The second day of Writers Weekend was Friday, but it was the first day of real activities. I skipped breakfast in cabin 601, just because I’m not really into breakfast foods most of the time. I had a Diet Pepsi and a Clif bar and a few potato chips — yes, that sounds nasty for breakfast but they were baked chips, and they sounded good so I popped ’em open before heading out to the first 9am critique.
Attendees were split into two critique groups, one each overseen by Jay Lake and David D. Levine. I was in Jay’s group. Each writer was responsible for submitting their story electronically about six weeks in advance, and for printing out the stories of all the other writers in their group. Each reader made notes, comments and suggestions on the manuscript, and returned the annotated copy at the end of the critique. Both groups included eight participants and one “writer guru,” and Jay submitted a story for critique by his group, but David didn’t. This meant we arrived for this thing with nine printouts (in Jay’s group, at least, eight printouts for David’s group) covered with notes, and we sat in a conference room and introduced ourselves, though mostly we knew each other’s names already. Each critique group met twice — once on Friday and once on Saturday — so half the stories were covered in each meeting.
I won’t go into individual writers’ names or story details, because I’m not sure the other participants would want that (though if you were a member of David’s group and want to know about how it went in Jay’s group, message me and I’ll let you know). Here’s a quick, spoiler-free, privacy-respectful summary.
Tthe first writer’s critique went fairly easily because the story was both fairly short, and quite a successful piece of work.
My critique was second and went about as I expected. Some people “got it” and really liked it, and several felt I left too many concepts undefined, and were thus confused. “They were confused” implies that I think they were wrong, and that’s not the case. Some elements in my story, particularly the reasons and details underlying the central mission, were not explained very clearly. I hoped this would be acceptable to the reader — because the mission is the reason the characters are going where they’re going, but it’s not the heart of the matter. Some readers focused on the interpersonal drama and were satisfied, while others were bothered by the large amount of future-tech jargon-osity. I definitely feel the suggestions I received will help make me a better story, and that’s all I could ask. Also, though I had no “please let them love it!” expectations, it was nice to receive very strong praise from some members of the group.
The third and fourth critiques in the first workshop were somewhat similar, in that both stories started slowly but real strengths, and could definitely be made publishable with reasonable revisions. Other readers in the group seemed to like those last two stories less than I did myself, but that’s hard to tell in these things.
Our first workshop ended, we hurried to lunch in cabin 601, and then immediately to David Levine’s first lecture, on the subject of “Plot.” I don’t want to give up too much of what David said, as that content belongs to him, but I found his presentation very well-done, entertaining, and definitely useful. David considers himself a plot-focused writer, while he acknowledges that most writers are more about the characters. I’d say my biggest weakness as a writer in my earlier stages (say, throughout my twenties) was plot. Back then, my idea of a story was sticking a handful of cool people in a room and having them drink and banter and say clever things. One of my more action-packed early stories might have a person feeling disenchanted with their relationship but doing nothing about it… or feeling terribly frustrated at having to work a full-time job instead of doing their art, but doing nothing about it. Holy shit, young writer!
It’s been a primary focus of my more recent writing to focus more on plot, not just in the “action” sense but in term of events driving things forward. To me, an important key discovery is that if it’s hard to describe what a story is about — if you find yourself grasping for things like “it’s about a guy who feels like…” or maybe “it concerns a couple that has a vague sense of malaise about…” — then maybe your story isn’t really about anything. The best test you can give to determine whether or not your plot is strong enough is, can you describe your story and make it sound interesting in a one or two sentence summary? If not, then maybe too much of your story is air-fairy and not going to compel the reader.
Anyway, none of the last paragraph was anything David said, just my own interjection. But hearing David talk about the importance of plot, and having a protagonist who acts like a protagonist (you know, actually does stuff, takes action and moves in a certain direction), helped drive the point home. You know, drill it a little deeper into my hard head.
The lecture was just an hour, and immediately after followed David’s group’s first critique, while those of us in Jay’s group had four hours free time until dinner. I changed into running clothes and went down to the beach, and ran about an hour.
Then it was time for the second night’s dinner, and I’m not sure if it was because more people had a glass of wine, or because we’d started getting comfortable together, but it was a more lively and funny evening than the first night. I ended up talking at length with another writer, obadiah, who is involved in music, and when I mentioned my own musical activities to him, I discovered he’s very good friends with Robert Rich, one of the artists on my Hypnos label. We ended up talking until I started yawning, and just like that, day two was over.
It was a fun night, and the social stuff ends up being at least as compelling a reason to make a trip like this, as the critiques or lectures.