Champlain College: A Fine Place for a Young Writers Workshop

Last week I wrote about the time I’d just spent at Bread Loaf working with high-school aged writers. Well, now I’m just back from a similarly awesome event, the Champlain College Young Writers Conference, in beautiful Burlington, Vermont, overlooking Lake Champlain. This was my first time there, so I had to discover how things worked as I went. While extremely busy, it was a little more laid-back than Bread Loaf. (Sometimes that meant easygoing and sometimes it meant confusing.) I saw a bunch of familiar faces from Bread Loaf, both faculty and students, and that gave me a feeling of comfort. There were also quite a few of us newcomers among faculty, including Craig Shaw Gardner, who rode up with me from Boston. As far as I could tell, everyone had a great time.

For me, there are three great things that come out of this kind of event: First, the chance to work with incredible kids, whose talents and ambitions both inspire and challenge me. (If any of you guys are reading this, thanks! And that includes the terrific college students who helped us as mentors.) Besides their writing, some of them gave “Moth talks” on real events from their own lives, which were funny, touching, alarming. Their final group presentations were priceless.

Second is the opportunity to mix with writers from all sorts of fields—poetry, mainstream fiction, playwriting, nonfiction—whom I would probably never otherwise meet. They feel like valued new friends, even if I only see them once every year or three.

The third thing is a little less obvious, and that’s the chance to learn more about teaching. Most of these guys not only write, but teach for their day jobs. They have quivers full of skills that enable them to keep a classroom full of kids interested and engaged. I try to soak up as much as I can, while I can. For example, Linda Urban at Bread Loaf gave me a great group exercise for learning to write dialogue. (I didn’t have time to try it on this round, but next time!) At Champlain, I sat in on a craft session on writing from different points of view. I was in awe of Sarah Braunstein’s command of the group, and the way she got them to experiment with different viewpoints. I’m keeping notes for next year!

I also discovered that Phil Baruth is a hell of a pool player, as well as a Vermont state senator. But that was after hours, when I learned that excellent craft beer on draft is a staple in downtown Burlington, and when I for the first time tasted gravy fries. And tasted. And tasted again, just to be sure!

P.S. Many thanks to Lesley Wright and Jim Ellefson for inviting me!

Story from Bread Loaf: “Joe Biden Is my Homeboy”

I’m just back from this year’s New England Young Writers Conference at the Bread Loaf writing center near Middlebury, Vermont. As usual, it was awesome, challenging, inspiring, and exhausting all at the same time. I made some new friends among the writers in residence, reconnected with some old friends, and spent time with a magnificent group of high school student writers. Their talent, intelligence, and mutually supportive nature just blows me away. They’re awesome writers and awesome people.

(Next weekend, I get to do it all over again at the Champlain College Young Writers Conference. Two of my Bread Loaf students are doing that one, too. Talk about dedication!)

This year I particularly enjoyed the readings given by other writers in attendance. One piece I can actually share with you (though not the voice part). This is a story called “Joe Biden Is My Homeboy,” written by Rone Shavers, and inspired by Damon Weaver, a kid who as a 5th grade reporter interviewed candidate Joe Biden for internet TV.

Here’s how the story begins. Try to imagine a sonorous black man’s voice, with cheerful jive intonations, reading the narrative in a voice so fluid it makes you forget that the language is something other than standard English. That would be the voice of the author, who is also by the way a great guy.

Joe Biden Is My Homeboy
by Rone Shavers

Ooh, Ms. Noonan, the reason I was not in your class last week was cause I went to the White House. I was all up in the White House and I was on TV. Okay, you got me, maybe not TV, that is my dream, but I was on TV on the internet, which is called Youtube. I was all up in the Youtubes, but I been there before so you can’t fail me for missing no school. You said if I told you the truth you would let me take them tesses I failt, so I am telling you now the truth.

Ooh, but it is not just the truth, it is also the background, which mean it is the scenario, and that word I learnt in a rap song. No, my whole for real true life story is once, way back when, back in the day, when planet internet generation Kids TV first came to our school, I met Joe Biden. I also met Shawn Marion and Dwayne Wade, star of the Miami Heat, but that is a different story from the one I’m telling you now, so please listen. You got to listen and focus up on my right now story, my story is Joe Biden, he is vice president, and he is my homeboy for real. I sent him a internet email video, and in it I had me on some khaki pants and a smooth polo shirt and I said Joe Biden, I heard you is gone be vice president. That is cool. Will you be my homeboy? If you is my homeboy, I get to interview you, so just say yeah, like Shawn Marion and Dwayne Wade, who is the basketball star of the Miami Heat. Joe Biden, do you like basketball? I love basketball… [read more]
 

Here is a YouTube video of young Damon Weaver interviewing Joe Biden. How much of the rest of the story is true, I do not know.

Now Write! Science Fiction, Fantasy, and Horror

posted in: books, writing 0

Are you hoping to write, but don’t know quite how to get started? Meant to do NaNoWriMo, but the month was gone before you could decide what to write about? Need a little encouragement, or maybe a kick in the butt? Here’s a book that might help. It’s called Now Write! Science Fiction, Fantasy, and Horror, and is edited by Laurie Lamson.

The reason I know about it is that a copy landed in my mailbox a week or two ago. And the reason that happened is that I contributed a piece to the book and then more or less forgot about it. Well, I’m glad my contributor’s copy came along to jog my memory, because it’s a fascinating book. It’s a collection of exercises that various writers and teachers have found helpful, along with little essays about the exercises, and pointers that might help you along the way. That might sound boring, but it isn’t—not at all. I found myself thumbing through it, and wishing I had a few hours to spend right then and there reading it.

There are about fifty or sixty writers represented, including big names like Harlan Ellison and Piers Anthony, and plenty of seriously notable writers whose names are not as widely known. A few of my fellow Book View Café members are in there (Vonda N. McIntyre, Lois Gresh). One of the alums of my own workshop is in there (Chris Howard). The general topics include Story Development and Plotting; Building Worlds; Heroes, Villains, and Monsters; Communication and Relationships; and much more. I will definitely be using this book as a resource the next time I run a workshop.

If writing is in your bucket list, you might want to check it out. It’s available in both paper and electrons:

and doubtless in many of your local bookstores.

Writing as an Act of Faith

As I said in my last two posts, I’m on a writing retreat to work on The Reefs of Time. There’s an interesting faith component to this retreat. While the act of writing is almost by definition a leap of faith (Will this book I’m spending years writing actually turn into something good?) there’s a little more to it this time. As part of my church’s annual Leap of Faith experiment during Lent, I have been praying for a creative breakthrough, and also in particular that my writing wouldn’t just sell, but would touch readers in meaningful and uplifting ways. I mean, really, if it doesn’t do that, is it worth all the work and mental anguish? (Yes, aspiring writers, sometimes it definitely feels like anguish.)

Well, on my first night I settled into a comfortable chair with my laptop, in front of a crackling fire (I have a really nice room at this B&B), to begin writing new material. Not moving stuff around, not taking notes, but doing the hard thing: new stuff. No sooner was I settled in than an email came in. Really, I should have been ignoring emails at that point, but I caught out of the corner of my eye, in the little notification window, something about The Infinity Link. Now, The Infinity Link was one of my early novels, not much noticed nowadays, but in my writing career it was a breakthrough novel in many ways. (Not the least of the ways was that it started small, grew large, and took me bloody forever to write—not unlike the book I’m writing now.)

So I read the email. It was from a reader new to my work. He’d found The Infinity Link in a used bookstore a while back, and read it. He’d just read it again, this time via the Audible audiobook. And he was writing to tell me how profoundly the story and some of its images had touched him—and he just wanted to let me know, and to thank me for writing the book!

Before answering the email, I sat there for a few moments, dumbfounded. I don’t know how you would take it, but that sure felt like an answer to prayer to me.

The writing came easier for the rest of that night.

Two Views of My Novel

I found this rock on the first beach walk of my retreat, a sea-scoured nugget of quartz. It seemed to me a perfect metaphor for my first draft: a gem (or crystal, anyway) in the rough, all of its facets and inner beauty temporarily concealed. I probably won’t polish the crystal, but I will polish the novel. (In fact, I’ve made good progress on a couple of thorny problems while down here.) So, here are two different views of my work in progress:

And while I ponder the book, here’s the Landshark scanning the sea for signs of its marine brethren:

First Writing Retreat of 2014

I’m on Cape Cod for a few days, to clear my head and try to get some traction in the rewrite of The Reefs of Time. I’ve got the whole book loaded into Scrivener now, with notes all over the place, and Scrivener has already proved its usefulness in letting me move the chapters of different subplots around like chess pieces. I think I’ve got them lined up the way I want them, though of course I might feel differently as the rewriting proceeds.

Part of what I love about coming to the Cape is a chance to walk along the beach and the dunes, and refresh my brain with ocean air. Whenever I do that, I seem to see patterns in nature that somehow connect with what I’m writing. The tide coming in over the sand, for example, creates little ephemeral rivers that remind me of the starstream, a cosmic structure of my own imaginary design which figures prominently in the new book. (See From a Changeling Star and Down the Stream of Stars for more about the starstream, which was born of a supernova and a long cosmic hyperstring.)

I’m not sure what these vistas of sand dunes remind me of, but I felt strongly that they symbolize something in the story I’m writing. I guess I’ll find out what, later.

In case you think I just stole these pictures off the internet, here’s one of me standing where the dunes give way to the beach and the water. (Would you trust this guy with your daughter? Hmm.)

How about this guy? (He claimed to be rollerblading. But it was way too cold to be rollerblading. What was he really doing?)

My Application to Amtrak Is In

Well, I did it. I applied for Amtrak’s writer residency program, #AMTRAKRESIDENCY. I just read that they’ve already received 8000 applications in the few days the program has been open.

The program is not without controversy, to say the least. The terms of application give Amtrak wide latitude to use material submitted to them, at their own discretion, more or less forever. The best discussion of this is probably on the always excellent Writers Beware, which offers some simple suggestions to Amtrak on how to take the sour taste out of the program.

I am in total sympathy with those who think Amtrak’s terms are over the top, probably due to a lawyer who got carried away. They have indicated that they are listening to feedback from writers, and I hope they amend their terms. For my own application, I included a brief excerpt from the beginning of Neptune Crossing—which has already been published, is widely available for free (by my choice), and which I warmly encourage Amtrak to publicize on my behalf. The size of the excerpt pretty much amounts to Fair Use in copyright terms, anyway. If you’re a writer and you’re considering applying, think carefully about those conditions and what you put up.

So yes, Amtrak, I was willing to work with those terms for my own application. But for others, who might have shorter works to offer, or unpublished works, I understand the consternation. I urge you to reconsider the terms. See Writer Beware for simple, common sense ways to do that. In the meantime, I hope you consider my application favorably. I’d really like a nice, long train ride to help me work on my book!

The Reefs of Writing — Scrivener?

I’ve been poring over the first draft of The Reefs of Time and taking copious notes on what I need to change as I rewrite it. To my surprise, I found more places that seem to call for further development than places that need extensive cutting. (There’s always a need for cutting and tightening; that goes without saying. But I’m talking about the light-saber approach that’s sometimes needed to excise long, rambling detours. I didn’t find too many of those.) That’s both good news and bad news. The good part is, the first draft is better than I expected. The bad part is—well, remember the picture I showed you of the first draft? The second draft could be longer.

Not what I expected.

To deal with the complexity of the book—I wrote several different subplots as standalone documents, figuring I would figure out how to braid them together later—I have decided to give Scrivener a try. Scrivener is a writing tool designed especially for people like fiction writers, with all sorts of organizational features, including the ability to easily move sections around, as well as keeping notes and research materials at your fingertips. That seems like just what I need. It offers many things that Word does not. Unfortunately, it also lacks a few of Word’s features that I use all the time, such as support for paragraph styles and keyboard macros. An uneasy tradeoff.

I’ve spent much of the last two days with the trial version of Scrivener, loading all my different documents and notes into it, and slicing the book into chapters for easy manipulation. My current plan is do the heavy rewriting in this environment, and then port it back into Word for the final polish. That’s what some of my colleagues do, and it seems to work well for them. (Here’s one such report, from Charles Stross.)

This is all subject to change, as I test things out. Stay tuned.

Writing on a Train? Yes, please!

I love trains, and always have. When I was a kid, growing up in Huron, Ohio, I lived maybe half a mile from the New York Central main line (now Amtrak’s) between New York and Chicago. Sometimes we would get ice cream cones and go down to the tracks at about 9 p.m. Nighttime trains were always the best. If they were running on time, we’d get to watch two great eastbound passenger trains—the Pacemaker and the Twentieth Century Limited—fly past about ten minutes apart.

The show opened in stages in the darkness. We’d peer to our left, where the double tracks disappeared around a curve bending toward the Lake Erie shoreline. The first sign was a quiet singing of the rails, and the extended glow of the headlight beam, shining into the distant curve. An instant later, the crossing flashers lit up on three grade crossings in a row. Then the headlight and the train itself came around the bend, with the first long blast on the horn in the soulful sequence of Lonnng Lonnng Short Lonnnnnnnnnnng!

Even in the distance, those streamlined E-unit locomotives radiated nothing but power, as if they were born to fly. The track was a little wavy, and the headlights bobbed up and down as the thing bore down on us, threatening to leap off the track, and finally roared through the crossing with the final cry of the horn dopplering down in pitch as it passed at 70 or 80 miles per hour. Right behind came the long string of lit-up passenger cars, full of people bound for mysterious destinations. I always wondered where they were going, and why; and I longed to go, too. The last car was a rounded observation car, and I imagined sitting in comfort, watching the dark landscape reel away behind me. When that trailing car disappeared to the east, we would turn and wait for the next train, close on its heels.

http://cruiselinehistory.com/

I never rode the Twentieth Century, to my regret. I did once ride the Pacemaker with my dad, and it was great. Funny, though, that wondering mystery goes away when you’re on the inside of the train, to be replaced with other kinds of excitement and intrigue.

It’s been years since I’ve ridden a long-distance train just for the fun of it. But I hope that will change, when Amtrak accepts me (I hope!) into their just announced writers residency program! Yes, spurred by a wish expressed by a writer on Twitter, Amtrak has decided to offer free or low-cost long-distance train rides to selected writers—so they can get away and pursue their muse while riding the rails! All they want in return is for the writers to tweet or blog about their experiences. They’ll be opening to applications soon.

You can bet I’m applying. Wish me luck!

Meanwhile, I’ll just pretend I’m Cary Grant for a day

The Untangling of Plot Threads

posted in: books, my books, writing 0

In his latest blog post, Richard Bowker describes how a serene evening beside the fire with the writing group leads to unexpected plot complications. It’s all true; I was there. In fact, I might have been the person whose little comment led to the problem. (Oops.)

The same thing happens to me all the time. In my previous post, I showed you what the manuscript of my new first draft looks like. Picture about a third of the way into that stack of pages. That’s where an important plot event happens. Will have happened, after I rewrite it. The problem is, I was about three quarters of the way through the book before I realized that little detail. (Oops.) That’s going to change a few things, isn’t it?

Yah. Sorry ’bout that (I say to myself). Sometimes I think it’s a wonder these books ever get finished.

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