Upcoming Event: Panel at NerdCon

I’m excited to announce that I will be presenting a panel at the first Rocket City NerdCon. I’ll share photographs and stories from my experiences at Clarion West and Kij Johnson’s Beginning Novel Workshop at the University of Kansas. I’ll discuss the benefits of residential writing workshops and compare them with the experience of getting an MFA.

Everyone who attends will get a resource sheet, some writing goodies, and I will do a giveaway for several awesome prizes! I’d love to see you there!

Here’s the panel description: 

When: Friday, October 24th, 7:30PM

Title: Residential Science Fiction and Fantasy Workshops

Description: What is it like to attend a writing workshop that lasts six weeks? Or even two? Clarion West graduate Jenni Moody will give a presentation on the benefits of residential writing workshops and will share stories about her time at one of the most prestigious genre workshops in the world.

Age group: Family

For more information about NerdCon, visit their Facebook page or buy your ticket on their website.

Advertisements

CSSF Novel Workshop

Earlier this month, I spent two weeks on the University of Kansas campus attending the beginning novel writing workshop at the Center for the Study of Science Fiction.

Lawrence is a lovely town, full of brightly painted houses and big trees.

There are also many brick sidewalks in various states of disrepair. Some stretches have all of the bricks in place, their interstices smoothed with grass. Others are buckled, bricks missing, with holes ready to suck in your foot and twist your ankle. 
Kij Johnson and Barbara J. Webb run the workshop, and they are amazingly welcoming, kind, and supportive. They made the transition into workshopping easy, and our group meeting room quickly became a safe place to brainstorm ideas and ask for help. 
From one to four each day we workshopped, with Kij and Barbara asking the author what they wanted from the story, calling on the group to offer up ideas and responses to help move the novel along. At six we met to walk down to dinner on Massachusetts Avenue, the main road at the bottom of the campus full of restaurants and shops. By eight or so we were back in the workshop room fishbowling. Sometimes fishbowling is talking out your characters to the room, or writing a bunch of ideas on Post-Its and rearranging them until the glue wears off. Sometimes it’s staring at your sticky notes in despair until someone comes up and asks you one question about your story that makes the whole project make sense. 

Mainly, fishbowling is a way of figuring out your story so that you can write a better draft of your novel. One of my classmates had an amazingly detailed outline by the end of the workshop, others had clear sets of action through the first turn, and it seemed as though everyone walked away with a better sense of clarity in regards to their project. I finally met my protagonist and discovered her story and her core need that will push my story forward. It was fascinating to watch novels expand with ideas, try out different possibilities, and finally find their solid paths – friendly sidewalks with not quite so many bricks missing.

We shared the dorm with the short story writers workshop. In the evenings they watched movies on the 3rd floor of the dorm, with novel writers invited as well. Throughout the workshops there are also people in the dorm who are on retreat – they just come to be around other writers and write. There’s an atmosphere of love for science fiction and fantasy, of engagement in the larger writing community, and of creative play. It’s lovely.

At the end of the second week we attended the Campbell Conference, held in the swanky Oread Hotel, just down the street from the KU Student Union where we ate lunch everyday.

Campbell and Sturgeon Awards

Saturday was rainy and I wasn’t feeling well, so I stayed in. But I wish I had pushed myself to go to the panels and signings. I heard that Andy Duncan’s reading was fantastic, and from the very short reading he gave during the student readings on Thursday I have no doubt it was entertaining and lovely. If I’m ever lucky enough to attend the workshop again, I’m not going to miss the Saturday events of the Campbell Conference.

The beginning novel writer’s workshop gave me the confidence and stubbornness I’ll need to finish a full draft of my novel. My fellow workshoppers are writing so many amazing, beautifully told stories that I hope I will get to read as they grow into novels.

Origami flowers by Brooke Wonders

The best part of the workshop is that, unlike Clarion and Clarion West, you can go back. If you want to make the transition to writing novels, go to Lawrence for the summer. Take more clothes than you think you’ll need (it is hot, you will walk everywhere, you will sweat), be ready to make big changes to your novel, and bring your favorite sticky notes and sharpies to grow and rearrange your story. 
Kij Johnson and Barbara J. Webb’s
Class of 2013
The Marmosets
Tail twist! 

Prepping for a Workshop: (Not So) Minor Characters

In going through some books the other day, I found one of my favorites from my undergrad days. It wasn’t assigned in class. I found it through researching, following the paths of different writers during my crush on the Beats.

Joyce Johnson’s Minor Characters

Joyce Johnson is in the background of the cover photograph, behind Kerouac. In her book she describes seeing the photograph, herself photoshopped out of it, used for a GAP ad. They just wanted Kerouac.

But I loved reading Johnson’s account of her life as a writer during this time period, in many ways moreso than On the Road. 

At writing workshops you’ve got your main characters – the people whose names are on the website or flyer. The writer or team of writers who will lead the workshop. They are probably names you’ve heard of, writers whose every book you’ve bought within a week of its release, whose writing encourages and challenges you to be a better writer.

If you’re accepted to a residential writing workshop like Clarion West, you’ll probably start reading books by your workshop leaders as soon as you get the call.

But workshops are a labor of love, supported by communities of writers and artists, who believe so much in the power of words and the worth of writing that they donate their time and money and backyards (for parties) and cars (for driving you to parties) to making the workshop run smoothly. Their photographs don’t appear on the main website for workshops, but their names aren’t hidden away. Look for the board of directors, the contributors to the workshop newsletter, and the workshop administrators. They’re writers, too. Excellent, amazing, award-winning authors that you’ll mingle with at parties and dinners.

When I went to Clarion West in 2011, I took at least one book from each instructor with me. When I arrived at the workshop, I heard someone talking about writing poetry with Neile Graham. I had her book of poetry, Blood Memory, at home. I’d bought it years ago, because hers was one of the most highly recommended books of SF poetry. I hadn’t made the connection between the writer whose poetry I’d admired and the person who had called me one evening in March, and told me in gentle, welcoming tones that I’d been accepted to Clarion West. I felt the sting of overlooking this fact when Neile wrote a poem for my class at the end of the workshop that was beautiful and true and the most wonderful gift.

These writers aren’t minor characters, they’re your mentors and future friends. The ones who will sit beside you and talk to you even when you’re shy and terrified, whose books you should read. So do your homework before you pack your bags to that amazing workshop with Frightfully Famous Author. You’ll be meeting many more writers, learning from them, and falling in love with their work.

Ready, Set, {Pause}, Workshop!

In workshops where there are a large number of participants, the critique from each member most likely has a time limit. At Clarion West, we had seventeen people plus an instructor critique each story. To make sure everyone was able to speak about the story, each person was allowed a maximum of 3 minutes for feedback.

As an incentive to keep within that time frame, we were each given four or so tickets at the beginning of the week. If you felt strongly about a story and wanted to keep going after the polite tap on the table (or awkward gong of a half-full aluminum water bottle), then you could rip up one of your tickets and keep going. But on Friday there were drawings for wonderful prizes, and your tickets were your chance to win.

Three minutes can feel like a long time if you’re doing a presentation in front of a class. But if you’re speaking about a story and trying to articulate what did and didn’t work for you as a reader, then three minutes is never enough time.

Our first full-story critiques happened in week two. The first day of workshop I tried to cram in as much information as I could during my 3 minutes. I had a list of bullet points and I rattled them off, not really going into detail on any one point. I also wanted to appear competent to my classmates and instructor, and I think this often happens to writers during the first critique session at any workshop.

The critique room at Clarion West 2011

Then it was my turn. My story was ripped apart. Not unkindly. Not without caring words for what was working in the story. And in many ways the critique I received during that first round of stories propelled me to try my hardest during each submission cycle at the workshop.

But after the crit session had ended that day I didn’t go to lunch with my classmates. I felt bombarded with feedback. I escaped to my room and stayed there for an hour in the quiet. During that time I thought about what was important to me as a writer. Which feedback had been most useful.

It wasn’t the laundry list of things to fix. It was the moments when a classmate took the time to explore an area or two of my story, to really dig in deep. Or when they responded to an idea brought up earlier in the critique session. During these types of critiques my classmates usually spoke more slowly. Without the pre-listed bullet points, the critiques were more conversational. They reached me in a way that a list of Dittos couldn’t.

These types of critiques worked for me because I felt connected to my classmates. Oddly, I was able to separate my work from my self more easily when I felt like my classmate addressed me directly. Maybe because the sense of them wanting to help me succeed came through more clearly. Or maybe the whole experience just felt less overwhelming.

So I decided to do something different with my responses. I still only had a few minutes for each critique, but each time I sacrificed a few of those precious moments to make a connection with the person whose story I was critiquing.

“Hey Mark.”
“Hey Alisa.”
“Hey Jei.”

I think some people may have thought it was silly, but after a while it caught on and other people started doing it, too. And in the end my critiques were the better for this moment of pause, of connection.

Deep South Con 50: Novel Workshop

Deep South Con 50 didn’t officially start until Friday, but for myself and my fellow novel workshop participants, our convention experience started Thursday night with a lecture by editor Lou Anders of Pyr Books. 

Lou’s talk, “Using a Character-Based Screenwriting Formula for Novel Writing,” was fantastic. I had listened to his talk about using screenwriting on the Writing Excuses podcast, but his lecture at the workshop was more in-depth. At the end of his presentation, I felt like I had learned completely new elements of screenplay storytelling that I had not encountered in my graduate classes or in my readings. I’d highly recommend the podcast, and if you have a chance to attend one of Lou’s screenwriting lectures don’t pass it up. 
After Lou’s lecture, the entire workshop group walked across the street to the public library to hear Gregory Benford’s talk. The admission tickets were $10 to the event, but as workshop participants our tickets were comped (free!). 
Once Gregory Benford’s talk ended, most of the workshop participants headed over to the con suite in the hotel for free beers and snacks. I wound up talking to some of my fellow local writers, like Louise Herring-Jones. We’d met a time or two at the SF Writers and Cake Appreciation Society critique group, but Deep South Con was the first time we really got to sit down and get to know each other. I also got a chance to meet one of my Deep South Con novel workshop group mates,  April Steed, whose novel has an amazing thematic idea. I can’t wait to see what she does with it. And I spent a few minutes geeking out about belly dancing with Julia Mandala, who performed with Ravenar during the opening ceremonies. 
Friday the novel workshop split into two groups. Each one was led by a professional editor. My group was helmed by Toni Weisskopf of Baen Books, and the other by Lou Anders of Pyr. Each group had eight workshop participants who had each submitted up to the first 5,000 words of their novel and up to a 5 page synopsis of the rest of the book. We started our critiques at 10AM, and went until 4PM with a short break for lunch. 
This was my first time in a novel workshop, and my first time attempting to write a novel. It was really instructive to read my workshopmates’ stories and hear everyone’s critiques. One common piece of advice – slow down. Novels are much longer than short stories; you’ve got tons of time. Really get us into the scene by specific description and mood-setting.
As far as my personal novel submission and critiques, it was extremely helpful to me to hear my fellow writers’ suggestions on my main character’s motivation and for world building. As a first-time novel writer, this early feedback has given me the confidence and direction I need to continue writing a first draft. 
Scott Hancock, who won the Deep South Con 50 short story contest, was in my group. He made the most amazing critique packets I have ever seen. 

The packet contained a copy of Southern Fried Sci-Fi and Jambalaya Genres (a chapbook published by the Huntsville SF writers group in 2001), my workshop submission with notes in the margins, and a copy of the typed notes for all of the workshop stories. 
Scott is an amazingly friendly person and a wonderful writer. He had an account of his meeting with Dr. Von Braun published in the Deep South Con program book, but you can also read it here
At the end of the day on Friday, Toni gave a lecture on world-building which included a group exercise. We went through the rubric together – where does the energy come from? Where does the water come from? Which family member do we want to focus on? What about the arts and entertainment in this culture? And in five minutes, we’d created an interesting, layered world ripe for a story. 
Then Lou and Toni answered our questions about submitting novels to agents and/or presses. Some stray notes:
  • Don’t invest everything in one book. Set it aside/submit and move on.
  • Look in Locus Magazine at the books sold page for tips on which agents you might want to work with. 
  • Joshua at Jabberwoky – Blog: Awful Agent
  • Sometimes it takes 10-15 years of rejection head banging to learn to write to a market.
  • Slushpile – mostly B+ when you want As
  • It is worth a cut of your money for the services that publishers provide. 
Before we disbanded, we each received a copy of the essay “Style, Substance, and Other Illusions” by Gregory Benford. 
The best part of the novel writing workshop was meeting my fellow writers. I never ran out of people to talk to the entire weekend. After the panels there would invariably be a small group of workshop participants gathered in the back of the room talking, and because I’d been in the workshop I felt confident in going up and chatting with them.
In the hallways, the con suite, and at room parties, I had great conversations not just about writing, but about specific stories that we had written. Nancy S. Brandt told me what it was like to publish a genre book through a small press. Zan Oliver was a blast to hang out with in the party rooms, and she told great stories about New Orleans. And Alice and I people-watched from the balcony and talked about learning and re-learning. 
It was a wonderful, hearty dose of writer camaraderie.

Deep South Con 50: Anticipation!

This weekend is Deep South Con 50. This convention is held in a different location in the south each year. This year, it is returning to Huntsville, where the first Deep South Con was held.

I’m already very impressed with the organization and promotion of this convention. They’ve got an active Facebook page, a beautiful and often-updated website, and they’re partnering with the public library for a public lecture by one of the attending authors: Gregory Benford.

When a convention is well-organized and promoted, it makes me even more excited to attend. It bodes well for the panels and events running smoothly, and for having an all-around wonderful con experience. My hats off to the organizers.

For the past month or so, the con has had a display of science fiction books and artwork set up in the entrance to the main library downtown.

DSC 50 display at the Huntsville Madison-County Public Library

Lovely art and books in the display at the public library
Skylife, edited by Gregory Benford

Gene Wolfe’s book on display in the library

Almost all of the books are original hardcovers, and the gorgeous painting is either an original or a high-quality print. Every time I go to the library I have to stand and gawk at the treasures inside the display.

Here’s a few of the programming items I’m looking forward to:

Thursday

  • Novel Workshop lecture by Lou Anders of Pyr
  • Gregory Benford speech at public library, “The Wonderful Future That Can Still Be: Science Fiction and Current Science”
  • Beer in the consuite with novel workshop participants and teachers

Friday

  • Novel Workshop critique sessions
  • Novel Workshop lecture by Toni Weisskopf of Baen Books
  • Lois McMaster Bujold reading
  • Bellydancing workshop
Saturday
  • “Hard Fantasy” – Lou Anders, Danny Birt, ❤ Gene Wolfe <3, Lois McMaster Bujold, Tony Daniel
  • Ravenar Belly Dance performance
  • Dr. Demento live performance
Sunday
  • “Violence for Writers, with Demos of Hard, Sharp, Pointy Things”
There are dozens more amazing lectures, live music performances, and demos going on throughout the weekend. 
If you’re within driving distance of Huntsville and can take a road trip this weekend, I think this convention will be well worth the trip.