I’m feeling the impact of my week at the Writers of the Future workshop more and more as time goes by. Someone in my local writer’s group asked me last week how the WOTF workshop was different from my experience at Clarion West, and it started a bit of a chain of events in my head when I began to think about just how different the two are.
At first glance, the two workshops–other than the significant difference in length–are fairly similar. After all, both are workshops for writers. But really, that’s where the similarity ends, because the focus of the two are radically different in subtle ways.
Clarion West was an incredible experience for me. (Anyone interested in digging through some of my ancient history is more than welcome to read my journal of the event). It was six weeks of complete immersion in writing, among writers, with the time and encouragement to do nothing but write and critique. The instructors were there to guide us and give us insight into their experiences. I wrote (I think) 8 stories and forged some wonderful friendships. I’m very proud to say that my Clarion class produced such luminaries as Daniel Abraham, Ruth Nestvold, and Eric Witchey, to name just a few of the most prominent and now-successful. I learned a great deal about my writing and the industry. After I returned home I wrote a few stories that didn’t sell, but then I went through a bunch of Life Changes and my writing dwindled to next to nothing for about five years.
Funny thing was that during this time that I wasn’t writing, I also wasn’t making any sales. No one was coming to my door and saying, “Hey, Diana, I really want to publish your stuff, so would you please write a few more stories and send them to me?” Go Figure. I finally got off my ass a bit and started writing again, and then became frustrated that I’d fallen so far behind the curve, and that my writing still wasn’t good enough to sell. As the rejections mounted, I found myself comparing my career (hah!) to the careers of others I knew who had Made It. I didn’t want to face the fact that the five years of not-writing hadn’t done a damn thing to improve my craft.
Then, I Got Lucky. I’d written this little poignant story called “Schroedinger’s Hummingbird” about a year after Clarion. I’d sent it out with high hopes, and had received it back with various levels of rejection. (In fact, I think that the continued rejection of a story that I considered to be one of my best was one of the things that made me stop writing. (Yes, I was foolish.)) Several years later, I pulled the story out, dusted it off, reread it, and realized that it wasn’t good enough. So, I rewrote it, tightened it up, and started sending it out again. Once again it gathered rejections, but this time it was getting the “This is good but–” variety of rejections (which in many ways are worse than form rejctions, in my opinion.) As a last resort I sent it off to Writers of the Future–my first time ever entering the contest–and the rest, as they say, is history.
So, here I was, finally with a significant sale, with a heaping measure of validation to go along with a nice-sized check. About a year after I learned that I’d won, I went to California and joined eleven other writers for the annual workshop.
So, to continue the comparison with Clarion: Writers of the Future, on the surface, is also a writers workshop. But when you dig deeper it’s far more than that. It’s a professional writer’s workshop. There’s a basic assumption that the writers attending the workshop are just that–writers. They’ve already made a professional sale, are already feeling a measure of success, and thus the aim of the workshop is encouragement, refinement, and generous heaps of how to be more successful and more professional. It seems a nebulous difference at times, and it wasn’t until the woman in my writer’s group asked me that I stopped to think about it. In Clarion the focus was to write, write, write, critique, critique, critique and hone your craft through the same. At WOTF, you’re only expected to write one story, but you’re expected to write it fast. In 24 hours. And I did. In fact, everyone did. Holy crap, I wrote a story in a day. And it didn’t suck. Too bad.
Over and over during the workshop, along with the valuable instruction on refinement of craft and plot and character and setting, was the continued reinforcement that we were writers. That we could all be successful writers, if we wanted it and worked at it. That we ALL had the ability to make it. And I realized that, yeah, that applied to me too. If I wanted it and worked at it.
But that realization set off a cascade of realizations. Number one was: If I want to be a successful writer, then I need to actually frickin’ write. A lot.
Yes, I know that seems like a real “no shit” kinda thought, but after reading the experiences and thoughts of other writers, I’m finding (to my relief at times) that other people have made that same “Aha!” realization. Yes, if you want to be a better writer, you need to write a lot. Sure, in the couple of years before WOTF I was writing a story every couple of months, and telling myself that with my busy schedule and life that was as much as I could handle, that it was sufficient to make sales and get my name in print. Funny thing is that it was when I finally made the Big Sale (to WOTF) that I realized that I was nowhere near good enough, and I sure as hell wasn’t writing enough. During the WOTF workshop we had numerous established professional writers come and speak to us. Kevin J. Anderson told us that he’d already turned in over 600,000 words of material since the beginning of the year. Tim Powers and K.D. Wentworth told us that they write a minimum of three pages a day. It seems like two ends of the writing spectrum, except that the consistent factor is that they write every day. Every. Day. Then I started looking around at other writers. Nora Roberts (and you can roll your eyes if you want to, but you can’t argue with her success) sits down in her office and writes for eight hours every day. Jay Lake says that it was when he started writing a story a week that he finally started getting better and started making significant sales. (Read his entry about this, because he says it far more eloquently than I can paraphrase.)
Then I read a quote on Jay Lake’s blog (and I can’t remember to whom he attributed it) that said “The best indicator of future success as a novelist is finishing one.” (Or words to that effect.)
Yeah, that was another “Aha!” moment that I should have had ages ago. Holy crap, I need to actually write and finish a frickin’ novel if I want to be a novelist.
So, I started writing. Started on a novel. Nothing too incredibly ambitious, just something that would be fun and interesting. A mystery–since I have, you know, SCADS of personal experience to draw on–but with a supernatural element as well since, darn it, I really like writing spec fic, and I wanted to write something that I, well, wanted to write.
And I wrote on it everyday. Every day. I started around the beginning of September, setting for myself the initial goal of a thousand words a day. As time went on I found that I was easily meeting that goal even with the time constraints of a full-time job and a two-year-old at home, and therefore it began to creep up. Before I knew it, I had over 30,000 words written, a fairly complete outline, solid characters, an interesting plot, and a knowledge of how it was going to end. My word goal went up to 2000 words a day or a minimum of 10,000 words a week, and somehow, today I’m finding myself in the home stretch of the first draft of this thing. It’s definitely a crap first draft, and there are numerous places where I put things in brackets such as [write more description here] and [write fight scene with demon] and [go back and make this make sense]. Basically, any time I stalled, I skipped over the part that stalled me and kept going. But it’s a novel. It’s something that I can now sit down and revise and can look at actually sending out in the not too distant future.
And, yes, it’s not a literary masterpiece by any stretch of the imagination. And I know there are eye-rolls aplenty at authors who churn out novels in the span of weeks instead of years, but I don’t think that prolific and good need be mutually exclusive by any stretch of the imagination. In fact, I think–to use a math analogy– that prolific approaches excellent as # of words written approaches infinity.
I’m not saying that the Writers of the Future workshop is superior to any of the six-week workshops, because it’s really like comparing apples to oranges. Both were invaluable to me as a writer. But, it wasn’t until I got home and started really thinking about where I wanted to be as a writer, and what I wanted to do, that it all fell into place. They’re all pieces of the puzzle that are slowly coming together, and the cool thing is that even after the picture come together, I’ll still be able to build along the edges, expanding and refining my skills and craft through writing, reading, and staying focused on the bigger vision.
I think it’s going to end up being a pretty cool picture.