Friday, August 15, 2008

Orson Scott Card's Bootcamp -- The Rest Of The Week and Beyond.

I've had a couple people ask about the rest of Orson Scott Card's Boot Camp, as well as for my overall impressions of the experience.

We ended up doing my story the next morning, as I said in that last post. I now have blurbs for the cover of my next book. Stuff like this:

"I don't know if you know how to develop a character."
-- Orson Scott Card

Or maybe

"I'm not really sure if you know how to write a scene."
-- Orson Scott Card

Bestseller list, here I come!

No, seriously, it wasn't as bad as that makes it sound.

Let me kind of lay the scene out for you:

The way the workshop worked was this: We all sat around one big table. Once we knew whose story was next, the person sitting next to them would start, and we would go around the table, one person at a time. We weren't supposed to repeat anything anybody before us said, and Card didn't say anything until everybody was done.

Well, on mine, the young lady sitting next to me started, and this time, Card did interrupt her. (To the best of my recollection, he hadn't done that with anybody before. At least, not to the length that he did it with my story.)

And basically what he said was this: "Just to be clear, and so we don't have to dance around this, let me just say what all of you probably have written, in one form or another, in your own comments, but didn't quite nail down. What Erik wrote isn't a short story, it's the outline of a novel. And not just a regular novel--it's a big, sprawling, epic fantasy novel. That's the first book in a series."

So I ended up getting 16 wonderful critiques of how to turn my little hurried short story into a wonderful epic fantasy novel.

And one that I think would be a whole lot of fun to write.

So the above comments from Card were in that context--my story was rushed and hyper-condensed. But, as he correctly pointed out, at the time when I wrote the thing, I thought I was writing a short story, and the story as it stood showed little understanding of scene structure or character development. It felt more like a "told" story.

I did actually get a few compliments on the whole thing, my favorite being OSC's comment that I wrote smart people's dialogue pretty well. I believe his comment was that I was pretty good at "faking smart."

At the end, everybody gave me their marked-up copies of my story. So I now have a ton of working notes and an outline for a novel that could be really, really good.

Now let me tell you--that story was a huge source of stress for me for weeks before that camp began.

After I wrote my post about whether or not to go to boot camp, I started trying to write a story, just so that I could say I finished one before boot camp. Not having finished a story in a year and a half was like a huge anchor around my neck, and finishing a story before I went would have taken the added stress of that anchor away.

But I couldn't do it. The story sat unfinished, nothing but one scene and one flashback written before I left.

So I started writing that story on Wednesday with the anchor still firmly around my neck.

Add to that some personal issues that meant that I spent the whole of Wednesday morning on the phone with my wife and my work's corporate office trying to get some things taken care of--it was crazy.

But I did it. I finished the story and I got it in. I dug my way out from under the anchor.

Aside from getting the anchor off my back, boot camp did two other things for me.

The first was to stop putting so much faith in the text. As Card said in one way or another over and over throughout the week, the text is not the story. The text is completely expendable. If a draft isn't working, figure out why and then toss it. Write the first 10 pages ten times until you've found the way in that's working for you. Stop thinking that there's anything sacrosanct about the words you've written so far--if you toss them out and start over, your new words will be better. Both because you're a better writer now, as well as because writing that last draft helped you understand the story better.

So after I got home, I tried it. I thought of an old story of mine, and I wrote a half dozen openings for it, just for fun. And sure enough, I loved about half of them.

Seriously, I've learned for myself that it's true: The text doesn't matter. Don't be afraid to write, because if it doesn't work, you can just start over.

As for the second thing: By reading a bazillion short stories written by people who had been both as passionate and as rushed in writing their stories as I was, I learned a ton about how to read a short story looking for how to make it better. And I feel secure I can do the same thing with my own stories far more easily than I used to be able to.

The mistake I used to make was that I thought I could fix my story, make it more saleable, by grabbing my copy of Self Editing For Fiction Writers, and judiciously hacking away at adverbs and passive sentences.

But the truth is, the real facts about what makes us love stories aren't about any of that. They're about getting to know characters we care about, and about fine stories plainly told. The depth of a tale, the seriousness with which the reader takes your story, is not be created in fiddling around with the minutia of a draft. It's in fully mining the depth of a character, the depth of an idea, in the creation phase of the story. Of finding the interesting and exciting and fun and fascinating possibilities of who the person is and what is happening to them. And in science fiction and fantasy, where it's happening.

And it's so obvious, in retrospect. Seriously, I never ran to my friends and said, "You've got to read this latest James Patrick Kelly story. He is so good at not using adverbs." Loving a story came from somewhere else.

It's in the people, it's in the places, it's in the story.

I'm really glad I went to this. I'm glad for the perspective I got. I'm glad for the friends I made. I'm glad for the stories I got to read. I'm glad for the insights I got.

And seriously, I'm really glad for the group I was with. They were a really fine bunch of people, and I wouldn't have given up a one of them. I fully expect to see a bunch these people making it to the next level, and I look forward to struggling to keep up with them.

So the next step--the surprising next step--is that from here it's not so much about writing as it's about story creation. Really spending enough time coming up with the people, places, and conflicts, that when I get to the story, I'm ready, able, and excited to write it. And then, in the writing of it, finding even more exciting things along the way.

Gonna be a fun ride.

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