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ArmadilloCon 2008 writers' workshop: pros' advice and a story construction game

P1010528 Don Webb, Julie Kenner, and Kimberly Frost

The writers' workshop started with advice panels on writing. Some of the advice the pros gave was debunking common writing myths, so in a way it was metaadvice. Sheila Williams, the editor guest of honor, shared some good, compelling pieces of wisdom. It's all the more valuable coming from the mouth of the Asimov's editor.

Then Don Webb conducts an audience participation game. He and the audience collaboratively construct outlines for two genre stories: an immuno-defficient woman in a bubble encounters a giant germ (horror) and a little slave boy in the 19th century American south meets aliens (science fiction). For this, the audience needs to decide: the story's genre (SF, F or H), who is the protagonist, where or when the story is taking place, and, most importantly, what is the driving force for the story. If it's horror, what is the protagonist afraid of? If they are aliens, what do they want?

After the critique sessions, ArmadilloCon guest of honor John Scalzi gave a closing speech for the workshop students on the power of suck.

The pictures from the writing workshop and the rest of ArmadilloCon 2008 can be found on my web site.

The writers' workshop started with advice panels on writing. Some of the advice the pros gave was debunking common writing myths, so in a way it was metaadvice. Don't listen to "don't write in the first person"! Jayme Lynn Blaschke has heard a lot of anti-first-person advice, as well as don't write time travel, it's been done to death; however, the first story he sold was written in first person about time travel.

Also, "write what you know" shouldn't be taken literally. Even if you're an accountant, it doesn't mean that you should be writing about accounting. You probably know some other things too -- perhaps you have hobbies, or had something unusual / memorable happen to you in childhood.

Don Webb, Julie Kenner, and Kimberly Frost

Don Webb, Julie Kenner, and Kimberly Frost on the writing workshop panel

Sheila Williams, the editor guest of honor, gave some good, compelling pieces of advice.

(1) A mistake a lot of beginning authors make is underpopulate their story. There's usually just one major main character, and others are not well fleshed-out.

(2) The protagonist should not be the clone of the author. She immediately recognizes when the protagonist is the author himself / herself: such stories lack tension. At the very least, make your protagonist a different gender or different age than you.

(3) Don't start a story with the character waking up, especially if the first thing he or she does is look at the alarm. (Good thing Kafka didn't take that advice, somebody says.)

(4) Don't set your character in a boring job. But as with every rule, there are exceptions. Sheila has just bought a story from unkonwn author where the character was bored with her job, but it was the weirdest job in the world.

A story construction game

Then Don Webb conducts an audience participation game. He and the audience collaboratively construct outlines for two genre stories.

Story 1: horror

First, he asks the audience to select the genre: science fiction, fantasy, or horror? The vox populi votes on horror. Male or female protagonist? Female. Where does the horror of her situation come from? She lives in a bubble, where she's been all her life because of an immunodefficiency syndrome; one day the power goes out.

Don Webb asks the audience: What's scary to her?

Matthew Bey: giant germs. At least 6 feet.

Don Webb. Human-sized germs. Are they after her perssonally, or is it an invasion of the planet?

Audience. Invasion.

Don Webb. Why are they picking on her first?

After some debate, Stina suggests and idea: She's last. The germs want what they can't have.

Don Webb. She's the last person on Earth. The human-sized germs have eaten everybody else.

Then he asks the audience what kind of story it is: hopeless or hopeful? The audience decides on hopeful. Don asks how did the female protagonist find a way to coexist with the germs?

Audience. Sex!

Phoebe. Maybe now she can leave her bubble, because everybody's dead and no one is a threat to her anymore (no normal germs).

Don Webb. What do the germs want? Do they have brains?

Audience. Maybe they are last germs on Earth.

Don Webb. The last woman on Earth is looking at the last germ. The last germ is looking at her. And we say, romance!

Don Webb. The last woman crosses and becomes one with the other. It's a powerful story! Make it into a movie!

Kimberly Frost. This is clearly the medical thriller I was meant to write.

Don Webb. If you write sex in the novel of a very weird kind, you will get letters from someone who has the interest in that kind of sex and thinks you're the leader of revolution. (Like the time Webb wrote a story where a character had sex with a zebra, he got letters from readers who confessed their lust for zebras.)

Sheila Williams and Phoebe Kitanidis

Sheila Williams and Phoebe Kitanidis on the writing workshop panel

Story 2: science fiction

Audience chooses science fiction as the genre for the next story, a little boy for a protagonist. When does the story take place? Don Webb asks. In 1862, somebody answers. Where? In Virginia. Immediately the boy protagonist sprouts details: he becomes a crippled black slave boy.

Don Webb. What's going to be the SFnal element?

A guy in the audience. Evil aliens.

There is some more debate between Don Webb and the audience regarding what the aliens' motivations should be.

Cheryl. The aliens have an idea how to solve the problem of the civil war. They want to end the war.

Don. Why do aliens care about civil war?

A woman in the audience. Earth is in the middle of transgalactic highway, and we will soon be contacted by other races. So these aliens are the first, and they want to unite the humankind, so that we will be ready for what's to come.

Don. It's all very positive. If the aliens only want good for the humanity, there won't be a problem in the story.

Michael Trice. The aliens contact a slave because they want to do experiments on humans, and human experimentation is preferrable to slavery.

Don. Aliens want humans who would volunteer for experiments. Are they contacting anybody else? Does our boy agree to volunteer for experiments, or is he trying to escape to slavery-free North?

Don further asks. Are the aliens ethical? Why would we believe they are ethical?

A guy in the audience. Because they have an oversight committee to make sure no human rights are violated.

John Scalzi on the power of suck

After the critique sessions, ArmadilloCon guest of honor John Scalzi gave a closing speech for the workshop students. This is what he had to say.

One of the things you need to do as a writer is give yourself a permision to suck. Not just to suck, but to suck really bad. The first reason is, when somebody starts to write, they suck really bad, just like the first time they're starting out on anything. There are levels of suck. There is "monkeys suck worse than you", there is normal suck, there is high-runcionting suck --that's when you're pretty good, but something's still not right. Like when I made a bacon-maple pie. It was technically a very good pie, and then you put it in your mouth. (Audience laughs.)

The second reason is that embracing the suck liberates you to do all sorts of things. The first time people decide to write a novel, they decie the theme of that novel is going to be the most important story they're ever going to tell. And they don't have the skills, the tools to do it. So you need to approach it as a learning experience: "I'm gonna suck but I'm gonna do it anyway", and then learn from it...

John Scalzi and Stina Leicht

John Scalzi gives a closing speech while the workshop coordinator Stina Leicht watches on.

The first time he tried to write a novel, it was before high school reunion, and he wanted to be able to say that he at least had a novel in progress, to avoid peer humiliation. Back in high school he had told some people he was going to be a writer, so he was afraid they might ask "so what about that writing thing"?

The third reason is, if you only do things you're good at, you'll never try things you are not good at. Like my 9-year-old daughter Athena only reads picture books, because that's what she's good at. If you stay only in your comfort zone, you're not gonna get any better. Every time I write something, I try to put in it one thing I've never done before.

The big moment of suckitude in "Zoe's Tale" was trying to write as 16-year-old girl. Because (he points to his chest), A-cups here notwithstanding, I'm not a girl.

The first time he tried to write in a 16-year-old girl's voice, he failed miserably, and his first readers told him so. He kept perfecting it until he got it right, and now he thinks the 16-year-old Zoe is perhaps the best character he's ever written.