I had a big list of things to do on Monday after getting back from Taos. It’s now Friday. How’d that happen?
We did attend a delightful lecture by Peter Schickele (of P.D.Q. Bach fame) on humor in music, and a performance of Avenue Q. I greatly enjoyed the latter, and I was particularly impressed with the performer for the puppets Kate Monster and Lucy The Slut. Not only did she play two vertices of a romantic triangle, sometimes both on stage at the same time, but she was visibly pregnant — not something the romantic lead could get away with in most shows.
I’ve been thinking a lot about what I learned at Taos Toolbox. Although it wasn’t the life-changing experience that Clarion was, I did learn a few things…
The (unplanned) theme of the workshop seems to have been that one’s greatest strength often turns out to be one’s greatest weakness. This is true of characters (for example, the character who is most kind and trusting is taken advantage of by the bad guy) and of writers (for example, the writer whose dialog is the most natural and powerful is tempted to use it to paper over plot holes). For me, this strength and weakness is plotting — I am constantly amazed how much difficulty some writers have in figuring out what happens next (for me, it’s always inescapably obvious) but the downside is that my plots tend to push the characters around.
Beginnings are really, really important, because they set the reader’s expectations. For example, we read a YA novel excerpt which opened with the main character diligently sorting jelly beans by color. Many of us figured she was autistic, obsessive, or just preternaturally tidy, and assumed that this would be significant later on. But no — according to the author, it’s just what the character happened to be doing when the story started. The thing is, at the very beginning, a story has no forward momentum. It’s standing still, and from that point it could go in any direction with equal ease. The opening tells the reader which direction the story will be going, whether deliberately or not, and once the reader understands that direction it takes a substantial effort to redirect that momentum. A beginning that points the reader in the wrong direction can cause them to make incorrect assumptions that will make them throw the book at the wall later when the book doesn’t line up with their expectations.
Symbolism and foreshadowing are powerful tools, which I do not yet know how to use consciously. The opening of Casablanca, in which the viewer is prepared by the cinematography and the other characters’ reactions to understand how significant Rick is before Bogart even appears on screen, is one example of foreshadowing, but Nova uses it over much longer stretches of the book. Symbolism… it’s like radioactivity to me. It’s always present in the environment, I know that it is powerful and can be used safely if appropriate care is taken, but I’m afraid of it.
Too much dialog in works by beginning writers is “on the nose” — characters saying exactly what they mean. Dialog that is “indirect,” that is, in which the character doesn’t say what they mean or says something that could be interpreted in multiple ways, is more realistic and also increases the density of the prose (by, for example, imparting information and revealing the character’s emotional state at the same time). I use indirect dialog some of the time but I want to use this tool more effectively.
I am very fortunate to have a community of genre writers here in Portland. Most of the other people at Taos Toolbox lacked an in-person critique group back home, even the one from Los Angeles. I have an in-person critique group, a bunch of writers to hang out and write with at the coffee shop once a week, a semi-monthly authors’ lunch, and two local writers’ organizations, not to mention OryCon, Wordstock, and the Writers’ Dojo. I’m aware of two or three other in-person critique groups in Portland just for SF/Fantasy writers, not to mention the Wordos in Eugene.
Now I have two stories and a novel to revise. I hope to have both stories in the mail in the next couple of weeks, and the novel done and out the door by the end of August. This plan is complicated by the upcoming square dance convention (July 1-8), trip to Seattle for a Clarion West party (July 18), Launch Pad workshop (July 30 – August 5), Worldcon (August 6-11), and Farthing Party (August 28 – September 1).
Oh, and we will also be putting out an issue of Bento and continuing to plan a bathroom remodel during that time.
This is fun. Really it is. But next year we will not be traveling quite so much.