I haven't stopped writing, but I have stopped blogging. This is something I need to remedy, because so much of the author-reader experience these days includes internet interaction. In this vein, I may soon break down and get a twitter account. I've been holding off for ages because I feel like twitter is contributing to the poor grammar of America. If you're restricted to 140 characters, you feel justified in taking shortcuts.

But I don't want to turn this into a rant about social media. It is a powerful force, and should not be ignored.

What I want to write about instead is workshopping.

I just got back from my third residency at the Seton Hill Writing Popular Fiction MFA program. Aside from being the only program of its kind in the country (there are plenty of MFA creative writing programs, but only one that focuses entirely on genre fiction), it is also the first writing program I've been involved with that fosters good, constructive workshop sessions. Sometimes I've stumbled into good critique groups almost by mistake, but most of my undergrad writing classes were fraught with disdain and disparagement. Often the professors egged on the students in their destructive critiques. I escaped that world and switched to studying literature (mythology and folklore was my specialty) just to keep a hold on my sanity.

But Seton Hill isn't like that.

Here's what I love:

They've learned from their mistakes. The first class you ever take at Seton Hill now is a class on critiquing. You learn the "sandwich" method (positive comment, constructive critique, positive comment), and how to explain what you feel rather than saying, "I didn't like this." Then you don't have a workshop until the next day, which gives you time to revise any critiques you may already have completed.

Every workshop is moderated by an instructor who has copious workshop experience. This is more important than you might believe. The students can easily take over a workshop unless the moderator is on top of things.

The joy of workshopping a piece is found in having so many inquisitive writer-minds focused on your manuscript for an hour. No matter what genre they write, other writers have fantastic insights into the process and can spot all sorts of things you, as the author, are too close to the work to see. I love workshops and critique groups because I get so much out of them that makes me a better writer. I hope I give a little back, too.
As an author of a fantasy series-in-progress, I feel honor-bound to defend them against negative comments.

Tonight I participated in a class chat as part of my MFA program in genre fiction. The chat's theme was characters and point of view, but about halfway into the the chat we started crossing from character into plot. We were talking about the requirements of series writing, and how to carry characters and plot over the course of a series. Someone made a comment about mystery and romance series being different than fantasy series, and I chimed in that a lot of fantasy writers view their series as one huge story/book chopped into volumes. Another member of the class shot back that that was lazy writing, a la the Wheel of Time.

A chat room isn't the best place for an argument, or even a discussion, because you can only enter so much text and in this case there were twenty or so other students who wanted to talk about other things. So my only rejoinder was that I didn't mean that the individual volumes didn't or shouldn't have their own story arcs.

But now that I have time and leisure, I want to talk about the fantasy series, and to defend my views.

The first point is that we have Tolkien to blame. When he wrote The Lord of the Rings he did not write it as a trilogy. He wrote it as one book and for various reasons (one being the cost of paper post-WWII), his publisher insisted on breaking it into three volumes. I would never suggest that other writers blindly ape Tolkien's example. After all, if you read the entire book it does have a plot arc and character development (though confined primarily to the hobbits). Tolkien knew what he was doing, but was forced to do something else instead. I mean, who would end The Two Towers with Frodo taken by the enemy and Sam in possession of the Ring? When the movies were made, they shifted events around so that Towers would have a more satisfying climax and conclusion, and it's one of the few changes I agree with.

Modern fantasy readers want their books to have good character development and good plot structure. Just furthering the overall series plot isn't enough- you have to tell a good story every time. But that big picture or big problem that follows/pushes/is pushed by your characters throughout the course of the series is just important.

I think of the modern fantasy series as an ocean tide. It's all the same water, and the goal is to hit some high point on the shore, but it is going to take a number of waves breaking on the sand before the tide comes all of the way in. Each wave is a book. It has a beginning, a middle, and an end. In each, the characters are pushed further on their own journeys and grow and change as the wave swells and curls. At the climax they crash upon the shore and then sweep back to regroup for the next book/wave. Every time they get a little farther toward their goals, and meet new challenges along the way.

Fantasy readers want big, sweeping stories with lots of scenery and characters and plots that aren't easily resolved in one 500 page volume. Stand-alones exist, but both publishers and readers are going to beg for more.

So when you write fantasy, you can't neglect the individual book problem or the overall series problem(s). You have to consider both.
I haven't posted in a million years, but I thought I would pop in to say hello just before I head off into the wilds of Pennsylvania for Residency. My first term has been a rough one. The work hasn't been difficult, but juggling that with a full time job, a toddler who is sick more often than not, a spine injury, costume side jobs, and anything resembling free time has been a bit of a trick. Fortunately I'm insane about lists and schedules, and that keeps me in line.

I've managed to get nearly all of my critiques finished, and I should have time to finish the last two before the final workshop session on Sunday. Speaking of which, my work doesn't get critiqued until the last day this time. As a 'One,' I was critiqued on the first day of workshops, which was a bit harrowing. But it turned out to be a nice thing, because we only had two stories in our group and I got to have a lot of time and feedback. All of it was constructive and positive. Time will reveal if my next workshop will uphold that experience or dash it to pieces.

I'm falling asleep on the couch as I write this, which means it's time for bed. I still haven't packed...probably not the best thing to put off until the last minute, but laundry didn't happen over the weekend because I had to work.

Off to bed I go.
Some of these reviews may contain spoilers. I will mark as appropriate.


The book I am currently reading is Fire: Tales of Elemental Spirits, co-authored by Robin McKinley and Peter Dickinson. There are four 40-60 page short stories, and one 110 page novella. Of the five stories, my favorite thus far is "Hellhound," the short story written by McKinley. What follows is a short review of each story. I haven't finished the novella yet, so I'll post about that tomorrow.

"Phoenix," by Peter Dickinson

Leading off the collection, "Phoenix" tells the story of a young girl drawn into an ancient cycle surrounding the phoenix of legend, amusingly named "Sonny" by his current caretaker. The story doesn't really go anywhere, but the cyclic nature is kind of the point, so I understand that. What is intriguing is the way Dickinson works with that cyclic concept to reinvent the phoenix legend. In this version, the phoenix is tied to two priests during each of its life-cycles. They are both born at the same time, at the pinnacle of the cycle. One ages forward while the other ages backward. At each cycle, they switch places. The one aging forward starts going backward, and the one who went backward is reborn somewhere out in the world nearby. The jeopardy in the story comes from the uncertainty that the cycle will continue. The premise is interesting, but I feel it would have worked better with another twenty or thirty pages of action. Not much happens, and what little action occurs you learn about by being told of it, rather than seeing for yourself. The conclusion came too quickly- Dickinson jumps from introducing an interesting plot snarl that could cause difficulties right to the end without actually seeing those difficulties take shape or become real obstacles.


"Hellhound," by Robin McKinley

Definitely my favorite, but as with "Phoenix," I felt "Hellhound's" climax happened too quickly. McKinley does a remarkable job of quickly immersing us in her world, getting us emotionally involved with her characters, and then putting them into serious jeopardy, but I do not entirely believe in the method the heroine uses to escape that jeopardy. Despite the shock-and-horror filled denouement, I felt the major conflict was almost too easily won. But I adored the brother and sister who are the main characters, and McKinley's description of people's relationships with their animals is a reflection of her own deep devotion to her two "hellhounds," deerhound/greyhound mixes she has nicknamed "Chaos" and "Darkness" for her blog. Although main character Miri's "dog" is like no real dog in the world, McKinley's understanding of the human/pet connection is flawless and makes me yearn for a new dog!


"Fireworm," by Peter Dickinson

Perhaps the most complete of the short stories, Fireworm actually feels like a "traditional" short story with a beginning, middle, and end. It was well-plotted and paced, and had a very fitting ending. I enjoyed the way storytelling was woven into the tale, and how Dickinson relied heavily on mythic elements and legendary tropes. The story is a hero's transformation tale, taking us on the journey that turns unwanted orphan Tandin into a heroic Spirit Walker. It would take lots of space to discuss in detail each of the mythic ingredients Dickinson uses to spice his soup, but to name a few: journey into the Otherworld, physical transformation, born to no father/god for a father, paying a price for magic/knowledge, etc. Set in a primeval, pre-iron age world, the dichotomy of the ice of winter and glacier with the fire of mankind works brilliantly on both the physical and metaphoric levels. Dickinson also lets us see the "villains" of the story as sympathetic beings, a welcome change from the black/white, good/evil you see in many fairy-tale or myth based stories.

"Salamander Man" by Peter Dickinson

This story threw me for a bit of a loop. It also has all of its constituent parts in the right order, but although I understand what happens in the story, many of the motivations of the characters are non-existent. The central part of the story is the transformation of the main character into a giant man of flame. Yet he does not do this consciously, and the narrative even has to switch to third person omniscient to tell that part of the story because third person limited can't accurately describe what is happening to a character who understands almost nothing himself. In the end, what might have been spectacular is only interesting because you have no emotional involvement with the main character. I basically put it down and thought, "oh, whatever."



Tomorrow I will review First Flight.

July 2011

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