Business Musings: Workshop Excitement
Recently, someone asked me why Dean and I continue to teach writing workshops. Most established writers don’t, unless they’re asked to address a college class or spend a week at Clarion. Even then, they’re following someone else’s format, and simply putting their spin on it.
Dean and I have developed an entire curriculum, both online and in-person, and we continue to add to it. We certainly don’t have to, and our move to Las Vegas provided the perfect opportunity to shut down the in-person workshops and move the online workshops to “classic”—those in which there is no real interaction with us at all.
We were verging on doing that anyway. The Lincoln City workshop infrastructure was falling apart. Kip Ward, the owner and heart and soul of the Anchor Inn, died unexpectedly this winter. The Inn at Spanish Head has had a lot of troubles, some so bad that I can no longer be in it because of my chemical allergies. And other venues are too small, too large, or not suitable. We did some up at WMG, but we couldn’t hold large workshops there.
So before the move, Dean and I were talking about shutting down the in-person workshops altogether. We didn’t want to (for reasons you’ll see below), but we felt we had no choice.
The move to Vegas saved the workshops. In fact, we’re ramping up the workshops. Dean and I feel revitalized by the change, and we’re looking forward to the various in-person classes we’re going to teach.
We’re going to be using the city itself to help us teach. We’ve done that with Lincoln City, and gotten some great results. In fact, there are an astonishing number of Oregon Coast short stories and novels that now exist because of a story spark that happened at one of our workshops.
So that city inspiration aspect excites us, but it’s not the only thing that does. We know we’ll get a whole different group of students than the ones we got in Oregon.
It takes a special kind of person to travel to the ends of the Earth to attend a writing workshop. To get to Lincoln City, you need to fly to a non-major airport (Portland), then drive two hours over a mountain to get to a tiny town with very few amenities. That alone caused a number of writers to either say no to our workshops or to come only once.
At one time, that distance served a purpose. When we started the workshops in 1999, traditional publishing was the only route to becoming a professional writer. It was hard to become—and remain—a professional writer. The trip to the Oregon Coast was one of the first tests we gave our students: if you weren’t willing to travel that far to learn, then you probably didn’t have the determination to stick with the ups and downs of a traditional career.
As you all know, there are other alternatives now. You can indie publish your work. It’s still hard to do so, but hard in a different way. It seems deceptively easy—just put up a book on online sites, do some promotion, and you’re a writer! And then reality sets in. It still takes work, a lot of work, and focus and determination.
And in some ways, that’s a lot like Vegas. The glitz, glamor and promise of easy riches brings people here. The people who stay live in a different world. It’s not the same as living in Des Moines or Portland, because the volume of tourists and the kinds of jobs available here create the dynamics of the city, but it is still a day-to-day grind to live and work here, just like it is anywhere.
And it has a few traps for the unwary. If you have an addictive personality, you can fuel it in this town. With gambling, sex, alcohol, or legal marijuana, you can spend your entire time servicing your addiction, and people do. There are a lot of ways to sabotage yourself and your life here.
Just like there are in writing.
But we’re not teaching in Vegas as a metaphor (although it works that way sometimes). We’re teaching here because Dean and I have discovered that teaching fuels our writing.
We learn from our students. Dean and I have to challenge ourselves every single day to come up with answers to questions from students. We also pick up insights from writers who work with us.
The reason I’m writing this blog this morning (Sunday), in my usual fiction time, is because of a comment on Dean’s blog that made me slap my forehead. I was slowing down on the Never-ending Novel because I’m healthy. I had been using a lot of shorthand while I was sick—things like [insert character here] because my brain simply couldn’t handle more than the straight plot. (Or convoluted plot, because, you know, it’s me.)
But I’ve gotten healthy a lot faster than I expected, just by changing venue, and every time I sat down to work on the Never-ending Novel, my brain told me to go back to the beginning and organize it the way I know it needs to be organized. And fix the brackets.
I kept telling myself plot first, which was true when I couldn’t multitask. But as Linda Maye Adams said in that comment on Dean’s blog, doing that will break future scenes. I had already snuck in a few things in the past few weeks, and my notes to myself included things like Go back and put in the backstory for XXX.
Yeah. Before the big climactic section, I need everyone named and with back story and all of that. I know that. But of necessity because I was so ill, I punted it, working to get the project done. And I needed the reminder that I could now work like I used to, rather than stumble along because I was writing on half-power.
If Dean hadn’t written a blog on rewriting and cycling, and if people hadn’t commented, I might not have come to that realization, which is a valuable one for me.
Just like the questions that came at me during the fantasy workshop made me look solidly at what I think about certain types of fantasy. And, for in-person workshops, I assign reading lists so that everyone is working off the same examples, rather than struggling with movie and tv references that might or might not translate well.
In those reading lists, I always include books I want to read but hadn’t found the time. Or books that look relevant (but sometimes aren’t). In the case of the fantasy workshop, I had to read two books that hit square in the middle of things I loathe about fiction because I had missed those elements in the descriptions of the books. One was a zombie story. (Yuck, pee-yew.) And the other was a baby-in-jeopardy story. I had to read the second one with the book far away from me and my eyes half closed, but I finished it and loved it. (The same with a Jack The Ripper story) You can find the references in my Recommended Reading Lists for April and March.
The zombie story, well, maybe I would have liked it if it had setting. But maybe not. Because I truly loathe zombies. I’ll be glad when that fad is over.
Anyway. The point is that I have to face my own prejudices as I work. I also found some books that almost everyone agreed were dull or didn’t work or were disappointing. But in a group of 15 people, two always end up liking those books, which is a lesson in and of itself, one that needs to be stressed. There is a book for everyone, and that book is not to the taste of the masses. Traditional publishing forgot that lesson long ago, but we see it in indie all the time.
The next in-person craft workshops that I’ll be teaching on my own are mystery and romance. I am excited to teach mystery here in Vegas, because it has more than a gothic atmosphere (which is what the coast has). Any type of crime can (and does) occur in Vegas.
I live downtown, near all the courthouses, and outside my window every day, I see little dramas from people’s lives. Such as on the hottest day of the year so far, I watched an obese man in a suit run from the courthouse down a block, looking totally terrified. I thought he was trying to catch up to a police officer who was walking into the nearby parking lot, but the man in the suit passed the police officer, went to an expensive silver sedan, opened the trunk, and removed a thick accordion file. Then he ran back to the courthouse.
He had forgotten some necessary stuff for court. I hope he didn’t have a heart attack when he went back inside, because he looked wilted by the time he left my sight.
The next day, I watched a couple clutching papers nearly come to blows in the same parking lot. The woman was held back by another man, and the man she was trying to hit kept backing up until he got to his car. She managed to escape the man who was holding her, shoved the other man, and then shook the papers at him. Then the man managed to step between them and walk her back to a different car…where a young boy watched it all.
Probably divorce. Probably child custody. Very sad.
The woman, man, and child drove off (very fast), but the other man stood against the trunk of his car for several minutes, and cried.
You tell me there’s no drama in this city, nothing you can use as inspiration, nothing you can’t learn or see. Yeah. Right. There’s drama every day.
On May 4, I watched a wedding (same neighborhood) involving half a dozen people wearing black, and two stormtroopers. It soon became clear that the stormtroopers were the couple getting married.
That’s the opening to a romance novel. Or maybe the end of it.
Lots of inspiration, lots of fun, lots to think about. Lots of new workshop assignments that I can create, all based on this town.
The manuscript reading is always fun for me. I see writers develop and I learn a lot about storytelling from watching others incorporate new techniques into their stories.
I also get inspiration from the students in another way.
I mentioned how sick I have been these past few years. It’s been the students who kept me writing.
When we teach, we force people to write a lot. They write more than they think they can. They write in a strange environment, when they’re jet-lagged or sleep-deprived. They write about things they never thought of before, and they do so to a firm deadline. (I don’t read works in progress, so if someone wants a benefit from the workshop, they have to finish what they write.)
Everyone manages to finish. Some of that comes from Dean’s skill at making certain the students who come to the workshop are capable of meeting those deadlines without doing harm to the students’ dream.
But a lot of it is drive, determination, and sheer cussedness on the part of the students. Even though the workshop turns their critical voices on high, they still manage to be creative. They still write incredible stuff. They still meet their deadlines.
And that inspires me. So when I’m tired or sick or simply not in the mood to work, I think about the students at our workshops, and how those students don’t have those choices. It’s finish the story or lose a workshop opportunity.
Sometimes we tell writers at the workshops to take a break for their health. Get sleep, eat something, exercise. And sometimes we remind them that they can do the work if they just pace themselves.
Those speeches I give to the students, I also give to myself. And it’s a good barometer of what I can and cannot do.
I’m decades away from a “real” job. I used to say to myself, Would you make that excuse to your boss? when I tried not to do the work. But often my sassy creative voice would say, I don’t have a boss. So I’ve substituted the students instead.
How can you ask them to write in these conditions when you won’t? I ask the creative voice. My creative voice loves teaching, and hates being hypocritical. So it [metaphorically] sighs and then gets to work. And I’m usually happier when that happens.
So, anyway. We’ve expanded the workshops. If you want to see more about them, and take advantage of the very short term deal that we’re offering, click this link.
I’m not writing about that, though, as promotion for the workshops (okay, that above paragraph was), but to point out that we writers all find inspiration in different ways. I’ve learned—and Dean’s learned—that teaching is part and parcel of our actual writing. If we teach, we learn. If we learn, we become better writers.
And that’s what writing is all about to me. Constant growth. Constant change. Constant learning.
This weekly blog is part and parcel of the learning for me as well. I’m slowly diving back into research on writing and business and publishing. I’m still learning my new city, which is actually taking time that I hadn’t expected, so I’m going slower than I like. But if I don’t write the blog, I don’t keep my finger on the pulse of the industry.
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“Business Musings: Workshop Excitement,” copyright © 2018 by Kristine Kathryn Rusch. Image at the top of the blog copyright © © Can Stock Photo / mauromod.