Boot Camp Post-mortem
(If you have not yet read the post I wrote immediately before leaving for Literary Boot Camp, take a peek at it now. It will amuse you in retrospect when you do go ahead and read this one.)
It’s been a few days amd I haven’t posted the results of my trip to Orson Scott Card’s literary Boot Camp. This is partly because I’ve already explained, in brief, the experience via my Facebook page, and partly because (strangely enough) I hate to be the sort of person who thinks everyone else is interested in the minutiae of his life (like those people who post what TV shows they plan to watch tonight). But there is another, bigger reason, and it is this: I don’t want to jinx myself.
OK, the truth is, I don’t believe in jinxes. What I mean to say is that I hate to get people’s hopes up– mine included– when the future is still unknown. But so many of you have supported me so thoroughly for so long that you truly do deserve to know the amazing things that have happened of late, and share in the hopes of what could still be to come.
So here it is.
Literary Boot Camp was an excellent, life-changing experience. Sounds like a cliche thing to say, I know, but bear with me. I’ll try to keep it brief (although we all know how that usually turns out, so pull up a rock and get comfy).
Orson Scott Card (for those of you who don’t know) is a world famous writer of fantasy, sci-fi, horror, and etc. He wrote “Ender’s Game”, among others. He has repeatedly won the highest literary awards in the genres that he writes. He is, in short, a superstar. He knows his stuff: he knows how to write it, and he knows how to critique it, and critique it he does. That is a big part of why he conducts the Boot Camps. He wants to teach other writers how to do it, and he does that by teaching them, among other things, how to critique their own and other people’s works.
This is not always a pleasant process.
Despite what we writers say about how much we really appreciate honest critique, what we really want is for people to love what we make. It is never enjoyable to have someone eviscerate your story, especially in front of 13 of your peers. We may know that it is generally good for us– sort of like Brussels Sprouts, or listening to NPR– but that doesn’t make it any fun.
Mr. Card does not try to make it fun. He assumes we are grown-ups, and that we are serious about writing. He is amusing to listen to, though. He is wildly opinionated about almost everything, and while one may choose (at their own peril) to disagree with him, they should know that his opinions are derived from an obviously stunning intellect and an exhaustively curious, thoroughly well-read mind. He is not a man who shies away from an opinion simply because it is socially unpopular. Lack of popularity, he would argue, has no bearing whatsoever on facts.
Those of you who know me will know I respect this view immensely.
The first part of the week of Boot Camp was spent learning from Mr. Card about how to approach the story-making process. He said some things that I found exceedingly validating, such as that there is only one “living draft” of a fiction story, and it is the first one. There is no second draft. Second drafts, he argues, kill a story, because by then the fuel of inspiration is all spent. Fiddling with a story once the inspiration has burned off kills it.
This was reassuring to me because, unlike most other writers I have spoken with, I never, ever rewrite. Ever. I write a section, immediately read over it for clarity and grammar and missed details, then generally sit back and say “damn, that’s good.” Up until Mr. Card said what he did, I assumed I was just deluded. Other writers absolutely slave over revisions and drafts, fitting the words and ideas together like pieces of a puzzle. I assumed I was lazy. Turns out, lazy is a good thing! At least according to Mr. Card.
(NOTE: the following contains nitty-gritty details about how the Boot Camp experience played out. Mr. Card never told us to keep it secret, but still, if you ever plan to attend one, and don’t wish to know what will happen, take note: SPOILERS TO FOLLOW. Enough said.)
On Monday evening, we were given our first assignment. We were told to come up with five complete story ideas, with beginnings, middles and endings. We were to write them on five note cards. More importantly, we were sent out to collect those story ideas from unique sources. One of those sources, unsurprisingly, was the campus library. The other source was to be a random interview with a perfect stranger.
Mr. Card pointed out what we all already knew: writers are introverts. Approaching perfect strangers is something we tend to dread.
I did it. I approached a perfect stranger on the street near the college where the Boot Camp was held. He was a late middle-aged man taking a walk with his dog and his son. He was reticent to speak to me, and I assumed the interview was a complete bust from a story perspective. But I did end up getting all five of my story ideas scribbled down on the note cards. And I was actually pretty pleased with them. In fact, the physical act of jotting them down, cramming the entire idea on a little 3 by 5 card, was the hardest part. I’m lazy from typing. I hardly ever use actual penmanship anymore (and in my case, I use that term very loosely).
On Tuesday, we were given our second assignment: to write a complete story based on one of our note cards. We had until Wednesday, 4 PM, to finish.
I am a fast writer, fortunately, and having five decent ideas to start with, I was feeling excited by the challenge. I went back to my dorm room and prepared to begin a little black comedy tale I had concocted. I was calling it “Pregnancy Brain”. Earlier that day, I had discussed the story idea with my little breakout group. They had liked it.
But then, for no real reason, I began thinking about one of the other story ideas; the one based on my interview with the reticent local man. I don’t remember why, but I decided to write that one instead. Ten minutes later I started it. I finished it the next day at 2 PM.
I didn’t know if it was good, but I knew I liked it. As an artist, I’ve always trusted my instincts. If something I made struck me as good, I knew it was. I knew others would respond to it. As a writer, I have not learned to trust my instincts. I was afraid that even though I really liked this little story– this 30 page drabble that I had concocted in less than 24 hours– that it still might, in essence, stink. I was worried that everyone else would dislike it. I was confident that they would find endless little problems with it.
I was worried, in short, that my instincts about my own writing were completely wrong.
So. The next day, the critiques began.
They happened like this. We sat in the round so we could all see each other. Mr. Card very carefully explained that we were not to critique grammar, style, etc, but to only discuss the story itself. This was a relief. Then, we picked the first story in the lot and began to go around the room one by one, each taking turns offering our detailed critique of the manuscript in question. The comments were very honest. They were helpful. They were respectfully offered, and carefully received. Then, after everyone else had gone (there were 14 of us) Mr. Card would launch into his critique. These often took ten to twenty minutes, and they were worth every word.
Mr. Card knows what makes a story work. Not only could he point out every place where the manuscript failed, he could, on the fly, come up with an idea of how it could have been changed for the better. His critiques were often uncomfortable to listen to, simply because they were so brutally honest, but I don’t think any of us ever doubted that they were anything but well-intended, wholly insightful, and extremely helpful.
But they were rarely positive. He would almost always point out what was good in a story, even if he’d spent fifteen minutes eviscerating it. He would encourage the author for his/her style, smoothness, ease of reading, dialogue, etc, so that one always felt that people left the table encouraged, even if their example story lay dead and in tatters.
But I was nervous. Because again, I liked my story. Most of the rest downplayed theirs, admitting it was hardly their best work, that they hadn’t had time to perfect it, that the essential idea was flawed and imperfect. I didn’t feel any of that about mine. I truly thought it was about as good as anything I’d ever written. If it turned out to be worthy of evisceration, then I felt I had no choice but to admit that I was totally tone deaf about my own writing.
My turn finally came on Friday, late afternoon.
A word about the other writers at my Boot Camp experience: They were all awesome. Not only are they all, to a person, very good writers, they are also people whose company I truly enjoy. I cannot say that for a lot of people. I thoroughly valued every minute I got to spend with them. I was both humbled and encouraged by their wit, their skill, their humanness, and their honesty. I am sad it ended, because I came, over the course of the week, to think of nearly every one of them as friends.
So. The critique of my manuscript began, and the first person admitted that they really liked my story. I was content at that point. The fact that one person was moved by what I wrote was good enough.
The next person went then, and even though she had some minor suggestions, she also really liked my story. I was deeply pleased by this, of course. Further around the room the critique went, and I was increasingly humbled by the fact that everyone seemed to have found some pleasure in what I had written. That isn’t to say there was not some very helpful critique– there was, and I wrote it all down, because it was all very good and very true. But overall, they liked it! They were moved by it! Several of my fellow authors admitted that the story had brought tears to their eyes!
I had hoped that maybe half might validate my response to the story. Needless to say, I was overwhelmed. I knew that Mr. Card would probably tell them exactly how wrong they were, of course. And he would be exactly right, and we would all laugh about it, including me. That was his job, and we wanted him to do it.
And so he began his critique of my story, which is called “The Long Way Home”. He spoke uncharacteristically softly. He pointed out some issues with the story, but none of them were fundamental. I was waiting, of course, for the other shoe to drop. I was waiting for the major problem, the fatal error, the central failure.
About halfway through Mr. Card’s critique, however, I realized something: there was no “but” coming. He liked my story. I was, of course, completely shocked. I had completely given up hoping that it was even possible.
Fortunately for me, I was sitting right next to Mr. Card. I knew, from observing, that he jots notes about the manuscripts on their front pages. I surreptitiously peeked at my own manuscript where it sat in front of him. There was very little written there, and in the middle of it, most prominent of all, he had jotted: I want to buy this.
So of course I could barely sit still.
I remember some of what he said verbatim. You will, I hope, forgive me for repeating it here. My literary ego has long been waiting for validation from someone on the other side of the publishing divide, and there are few published authors whose opinion I would trust as much as Mr. Card.
He called my tale “the sort of story that starts careers”. He compared it, favorably, to a Nebula winning story, and said that mine was, in a way, better. To the rest of those gathered, he said, “I think we all knew when we were reading this that we were reading something special.”
I wish I could remember more, but really, those comments alone are more than enough. I was– and am– completely and wholly overwhelmed.
And then Mr. Card announced to the class that he wanted to buy my story for publication in his literary magazine, “Intergalactic Medicine Show”.
I called my wife and told her all about it. She had never labored under the same self-doubts I have, thus she was utterly thrilled, but not surprised. She asked if I would ever doubt that I was a writer again. I told her that I would not, and I meant it.
I drove the twelve hours home on Saturday in a sort of giddy fog.
Since then, I made the minor tweaks and edits to “The Long Way Home” that my fellow Boot Campers and Mr. Card suggested. They definitely helped to make a good story a lot better, and I am grateful for that. I sent the story to Mr. Card this past Tuesday afternoon. In the email, I asked him to note the heroic restraint I was showing in not peppering him with any of my other completed novellas and novels. I was hoping he might ask to see them anyway, although I knew that that was a ludicrously improbable expectation. I am sure that Mr. Card gets absolutely inundated with requests– by published authors, no less– to read their works, either for feedback, a favorable quote, or professional assistance.
I hesitate to admit this, but the next day, I heard back from Mr. Card. He thanked me for sending him “The Long Way Home”. And he asked to view “Ruins of Camelot”, my most recent novel.
This, on the face of it, means nothing, of course. But it also means everything. I am humbled and amazed and thrilled. My little manuscript has done nothing to deserve this kind of attention. I can’t help thinking that I am just a total schmoe who got cosmically lucky, but I’ll take it. I’ll always take it.
He may totally dislike my novel, and that is all right. I really have had enough professional validation in the past week to last for a lifetime.
But what if he says it is good? What if he does like it?
I really don’t know the answer to that question. These are uncharted waters. From here, everything else is, frankly, gravy.
But I like gravy. Bring on the gravy!
So for now, please consider that last bit a secret! It’s just between you and me, all right? The last thing I want is for people to start sending Mr. Card their manuscripts and saying “Hey, George tells me you looked at his, so here’s mine too!”
I probably don’t need to say this, but DON’T DO THAT! It’s totally unprofessional, and more importantly, it’ll make me look like a name-dropping schmuck. If you want a critique from Mr. Card, pay the half-grand (not including expenses) to go to one of his Boot Camps. It is well worth it.
So, there it all is. Sigh. It may end here, but either way I will keep you all updated. Thanks for riding along this far. No matter what, I will keep writing.
And, of course, I do hope you will keep reading.
Onward and upward!