Taos Toolbox 2014

That's me in the back, the Sasquatch looming over the unsuspecting vacationers.

That’s me in the back, the Sasquatch looming over the unsuspecting vacationers.

Last week I drove from Taos back to California. I arrived home Sunday evening, and had to work bright and early on Monday morning. Needless to say it was a loooong week. But! I made it to the next weekend, slept on and off for a majority of it, and now I’m back to normal. For some value of normal that works for me, anyway.

So how was it, you ask? Even if you don’t, I’ll tell you. In a word, several times over: incredible. Inspirational. Fun. Challenging. Exciting. Draining.

What a great bunch of people. Walter and Nancy were gracious, if exacting, hosts. Our group consisted of four men and nine women, a reversal of many previous classes. Also unique was the large percentage of humorous fiction submitted and written at the retreat.  With a default setting of Grim to Dark in genre fiction these days, this was a refreshing change of pace.

Time well spent, without a doubt. I achieved a decent sweet spot; my fiction was well received, but greatly benefited from feedback. I’ll be unpacking what I’ve learned for some time to come. If you have any genre writing aspirations, I can’t recommend it enough.

The only universal truth in writing is that there are no universal truths. Walter and Nancy don’t offer platitudes and plug-in formulas. They point out strengths, hone in on weaknesses and expect improvement before you leave. It’s fun and demanding all at once.

Sleep deprivation. Altitude sickness. Wildlife invasions. Trapped under a dome for two weeks with some of the brightest folks you’ll ever meet. Planning, writing, revising and then revising some more. You will experience the Quickening. You won’t recognize the writer who returns from the mountaintop, but he or she will remember you as an ancestor. You cannot help but improve. The bear gods demand it of you.

The Road to Taos

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Last night I returned home from the brain-melting, life-changing experience that is Taos Toolbox. Now that I have returned to Home Sweet Sea Level, my oxygen levels are returning to normal and I’m just about caught up on normal sleep. So it’s finally time to start weighing in on the experience.

I chose to drive to the workshop. 2,500 miles round trip, 36 hours on the road. I questioned my sanity a few times before loading up the car, but it turned out to be a great choice. Didn’t hurt that my current work in progress revolves around a road trip, so hey, research.

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A good chunk of the route fell on Interstate 40, which closely follows the historic Route 66 across the Western U.S. Route 66 kitsch abounded: flags, road signs, abandoned motels of the neon-and-stucco variety. And then there was the 66 Roadkill Diner in Seligman, AZ. I pity the traveler who hit a buffalo on their way through town.

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Speaking of Seligman, the heightened stakes arrived when I found myself thirty miles out from said town, experiencing a precipitous plunge in the fuel gauge while winding through an isolated mountain range. So sue me, I’m a city driver. We don’t have 100-plus-mile stretches of road without basic services. I coasted into town on nails chewed to nubs, and an estimated zero miles left on the tank over the last few miles.  Lesson learned: a half gallon remains when the mileage zeroes out. Hooray for hybrids!

Needless to say I refueled at every town thereafter. Onward.

 

The Southwest seems to love dinosaur statues, scattered at random along roadways. Can’t say I disapprove.

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I made it in plenty of time, richer for the experience. Little did I know what adventures awaited at 10,000 feet. Some thoughts on the workshop itself once I figure them out.

 

Help out Hadley Rille

Here’s a good cause for the crowdfunding inclined out there. Hadley Rille Books is an excellent small press looking to expand. They’re very open to working with new writers and their roster includes several VP alumni.  They’ve opened an Indiegogo campaign designed to support their continued growth. Aside from publishing great books they’re also offering up some great prizes, including manuscript critiques and a spot in a seaside writing retreat. The HRB authors have taken up the cause and offered quite a lot of time and effort in support. Why not show some love to those out in the trenches?

Twitter Pitchin’

Yesterday I participated in the #SFFpit Twitter Pitching Contest hosted by Dan Koboldt. Happened to be quite a bit of fun, though I wouldn’t want to do it every day. I started to feel like a day trader obsessively checking stock prices. And I did feel a bit sheepish about bombing my feed with pitches all day. But I did net a couple of nibbles from agents, and a couple more from small presses. Mission accomplished! Cheers to Mr. Koboldt, as well as the participating agents and editors. And, of course, the other awesome pitchees who retweeted with abandon.

Here are a few observations from my virgin foray into Twitter pitching (not a salacious euphemism, I swear):

1) My two most successful tweets were crafted by friends. A small group of writers banded together and traded pitches beforehand, and guess what? It helped. Believe in the power of other people to offer clarity in your own work. Someone who hasn’t been in the trenches with the manuscript sometimes has an easier time sussing out the big picture. Go figure.

2) Most responses seem to arrive in the early hours. Your mileage may vary. But it does make sense as the workday in New York ends halfway through the cycle.

3) Pitching in an elevator is one thing. Pitching in public is quite another. I remain impressed by the number of writer-types who put themselves out there under that hashtag all day. This being the internet, a few ne’er-do-wells stopped by just to pee in the pool, but the snark remained quite low.  Every aspect of writing requires an output of energy, often with little or no return on investment. To those that stuck with it, I salute you.

4) If you incorporate the word “supernatural” into your pitch, you will receive spam from some wag selling t-shirts for the Supernatural TV show.

5) If you incorporate the word “entrepreneur” into your pitch, you will be auto-targeted by multiple internet startup spambots that aggregate tech news articles. Curse you, False Favorites!

 

 

 

Away, Away

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Last week I had the privilege of heading to Philadelphia for several days with some of my favorite people… who also happen to be talented writers. Most of us met out there in the Workshop-verse– VP, Taos– and continue to support each other in our efforts to turn this wordsmithing thing into actual careers.  We ate, we drank, we played games, we ate and drank some more, and occasionally wrote and critiqued stuff. Oh, and we walked our asses off.  Which turned out to be pretty great, as Philly is an eminently walkable city. Did I mention the Karaoke? Yes, there were golden hits past and present in abundance. With lots of V-Pop thrown in for good measure. Even met some new folks to add to the circle of destruction. A very freeform event, in case that isn’t clear by now.

This trip was stressful to me on a personal level, thanks to a series of cock-ups on my part. I arrived a day earlier than intended, thanks to red-eye flight schedules and a basic non-grasp of time as a concept. My dog also freaked out on the emergency sitter I’d chosen (due to the regular sitter being unavailable, natch). Compound that with a negative cycle on the usual sine wave of writer self-confidence, and you have the recipe for a Class A Funk. Fortunately, I happened to be around a dozen-plus other people who face a lot of the same challenges. So we forgot all that and had a damned good time.

Beforehand there had been discussion of whether the event needed more structure.  As it turned out, only a handful of participants submitted writing for critiques, and we only spent one morning in Workshop Mode. I had my doubts, but came away with a deeper understanding of the value of unadulterated hangout time. Sometimes you do need a second pair of eyes to spot the flaws in your writing. And sometimes you just need to  set aside the notebook/laptop/cuneiform tablet for awhile, and commiserate with others who are in the same struggle.

Do we have to wait a whole year to do this again?

Jay Lake

I’m home from a crazy writers’ retreat in Philadelphia.  The festivities deserve a recap, and a meditation on what it means to write within a community. Unfortunately, first things first.

We learned on my final morning in Philly that Jay Lake is at rest following his struggle against cancer. Every loss is upsetting, but Jay was a truly beloved figure who will be sorely missed. The outpouring of love within the genre community this week serves as a reminder that we’ve lost a great friend as well as an inspired writer.

I didn’t know Jay as well as some, but found him inspiring just the same. I met him last year at Paradise Lost, where he reminded us of the importance of finishing what you start. Taking that lesson to heart is one of the main reasons I have a completed manuscript with more on the way. I’ll finish them all before moving on to the next shiny, and that’s down to Jay as much as any other influence. So cheers and gratitude, Jay, from yet another member of the extended family you have inspired.

Contributions can be made to the Clayton Memorial Medical Fund in his name. The Paradise Lost workshop has also created a Jay Lake Memorial Scholarship for aspiring writers.

Random Access

Just finished one last edit on my latest novel and my writing self feels a bit scattered.So, in the interest of keeping dust from settling on this site again… Here, have a few random thoughts. No relevance intended by order.

-  I tried something a bit different with my editing process this time and I believe it reaped some pretty sweet rewards. I want to prepare a post on that, but am still tossing around post mortem thoughts in my head.  Hopefully I can get that posted before leaving for Philly later this week.

- Just saw X-Men: Days of Future Past. Not bad, not bad at all. It’s slightly marred by the persistent trend– in Hollywood as well as at Marvel– of centering Every. Single. X-Men story around Wolverine. Hey, I get that he’s popular. But you know what? This wasn’t his story, and his agency ended about 20-30 minutes into the film. Bitching aside, it was pretty enjoyable. The story was interesting and somewhat thoughtful, possessed less wonk than the standard superhero flick. At least Fox seemed interested in more than just keeping the characters from reverting to Marvel. Unlike with some *other* franchise I could mention. But don’t need to. Ahem.

- The Nebula Awards were handed out last week. All major writing awards went to women for the first time in eight years. Given the back-and-forth rancor over all the recent SFWA kerfuffles, this was a welcome outcome that helps restore some faith in an org that often struggles to earn the “professional” adjective. I haven’t read everything on the roster, but I do know that Ann Leckie, Nalo Hopkinson and Alette deBodard kicked some literary posterior last year.

- Just received my PIN for the Hugo Awards site, with final ballots approaching. At least I’ll get to read some books and cast some votes despite the fact that I am likely bailing on London for Taos this summer. Looking forward to it.

That’s all for now. Killswitch on.

He picks up a bus and he throws it back down

Had to do it. Caught the new Godzilla flick this afternoon. And for the most part, the big lug delivers in spades. True,  about 30 minutes could be trimmed out of the non-kaiju segments and it would be even better. But it’s a Godzilla flick! No Toho-inspired monster movie is complete without an hour of pointless human gibbering before the monsters start wrecking the joint.

No one goes to a Godzilla movie expecting Crime and Punishment. And Gareth Edwards and company deliver all the elements that count. Godzilla saving humanity, from monsters and from itself! Stubby legs and stego-scales!  (No overgrown iguana, this one.) Atomic breath! And finishing moves that leave the audience cheering for the Big G.

My only serious disappointment? No victory dance:

 

 

So now that Hollywood has finally driven the awful ’98 Zilla from memory, what can we expect from a sequel? Dakota Fanning as Mothra’s cute little Shobijin priestesses? Christopher Walken as the Commandant of Planet X? I hereby vote for King Ghidorah. Mainly because I’d love to hear how they will turn his “Wurlitzer in a jacuzzi” warble into a Dolby-friendly roar.

 

 

To Taos!

I’ve mentioned before that I have been flirting on and off with attending Taos Toolbox, a master class in writing from the inimitable team of Walter Jon Williams and Nancy Kress. Last night– while on a Skype call with some writer friends, how cool is that?– I received my acceptance for this July. I’m bound for New Mexico!

The decision was a bit spur of the moment, but all of the pieces just fell into place. I believe this is the kick in the pants I need to boost my craft to the next level. Lately I’ve received several personal rejections from editors pointing out that they enjoyed the prose and solid craft, but had issues with story and structure. Walter and Nancy apparently focus on these elements. How could I say no?

Unfortunately this means I won’t be attending WorldCon in London. But I believe this will help me more. And I can always head across the pond anyway at a later date. Who needs an excuse for that?

 

 

Lost Weekend

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I’m home after a fun and enlightening weekend at Paradise Lost IV. Strangely enough, San Antonio was a bit cooler than the Bay Area. (Who visits the Texas desert to cool off? Me, apparently.)

This is my second year running at the event. Last year was important for returning to active writing– and for reconnecting with my Viable Paradise homies– but this year upped the awesomeness quota. The pro staff included Walter Jon Williams, Melinda Snodgrass and J.A. Pitts– insightful teachers and delightful humans all around. It goes without saying that it was a joy to see so many familiar faces among the participants. On top of that, I made many new friends that I look forward to seeing around the writing world.

I showed up with a sample from my new novel project, PCH Roadkill, and received both encouraging feedback and insight into where it needs work. We wrote, conducted impromptu plot breaks, ate, drank and played games. I learned, via Cards Against Humanity, that I am not a nice person. At all. But that’s what it takes to rack up the cards.

I also decided, after years of deliberation, to finally pull the trigger on Taos Toolbox for this July. The applications went out in today’s mail, so we’ll see. If I’m admitted it probably means New Mexico will replace London as my summer excursion.  Sorry, Worldcon! Given where I am in the writing process, I have little doubt that Taos will be of more use to my career.  Well, future career.

Paradise Lost remains a bright spot among annual workshops. I’ll be back for more. And we’re less than four weeks from more writing goodness in Philadelphia. Bring it on.

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