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.

Book Review: Beggars in Spain

I’m up early waiting for the sunrise in Arizona (it’s my last day here), so I thought I’d use this time in the dark wisely and post a book review of the latest novel I’ve finished:  Beggars in Spain, by Nancy Kress.

Beggars in Spain by Nancy Kress (1993, 438 pages, Science Fiction)

This book has been in the stack by my bedside for some time.  I’m not sure exactly why I didn’t want to read it, but something about the concept put me off.  So I kept passing it over.  What a mistake!  As soon as I opened the cover and read the first paragraph, Beggars in Spain sunk its story-hooks in me and refused to let go.

Beggars in Spain is a tale of biological advantages.  It poses the question: what would happen to society if some of it’s members never needed to sleep?  Kress primarily explores the economic and discriminatory aspects of Sleepers versus Sleepless (she dwells on the truism that humans love to hate each other and will use any difference as an excuse to do so), but she also plumbs the interior landscapes of her characters’ struggles.  This latter aspect grounds what might otherwise be a preachy science fictional social commentary and turns it into a fascinating exploration of what makes us human.

I’ve heard from friends who attended the Taos Toolbox workshop that Kress (who teaches there) emphasizes writing in scenes.  This now makes perfect sense to me, as she is a master of them.  Each one flings vivid characters at you, embroils them in interesting conflicts, and leaves you wondering what will happen next.  The result is the rapid turning of pages.  While the idea of Sleeplessness and the advantages it might confer (I don’t want to give away any plot points here) is interesting and integral to the plot, it is Kress’ deft touch with characters that kept me reading.  All of her characters are flawed – engaging and unlikeable in equal measure.  Reading about their adventures is a little like watching your friends and family — rooting for them when they make choices of which you approve and frowning with worry when they refuse your advice and head stubbornly down a path you see leading to ruin.

The tale stretches over several generations yet retains an intimate perspective, and Kress wraps up the conflict with a climax that makes sense within the narrative arc of the story but still feels like (somewhat) of a surprise.  The ending was not earth-shattering, but it was satisfying.  When I closed the book and set it down I felt that sense of loss a good book inspires – it was over and I could never again read it for the first time.

But you can.