Archive for June, 2012

Pimping Pressfield

One of the author’s sites I tend to visit is that of Steven Pressfield. Yeap, he’s the same guy who wrote The Legend of Bagger Vance. He runs a feature called “Writing Wednesdays” (You guessed it, some bit of writerly advice goes live every Wednsday). This week features an interesting post, one that resonates on my end (especially after just getting back from my first Residency for my MFA), one about self-doubt. It’s a natural thing, but can be crippling in the arts – that’s why there are so many people that may have immaculate opening chapters but nothing near completion. Yes, I am currently a member of those ranks with unfinished projects (hence why his post resonated, natch).

I had already been going through a mental shift – acceptance to the MFA, acceptance to Viable Paradise – both boosts towards getting onto the positive side of the scales. Coming home from the Residency, with a renewed focus and enthusiasm, it was nice to read this today:

There’s an axiom among artists and entrepreneurs: to succeed, you have to be arrogant or ignorant or both. What that means is you have to blow off every response that says it’ll-never-work. Be arrogant. The nay-sayers are idiots. Or ignorant. Stay stupid and plunge ahead.

Almost no one recognizes a good idea at the idea stage. And the bolder the idea, the more people will be blind to it. That’s human nature. It’s the way the world works. If you’re seeking reinforcement from outside yourself, you’re in for a long, lonely haul. The answer to self-doubt is self-reinforcement.

So, all you writer or otherwise artistic types… There you go.

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Hey Joe…

[Originally written 6/1/2007]

“Last time I saw Joe, he was sitting at the table in the corner, over there,” he said, pointing to the small, wooden table with two chairs on one side, and a bench seat against the wall. “He ordered his usual – a Newcastle Pale from the tap – and he sat over there most of the night nursing it. I hear he lost his best friend the other day, is that right? Poor guy… that would explain why he spent most of the night in the corner, though. He’s usually a pretty upbeat guy, and sits up by the bar. I didn’t get a chance to try and talk with him, though… as soon as I got done with my shift I had to beat it – I had a gig to get to across town. As it was, I got there about 10 minutes before we were supposed to start playing…

“Good luck looking for Joe… He was a great guy, once he got to know people.”

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Residency – Day 1

Wednesday was Day 1, and one that (almost) all of us 1’s began in a constant state of Nervous, not quite sure what to expect.

There is a “common” novel (aka – all students have to read) assigned. This session’s novel was Hunger Games (January 2013’s is Fated by Alyson Noel). The first day of Residency usually starts with a discussion of the common novel for the first part of the morning, with a “breakout” session for the second half, which runs until lunch at noon.

The Discussion:
This is a “mixed” session – containing students from different levels within the program. Each session is led by different faculty members, and if this year’s experience is any indication, there’s likely to be a short Powerpoint presentation to ensure some continuity among the discussions. (As this was my first, though, I can’t really say for certain… ask me again mid-January.) The idea is to discuss craft/technique items, why the story works (or doesn’t?), (potential) source material, etc. As a hasty recap, the conversation was good. A few points were brought up that I had already looked up/became aware of, but it was also interesting to see, during the conversations, how writers focusing on different genres saw/focused on different elements in the text, or just straight up interpretted things differently.

The Break-Out:
“Class” specific sessions (I, think), which for “1’s” meant the official Orientation session. This is the “this is how the program works” conversation where aspects of the Handbook are discussed and the floor is opened for questions. Then we were sent to the IT offices down the hall from the classrooms to be issued our iPads.

Yes, you read that correctly – issued iPads. Any student enrolled full-time at Seton Hill is eligible for one (fine print: drop out or fail out within the first year, the device has to be returned to the school, otherwise it’s yours). I was expecting it to be an iPad 2, but it turns out we got a 3, which tickled me. It’s still only 16GB, though, which is a little irksome (story about why when I get to my Saturday recap).

The Afternoon:
There are four “academic” modules/sessions over the course of a Residency, and all 1’s and 2’s have a schedule predetermined. (2’s have three of the four sessions assigned, with the fourth as an “elective.” From Residency 3-6 students make their own schedule for sessions.) For 1’s, the first session is “Critiquing & Clarifying: How to Give Good Feeback in a Workshop.”

The idea behind opening with this module is to level the playing field, and provide some starting points for providing feedback during a workshop session. Not every student comes to the program with a heavy writing/workshopping background, and not every workshop/critique group operates the same way. For those never having been involved in writing groups/workshopping, this can be a useful discussion (there were several that, after class, mentioned how they felt they needed to expand on the comments they had written now that they had a better idea of what kinds of things to look for).

For those with a workshopping background, especially a heavy one? Find a way to suffer in silence. It’s a module that has to be completed to tick off a box towards graduation, and unless you come from a system of really brutal commenting – of the “your-writing-sucks-and-this-is-why-it-sucks-and-I-can’t-believe-we-had-to-read-this-much-suckitude-how-could-you-do-this-to-us” variety – there will probably not be much new for you here. Just remember, “What is the story about? What’s working, what’s not working as well…” and give references to the text as appropriate.

After the class sessions, it’s time for dinner, followed by students (6’s) doing Thesis readings. Students are required to go to at least two readings per Residency but encouraged to attend more. There are currently two possible formats, depending on the MFA candidate (Before becoming an MFA, the program was just an MA. If the student is returning to convert their MA to an MFA – “earning their F”, there’s a “panel” reading of 2-3 of these types of student. Everyone else gets an hour to themselves.) The readings are much like one would expect at either a con or a book store event: a little conversation about the project, read some pages, then field questions. All within the alotted hour.

Then, tired from the heat and heads still spinning with nerves, it was time to call it a night. Time to get ready for Day 2 – which included the first workshop session.

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City Building on MVM

A few weeks ago I mentioned discovering the Moody Blues in the mid-80’s, ironic since they had been around for twenty years by that point. A similar experience that happened around the same time in my youth was with this group named Starship. Turns out that Starship was the third iteration of the band (after Jefferson Starship, which was the follow up from Jefferson Airplane), but it was their 1985 album Knee Deep in the Hoopla that was my doorway.

The main track, We Built This City, still holds up well, even if it is a far cry from the psychedelia of their earlier tracks like White Rabbit and Somebody to Love.

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A Weird Way to Get An Aha! Moment

Mary Robinette Kowal is awesome. I made it a point to follow her blog and seek out her work after seeing/hearing her on panels at Readercon in 2010, and I have appreciated every time I’ve spoken with her at cons or sat in on a panel/production she’s been involved with. She recently started a new feature on her blog called “My Favorite Moment.” In contrast to Scalzi’s “The Big Idea” where writer’s talk a little about the germ and “What if…?” process that led to the production of the work, Kowal’s feature has the author presenting something that tickled them while they were writing the manuscript [see her actual description of the feature here].

Recently, she featured a story by David Brin. The take-away that struck me was when he said this:

I’d like to offer an aside — one piece of advice that I give students of writing.

Whatever their favorite genres, I recommend that new authors make their first major project a murder mystery.

The reason is simple.  All other genres let the author get away with flaws in plotting and suspense, by distracting the reader with genre-specific  razzle-dazzle, e.g. romantic tears or dying dragons or scifi tech-speak. But in a murder mystery, there is only one question; did the dramatic, whodunit revelation pay off?  Was it simultaneously both surprising and well foreshadowed?

Does the reader experience a pleasurable moment of self-loathing? “It was all there but I just missed figuring it out! I’m sooooo stoooopid!”If that’s how your reader feels, at that crucial moment, then she or he will buy your next book. That’s the wonderful, ironic fact.

This is where things get funny, to me, and led to an “Aha” or maybe just “Ha!” moment. The post went live on her site on 21 June.

I have been at my Writing Popular Fiction residency this week, and the 21st was when students were scheduled to meet with their mentors to discuss the semester’s writing plans. As a 1st Timer, this meant determining what kind of novel we want to start working on for a thesis project. After talking about a couple of the ideas – I went into the meeting with six that had been really nagging at me, four SF-ish ideas and two mystery types – we opted for starting to explore one of the mystery/thriller ideas.

Call it irony, call it fate… I’m just calling it nice timing for a piece of advice.

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Thoughts on “Classic Literature”

I may have mentioned before about my… love-hate relationship with “classic” literature. It’s not that I object to the works – many of the stories are awesome. I have also reached a point in life where I can distance myself from the style that I see on the page, and know that things just aren’t written that way anymore. [That’s part of the problem of starting as a younger writer – we are usually given a lot of “classic” literature, which is put on such a pedestal that proclaims “This is good work” which suggests “If you want to write good work, you must write like this” – which is often in a style 50-100 years out of use.]

Wil Wheaton mentions another reason why I get twitchy when considering “classics,” and it’s this:

English teachers who forced me to find symbolism and meaning in books make assigned reading in high school absolutely miserable. It was bad enough that I couldn’t just enjoy the story and spend time with the characters, but they also made me go on some kind of treasure hunt where I had to find something the teacher/school/board of education/someone-who-was-not-me decided was the “correct” thing to find.

This is why I still avoid Pride & Prejudice [9th grade]. Heart of Darkness [12th grade] still makes me twitchy. The Fountainhead [12th grade]… meh, I think Anthem is better (and several hundred pages shorter) [and I read Anthem on my own, not for school].

Come to think about it, I had some similar experiences in college as well when discussing works and writers from the accepted “Great Literature Canon.” Probably why it took me so long to get around to reading “Literature” (aka – mainstream regular fiction, not genre).

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Residency Recap, Days -2 to 0

Yes, the -2 is intentional. As you may have ready, I’ve been at the Residency for my MFA program (Writing Popular Fiction) this week, and it’s been a lot of things to process at once. The experience has been great, and the conversations have been fabulous… this is my first in a short series to try to recap, process, and record my thoughts and observations (not only for myself, but for others that may be considering the program in the future and stumble across these here posts).

The System or How The Schedule Works
There are two residencies during the year, one in June and one in January. Each of them are about five days long but they start on different days of the week. At the moment (read: through 2015-ish) the June Residencies start on Tuesdays; January on a Saturday, I think. I am considering those starting days Day 0. I will explain why in a moment.

Days -2 and -1: The Two Days Before Residency
I chose to drive up early, since it’s a solid 9-ish hours for me (allowing for pit stops, traffic issues, and depending on your route… I made it a little under 10). My logic was this: it’s my first Residency, and I’ve never been to the area before. I wanted to arrive, be able to recover from the drive, explore a little bit of the area and wander around campus. I figured it would be easier to take care of any logistics – get a grasp on which buildings are where, get the ID made, etc. So, Sunday (-2), I drove up. Monday (-1), I checked out campus and took care of the necessary “new student” business.

Day 0: The Beginning
Tuesday. I had opted to stay on campus for this Residency (an option only available for the summer stretch), and we couldn’t “move in” until Tuesday. Since I was already in town, I came over sort-of early (just after the hotel check-out time), and prepared to settle in. I was pleasantly surprised to find that the bed was already made, pillow provided, and even towels and a bar of soap. I was… underwhelmed… to find that the air conditioning in my suite was sketchy and uncooperative, staying at 74 in spite of any effort to adjust it. [For those of you not familiar with suite style dorms: there were three bedrooms that shared a single common area and bathroom space. Two of the rooms were just single beds with desk, dresser and armoire, while the third room was large enough to have two of everything.] What bothered me more than the temperature was the lack of moving air. After unloading the car and getting the basics set up, I opted to seek out the nearest Barnes & Noble to hang out and soak up their AC, and eventually grab some lunch. While I was out, I picked up a small fan that has been running almost non-stop since I set it up that evening.

Then I get ready for the opening meet & greet, which signifies the start of the Residency. Held in the Library, it’s a chance for everyone to get together and mingle, catch up with old friends, try to make some new ones, and just start getting mentally ready for the five full days ahead. During this session, the staff is introduced (especially important for the 1st’s or “1’s”*), and a particular Theme is introduced for the Residency (this year’s: Integrating or writing from some kind of personal experience. To look at it another way: mining your life for event, emotions and ideas that can be transposed to your fiction – not writing Creative Non-Fiction). There was a little mingle exercise based on that (“Here are a couple of questions…” After a few moments to write down our responses, “Now get into groups of 3-5 people and discuss for about 15 minutes.”)

After the meet and greet session, it’s time to call it a night and get ready for the morning. Many folks went out afterwards, either for late dinners, or just a chance to hang out and spend more time catching up. I was fortunate to be able to tag along with a group of 5’s*, so I spent a couple of hours with them, mostly just listening and picking their brains about aspects of the program that I was still a little unclear about.

Then it was back to the dorm. Off to bed. Hoping to be (mentally) prepared for the next day, and the start of the journey.

 

* Student’s progression in the program is determined by the particular Residency session they are completing. 1’s are in their first Residency. 2’s, their second. 6’s are folks completing their last Residency and graduate on the last day.

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