Many years ago, when I first found myself giving people grades for their fiction projects, for the first time, I realized several things that may seem self-evident to you all…
–A huge part of being a writer is learning to turn a flawed draft into an utterly awesome work of fiction. –The ability to revise a draft into something good develops with time and experience. –Experienced editors can tell the difference between drafts with a lot of potential and those facing massive challenges. –When we think we have nothing left to learn, we tend to stop learning.
To be clear, I do not submit immaculate stories to workshop! When I am writing drafts, a high level of craft is at the bottom of my list of priorities. I’m a pantser at this stage in my life. I’m not above naming incidental characters things like CousinTwo, or even getting halfway through a paragraph and writing “Insert kick-ass detail here!” or “WTF does this house look like?”
The compulsion to get the story onto the page, to drag the character’s journey into the light, is my first and overwhelming imperative. By the time something of mine hits a workshop, I’ve had to go through it three to five times… and even then, it’s still pretty much a shambles.
So. Drafts are crap. Even more, we routinely tell people to write drafts that are crap! It’s so important to have something to revise that we urge writers to, you know, spew whatever they can onto the page in service of getting finished.
So this leads to an apparent contradiction, which is explaining to my students that I can look at their crap drafts and evaluate their commercial potential. To assert that I am qualified to say “This manuscript is this far along the road, while this one is further behind,” even though I will never see what their authors might accomplish in rewrite.
What makes the difference in such cases is the task list, the things the author needs to do to the story, and how tough those challenges might be. If the author of a given draft is writing vivid scenes that give the reader a sense of immediacy, if their characters are relatable and in conflict, if they’re more or less telling a whole story and that story has something fundamentally cool about it, they’re close. Closer, anyway, than a writer that hasn’t learned some of those basics, or whose line by line writing hasn’t yet begun to carry the reader smoothly through their story.
Does that mean I can look at ten drafts and say which writers will be successful? No. Almost anyone who writes ‘how to become a published author’ essays will inevitably will tell you that success in publishing often amounts more to being persistent than to any kind of innate talent.
The same person whose 2019 draft story suffers from insurmountable weaknesses might write a very workable story on their very next outing! They might then whip through an intriguing third project, and then dive into an experiment that almost succeeds wildly before it crashes and burns. Meanwhile, the person who seems to be halfway to publishable in the same workshop might stall out, or give up before they reach their next artistic breakthrough.
As editors and agents and teachers–as professional readers–we look at the pieces submitted to us and say “Yes, there’s a terrific story in here.” Or, alternately, “This one isn’t ready yet.”
I do sometimes get feedback from students that I shouldn’t be subjectively grading their stories at all. That they should get full marks for submitting them, without any evaluation. They’ll point out that many of their other instructors don’t give them any component of a grade that measures quality or merit, that indicates how well a given piece is doing. So it’s tempting to go that route… it’d save me argument and negotiation, and intellectual energy, and all sorts of work.
I get this, I do! In fact, the lion’s share of the grade in most of my courses is awarded just for showing up–doing the assigned work, writing the critiques, following the guidelines, submitting fiction on time. I give these grades because of the aforementioned persistence factor, but also to reward professional working practices. It is by and large the people who show up and do the work, after all–the ones who seem at first glance to merely be putting out quantity–who are building an artistic practice that will probably lead to sales.
Why hand someone back a story worth 10 points, then, with a 7 on it, and a note amounting to: This is 70% of the way to being salable in a professional market; for the things that are still in its way, see my workshop critique? It feels to the recipient much as a rejection does, after all, and rejections are painful.
(Spoiler: The answer is no. I don’t strive to have people practice feeling rejected.)
Most beginning writers, especially the serious ones, want desperately to know if they’re getting closer to publication, and what’s holding them back. When I speak at conventions, you can sense a hunger for that answer in the questions that come from the audience: How close am I? Will I get there? What do I do to get published? What does it take?
Some of what it takes is accepting, in your bones, that sometimes your stories need major rewriting.
Now that I’ve been at this awhile I have seen, time and again, that when I critique a story or exercise and attach a 100% grade to it, their authors take the problems I’ve identified within that work of fiction–and the need to address those problems–far less seriously than when they get that sobering 70%. It’s getting less than a perfect mark that brings people to my door or inbox with follow-up questions about how to embark on revision.
Universities require that students be graded. I can’t not do it. And for me, making those grades meaningful means awarding them in a way that brings writers more deeply into the revision process. If that also brings them back to my door with follow-ups questions and demands for resources, so much the better.
Stories and books can have a figuring it out stage for me, a point – or, sometimes, several points – where I haven’t quite figured out how to proceed with some important piece of the work in progress. In some cases, if the problem is plot, it can feel like I’ve painted myself into a corner.
When I get into that space–this generally happens at least once with every short story and several times with longer works–I do a lot of walking and thinking, as well as a certain amount of sitting around in the hot tub at my condominium, dictating my scattered thoughts thoughts into portable devices of some kind. It’s how this particular blog entry is getting written: with a phone dictation program as I bob among the bubbles. Truly, we should all have such problems.
My inner supervisor is never terribly impressed with this. Wondering around taking photos will always feel like lollygagging, and as for hot, luxurious soaks with a blurry view of the CN Tower? Well, that’s just decadent. Where do you get off having a hot tub anyway, it asks, who do you think you are? Go do some real work!
It never seems to cut ice with that particular slice of my brain to argue that it always works out; the faffing about and distraction do whatever they’re supposed to do, the answer comes, the story gets finished. And I hear variations on this theme from other writers: they get to the bashing the head against the wall phase and it’s strangely painful. For some of us, it can feel new every single time. Each time, we wonder if it really truly is some kind of brain breakage, or writerfail. Have we lost the old magic?
Fortunately for me, the lure of a good walk and the siren song of a bubbling tub are just plain louder than the internalized screechy voice that seems to think the answer will come if I sit at the keyboard until I bleed from the eyes. And I can look at pieces where I remember being momentarily mired. I scrapped “Wild Things” in its entirety and began again from scratch, with a very different voice and point of view, and it became something wonderful and surprising.
The individual introductions to short stories are one of my favorite things about reading single-author collections. The stories themselves are delightful in their own right, of course, but I love it when the author gives us an extra glimpse into what was going on when a given piece was written. It’s a little like getting to unwrap a high-end truffle; there’s an extra layer of ritual before one settles down to enjoy. With that in mind, I’ve decided to put a bit of that kind of love into the short fiction area of my site. What will accumulate, I expect, is a cluster of notes about the writing process, all tied to the various stories I’ve got sprinkled out and about the Web and in print.
This is my first foray into this territory–I hope you enjoy it.
In 2001, I met Charles N. Brown at Norwescon and he asked me to start reviewing books for Locus. For the next three years I did four, five, even six books a month for the magazine–the ARCs flowed to my door, a glorious river of words. This was not long after I’d first encountered Harry Turtledove, and his unforgettable How Few Remain. I was in love with alternate history. I inhaled the series spawned by How Few Remain, and the Worldwar series. Happily, none of the other Locus reviewers seemed inclined to wrestle me for the AH, so for a couple of glorious years I didn’t just get my Turtledove fix. I got it all: Kurt R.A. Giambastiani’s awesome The Year the Cloud Fell saga, Steven Barnes’ Lion’s Blood, Hannibal’s Children by John Maddox Roberts… it was like falling into a cave full of pirate loot, literary doubloons for history nerds.
Naturally, all of this stimulated my writerbrain to start considering the prospect of writing some AH of my own, which in turn drew me back to one of my oldest historical passions–Joan of Arc. I started reading, and noodling, and reading some more. Maybe twenty history books later, I had a fine amateur-historian grasp on Joan’s short personal history, a reasonable grip on that little slice of the Hundred Years War, and the perfect point of divergence. I didn’t have a hook though, or any kind of grasp of the story. I started it a few times… and abandoned those openers. A few of my best pieces have gone this way, with three or six or even twelve failed starts. Then again, some of those same failed starts have gone nowhere… at least so far.
Joan of Arc
As all this cogitation was taking place, Harry was producing books. Lots of them! Books, delicious books, and I was reading them all for Locus. As a result, I’d gotten to know Harry in that distant, online, ‘we’ll meet at a con one day, huh?’ way. One spring we were back-and-forthing about something, and he asked: would I like to submit something to Alternate Generals III? In six weeks?
With the fiery impetus of a short deadline and the ubercool prospect of writing for Harry dangling before me, I dropped everything and started scribbling. I wrote draft, longhand, over pots of mint tea at a vegetarian Indian place on the Drive; I wrote more at Mosaic Creek Park. I got “Heretic” drafted, workshopped, revised, rerevised and off just barely in time… and a week later, I got what was the fastest acceptance I’d ever had. (It may have been my first electronic submission: this was 2003, and things were still going out in hard copy a good deal of the time.)
As stories go, “Heretic” remains one of my personal favorites. At that point in my life, it was among the best things I’d ever written, and when I revisit it, I’m still satisfied with how it came off. I remember it as a breakthrough, as the first time I felt as though I’d brought off precisely the emotional effect I was striving for. The process of writing it was unique, too, because I had done all that research. It was a ludicrous amount of reading, considering that we’re talking about a 9,500 word novelette. But wow! Historical fiction sure feels easy when all the big facts you could possibly want have been poured into your brain, when they’re just waiting to spill out onto the page.
This is my ideal model for research now: read as much as I please on whatever’s interesting, and hope the noggin will be crammed full right when someone asks me for a story, NOW. It hasn’t happened again, not yet. I don’t mind the “I’m chugging along and now I suddenly I realize need to learn more about X,” model, but the sensation, with “Heretic,” was magical. It’s probably as close to omnipotence as anyone can hope to get.
Time passed, Alternate Generals III came out and “Heretic” got good reviews; it made the Nebula Preliminary ballot that year, and got shortlisted for the Sidewise Award. I have thought occasionally of writing a follow-up, at novel-length, set in a Jehanniste present, but I have never quite found the hook–I haven’t even gotten as far as a false start. So that idea is very much on the backburner.
The scene is easily recognized: the Maid’s debilitation, the nuns, and especially the cloud of larks above serve to identify it as Joan’s journey to the trial that ended her 13-year imprisonment for heresy. It was at this “Exoneration Trial” that she encountered Dulice Aulon, the Jehanniste artist responsible for the holy pictures on which the codex illuminations are based.
“We mustn’t face the King in battle.” Joan had the light, clear voice of a young woman, even after her years in prison and the hard decade since her release. She’d asked one of the new archers, a girl of perhaps seventeen, to cut her hair, and a few broken strands of silver hair clung to her neck. The rest lay at her feet, bright in the glow of the dying fire.
“Not fight Charles?” Hermeland was incredulous. He was a badger of a man, with a dramatic, pointy face and remarkable speed with a sword. “We must turn his army back before it unites with the force of mercenaries coming up from Rome. If you can’t see that–”
“Can’t see it? Who ordered us to turn north, days before anyone knew the King had pursued us into Burgundy?”
“You–” he began, and as her brow came up he corrected, “your Voices.”
It wasn’t quite a hit and run visit, but we didn’t linger either. The point of having a VAG membership, for me, is to go often and to leave as soon as my brain fills up or my feet get sore. I’d say we took the first two-thirds of the exhibit in at a leisurely pace and the remainder at a brisk walk.
I had been prepared to be underwhelmed: travelling exhibits are a mixed bag, and the fact that this one was all drawings suggested, to me, wall after wall of tiny scribblings and little else. I want variety, and I like big stuff, with lots of color. I’m glad to report that I was wrong-so-wrong on this apprehension. There were sketches aplenty, of course, and some of them were indeed miniscule. But there were glorious big pastel pieces too, colorful, rich and satisfying. The overall mix had a good deal of variety.
As is often true, wherever you go, the most interest was to be had from the people. Early on, we came into a good-sized room and confronted the word NUDE, emblazoned on the wall, in letters one and a half feet high. NUDE was accompanied by a short paragraph which discussed how artists had moved from depicting their nude models as idealized Greek goddesses (and other babes of the Classics) to doing portraits of real women, with flesh and wrinkles and fat rolls. These subjects were, increasingly, engaged in bathing and dressing and other types of private, thoroughly unethereal activity.
The walls, of course, were covered in nude sketches. And about ten steps behind me, half-a-room ahead of their adult escort, were an eight and ten year old girl.
They were visibly discomfited to be standing in a big room full of adults–maybe six men and eight women–all in contemplation of womanly nakedness. They also seemed to know it wasn’t cool to be uncomfortable. So instead of shrieking with laughter and running for the door, they kind of gabbled inarticulately. Then they gravitated, all in a rush, to an image by Paul Albert Besnard, of a woman with a peacock feather fan. Her back is to the viewer, with no breast exposed, and the fan itself covers her butt crack. Very demure. Very lovely, too, by the way–I liked it.
“This one’s okay,” the older girl said; she seemed relieved.
sketch by Paul Albert Besnard
Right next to the Besnard was a sketch of a girl of seven or eight years, face on to the viewer. I’d been stopped by that one. Images of older-than-infant kids without their clothes on aren’t something I encounter much. My assumption is that today’s artists aren’t making many these days, especially if they need models, for fear of getting arrested for making porn. (Is that so? I don’t actually know.)
So I was processing this and waiting to see what the girls made of it, this image of a girl essentially their age, staring at the viewer, starkers. Then their adult turned up and swept them on to an image of a woman with a robe over her chest. End scene.
Two galleries on, a six-ish boy asked his male adult, “Where’s the Mona Lisa?”
“Not here,” was all the reply he got.
So… kids in museums. Eavesdropping on the girls left me with that sand in my oyster shell feeling, that tickle of Hmmm, what, exactly?
I am certainly not one to think kids shouldn’t be exposed to nudes in art, or that museums should rate shows–PG, PG13, R, can you imagine it! I would argue it’s impossible to ensure a young person won’t experience any number of moments of alienation from or disconnection with the adult world throughout their growing years. You can probably all remember times when you bumped up against realities that were inexplicably adult and alien, whether they were from the sexual realm or elsewhere.
But I felt for this particular pair of girls as they coped with that awkward moment.
The exhibit being all about women, the whole thing felt eerily meta, too. Here we had two young proto-women, taking in what a bunch of mostly male Euro-painters thought femininity was, a couple centuries ago. Meanwhile, a feminist blogger was spying on them.
I didn’t reach any useful conclusions. I’ll go back and look at the room again, and peoplewatch some more. At some point, maybe, the oyster-itch will find its way into a story or book. That’s part of how it works for me. In the meantime, I’d welcome your thoughts.
Speaking of VAG, localfolk, they are in the process of trying to get a new space–it has room to display a trifling 3% of its collection, and no lecture space. They have a site explaining the issues here, which goes on to say how we-all can support the move to the old bus parkade at Georgia and Cambie.
Kelly and I made a little change to our pre-work walk this morning, taking 8th Avenue past the new community garden where some friends of ours have a plot. I’ve been able to see the installation happening as I’ve gone to and fro–between one thing and another, I pass the Broadway/Commercial intersection four to six times a day–but hadn’t gotten a good look. What’s there is attractive and thoughtfully laid out. The central area holds raised garden beds made of cedar, already pre-planted with veggies and herbs. Ground-level flower and berry gardens encircle these beds, and the backdrop is the Grandview Cut. The plants were donated by a local nursery, all the cedar chips are new and fragrant, and the whole thing radiates a newness and warmth that’s very pleasing. We are thinking we’ll do the walk past a lot in the next little while.
Afterward, I made my way to Cafe Calabria and had a bash at the current fiction project, that slice of a novel I mentioned before, for the grant application. I was searching for one more scene to add into it, looking for something that had a bit of literary grit and referred back to the stuff I’ve put in the proposal, which is about shifting landscapes of privilege and the labeling, within large families, of different individuals as insiders and outsiders. On Wednesday I was sitting in the cafe scraping after that scene, whatever it was. I didn’t really expect to find the right answer, because I hadn’t slept the night before. But the idea came, to my surprise, and I scribbled some notes on it without getting started–trying to write on no sleep is never a good idea for me. Yesterday I drafted the first half, and today I wrapped it up. I have a piece I’m happy with now, and I have until fall to polish it until it shines.
I am delighted to have reached this point. If I’m not swamped by other commitments (some of which I’m chasing very actively), I will write a draft of the whole book in November, just as I did WINTERGIRLS and DAUGHTERS OF ZEUS.
Here’s a snippet from earlier the draft:
Sarah Varney’s address was a residential hotel, one that, from the look of it, was home to a good chunk of the city’s addict population. Its windows were black with grime, its awning greasy and tattered, with loose aluminium ribs inhabited by motheaten, feebly peeping pigeons. The sidewalk leading to the reinforced revolving door was glazed in bird droppings; it was impossible not to track them in.
The door spun them out into a lobby that smelled of Lysol and urine. A diminutive Asian crone eyeballed them through a cage of greasy bulletproof glass.
This feels very much as if it’s at a finished-for-now point, and given that we’re headed to Seattle for the LOCUS Awards tomorrow, I will probably skip actual fiction-writing for the whole of the weekend. By Monday, I’ll need to have decided what to work on next. I have another proposal I’d be delighted to work on, but I’m waiting on some notes; I have a drafted squid story that could use some attention, and a horror novel, SEE HOW THEY RUN, that I want to revise at some point in the near. I have a pile of books I need to read for various research stuff, and one I want to review.
Non-fic stuff on the go includes three last lectures for Novel Writing II and assorted admin stuff, two guest blog posts to write, a review, some things I want to talk and post about in this space, critiques for a couple of my one on one students, fine-tuning of a website I’m developing for my choir, and more work on the alyxdellamonica.com page.
On a more recreational note, I need to review everything I learned in last year’s Italian class before my next one begins in about ten days time and one of my Jonathan Coulton albums has vanished from my iPod.