Business Musings: Storytelling Universes

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I just spent a week talking in-depth about fiction. We held our annual anthology workshop here at the Oregon Coast. We’re trying to come up with a new name for the workshop, because the “anthology” workshop is our personal shorthand. A lot of our workshops’ names are simply shorthand, because we haven’t spent enough time thinking about marketing the workshops. We kinda eased into teaching the workshops without thinking about them, and so marketing has been haphazard at best.

We don’t really think about the workshop as something we sell. We think of them as something we do to continue our own learning and to pay forward.

The writers who come to the workshop recommended the name change this year, because the anthology name doesn’t fit at all. The workshop is, in its own way, an upper level course in the way readers read, the way editors buy, and the way that writers should approach their craft once those writers have all of their tools in place.

We screen heavily. The people who come have more credentials than most people whose bylines you see in various fiction magazines. The writers write stories to a suggestion over six weeks in the winter, and then a rotating group of six or seven editors discuss those stories. The editors don’t workshop the stories in Clarion style or college writing program style. The editors approach the stories as if those stories were submitted to an anthology or to a magazine, and discuss why or why not the story might sell to us. For five of the editors, that’s all theory. But sometimes, for one of the editors, it’s all relevant. Because, sometimes, we have what we call “live” anthologies—the final editor on the project is looking for something to fill an anthology that they’re editing. We usually have at least one “live” magazine represented, sometimes more. Again, the editor is looking for something specific for her publication.

But some years, we don’t have “live” anythings, and still the writers come. Because the learning is so awesome.

It’s awesome for me too. It prevents me from ever getting into the headspace that my way of reading, my way of understanding stories, and my taste are the be-all and end-all of fiction. I’ve known too many writers and too many editors who firmly believe that of their own opinions. It makes for stale anthologies and sloppily edited magazines. It means those writers don’t continue learning, which stalls their careers.

It also makes for hard feelings between writers and editors. I’ve had the experience, within the last five years, in which editors have asked for a specific type of story from me, and then demanded that I write the story to be something else entirely, to fit with the editor’s vision of what all of the stories should be, rather than look at each story for what it is, to see if it fits in the publication.

For example, my Kristine Grayson books and stories are paranormal romance (mostly), urban fantasy (occasionally), and they’re always light with a punch, and some humor. I got asked to submit a Kristine Grayson story to an anthology, and once I did—on topic—the editor asked me to cut the humor, change the story into something dark, and demanded that the couple not get together in the end. In fact, he wanted my heroine to kill the hero.

Um, no.

I pulled the story.

And this just doesn’t happen to me. It happens to all writers. The great Ursula K. Le Guin, with decades of experience, sales, and influence behind her, said this in 2014 at the National Book Awards :

Yet I see sales departments given control over editorial…. And I see a lot of us, the producers, who write the books and make the books, accepting this – letting commodity profiteers sell us like deodorant, and tell us what to publish, what to write.

That is not how editing should work.

In our anthology workshop, we try to model the ideal of how editing should work. A lot of excellent editors (who don’t come to our workshop) also work that ideal, and those people are a joy to work with.

We also try to model how writers should respond. Writers should understand that each editor is different, even if they edit seemingly similar things. We show—often quite clearly—that one editor might not understand a story at all, and the next editor might love it to pieces as it is.

That means that silly rewrites, like the one I mentioned above of the Kristine Grayson story, should be easy to walk away from. It also means that those of us who get told what to write, what to publish, should also walk away.

We should follow our hearts.

We use the anthology workshop to teach writers—viscerally—how to follow their hearts. That’s why we need a new name for the workshop. Maybe we’ll have one by next year’s class (which is mostly full, by the way.)

One of most fascinating parts of the week are the ways that we end up discussing literature. We talk about the writer’s intent. We talk about the metaphors and the power of the manuscript. But when we really love a story, we get lost in it—no matter who we are. Something in that piece takes us away from our lives, our concerns, our very selves.

And if we enjoyed that experience, we’ll defend it to the death. I’ve seen editors on the panel argue forcefully with another editor about the meaning of the story or the power of the read. This year, I was subject to bouncing (in the chair) and heckling from five other editors when I didn’t take a baseball fantasy that logic dictates I should have taken. (I love fantasy; I love love love baseball stories. I [sadly] didn’t love that story.) I got heckled from the other editors all week for letting that story slip through my fingers. Which is okay. Since I heckled my colleagues for their missed stories as well.

This year, we even saw two of the editors recall an unsold story from two years before, and bring it forward to their current anthology. Those two editors had loved that story so very much that they remembered the experience of reading it, of getting lost in it, two years later, and wanted to share that experience.

That impulse to share is at the heart of true editing. Editors want to share the reading (the enjoyment) experience with readers. I missed that part of editing the most after I retired from The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction. Missing that experience was one reason I started the monthly Recommended Reading List on my website. Missing that experience is also one of the (many) reasons that Dean and I started Fiction River. We both love sharing what we’ve read—or what we’ve watched—or what we’ve discovered.

So, I’ve been spending days and days thinking about and discussing how readers get lost in stories. I’ve traded recommendations with other writers and editors. I’ve argued about fictional judgment for that entire time.

And then, on my day off between the workshop and returning to the Real World, I watched the annual Oscars telecast.

I’ve watched the Oscars every year since I was seven (with the exception of three years in which the anthology workshop made watching it impossible). Fifty years of Oscar. The cheese, the glitz, the glamor.

But I don’t watch for those things. Early on, I watched it as a star-struck kid, who hoped to see her name on a movie screen one day. Then I watched it as a budding writer, knowing I wasn’t cut out for acting or being in front of the camera, but thinking (somewhat seriously for a while) of writing for the screen. Then, when I realized I’m also not temperamentally suited for writing screenplays (I don’t play well with others), I watched the telecast to remind myself that it truly is an honor to be nominated, that the best films (actors, writers, directors) don’t always win, that sometimes they don’t even get recognized, and that’s okay.

As I’ve gotten older, though, I listen to the stories that the nominees tell. The ones who are truly touched by the award, who don’t think it’s their due. They talk about their start, about the films—the stories—that influenced them and made them want to be a part of the great world of film.

Most of those personal stories are stories of escape. Oprah told one quite vividly in her now-famous Golden Globe speech. The press missed her point. They kept arguing about whether she would run for president, when in reality, she was trying to inspire us to be our best selves and to take action to change the world.

But in giving that speech, she told the Oscar story from her childhood—and it’s way better than any of mine:

In 1964, I was a little girl sitting on the linoleum floor of my mother’s house in Milwaukee, watching Anne Bancroft present the Oscar for best actor at the 36th Academy Awards. She opened the envelope and said five words that literally made history: “The winner is Sidney Poitier.” Up to the stage came the most elegant man I had ever seen. I remember his tie was white and, of course, his skin was black. And I’d never seen a black man being celebrated like that.

And I have tried many, many, many times to explain what a moment like that means to a little girl, a kid watching from the cheap seats, as my mom came through the door bone-tired from cleaning other people’s houses. But all I could do is quote and say that the explanation in Sidney’s performance in “Lilies of the Field”: Amen, amen. Amen, amen.

Hope. Something to look toward. Something that takes us out of ourselves. Movies do that for me.

The love of movies was one of the few things I shared with my mother. She had a horrendous childhood, filled with abuse and terrible poverty. There was never enough food after her father died. And her mother, who tried to make a home for all of her children, died just a few years later, leaving my mother (the baby) at the mercy of relatives, some of whom did not want anything to do with her.

Somehow, she managed to scrounge dimes so she could see matinees on the weekends. Given the stories she told, I suspect she snuck into the theaters a lot more than she was willing to admit. The movies were her guidelines, her hope, and the only way she knew how to relate to the outside world, because she had seen so little of it as a child.

My childhood was not a cakewalk by any stretch. My parents were well off, but they were alcoholics. So I got the benefit of the abuse, without the attendant Depression, poverty and starvation.

Movies provided an escape for me, an acceptable place to dream. Books provided an even bigger escape, because our household was filled with them, from top to bottom. And I read every single one, even if it was too old for me. I learned how to negotiate my way in the world from those books, and they gave me permission to dream.

But I learned to watch the Oscars from my mother, because those snippets of joy from the winners contained stories of how those people—at the pinnacle of their careers—found their dreams, and found the way to hope. Just like Oprah mentioned in that story above.

After 9/11, I had to evaluate what a career in fiction meant to me. It wasn’t running into collapsing buildings to save people. It wasn’t working in a field hospital. As I’ve blogged about before, it took me a long time to remember that fiction’s escape was just as important as running into those buildings. Those of us who write stories provide the firefighter or the exhausted doctor a moment to step out of themselves and live somewhere else for a while.

And we all pick something different as our respite reading—something that became really evident at the anthology workshop. Sometimes, we pick light fiction or humorous fiction or romance fiction to see a world where people laugh and happily ever afters really do exist. Sometimes, we pick the darkest of noir to see how others negotiate the horrible times. Sometimes, we read adventure fiction because our lives lack adventure or because someone else’s adventure seems ever so much more interesting than our own.

But we all take our escapes, and use them to keep ourselves sane.

I can’t tell you how much I value that. I’ve had times in my life when the only thing that kept me going was the ability to escape into another world or to leave the quiet discomforts of my own mind.

This is why whenever I curate a Storybundle, I choose AbleGamers as the charity. I’ve chosen a few others, but I keep coming back to AbleGamers. Because I truly believe that AbleGamers saves lives—but does so in a way that people leading regular lives don’t always realize.

There’s a marvelous essay on AbleGamers’ website about the way that AbleGamers changes lives.  The essay starts with this sentence:

There are 149 bumps in the timeworn paint on the popcorn ceiling– the same as yesterday morning.

The essay is about living in a facility, without the ability to move on your own. The essay is about waiting, and getting through a day.

Once help arrives to get you into a sitting position, your day of watching television begins.…New things are only released every so often and when you have 100 hours a week to watch television, options start running out quickly….

Video games break down the barriers of social isolation by providing level playing fields where anyone can make friends, interact with family, and participate in the infinite space of virtual worlds. The benefits are numerous….

I think about this a lot. Those thoughts started with my late friend, writer Kent Patterson, who had had polio as a child. It left him unable to walk easily and well. He and I went to local conferences together, and just getting him into the facility took time. We often had to go blocks out of our way to get access. Some doors didn’t work for him. Others were hard to find. Even when we arrived, we couldn’t always set him up to speak, because the organizers didn’t plan for Kent, even though they knew he was coming.

I’ve blogged about my own chronic illness, which, for the past few years, has curtailed my life in ways that I hadn’t expected. Yet I can go out, see friends, run a few miles, and participate in all kinds of social rituals. I hate the limitations that I have, but I can (mostly) find ways around them, and I’m making changes in my life to find more ways around it.

But so many people don’t have the opportunity to make those changes. Their disability or their chronic illness makes their reality a lot starker than mine, than most of ours. And consuming story isn’t easy either when you don’t have a lot of choices.

I’m doing Storybundle right now, with AbleGamers as the charity. You can buy ten books and give to the charity, spending as little as $15.  The books are fantasy, historic fantasy, and steampunk, worlds that take us away from this one.

Lest you think this is a prolonged pitch instead of a blog post, let me reassure you that it’s not. Because in my mind, the workshop, the Oscars, the books and AbleGamers are all of a piece.

That piece is all about the importance of story. The reality of fantasy, if you will. Rich or poor, happy or sad, trapped or free, we as human beings learn best through storytelling. We only have one life and one brain and one perception, so the best way we understand others is to learn their stories, to share experiences in ways that make it seem like we’ve lived other lives.

Sometimes we escape through games, racing cars or slaying monsters or exploring dungeons. Sometimes we escape in books, into alternate histories of the world we thought we knew or flying into space or solving crimes alongside Sherlock Holmes. Sometimes we sit in darkened theaters or well-lit living rooms, watching Wonder Woman cross No Man’s Land.

Then we finish relaxing with the story or feeling our adrenaline pumping from a great gaming session, and we return to our regular lives, doing whatever it is we do as we get through the days.

I’m lucky: I get to spend hours every single day not just thinking about story, but creating story and reading story. Whenever someone tells me that they have no idea how I do what I do, I think I have one of the best jobs ever. I get to make things up. Other people have to deal with the realities they’re given. I get to change mine, almost every day.

I get frustrated by things in the publishing industry, generally because those things can destroy wonderful writers. When wonderful writers get destroyed, their stories go untold.

I am thrilled by indie publishing, for the reason that most people in traditional publishing dislike it. Indie publishing opens the doors to stories we wouldn’t normally see, worlds we’ve never visited before.

We’re watching that flowering in the film industry right now. Old myths are being shattered. Films featuring people of color don’t open big worldwide, the old myths said. Black Panther isn’t just correcting that myth, or even shattering that myth. Black Panther is obliterating that myth.

The giddiness among the women in the Oscar ceremony was fun to watch, not just because doors are opening, but because the people walking through those doors have different, new, and fascinating stories to tell.

In the front part of this century, storytelling had stagnated. Just as Ursula said, allowing the suits to dictate what stories got told meant that the same stories got told and retold and told yet again, because those suits weren’t creative types. They were cautious types, who had no idea why people responded well to the first thing, but not as well to the fifteenth iteration. Those suits had lost track of the importance of story, if they had ever known it.

When ebooks broke publishing open to new tales, the world expanded in two ways. People living in rural communities without bookstores or libraries could get their hands on any book they wanted, the moment they wanted that book. Those readers went from binge buying whenever they happened to be in a city and hoping those books would last to the next visit, to picking out a book when they needed it. Readership has grown dramatically.

Ebooks made self- and indie-publishing easier too, so that we could read the kind of fiction we want to read—each one of us—rather than read what gets dictated from above.

Just today, I looked over the list for the Lambda Literary Awards  and mixed in with the usual small, regional, and university presses were two things that pleased me. The number of books marked “self-published” had grown dramatically. And, in the YA category, the rise of traditional publishers, exploring material that they would have spurned as inappropriate as recently as ten years ago.

We’re making storytelling progress. We’re hearing new stories, and we’re trying to bring stories to people who have had trouble getting them.

I like the changes that are slowly seeping our industry. I like those changes as a writer, of course, but mostly as a reader and a consumer of story. This past week, I thought about all of the stories I’d seen just in February, stories that wouldn’t have existed without the changes in publishing.

And that thought made me smile.

I love the fact that our storytelling universe is growing. I love that the doors are opening, so that more people can enter that universe. And I love the way that universe is changing the real world, one empathetic reader/viewer/player at a time.

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“Business Musings: Storytelling Universes,” copyright © 2018 by Kristine Kathryn Rusch. Image at the top of the blog copyright © Can Stock Photo / SergeyNivens.


11 thoughts on “Business Musings: Storytelling Universes

  1. Kris,

    I’m a little confused by “Because, sometimes, we have what we call ‘live’ anthologies—the final editor on the project is looking for something to fill an anthology that they’re editing…But some years, we don’t have ‘live’ anythings, and still the writers come.”

    I thought there was always at least one live anthology per theme. At least that’s the way it was when I was there in 2015.

    1. Some years, particularly 2008-2010 when no one was buying anthologies in NY, we didn’t have live anthologies. Still, the workshop filled. With WMG, we’ll always have a few. But the point of this is not to sell stories, but to learn more about storytelling and how editors work. We’ve been trying to think up a new name for the workshop all spring. Haven’t come up with anything yet…

  2. “It also makes for hard feelings between writers and editors. I’ve had the experience, within the last five years, in which editors have asked for a specific type of story from me, and then demanded that I write the story to be something else entirely, to fit with the editor’s vision of what all of the stories should be, rather than look at each story for what it is, to see if it fits in the publication.

    “For example, my Kristine Grayson books and stories are paranormal romance (mostly), urban fantasy (occasionally), and they’re always light with a punch, and some humor. I got asked to submit a Kristine Grayson story to an anthology, and once I did—on topic—the editor asked me to cut the humor, change the story into something dark, and demanded that the couple not get together in the end. In fact, he wanted my heroine to kill the hero.

    “Um, no.”

    Thanks so much for this. Not because I would be in danger of making false changes like that, but because I carry around a nagging, subterranean worry that perhaps I’m being difficult or bullheaded or Refusing to Listen because I won’t. So I keep responding to these people in my head, justifying why it’d be wrong to redo my story to fit their advice or demands.

    Like the editor at the writers’ conference who really liked the premise for my romantic suspense novel, but told me to deep six the romance plot. No. That would make it a totally different book with different characters and a whole different arc.

    Or the two older, more experienced writers at another conference who practically ordered me not to give my couple an HEA. “Relationships are overrated. It’ll be a stronger book if she dumps him at the end and goes on alone. Make that happen instead.”

    No. There’s a reason why the HEA trope satisfies readers. It’s right for my novel, it’s what everything in it leads up to, and I don’t need to apologize for going with it.

    And letting people who don’t get that into my head space is a waste of energy and time.

  3. I have just so much thanks for this post – all of your posts help me reflect on my own writing, but this came at exactly the right moment. I’ve been at a crossroads in many things and that was affecting my view on writing. That reminder of how important fiction is to people, to provide rest and rejuvenation before heading back out into the world, was everything I needed.

    (Also, thank you for sharing about AbleGamers – I’ve never heard of them before!)

  4. This has been an exciting few years for myth shattering stories, definitely! When I think of the youngsters (including my 5 year old son) who will be thrilled and exhilarated by Black Panther or Wonder Woman or Eleven, etc., I feel a little misty-eyed. Because I so vividly remember watching Sigourney Weaver as Ripley in Aliens and being overcome by her Ripley-ness, something I’d never seen before on screen or on TV. (This was the early 80s, remember). I had literally never seen a character like Ripley in anything. She was smart, competent, direct, no-nonsense, decisive . . . and that was before an alien even appeared onscreen.

    Now I’m off to populate my imaginative landscape with my own Ripleys.

  5. I have almost always refrained from giving my official opinion about my fellow authors’ books. Why? Because it would put me in a place of authority where I don’t want to be. I love to share my thoughts about my readings with my wife, or other readers, or other authors as long as it is not official. I think there would be a conflict of interest if I were to blog about the books I love, especially if the authors of the books were to be friends. If I were able to influence people into reading this or that book, there would always be the suspicion that I favor a given author over another because I expect something in exchange. It doesn’t feel right to me.

    Besides, I think an author doesn’t read a book the way a reader does, and there is always the risk of jealousy.

    But yeah, I loved Black Panthers. And I also wrote what I thought about The Last Jedi in my blog, because it’s a movie, and I just gave my opinion as a spectator who has a special interest in the scenario.

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