Saturday, 5 August 2017

The Lessons of WXR17

I’ve divided my blogging about the Writing Excuses Retreat 2017 into travel (the last few entries) and lessons from workshops (this posting). We were asked not to record the sessions, to respect the intellectual property rights of the instructors, so I’m not going into a much detail about the presentations. Instead, I’m focusing on how I think the retreat has affected my writing and me personally.

First, one feature of WXR is the “pi challenge” where, if you hit 3142 words in 24 hours, you get access to a dropbox folder of goodies like early drafts of some of the authors’ work. At the 2015 retreat, instructor A said “you get to see how badly instructor B’s first drafts suck.” That and the isolation from Real Life let me write 3780 words in one day, vastly more than my total since the end of NaNoWriMo 2016.
The evening session on Saturday (embarkation day) was by Emma Newman on “Fear and Writing.” I learned that, although my day job certainly has an effect, much of my lack of progress might be due to fear: fear of failing, and perhaps even fear of success. That one talk was enough to break my nearly total writing block of the last few months (a few hundreds of words since December 1).
On Sunday, Copenhagen day, John Berlyne of the Zeno Agency talked about “what exactly is an agent for?” some parts of which was familiar from Writing Excuses podcasts, other parts being new – such as information about all the different sorts of rights the agent manages for you. One of my main take-aways was that, if I ever get to the stage of wanting to publish, I need to know the market much better than I do now, and be able to compare my work to other people’s, to help agents and editors understand how they can sell my work.
Aliette de Bodard, author of House of Shattered Wings, spoke about “worldbuilding in the smallest parts” – how small details about the society, scattered throughout the story, can make the culture come alive. That and a few positive comments from my critique session reassured me that some of the little things I’d worked out for my current novel were valuable; worldbuilding can become a distraction from writing, but I’m now convinced I can spend more time on this fun part of secondary world fantasy without falling down the black hole of Tolkein-style appendix-level detail.
Monday was an at-sea day, much of which was spent meeting the pi challenge and racking up “butt in chair, hands on keyboard” time (I think I ranked 4th at 5:25; the winner had over 8 hours). Wesley Chu’s session on “deep dive on action” told me that documenting a cinematic fight scene is boring for textual fiction: that one needs some description of the action, but focus on what aspects of the fight affect the plot, and the emotional impact on the participants. Very few people can naturally shrug off killing an opponent, for example.
On Tuesday, Stockholm day, Thomas Olde Heuvelt talked about an intensely organized planning approach for a full-time writing career. At this point writing is still a small part of my life, but some of his goal-setting approach might still be applicable. For example, how many months am I willing to dedicate to editing the current draft of my novel, and how many pages per week do I need to edit to achieve that?
On Wednesday, Tallinn day, Ken Liu talked about “how to work with your translator.” I almost didn’t go because it seemed so unrealistic and presumptuous to look so far ahead, but it was interesting to get the consciousness-raising about how much cultural adaptation a good translator does, and how valuable it can be to cooperate with them during the process.
On Thursday, St. Petersburg day, Jasper Fforde talked about “the last 5%,” the part of writing that has to come from within and can’t be taught. Since it can’t be taught, he spoke of many ways to improve one’s ability to deal with words, and develop one’s own worldview and ways of getting that across in interesting prose.
On Friday, the last at-sea day, there was a giant 2.5 hour Q&A session where you could go to ask individual questions of specific instructors. On Thursday I started trying to think of what questions were most important to me and who to approach with them. I talked with Aliette de Bodard about organizing a worldbuilding bible, with Mary Robinette Kowal about some details of the MICE quotient (about which I may write a later blog), and with Dan Wells on how to make one’s monsters more scary.
The final writing-related event was a two-hour recording session for the podcast. The latter added a lot to what we’d get from just listening to the podcasts, since we get to hear the banter between episodes, and we’re the source of the questions they answer (and the cheers).
The final writing-related teaching came at the end of the cocktail party, along with announcements of the winners of the “highest wordcount” awards: when you improve your insight into good writing, you find writing harder for a while, since your skill hasn’t caught up with your understanding. We’ll see in a few weeks if I’ve managed to keep writing in spite of the increased difficulty.