Viable Paradise: Day 4, Wednesday – The Critique and the Doom

On Wednesday, Scott Lynch led a collegium on non-expository description and the conscious use of symbolism.  This was as eye-opening as the earlier lectures, and gave me some great ideas.

Then came my critique.  The instructors in the room were author Elizabeth Bear and Tor editor Patrick Nielsen Hayden, which gave me nightmares (not literally), because frankly, Tor is my dream publisher.  If Patrick didn’t like my work, I’d be crushed.

Fortunately, the critique went well: Bear and Nielsen Hayden, along with the five students in the room, gave me feedback on my story that essentially amounted to “This is pretty good, but there are some issues you need to consider.”  Most of the issues were things Steven Gould had already mentioned the night before, and a couple of the other things were mentioned because a trick I was trying to pull on the reader didn’t work and came off as creepy.  There were also some pretty severe issues that I’ve planned fixes for.  So that’s good.

Bear made one comment that really stuck with me and, as I told her later, sent me down the rabbit hole.  In trying to work out ways to improve the point she’d brought up (namely, that the tech I was using was very 2005), I completely revamped the tech used in the story, to the point that things I had thought only one character had are now ubiquitous, and it even unlocked something I’d been noodling around with but wasn’t sure how to implement.  If this book ever gets published, it is in large part thanks to her advice.

Patrick said something that has reverberated in my head ever since he said it.  “I began reading this last night.  If it had been a 500 page manuscript, I’d probably still be reading it.”  I really hope he meant it (and I have no reason to doubt it), because it meant a lot to me.

After that was a lecture from Steven Gould.  First he asked us what we want in our careers, and we generated a long list of things: Hugo nods, Nebula awards, fans writing fanfic, etc.  It was a long list.  Then he said the important words: “You cannot control any of this.” Then he flipped the chart, and we started generating things we COULD control, from “Actually write” to “don’t bet against yourself.”  This last was the most important and spoke to me the most.  Steve told a story of an editor (I don’t recall which) who asked a young writer at a convention if he’d submitted anything to his magazine.  The young writer said something to the effect that his work wasn’t good enough, and the editor said “How DARE you reject stories from MY publication?!”  In other words, it isn’t my job to say “no” to me, it’s the editor of whatever market I submit my work to.  It’s very easy for me to say “No, it’s not good enough.”  It took me a month after I had my application packet for Viable Paradise to actually send the damn thing, because I knew I wasn’t going to get in.  Well, clearly that was stupid of me.

After lunch, we had the rest of the day and evening free.  I’d plotted out my short story, which was to mix the themes of Lord Dunsany and Aleister Crowley in a short story anthology titled “Twins Fantastic!”  I was scared; I’d written the list of scenes, but now I had to write them.  At noon I started work.  I broke to have lunch with everyone else, then I went back to my room and got started writing.  When I came up for air, it was 6:30pm and I had a complete story of 4,800 words.  Now, it wasn’t perfect.  In fact, at the time, I thought it was pretty bad.  But I needed a break, so I went into town with some of the others.

When I got back a couple of hours later, I read the story again.  I made a few small changes.  Then I went to print it.  Once it was printed, I left it alone until the next day—but that’s another entry.

On Wednesday I went to bed around 11:30; exhausted.  I tried to read but couldn’t; I put my book aside and crashed out.  My roomies coming home didn’t wake me at all—even Alex’s stompy pacing didn’t wake me (just messing with you, Alex!)

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About Michael Johnston

Father of a third grader, high school English teacher, writer. Forty-three years old and feeling almost every bit of it on some days, and not a bit of it on others. Based in Sacramento, California, USA
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