My Viable Paradise Experience – Or How Plot Tomatoes Improved my Writing

“Only from the heart can you touch the sky.”

– Rumi

I experienced the last week from Martha’s Vineyard, where I attended the Viable Paradise writer’s workshop.  VP was everything I thought it would be: intense, educational, life-changing, and of course sleep-deprived.

A lot of information is compressed into the six days of the workshop, and I know that a lot of the deeper writing knowledge, plot tomatoes for example, will take months or even years to fully manifest in my writing.  The seeds, as they say, have already been planted.

I would be remiss in not mentioning the excellent teachers who taught us over the workshop: Jim McDonald, Debra Doyle, Patrick & Teresa Nielsen Hayden, Elizabeth Bear, Sherwood Smith, Steven Gould, and Steven Brust. Scott Lynch, he of Locke Lamora fame, was also in attendance with Bear, but not considered an official instructor.  All of the instructors were gracious with their time in helping us young writers figure out the answers to our writing questions. I cannot speak for the writing lessons learned by my other classmates, but here are some of the things that I learned:

– Reading in other genres. From conversations with Sherwood Smith, Bear, Scott Lynch, and staff member Chris M., I understood that there is a whole literary landscape outside of science fiction and fantasy that can inform the stories I write in this genre.  Also, there are a lot of tricks (exposition for example) employed by historical fiction that science fiction writers can use for their stories. I now have a list of recommendations for reading. Expect to see them on the site in the near to not-so-near future.

– I learned that I should trust myself as a writer. During my group critique, Bear pointed out that I have a tendency to show something really cool but then devote lengthy explanations to explain the cool idea.  This is not always necessary, and sometimes a single sentence is enough to help the reader understand what’s going on in the story.

– Exposition. World-building. Sentences. Before attending VP, I never realized how important these three concepts are to supporting a story. Now I know, and am painfully aware of how I misused them in the past.

– The fantasy story that I submitted to the workshop for critique could be rewritten as a hard science fiction story if I retained the metaphors presented in the original story. This was the most surprising insight I gained from the workshop, simply because I wasn’t expecting it, but now it makes sense. It has also given me the confidence to try writing a story in a new sub-genre if I so choose.

I include my own insights here to help students decide whether this workshop is for them. Be ready to find similar insights into your own work, should you choose to attend.  For students thinking about applying what can I say? This is, quite possibly, the best decision you will make for your writing career. Other workshops, such as Clarion and Odyssey may achieve a similar effect, but for those of us who cannot make the six week commitment, Viable Paradise is a suitable alternative.

If I were to use a metaphor to sum up the VP experience, it would be something like this: At the beginning of the workshop, we played a game called Thing. Based on the movie of the same name, we played scientists trapped at an Antarctic research station with the eponymous monster. Over the course of the game, non-Things would be converted to Things till scientists found and destroyed all the Things or the Things conquered the research station. A better explanation can be found here.  Ostensibly, playing this game would introduce us to our workshop-mates while teaching us about misdirection and other fun writing tricks.

At the end of it all though, I can’t help but feel that the instructors have turned us all into Things with our new and secret knowledge of the writing process. And now we crawl back into the mundane routine of our daily lives, for all intents and purposes the same people as we were before we came to the island. Except now there are more of us. Subtly different, primarily under the surface, where the full extent of our Thing-ness will manifest itself.  For the first time in my life, I have felt that I finally found my tribe.

Thanks to everyone: the staff, the workshoppers, and the instructors who made VP an amazing experience.  I look forward to the coming months and years as the talented writers I attended with start publishing. I can’t wait for you, the world, to read them.

The Problem of Originality

I was poking around the site of novelist Jonathan Carroll, and discovered the following enlightening passage from a commencement speech given to the 2012 AIS graduating class of Vienna:

I’ll tell you one other thing I have learned over the years: No matter what your interests are, find your heroes. Learn from them, then take everything you need from them and move on. Soon it will be your turn—with what you’ve gathered and learned try to make something entirely new; something so different and great that it could only have come from you and your vision. Make visible what, without you, might perhaps never have been seen. In the end, try to become the kind of hero you were once looking for.

– Jonathan Carroll, AIS Commencement Address 2012

A little while later, on an unrelated note, I was googling some of the writer Kelly Link’s short stories, and read the following essay, posted to Charlie Finlay’s LJ from Link’s essay on the OWW site. Have a read:

BEYOND COMPETENT AND ACCOMPLISHED: A CALL TO ACTION FOR WORKSHOPPERS

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

I opened this blog post with those two passages, because they highlight the problem a lot of aspiring writers (including me) face in originality.

I’d argue that the skill required in writing original stories is more than the sum of its parts.

What I mean to say is that one cannot expect to combine beautifully speculative ideas with well developed characterization and poetic sentences to create an original story. These are necessary ingredients for any good story, and as Kelly points out in the essay, can result in technically competent stories.  But, what is the difference between a technically competent story and a story that shimmers among the cobwebs of your memory? The story that you read and reread a week or ten years later when you are seeking inspiration? The stories that you unconsciously mimic when developing your own voice?

For me, these are the stories that illuminate the world in a way that I’m not expected to seeing it, that surprise me at the different meanings revealed in each subsequent rereading, and who I can’t help but mimic in my own writing.

Reading the above two essays at this time have been particularly pertinent because I’m constantly trying to break out of this unconscious and repetitive mimicry of ideas that I’ve read in the fiction of my influences.  Occasionally, I can point to a short story or novel passage and say: that is definitely my voice. Despite this, I’ve come up against a wall because I feel that my ideas are original, but at times too literal.

The best stories, the rereadable ones, have many layers, and the full impact of the story isn’t realized in the first reading. I realize that may be a poor analogy, and too abstract perhaps for what is better termed as a “sense-of-wonder” imparted from  superlative storytelling. Some examples of the stories about which I’ve felt this way:

Scout’s Honour By: Terry Bisson

The House Beyond Your Sky By: Benjamin Rosenbaum

The Cartographer Wasps and The Anarchist Bees By: E. Lily Yu

There are cool ideas at the centre of these stories, and they are peopled by well rounded characters, but that is not all. There’s an indefinable spark surrounding the whole story that brings me back to reading these over the years. And that spark is what I believe is needed for writing truly original fiction. How one develops this spark is entirely another matter. There is no formula for imbuing fiction with this element of otherworldliness. If there is, I would say the majority of it would come from practising the craft on a regular basis, learning from your mistakes, and not being afraid to write something original.

(As a side note, for a very insightful look at how to learn from practising your craft, I highly recommend Theodora Goss’ blog post on Deliberate Practice.)

Let’s be clear: I am not devaluing or promoting anyone’s work based on the metric of originality. I’d guess that most of us come into our preferred genre of by the established authors of the field: whether they be Tolkien, Jordan, Eddings, Gaiman, Bujold or Rowling. In time, we may outgrow these influences and start to tell our own stories.  But more often than not, the new storytellers bring forward a large part of their influences in their own stories. To requote Jonathan Caroll from above:

Learn from them, then take everything you need from them and move on. Soon it will be your turn—with what you’ve gathered and learned try to make something entirely new; something so different and great that it could only have come from you and your vision.

I feel that we ought to take more chances and be less afraid to tell our stories. The beauty of the world of literature lies in the diversity of viewpoints that exist today, not in the innumerable variations of stale themes.  Themes that were once fresh in the storyteller whose hands brought the shadows on the wall to life.

At this level of the writing process, commercial saleability or marketability shouldn’t enter into the equation. As authors all we can control is the quality of our work, pretty much everything else is out of our control. Readers may respond with a strong  like or dislike of the work and there are too many factors at play to ensure the commercial success of a story before it is released into the world. Writer Kameron Hurley wrote a response to Kelly’s original essay, and I will repost a part of it here:

The one thing you’ve got on everybody else in the writing world isn’t talent, and likely isn’t persistence, either. There’s always somebody more talented and more persistent than you.

What you’ve got is you. Nobody else has that.

I wholeheartedly agree with Kameron’s statement.  Most importantly, originality should never be forced–a tradition of literary one-upmanship will never produce good literature.  It may be a case I will have to write a hundred stories before I write something truly original, and that’s a chance I’m willing to take. In the long run, it’ll be worth the effort.

A Review of Scrivener

I wrote the following review for a local writer’s group, but I will share the recommendation with the web at large, because I know quite a few writers of my acquaintance who would love to use Scrivener.

Scrivener is the best writing program I have used, bar none. It’s a practical all-in-one drafting program that alternately allows you to either use just the word processing functions or go so far as to organize your entire novel (including research notes/pictures/videos) in one place, print your entire novel manuscript in standard format (that’s .RTF or .DOC if you prefer), automatically backup your novel at scheduled intervals to either a local folder or network drive, and take snapshots so you can edit without committing changes to the manuscript until you are comfortable that its fully right.

Those are the main features, but there are some additional bells and whistles that come with the software. For example, for those who struggle to come up with names for your characters, Scrivener has a name generator that can generate names from various ethnicities and nationalities. It also has a neat word count that will let you track word counts and set goals by scene and also set a word count for the overall manuscript so you can visually track how far you have to complete the novel.

Scrivener also has a really generous household license, which will allow you to install it on multiple computers (for all your family members) and it can also be installed on a USB stick so you can use it on the go.

Also, if you are scared off by the many features offered by Scrivener, I should note that all of these features are in the background and come up to be used only when you need them. You can use Scrivener without ever taking a look outside of the word processor/organization functions (but I suspect most people will eventually use those other features as well.)

If you are unsure about buying Scrivener ($45 for Mac and $40 for Windows versions) they have a demo version free for download at their site. The demo expires after 30 uses (that’s right uses not days) so you can take as long as you would like to test it out before purchasing it.

There are a few great demo videos on the Scrivener site that will show you how Scrivener works. Since the Mac version has been around for a few more years, there are some additional features in the Mac version that don’t appear in the Windows version.

For the Linux users (Ubuntu/Debian/Fedora/et al.) there is a free version of Scrivener available for download. I use the Linux version half the time while linked to a Dropbox account, and I can say that it hasn’t crashed on me yet. I’ve opened the Scrivener file in my Windows O/S after working on it in Ubuntu and everything just works. I should caution you that the Linux build is not supported by the Scrivener folks and should be used at your own discretion.

I hope you will give it a try–I know that because of Scrivener, I’ve had a much easier time writing my first novel. I hope you’ll have a similar success too. Happy writing.

Full Disclosure: I use Scrivener, but I’m posting this testimonial based on my own use. I’m not affiliated with Literature and Latte (the company that makes this product) in any way.

Viable Paradise 16

I mentioned in my last post that I had applied to Viable Paradise, the week long workshop held in October at Martha’s Vineyard. Well, after a long wait (I applied back in March), I have indeed been accepted to this year’s class!

I’ve hardly been able to contain my excitement over the past couple of days–I was definitely not expecting to be accepted this year. I’m thankful that the instructors have given me a chance to hone my existing writing skills and add new tools to my toolbox.

I look forward to meeting and learning from a great group of writers, editors, and workshoppers. October can’t come soon enough!

250 Words & A Brief Update

It’s ironic that I’m posting about writing routines after neglecting this blog for sometime now, but its a very topical subject at the moment. Let me tell you why–for the last six months I have been infrequently working on my first novel.

Remember the project that I spoke of back in the day? Sorry to say, but that project never got off the ground, mostly owing to my hectic work schedule and inability to get my time management under control.

This is not to say that I neglected my writing; far from it, I finished three and a half short stories, submitted a Drabble to the Drabblecast, and submitted my application to Viable Paradise 2012. In the meantime, my ambitious first novel project languished from my lack of time.

Its now halfway through 2012, and I am currently 8,000 words into my first novel(new novel idea, but my first written novel) project. Although I still don’t have as much time as I would like, I have changed my approach towards completion of the novel.

You see, with a short story, I might be able to complete the whole story over the course of a week. My short stories have typically been in the 1000-7000 word range, a length which I can complete in fairly short order. Novels are entirely different creatures. At the very least, the taxonomy of novel length starts at 50,000 words and can extend upwards of 1,000,000 words. I’m not planning on writing a “Gone With the Wind” length vampire saga or an epic fantasy, and so I’m aiming for a far more achievable goal of 50-60,000 words.

I’ve come up with a different approach to tackle this length of work and not be immediately discouraged. It’s all about breaking down the big tasks into many smaller, more manageable ones. Enter the 250 words mentioned in the title. 250 words is the average for a printed manuscript page, and at 50-60k words, brings my novel to a length of  200-240 pages. This translates to a 6-8 month working period to get from zero to first draft status.

To my mind, reframing my goals in those terms renders the work required for the novel to be more manageable than thinking of it in terms of the 50,000 aggregate word count.

Of course, the geekier writers will pull out spreadsheets and track word counts on a daily basis, run estimates, and build in failsafes. I am also prone to the same tendencies, but I find that I’m often too lazy to update my spreadsheets. In this case the 250 word daily goal is an easy figure to maintain to ensure that I achieve my goals.

***

As an aside, to writers who struggle with distractions while writing, I highly recommend Cory Doctorow’s “Writing in the Age of Distraction,” a practical manual for getting shit done while limiting the impact of your distractions.

Diorama: A Poem

Hello world. I wanted to share a poem with you today. Its brief and I composed most of it on my evening walk today. Enjoy:

DIORAMA

The world is single celled.
Bacterial colonies in islands of being.

The world is evolving:
Hair and feathers, wings and feet.

The world is a clockwork motion,
Its choices limited.

The world is a perpetual chaos
Of infinite replication.

The world is binary
Enumerated certainty in numbers.

The world is dreams and nightmares
Riddles with possibility.

The world is an array of color,
Absent of sound.

The world is a riotous music
The only language it knows.

The world is hope
Incandescent lights in the city of night.

The world is us
Improbable and unlikely
If only for a while
And I am glad for all of it.

Zindagi Na Milegi Dobara: Movie Review

Movie: Zindagi Na Milegi Dobara (Hindi w/ e.s.t.)

Directed By: Zoya Akthar

Starring: Kalki Koechlin, Farhan Akthar, Abhay Deol, Hrithik Roshan, Katrina Kaif, Naseruddin Shah


I don’t watch many Bollywood movies, and not all the ones I watch are exceptional, but among the good ones there are a few that I like enough to recommend to my Hindi filmi watching family and friends. My taste in hindi film (I will use the term Bollywood sparingly here, as it excludes the breadth and width of Indian cinema done in other languages) has been acquired over many years. I have cultivated it by watching everything from multi-generational family epics like Kabhi Khushi Kabhi Gham, classic love stories (of the 1980’s) like Hum Aap ke Hain Koun and Maine Pyar Kiya, comedies of the NRI variety like Dostana, and straight up masala (you say popcorn, we say masala) action movies like Dhoom 2. So, in their own way the hindi films have their own genres, each catering to different demographic, much like Hollywood.

In truth, there are a few significant differences between how a Bollywood film handles those cinematic tropes versus the Hollywood treatment of the same material, but I digress. Keeping in mind that a large majority of this blog’s readers may not be familiar with Bollywood tropes, here is a small primer courtesy of Wikipedia. Bollywood turns out thousands of films a year, a number of which are shot primarily for Indian audiences living abroad.

Which brings us to Zindagi Na Milegi Dobara (Won’t Get Life Back Again). The movie features three friends Kabir (Deol), Arjun (Roshan), and Imran (Akthar) who take a three week road trip through Spain before Kabir gets married. The road trip movie as an archetype is about a journey of self discovery and we learn through intermittent flashbacks that each of the characters are dealing with internal struggles that seethe to the surface over the course of the trip. Kabir is getting cold feet, and is not certain that he wants to marry. Arjun who’s professional life is sucessful is facing the prospect of an unfulfilling personal life. Four years ago, we learn, Imran brought Arjun’s relationship with his girlfriend to an end over an affair. Imran is hoping to reunite with his father, a painter living in Spain, over whom he’s had a strained relationship with his mother. Zoya Akthar has a knack for directing both Farhan Akthar (her twin brother in real life) and Hrithik Roshan (whom she previously directed in 2008’s Luck By Chance), and it shows in their performances. All three male leads pull off warm personable performances without ever over acting or melodramatizing a scene.

Zoya’s cinematic language is often subtle and self aware, never drawing attention to itself.  What I mean by this is that the gorgeous Spanish cityscapes from Costa Brava  to Seville and Pamplona are allowed to speak for themselves without the riot of colours and song that usually accompany a Bollywood movie. In an industry where the song, dance, and colorful costume are a given fact in nearly every movie, Zindagi’s rejects the norm to use a  storytelling style that lets it walk the fine line between Indian and western movie-making.

Alas, you know what that means: no dream sequences. Instead of dream sequences, what we get are four passages in the movie where Imraan recites a Hindi poem in voiceover to highlight a particularly emotional moment. I found these passages to be utterly riveting and wished that I had a better grasp of Hindi so that I could fully understand the poems.

Music is certainly an integral part of any Bollywood movie. With Zindagi, Shankar-Eshaan-Loy have stayed with a fairly tight selection of pop and electronica beats. Stand-out songs include: Ik Junoon (Paint it Red) and Senorita.  The video for the former was shot at the Tomatina festival in Buñol and it looks like everyone involved just had a blast shooting it. (Check out the video here.) And Senorita stands out in particular for the clever sleight of hand that the composers used to blend Hindi and Spanish lyrics into the song. (See the video here.)

The best part is that although the movie runs 153 minutes, it never suffers for pacing. All of the characters are given their due in screen time and the emotional climax of the movie delivers (I’m not giving it away here) a resounding conclusion that could have been in a movie a third of its length. Looking back, I would definitely recommend this to anyone who likes Bollywood movies and to the more adventurous crowd willing to try out a Hindi movie.