Monday, August 8, 2011

On Taos Toolbox

On Taos Toolbox

I've been home for two weeks. The various house disasters that occurred while I was gone have been largely controlled, the various online fires that needed fighting have been doused, I'm back (unfortunately) to my usual sleeping schedule, and in general, life has returned to something like normal. If you ever want to feel like the center of a universe (not necessarily the universe, but the universe you live in, at least) take two weeks away from it.

I'm not going to write an in-depth day by day account of the whole workshop. Christie already did it. I'm going to summarize quite a bit instead. (I know, I know. Summary vs Dramatization, telling vs showing. :) Ok, fine. I'll try and set the scene first.

It's 10:00am. I'm sitting in a char hulled--apparently--by rabid beavers from raw logs before being upholstered. The room is the largest at the ski resort, the main suite. A log wall is across from me, set with windows and a wooden walkway on the other side. A TV and coffee table are off to my left, the latter stacked with printed copies of manuscripts for critiquing. Overhead are a collection of track mounted spotlights assigned at fairly random angles in what is probably the only light fixture in the entire resort not made from horns or other dead animal parts.

I'm cheek by jowl at this folding table with Stephen Blount on my left, and Carole Ann Moleti on my right. Across this end of the table are Jeff Duntemann and Ed Rosick. The rest of the class is seated at the same table, with Walter Jon Williams and Nancy Kress at the head and left hand of the head respectively. Walter's just arrived, being a late sleeper, and is wearing an eye-bleeding hawaiian shirt. Since we're all here, he does not see fit to sound the Air-Horn of summoning, thus sparing all of our hearing. Especially his own.

Nancy Kress gets up and lecture begins. She's talking about description. Description, she says (according to my notes), is best when it is specific. Generalities aren't your friends. (I'm paraphrasing here). If you're driving a car, it makes a vast difference to the tone of the story if it's a 2011 Lexus coupe or a 1974 Nova with holes rusted in the floor. It makes a big difference whether you're listening to Bach or Bachman Turner Overdrive, and whether the sound is coming from an iphone connected to the car's Alpine sound system, or from an old Sparkomatic FM radio with only two push-buttons set. You can characterize a scene and the people in it just from the stuff around them. Description, on a related note, is tonal. Gibson's opening line in Neuromancer: "The sky was the color of a tv set tuned to a dead channel." sets the tone of the entire novel, both in the grey sky and the technology that wraps around it.

There I sit, scribbling notes in longhand, printing in hopes (unlike with my college notes) of being able to read them later. Even on the fly, I know these notes are important. I know that they hold the keys to breaking the great dissatisfaction I've felt about my writing over the last two or three years. The lecture goes on. Description is interactive and dramatic. Instead of just telling a description, give nouns, eyeball kicks, emotion from people, connection to others, and intimacy. Make it vivid. I stretch my hand a moment to keep my wrist from cramping. I write for a living, but normally it's with a keyboard. Many of my classmates take notes on the profusion of mostly-macintosh laptops, with legato clicks as the membrane keys dip under their fingers. Taste of coffee. Keep up.

After Nancy's lecture is a ten minute break, and we line up for the bathroom, and to head to the kitchen for more coffee, soda, and the odd bagel. After that, critiques begin. And because we were asked not to make the critiques public, that's where I'm going to stop. Walter's second lecture on plot came afterwards.

* * *

What Taos Toolbox is most like, as I described it to friend Jeff, who wrote his own lengthy blog posts here on his Taos experience, is a 500 level mixed workshop and lecture course on the craft of the Science Fiction and Fantasy novel, taught by two experts in the field, Walter Jon Williams, and in our case Nancy Kress. Walter has, according to Wikipedia, two Nebulas and a Sideways, and Nancy has four Nebulas, two Hugos, a Campbell and a Sturgeon. You don't often find this kind of expertise in universities. You don't often find masters of science fiction short stories like guest lecturer Jack Skillingstead in universities. These are working pros in the field right now, and they are some of the best. Their lectures alone, their critiques alone, would make the workshop worth every cent and every second invested. Personal conference with the faculty? Yup. In the Jacuzzi? Optional.

Consider, from my notes from Nancy's first lecture: a scene is a unit. It contains orientation in terms of location, cast, and time. It has a purpose in the story - to advance plot, or deepen characterization. It has dramatization. Things happen in the scene. It has tension, and it ends on rising tension, emotion, and/or action. Dramatization, in turn, consists of Dialog, action, description, character's thoughts, but not much exposition.

Consider, from my notes on Walter's first lecture, about plot: Narrative is what happens in the story. Plot is how the story is presented to the reader. "The king died and then the queen died." is narrative. "The king died, and then the queen died of grief." is plot. He went into a whole taxonomy of plot types which I won't type here, and then said that plots can be compared to a multistage rocket. 3 to four stages that accelerate the story, often in different directions than they originally appeared, and then there's an explosive final payoff, reveal, etc.

None of these are hard and fast rules, but they are useful to know.

When I processed these lectures, and remember, they're from the first day, it occurred to me that I did these things, without knowing why, in the two novels and the novella I've written that worked, and that most of the stuff I've written that doesn't work fails because it was missing either dramatic scenes, or because the plot was missing fundamental anatomy. I knew they didn't work. Now I know why. It makes it a lot easier to fix something when you know why it doesn't work. That, friends and neighbors, is worthwhile learning.

But wait, there was more.

Workshop classes are a participation based method of instruction, so the better the classmates, the better the class. My classmates in the 2011 were all professional writers. Every one of them has sold fiction in professional markets. By heaven, every one of them wrote well when they got there, and the critiques they gave were professional and insightful. Walter bills the course as a master's class, and the 2011 gang certainly reflected that. They were also, without exception, a wonderful bunch of people. Interesting, funny, delightfully strange around the edges, and all serious and professional about writing.

And then there was the work itself. Over two weeks, we read and critiqued on the order of 198,000 words. This, in addition to writing our second week submissions, which probably averaged about 4000-6000 words each (I'm guessing here), and the odd assignment, along with movie nights, of which only Casablanca night was required. (Walter breaks the plot of Casablanca down on the fly during the movie. He also has a wealth of background information from the movie. Neither are to be missed, and it's a hell of a good movie besides.) We were busy. Most days, after critiquing and lectures were done around 2:00 in the afternoon, (starting at 10:00am sharp) people disappeared to their suites, or to balconies, or wherever to work. And the critiques and the writing showed it. There were some pieces where it was hard to find anything to talk about with them, particularly for the second week of critiquing, where we all had the chance to apply the lectures and the previous week's critiques to the next piece. More than a couple critiques I wrote began with "Wow." And you know, I could see that the new chapters of Brass and Steel: Inferno that I wrote/revised for week 2 were markedly better and tighter than the first week's.

But wait, there was more. Sean wrote on this subject, Jeff wrote on this subject and being that I'm kind of in a hurry and I'm lazy, I'll just link to that and say yes, a thousand times yes. From my suite-mate Jeff Duntemann to the instructors, to the incredible gang of writers, thank you all. I'm proud to have known you, proud to have spent two weeks with you, proud to have had the honor of critiquing your work and having you critique mine. I look forward to seeing what you and I become.

For more information on Taos Toolbox (especially for those interested in attending the 2012 edition, click here.

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