Learning to fly solo

I never thought of myself as a workshop junky. Not that I have anything against workshops or workshop junkies. I might have been very happy to have gone to Clarion or Clarion West, but my life and my writing development never coincided in such a way that it  made sense to go, and by the time I’d reached a point where a six-week workshop might have been beneficial, I was enmeshed in a full-time job that I quite liked but didn’t afford me six weeks of leave.

Instead, I went to Viable Paradise, the one-week workshop held every year on Martha’s Vineyard. There, I made good contacts, got great writing feedback at a time when I was pretty sure I knew how to write sentences but sucked at stories, and my first professional story sale resulted from that workshop. Viable Paradise obviously had a big impact on my life.

But the workshop that’s given me an even bigger boost than VP has been Blue Heaven, a peer-run workshop founded by C.C. Finlay focusing on novels. I’d written a little practice novel before coming to Blue Heaven, but that was after giving up on the novel I’d really wanted to write, which was Norse Code. Preparing for Blue Heaven three years ago, I decided to give Norse Code another try.  Eleven other writers told me everything that was wrong with the book. And they also told me what was right about it. And they helped me find the hard little raisin stone my faith had become and filled it with liquor and juice and turned it into a big moist plum, and by the time I stepped off the ferry from Kelly’s Island, OH, I was ready to tackle Norse Code again.

I’m streamlining  a little here, because there were some other bumps and curves, but that’s the gist of it. Before Blue Heaven, I wasn’t a professional writer. Now I feel like I am. I’m not talking about sizes of advances or whether or not I’m in SFWA (I’m not). I’m talking about being someone who can write books and get paid for them and do it more than once. Not the pinnacle of professionalism, but it’s a start.

This past weekend I returned from Starry Heaven, a workshop modeled after Blue Heaven. It was a tremendously good and useful time. I got valuable feedback from my colleagues, and I connected with old friends and made new ones in the pleasant thin air of Flagstaff, Arizona. I’m very happy I went, and I’d certainly do it again. I loved being there. I’m so happy to have had the privilege. But I realized I’d be writing the book with or without the workshop. Did I need the workshop? Do I need Blue Heaven? I’m starting to think that maybe I don’t any more. I think, maybe, I could get this job done without the workshop stage. I think that’s normal and healthy. I think it’s a natural part of my growth.

Which is not to say the workshops don’t still fulfill a very critical need for me. There’re still workshop deadlines to motivate me and feedback to help me avoid suckage and help me untie knotted storylines. But honestly, if I never went to another workshop, I’d still get these books written. I couldn’t say that three years ago.

3 Responses to “Learning to fly solo”

  1. June 30, 2009 at 4:54 am

    A good peer workshop, by its very nature, should make itself obsolete. I finished the Demon Redcoat with virtually no workshopping. After the first hundred pages, I was writing faster than even Rae could keep up reading and my editor was the first person to see the book besides me.

    On the other hand, it will always be good to get together with peers periodically — at cons or online or wherever — to trade industry news and writing insights as part of the constant process of improvement.

  2. 2 rachelaaron
    June 30, 2009 at 6:47 am

    I’m both fascinated by and terrified of workshops. The idea of people seeing my work, or me talking about my work before its done, makes me almost panicky. Posting nude photos on the internet feels less invasive than showing other writers something I’m not finished with. At the same time, this emphasis on hoarding and hiding my work makes me feel very alone while I’m writing. I feel utterly inadequate and incapable of judging my own work. For this reason, a program like Blue Heaven sounds very tempting.

    How do you find out about and get involved in workshops? Is it just through the grapevine?

  3. June 30, 2009 at 10:14 am

    Also, Charlie, I think there’s a difference between necessary and beneficial. I think workshops are still beneficial, and I believe I’ll still write better books if I keep going to Blue Heaven. In other words, PLEASE DON’T DISINVITE ME. Let me repeat this: I DON’T WANT TO STOP COMING UNTIL I’M DEAD.

    Rachel, most of these peer workshops are by invitation, so the grapevine is the way to learn about them. I do know, however, that Merrie Haskell ran one this year that had an application process, and Kristine Kathryn Rusch and Dean Wesley Smith run periodic open novel workshops.

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