Thursday, October 11, 2012

Taos Toolbox 2013

Taos Toolbox 2013 is looking for applicants. What's Taos Toolbox, you ask? Well, you asked the right guy. Taos Toolbox is a master level writing workshop, taught by Walter Jon Williams and Nancy Kress at the Taos Ski area in New Mexico. The website for it is here:

I was at Taos Toolbox 2011. I came in with some chops. So did everyone else who was there. Even if it hadn't been for an advanced graduate course worth of instruction crammed into two weeks, even without instruction by writers who are some of the best in the business - Walter Jon Williams, Nancy Kress, and guest lecturer Jack Skillingstead - having two weeks away from my real life, workshopping my peers' work was incredible. I learned a lot just from those people - things like building magic systems that don't make me itch.

And then you get the instruction. How novels work, down on the nitty gritty level, and how to plan and execute them. What details you include for the sense of reality, and what ones you don't. How your plot advances, what it reveals about the story and when. There's much more, of course, but this was the stuff I went to Taos for.

Last year, when crowing about Taos, I used hypothetical examples. This time I'm going to lay out a personal example of what I got from the instruction at Taos.

All my training, lo these many years ago, was in short stories. When I wrote Looking Glass, it came out as a 50,000 word short story. It didn't even have chapters. Short stories are different animals, because you can keep the whole plot in your head and make it up as you go. I still like Looking Glass, but the plot is simple and linear. Cath and her team are attacked, she survives, they don't, and the rest is a quest for revenge and justice that goes like a traceroute from one node to the next until she finds the perp. The roadmap I had for writing it was simply that. The traceroute. I knew that kind of storyline would work for the story I was telling, because it's how Cliff Stoll put together one of my favorite nonfiction books, The Cuckoo's Egg. Cath's mom issues were one of those kismet things that fell into place during revision and made the book far better than its original, linear plot allowed. (Let's say I needed to do some nonstandard things with the fourth wall and needed to have set the precedent for doing so all the way through.) It came out remarkably well.

As I progressed to later work, it become painfully obvious that the more complex the plot I tried to invent, the more my existing planning was just not up to the job, and that a novel is just too big to try and keep the whole plot in my head. Finding the plot, asking, begging kismet to once again drop the plot element in my lap that would make the novel really sing doesn't work reliably. Brass and Steel is in the polishing phases now. There are 56 chapters in the current beta, as I go into the polishing phase of this novel. I wrote 69 other chapters that won't be in it. That's no way to write a novel. At Taos, some time in the first week, I was finally able to ask the right questions to tell myself what the novel is about. What the main character, Dante Blackmore wants. It's a redemption story. Dante starts the novel lost, and over the course of the novel finds some measure of redemption (and what that means.) Since Taos, the process for finishing the novel has amounted to chipping away anything that doesn't support that, and fleshing out all the missing pieces for how that is accomplished.

The future: At Taos, one of my fellow students and a very fine writer volunteered the novel she was stuck on up for storyboarding. I've never been one to pre-plan a novel that way before. It always seemed to me that it takes the joy out of writing if you know what's going to happen next. What happened amazed me. Really. Laying the whole book out on stickinotes on the wall gave us the whole flow of the plot, all its emotional beats, and also where it lost its way forward, and with the author of the novel, Walter Jon Williams, and the gang of us, we hashed out the problems and laid out a plot line that worked in four or five freaking hours. It took me over a year to really understand what Brass and Steel: Inferno wanted to be about. Storyboarding this other writer's novel let us see the emotional beats of the novel clearly, and tune them directly. In hours. I want that. Next novel: Getting storyboarded. I have stickinotes. I just need to find wall space.

Writing is hard. When the finished, published book looks effortless on rereading, it means you've done your job. Taos is hard. It's no mean feat to read, critique, and workshop and in part, write 197,000 words in two weeks, when you're also spending four hours a day in instruction. But if you're an up-and-comer, if you write and you've sold but you want to grow your talent, if you're stuck and you don't know why, do Taos. It's hard. It's not cheap. But it's worth it.


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