Wednesday, August 16, 2017

Taos Toolbox workshop

This summer, I attended the Taos Toolbox workshop, a 2-week SF/F writing workshop in Angel Fire, New Mexico, run by Walter Jon Williams and Nancy Kress.

It was a good but tough two weeks, very busy in a beautiful location. There were 18 of us and we each got to submit two pieces--a 10k piece the first week, and a 5k piece the second. So, naturally, we spent most of our days in workshop, responding to our peers' work, and then evenings mostly reading work for the next day.

Walter and Nancy were compassionate, funny, interesting, and exacting. They didn't pussyfoot around or pat us on the back often, but they made sure we knew when we'd succeeded. I appreciated their senses of humor and their focus on problem-solving when our writing didn't meet the mark.

We also had guest speakers throughout our time there, who came to speak about different areas of expertise and the writing life. While we were all looking forward to George R. R. Martin and I really enjoyed meeting him, the most helpful guest speaker for me was E.M. Tippetts, an indie-publishing guru with lots of practical strategies for launching a book or series as a self-published author. Her talk was so practical, so jam-packed with information, and I came away inspired to try self-publishing someday.

Taos is also billed as a graduate workshop but I’m not sure I’d agree. I'd compare it more to technical or professional school. The workshop is more geared towards commercial writers and making your work sellable, than it is about honing a creative aesthetic. To that end, we learned a lot of very practical writerly advice, some of it truisms or plot formulas that writers have likely heard before. But what really helped was being forced to put it into practice via critiques and writing exercises. Honestly, I wish there'd been a little more writing exercises or structured time for writing, but I do feel like I've developed a more judicious eye for my own work and the work of others. The two weeks felt like learning to write from muscle memory. It was almost as if our instructors said, "Oh, you think you know this writing truism? Then do it, over and over." At the end of two weeks, I came away with specific writing maxims much more ingrained in my process than before.

The aspect that sets Taos apart from the two other big summer workshops (Clarion and Odyssey) is that it's much more novel focused. Most people in our group were workshopping the beginnings of novels, and I took the first segment of Jurassic Unicorn. While we got line edits on what we submitted, we also had a lot of chances to talk larger plot, and I even got to sit down with Walter and get his feedback on my plot revisions at the end of the two weeks. I came away feeling much stronger about the shape of the Jurassic Unicorn plot.

Things I learned:

I learned about letting your readers know what to expect from your work right away.

I learned about plotting.

I learned about making an ending as strong as a beginning.

I learned about active, atmospheric description.

I learned about the ups and downs of the publishing world, and strategies to adapt to a changing market.

I learned to be tougher in my criticisms of others, and more exacting in what I demand from myself. After Taos, I can look back at stories I thought were finished and already I can see where they drag, are bloated, are convoluted.

And I learned that the tough thing about criticism is separating taste from technique. Technique, you can change. You can improve. But if your vision doesn’t match someone else’s taste, there’s not much you can do except shrug and say “well, you’re not my audience." 

This was what happened to me, with Jurassic Unicorn--it was not to several people's taste, which kinda crushed me while I was there. But I've bounced back from that now and am focused on changing the things about my technique that I can, while staying true to my original vision for the book. 

Hands down the best part of Taos was making friends in the SF/F world. I'm so excited that I connected with folks there, people that I will be able to share work with and learn from for a long time. 

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