Saturday, April 29, 2017

SF Workshop

I spent last week at a science fiction workshop taught by Kristine Kathryn Rusch. It was freaking awesome, and if she offers it again (probably not for a couple of years) I strongly urge any writer who's into SF to dive in.

We started on 1 January, which is when Kris sent us a reading list:

Asimov's SF Magazine, the Jan/Feb and Mar/Apr issues
Women of Futures Past Anthology
The Year's Best Science Fiction and Fantasy Novellas 2016
The Best Science Fiction of the Year: Volume 1
Invisible Planets: Contemporary Chinese Science Fiction in Translation
Best American Science and Nature Writing 2016

There were some people in the class (out of fourteen students) who were writers but weren't familiar with SF, so one of the reasons for doing the reading was to get everyone on the same page about what SF is. A lot of people who try to use SF in their writing (like pretty much every single romance writer whose "futuristic romance" I've ever tried [sigh]) seem to think that if you watch Star Wars and Star Trek, there you go, you know all about SF and are ready to write it. Not so much. So reading all the anthologies and a couple issues of Asimov's gave us all some common ground. We took some time at each evening session to talk about one of the books/magazines, what we liked or didn't like, what surprised us. That also let us see how people's tastes differ.

A couple of weeks before the workshop, we got a story assignment. One of Kris's pet peeves with SF is aliens who are just humans with weird foreheads. (Glancing back at folks who think Star Trek will teach you everything you need to know about SF.) So she linked us to the Oregon Coast Aquarium's web site and asked us to write an SF story with a really alien alien, inspired by something on the Aquarium's site. I wanted to go way alien :) so I paid particular attention to the invertebrates. I read the description for the giant rock scallop, and noted how the baby scallops are free swimming, and move by clapping their shells together and spraying jets of water. Then when they grow up, they cement themselves to a rock and live there for the rest of their lives. Add in the moon snail, another mollusc, which has a tongue that can drill through shells and rocks. I got an image of a hollowed-out asteroid covered in scallops, and baby scallops flapping and jetting away into space. Everything else followed from there, and I ended up with a fun story that got great comments from Kris. It's currently out with a magazine editor. [crossed fingers]

We wrote three more stories while at the workshop -- we had one due every other day, starting when we turned in the Aquarium-alien story on Saturday -- plus we read everyone else's stories, plus we had other, smaller assignments. Plus if we messed up on the smaller assignments [ducks, raises hand] they came back covered in red comments, with "Redo" at the top. I ended up redoing three or four assignments.

It turns out I kind of suck at putting really concrete details in my work. This is important with most fiction, but particularly with SF, because the reader can't take anything for granted. If you're writing something contemporary, you might have your character enter a barn. Okay, we all know what a barn looks like. But do we really? There's the classic red barn, but some are white, some are brown, some are corrugated steel. Some are multi-story, with a hay loft like the classic barn in kids' books, but some are lower. Some are long and wide, some are compact. So if you just have your character walk into "a barn" with no details, the reader will visualize a barn, filling in those details for you. Maybe they'll match the details in your head, but probably not. So if you imagine a barn with a basement or other sub level, and mention it twelve pages later, the readers who didn't imagine a barn with a basement will be all, "Wait, what?!" Or if your barn has a main floor and some side areas, plus an equipment room, and a room with tools where stuff is repaired, but your reader was imagining just one big room, then again, they'll have a huge disconnect that'll throw them out of the story if your character starts going from room to room later on.

So if you just say "a barn" in your story, that's a fake detail.

And that's with a barn. Everyone knows what a barn is, even if the details can differ. What if your character boards a starship? Or a space station? Or is walking around on an alien planet? What does that look like? You have to be even more thorough about describing everything, using concrete sensory details, because the reader can't fill in details for you.

So for our first technique assignment, we had to describe an alien space station. We were to write five paragraphs, each one using details coming from only one sense. Here's what I wrote for the first two senses:


Sight -- Alicia's first impression of the Nonapus station was that it was dark. Well, of course; sight was a minor sense for them. Nonapus stations weren't bright for the same reason Human stations ween't tasty. The water that filled the corridors and chambers was just slightly chilly, and full of tiny particulates that made it impossible to see, even with a light, much beyond the length of her arm.

Touch -- Most of the station walls were smooth. There were no floors or ceilings as such; the Nonapus have been starfaring for millenia, and the main difference between a wall and a floor or ceiling was gravity. The Nonapus expected everyone to hang on to or push off from whatever's handy, and avoid dangerous or delicate equipment as a matter of course. All controls required a firm push or pull or twist; brushing up against something was done casually while moving around, and was supposed to be perfectly safe.


Not bad, huh? I was pretty pleased with them when I wrote them (in a frantic hurry, but anyway). Actually, they suck. :P This was my first non-story assignment, and it came back covered with big red "Fake!" notes all over it, and a red "Redo" at the top. A few days later, I redid it:


Sight -- The only light inside the Nonapus station came from tiny, glowing white jellyfish that swam through the water, expanding and contracting in a rhythm that made it look like they were dancing, their legs rippling in time like ribbons in wind. The passageways were tubular, too narrow for a human to stand up in; it made Alicia feel cramped, and a little claustrophobic. Everything was shades of grey; there was no color anywhere, not even on her fellow refugees. They'd all been given clothes that could stand up to weeks in the water. The plain, stretchy coveralls were comfortable enough, but their uniform grey made them blend in with the walls, and the rest of the humans, as though they were all ghosts haunting the place.

Touch -- The walls were mostly smooth, some sort of soft plastic, with patches and strips of texture on them. used the way humans would use signs. Rough and smooth and sharp, with and against the grain of the ridges -- all the different textures meant something, and Alicia knew she'd have to learn them. Swimming through the ship, she brushed against the jellyfish, couldn't help it, because they streamed and clustered everywhere. These didn't sting, like the ones on the beach at home, so she could touch them if she wanted. Their little round bodies were slick, like they were coated in gel. Their legs -- or were they arms? -- slid through her fingers like limp, flat pasta, light and smooth and rippling.


Much better. I got a lot more "Good" notes on that one. See how things are much more concrete, more grounded on sensory details?

I need to learn to do this in my stories. Right now, it's hard. It's not something I do automatically yet. When I'm writing, in creative mode, when story's just flowing, it doesn't automatically flow with concrete sensory details. If I think about it, and consciously put those details in as I write, I slip into critical mode, which makes the writing kind of suck. (It has great sensory details, though. :P )

"Creative Mode" and "Critical Mode" are concepts Kris and Dean use in all their writing workshops. I think I've talked about them before, but just for drill, writing in creative mode (or in creative voice, or with your creative brain) is writing the way your brain produces story. The focus is on the story, not the craftsmanship. Your creative brain (your storytelling brain) has been absorbing story since you were pre-verbal, when your parents told you stories, sang you songs with stories, let you watch TV and movies with stories. If you're forty, you've been absorbing story for about 39.8 years of that. :)

Critical mode is when your focus is on the mechanics. If you're thinking about spelling and grammar and punctuation, and about how the plot's going to go and whether your characterization is right and how to format your dialogue and whether your transitions work, you're in critical mode. This is your inner English teacher speaking. Your inner English teacher kind of sucks at storytelling; they're focused on all the fiddly details, and they tend to lose track of the story itself, which is what readers read for. Your critical brain has only been learning to write since you started to learn reading and writing skills, which for most of us was first grade. So your critical brain is about six years behind your creative brain when it comes to learning how to write.

Your creative voice is always a better storyteller than your critical voice.

I know we all worry about how our stories look at the line level, but seriously, if you're going to publish something, whether you go tradpub or indie, cleaning up all the little crap is what an editor is for. If your story is great, a copyeditor can clean up your spelling and grammar and fix your comma glitches. There you go -- clean story. If your story sucks, then even if your mechanics are absolutely a hundred percent perfect, the story is still going to suck. A fiction writer's focus should be on storytelling, in creative mode.

Of course, we want to absorb all the mechanics skills too. And we do. It takes a while, but if we work on it, eventually we'll load a new skill into the back of our brain. This is where the stuff that's become automatic goes. For example, you probably don't have to think about putting a period at the end of a declarative sentence, or getting your subjects and verbs to agree. Those are things you had to learn at some point, but then you got to know them well enough that they became automatic, and you don't have to think about them anymore. All your mechanics skills can be loaded into that same part of your brain, where they become automatic, as you work on them.

So I need to work on using concrete sensory details when I write. I'll probably do more exercises like the ones Kris gave us, and work on that until it's easy and automatic. It'll eventually show up in my creative-mode writing, without my having to stop and think about every damn word. :/ For right now, it's annoying, but I'll get it soon enough.

A lot of us in the class were having trouble with concrete details, so most of our small assignments through the week were focused on that skill. I got a lot better at it just in that week, and so did the others.

One of the things I learned last week was that I can write a truly amazing amount of fiction in one week. I was actually pouring it on from Friday through Friday, so eight days, but in that eight days I wrote 38,790 words of fiction -- four stories, two of them over 9K words, plus a bunch of bits and pieces of fiction in the smaller assignments. Just the stories totaled 30,893 words.

I've never done that before. I've written just over 20K words in a week, three times, since I've started keeping track. I've never come anywhere near 30K in a week before. O_O It's intensely frustrating. I've known for a while that I'm intensely deadline driven, and that it has to be a deadline set by someone else, with real-world consequences. Knowing that if I flake out on a story, I'll be walking into a room full of people I know, with no story to turn in? That provides an amazing amount of motivation to write like crazy, and finish a story. I can't do that for myself. I can't even do it for, say, an anthology I'd like to submit for. If I've promised a story to an editor, then that works -- having an editor get annoyed with me and have to scramble to find another writer to write something to fill the spot in the book I was supposed to fill is enough of a real-world consequence to get my writing in gear. But just, "Hey, that's a cool anthology, it closes next Friday, I'd like to write a story for it," isn't enough. Maybe I will, maybe I won't. :/ Very annoying. It's purely a mental block, but knowing that doesn't help.

It was bad enough before, knowing I can write 20K words in a week if I want to. Now I know I can write almost twice that if I'm properly motivated, which makes it that much more frustrating. Heck, I'd love to do 10K words a week. That's half a million words a year, even taking two weeks for vacation. :P

Coming up toward the end of last week, I planned to see if I could keep the momentum going. But around the middle of the workshop, Thursday or so, I started getting a bit of a tickle in my throat. Luckily it stayed at that very low level through the workshop, but as soon as I got home, I fell into bed, and when I woke up I had a raging cough, sore throat, and stuffed up nose. :( It's tough to think about writing, or much of anything else, when it's hard to breathe. I'm starting to feel more human, so we'll see how the writing goes next week.

If nothing else, I had an awesome April. :)

And seriously, Kris does a couple of genre workshops per year. If I had the money, I'd sign up for everything that's currently scheduled. (No, I don't get any kick-backs or discounts for reccing the workshops; I just think they rock.) She's teaching a Mystery workshop in September, and a Fantasy workshop next April. She's done Romance and Alternate History before. I think she did Thrillers once? I'd love to take all of them. Kris is a slave driver, but damn, it works!

Awesome workshop. Highly recommended.



Linda Maye Adams said...

Details like this I spent almost a year just struggling to get it into the story when I write. I had to consciously think, "I need sense of smell," or I'd skip right into my default. I'm only starting to get it in more automatically.

One of the problems is that description tends to get a bad rap. Writers do it badly, so everyone says to do it in drips so you don't have too much ... and that's just horrible advice because no one's explaining how to do it right, only not to do it too much. I've actually seen advice where the writer says not to put in the five senses or do a lot of description and other writers agree because they saw one book where a writer went overboard. And all I can do is think, "That's why you're getting form rejects."

Angie said...

Linda -- that's where I am right now, having to think about it. Definitely looking forward to the point where it loads into the back of my brain and comes automatically. [nod]

And I know what you mean about some writers doing it badly. :P I remember there was a thing going around among romance writers in the late 80s about using all five senses. Someone had their character walking along through a house, in their way to go somewhere and actually go someplace with a purpose, but then -- screech! -- they stopped in front of a fruit bowl on a table. The fruit bowl had a peach in it. Character looked at the peach, noted its color and its ripe roundness, then picked it up and felt its soft, fuzzy skin, lifted it to her nose and smelled its sweet scent, then took a bite and tasted the sweet, syrupy peachiness of it. I forget what they did for sound -- maybe dropped it and heard it make a squishy PLOP! when it hit the floor? [eyeroll] At any rate, that was it, they had their five senses, and the character went on walking to wherever they were going, to do whatever they were going to do.

Yeah, definitely doing it wrong. :/

I haven't heard anyone say writers should just cut way back on descriptions, though. That sounds like horribly stupid advice. I mean, that's like observing that Electra and Catwoman both bombed, and deciding that movies with female leads bomb and shouldn't be made anymore. (Oh, wait, that's pretty much how Hollywood thinks!) But seriously, if something sucks, then having more of that sucky thing is of course bad. The trick isn't to just keep doing less of the sucky thing. The trick is to stop sucking. [wry smile]

That's why you're getting form rejects.

Most likely.


Charles Gramlich said...

Sounds great. I've heard she's a very fine teacher. I know I could benefit from this kind of stuff.

Angie said...

Charles -- seriously, if you ever have a chance to take a writing class with her (one of the genre-focused ones) do it. Spend the money, take vacation, and go. The other workshops are good too, I've raved about them before here, but if you want to focus on the writing, these are the classes to take.

I'd love to share a classroom with you some time. :)