, they get the whole group's feedback on their first-fifty and two in-depth readings of their MS. It represents a large commitment of effort, and is fairly intense. This doesn't mean that there's no time for hanging out and having fun. But I'll leave the desciptions of Balderdash, wrestling, snake rescues, swimming, hiking, glacial grooving, impromtu celebrations of two-book deals, and 80s songs campfire sing-a-longs to others.

We've always held BH in the spring because we can get off-season rates for the two B&Bs we stay at on the island. This is what our calendar looks like, approximately:

Oct - Dec: Start sending out invitations.

Jan 15: Have all twelve people in place, send in deposits.

Feb. 15: Have people post their first-fifties. This is the start of the novel, the first fifty pages that you'd send to an agent or to a publisher. These are posted to the files section of a mailing list. Everybody is responsible for reading or at least looking over all the first fifties and selecting several complete MSs that they'd be willing to read.

Mar. 15: Everybody gives their list of complete MSs preferences to the organizer. People begin posting their complete MSs.

Mid-May: Meet for the workshop. I'll post a day by day description below.

There's really no point in attending Blue Heaven unless you have at least 200 pages of a novel done. People who had less than that the first year ended up bringing the same books back for the second year. So we've made that a cut-off number. Aside from that, the benefit of workshopping a complete or partial MS varies from writer to writer and we've done both every year.

Assigning the complete MSs to people is a bit of an art, just like invitations. I try to give everybody their top MS preferences -- it's a better experience when people are enthusiastic about the books they're critiquing. But I also try to weigh in other factors: mixing up people who don't know each other with people who do, not letting people crit each other's books so that everyone is exposed to more writers, my sense of who would be a really good critter for a specific book. Again, it's an art, it's not perfect, and you do the best you can and live with it.

The day-by-day structure follows below. Like everything else, it tends to be a bit flexible. I may also try to shave a day off the length of the workshop in future years as well. But here's how we've done it the first three times:

Saturday night: People arrive on the island; party/reception in the evening.

Sunday at 10am, 11:30, and 2pm: First-fifties 1, 2, and 3 critiqued.

Monday: First-fifties 4, 5, and 6 critiqued.

Tuesday: First-fifties 7, 8, and 9 critiqued.

Wednesday: First-fifites 10, 11, and 12 critiqued.

Thursday morning: Complete MS sessions A and B.
Thursday afternoon: Complete MS sessions C and D.

Friday morning: Complete MS sessions E and F.
Friday afternoon: Complete MS sessions G and H.

Saturday morning: Complete MS sessions I and J.
Saturday afternoon: Complete MS sessions K and L.

Saturday night: Farewell banquet and closing group session.

Sunday morning: Breakfast and the ferry ride home.

We also do two or three professional development sessions during the weekday evenings, at least one on craft and one on business. In the past these have included discussions about screenplays, plotting, pushing your skills up to the next level on the one hand, and street-team and viral marketing, publishers, and agents on the other. For the professional stuff, we agree on a "cone of silence" so that people can speak freely about their personal experience without worrying about gossip later. I tend to decide what these topics will be after getting to the island and talking to everyone and seeing what their current concerns are.

We have a strong bias about no pre-tiquing. Even though everyone's read the first-fifties and complete MSs in advance, we strongly discourage any discussion of them until the actual session. This seems to keep the workshop more focused and let's the time outside critiques be more open for fun.

You can see why 12 is about the maximum number a workshop like this can handle. In making the scheudle, I try to mix genres each day so that we're not doing all high fantasy or hard SF. I also try to mix personalities each day, with high energy types and shyer folks. It sounds dumb and a bit arcane, but I like to keep the energy balanced throughout the week. For the complete MSs, I do my very best to give each person one session per day. If someone has all of their critting done by Friday morning, it's hard for them to stay engaged and feel a part of things through Saturday afternoon. If I have to give somebody two sessions on one day, I try to schedule their book second. I think it's hard to have to get your book crittted and be really engaged in that and switch gears after lunch and run off to give good crit to someone else.

The first-fifty sessions are done Milford or Clarion-style, in a circle in the sitting room or on the screened-in porch overlooking the lake if it's warm enough. The complete MS sessions are more free form, and we tend to trust the writers more to direct them to get what they want. Each of the two critiquers will start off with some general observations on the MS, and then go into more depth, or else answer questions in a give-and-take with the author until the writer's satisfied that they have what they need to dive into revisions. They can involve anything from a detailed examination of the text to a more open-ended discussion about the plot and choices of the book. Everybody commits to reading at least two complete MSs, but so far every year we've had a number of people pick up a third and sit in another session as well, scheudle permitting. Full MS sessions have run anywhere from an hour and a half up to about three hours.

Books from the first two years that have already sold are The Prodigal Troll (Pyr) (I brought the sequel but I used my complete MS session to make people help me fix the first book), Chris Barzak's One For Sorrow (Bantam), Tobias Buckell's Crystal Rain and Ragamuffin (Tor), Karin Lowachee's Cagebird (Aspect), and Paul Melko's "Walls of the Universe" (as a novella in Asimov's) and Singularity's Ring (Tor). Publishing works slow, so I suspect that eventually we'll other novels in print as well.

And that's about all there is to it! *cough* If there's anything else you want to know, just ask, and I'll do my best to answer. If you're thinking about doing something like this, now you know how we've done it. I'm happy with the results so far, and I hope to keep holding Blue Heavens for another fifteen or twenty years at least. As long as I'm writing novels and have something new to learn.

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