Getting where you’re going in five not-so-easy steps

We’re about midway through the Paradise Lost IV workshop, and I’m starting to realize that if there’s a theme to this weekend’s lectures, critiques, and discussions it’s this:  think about the long game, both in your career and in your writing.

Many of the talks and lectures have focused on structure, narrative, outlining and how to make pacing and dialogue work for you as you lay pipe toward your big finish.

How can you set things up? How can you pay them off? When & where do you want place the big reveals and redirects, and when do you give your reader a moment to take a breath? How can spoken interactions between characters function as action, advance the plot, and get the reader where they need to go? How do you make the beginning and ending of your novel echo back on each other?

In short, how do we think about structure?

This weekend’s instructors, J.A. Pitts, Melinda Snodgrass, and Walter Jon Williams are, perhaps by coincidence or perhaps by design, a great combination of guests. Their insights and remarks have dovetailed off one another in really thought-provoking ways, yet they’ve also provided distinct perspectives. Their advice, while generalizable, has also been personal and definitive. There’s something refreshing to hearing someone say, “yes, everyone has their own method, but this particular method really works, so listen up.”

Rather than zoning out during lectures and then going back to my room to surf the web or crash, I’ve found myself engrossed — the guest instructor’s remarks have stirred up ideas and insights on my current writing projects in spades. After each session, I’ve hurried back to my room to make notes on my outlines — full of new ideas to see my way through problems that had previously stumped me.

Basically, I’m getting a lot out of PLIV and enjoying the hell out the fine company at the workshop to boot.

What more can you ask for?

The Lone Star Two-Step

Or, I could title this post “On the Road Again” or “Back to Texas I go” or…you get the idea.

This weekend is the Paradise Lost writers retreat in San Antonio, Texas. I’ll be there, soaking up knowledge, participating in critiques, eating healthful cuisine (erm…scratch that last, I guess), and hanging out with friends. And, when it’s all over and I return on Monday, I am happy to report that I won’t be getting on an airplane again for at least a month and a half.

Today, though, I journey to Queens, suitcase in hand, teach, teach, teach, trundle to the airport, and then wing my way to the Lone Star State.

I’ll try to post something useful this weekend. Emphasis on try.


I’m off today for Paradise Lost III, a writing workshop in San Antonio Texas for graduates of Viable Paradise and Taos Toolbox. There will be friends, beer, and sun. There will be critiques and lectures and new insights. There will be Mary Robinette Kowal, Lynne Thomas, Stina Leicht, and Jay Lake.

Pretty fabulous, if you ask me.

I’ve subbed the first 4K of Project Awesome (aka THICKER THAN WATER) and I eagerly look forward to feedback from my assigned crit groups.

I hope to post some updates from the road, so stay tuned!

In the meantime, I’d better go find my cowboy boots…

Where are you, Spring?

Spring has been oh-so-shy this year. It’s already April the best we’ve seen is a day or two where the icy chill comes off the air for just the briefest of moments. On my walk to the subway there’s a lone tree that’s thrown out her buds. Amongst all the bare branches and frosty brown earth she looks foolish rather than brave (sort of like the folks who wear shorts the first day it rises over 40 degrees, and never mind the fact that it’s raining and still bitter cold).

Still, there’s a feeling of hope these last few days. I wore a fleece rather than a down jacket yesterday and it *almost* didn’t suck. There’s a bright, warm-looking sun out this morning (though the grocery delivery guys informed me that it was still “shit-ass cold” out there). Next week they are going all in and forecasting weather in the 60s. We shall see.

In the meantime, I’m clinging to less tangible signs. Here’s one from my friend Jeremy’s delightful blog — a recipe that brings Spring into your kitchen, even if it hasn’t quite shown up outside yet. Another trick I’ll try is stealing Spring from other places. Thursday I head south to San Antonio for Paradise Lost III. As I pull on my wooly socks this morning, I close my eyes and think of sitting in a patch of sun along the Riverwalk drinking a cold beer with friends.

That’s a thought that’ll get a girl through.

Paradise Lost, and found

I’ve just returned from a weekend in San Antonio at the Paradise Lost writing workshop and I thought I’d share some thoughts on the experience (for some photos, go here).

Paradise Lost is organized by Sean Kelley and geared towards folks who’ve already attended a longer workshop (such as Viable Paradise or Taos Toolbox).  The goal of Paradise Lost is to provide a space in which people who are starting to have some success but are not yet full-fledged pros can hone their craft and share ideas.  In this, it succeeds.

The workshop spanned 3 days, which were fairly evenly divided amongst lectures by pros (this year’s pros were John Joseph Adams, Jay Lake, and Steven Brust), small group critiques, free time for writing, and social time.  It was an excellent balance, providing opportunities to learn, relax, and get to know cool new people.  I left this workshop feeling sated but not burned out.

The lectures, particularly those by John Joseph Adams and Jay Lake, were very career focused.  It was fascinating to hear an editor’s take on submissions, querying, slush, rejections, and the like.  John also encouraged those of us who consider ourselves novelists not to turn our backs on writing short fiction.  He pointed out short fiction is a great way for novelists to stay in readers’ sights during the long wait between books, to experiment with ideas that don’t lend themselves well to long form, and to increase our odds of getting nominated for awards (there being more short form award categories).  This really hit home and inspired me not to give up on short fiction.  Thanks, John!

Jay Lake talked a lot about social media, conventions, and productivity.  His big take-home seemed to be that you really need to do what works for you.  If you don’t feel comfortable tweeting, then don’t.  If you hate writing a blog, then don’t.  If you’re too shy to be the center of attention at cons, then don’t feel you have to try.  One topic he touched on was the pros and cons of getting on con panels.  I’d always figured this would be a Good Thing in terms of career development, but Jay wisely pointed out that you have to think about why you want to be on the panel, whether you’ll have anything valuable to say on the topic, and whether you’re enough of a “competitive talker” to have your voice be heard (or, if you are a competitive talker to be self-aware enough to know not to completely dominate the discussion).  I really appreciated the nuance of his advice.

Steven Brust was the final guest at the workshop, and his advice tended towards the writing side of the equation.  In particular, he offered some really clever tricks for getting unstuck, some ways to use POV to solve problems with plot and description, how to use cliche to your advantage, and some insights on using theme to move your story forward without hitting the reader over the head with it.

Best of all, though, were the great people I met — most of whom were previously strangers or faceless “voices” on the interwebs.  I love connecting with other writers, and this group was uniformly nice, talented, and fascinating.

San Antonio was also a perfect spot for a workshop like this — the Riverwalk was just outside the front door of the hotel, offering plenty of easy options for eating/drinking — all of which were happy to accommodate big groups.  All in all, it made for an enjoyable and productive weekend.

Paradise Lost is a recurring event, so if you think you might be interested, you should consider it for next year.  Once applications open, I’ll post the link here, and I’m happy to answer questions in the comments.

Paradise Lost (part II)

Well, a crazy busy week and a half of end-of-semester madness caps off with a rush to the airport, papers trailing behind me as I slam the cab door and tell the driver, “La Guardia.  No, JFK.  Right. JFK.”

I’m off to Paradise Lost in San Antonio, the grass-roots offshoot of the Viable Paradise Writing Workshop, a retreat dreamed up and planned by graduates, for graduates.  Three days with a bunch of awesome writers, exchanging critiques, listening to advice and lectures from John Joseph Adams and Jay Lake, and – I hope – drinking plenty o’ beer in the summer sun.

I’ll try to post some updates while I’m away.  In the meantime, keep calm and carry on.