I attended the first Boot Camp in Greensboro and found the experience to be exactly what I needed at that point in my development as a writer. I'd been honing my craft for ten years, having written a couple of novels and dozens of short stories. I also had attended the very intense six week Odyssey Fantasy Writers Workshop a few years before. Still, while my writing was competent, and I got tons of encouraging rejection slips, I seemed unable to make the final break into actual publication. This put me in a space where I was second guessing everything I wrote, which meant that while I was writing good stories, I wasn't writing them with confidence. Boot Camp changed that. Unlike Odyssey, where I had weeks to work on stories, Boot Camp forces you to write a story in a matter of days--hours, really, if you are in the first round of stories being critiqued. Fortunately, the way Card structures the class really provides a good path for thinking through your story ideas rapidly and developing them into winners. Card's overall career advice was also very valuable. I left the class feeling very confident, and shortly after that I started making my first sales.
I highly recommend it for anyone who can afford it
quote:Card's overall career advice was also very valuable.
In short, what might that be?
Also, could you briefly tell us what your breakthrough consisted of? I'm pretty much a John Gardner disciple, and in his two books on writing he often says that learning how to write is more or less a matter of "catching on" -- there is no discursive reasoning or propositional knowledge involved. It's as if a light suddenly turns on and, viola, you're at a new level. Looking back on that time, do you know what light suddenly turned on? Or, is it still too nebulous in your own mind? (Sometimes we can never really talk about our catching on; we just know there's been a change. I've had several of these experiences, and I'm only really able to talk about one or two of them.)
[This message has been edited by Jerome Vall (edited February 13, 2004).]
Jerome, I don't think there's one single, quick lesson that pushed me over the edge. I think that my Odyssey experience had both helped and hurt me--I got good advice from many different writers--alas, the advice was often contradictory. Harlan Ellison, for instance, placed a tremendous amount of emphasis on style--he believed that focused, engaging writing would hold the reader's attention even if the underlying story was thin. Patricia McPhillips placed an tremendous amount of emphasis on setting--basicly arguing that readers of fantasy want an exciting and exotic setting first of all, and would settle for more stereotypical characters as long as they were consistent with setting. James Morrow laid out plotting in terms of always working toward a false ending, with the real ending hidden until the last second. When I left Odyssey, I found myself kind of gun-shy and overly critical of my work. Harlan Ellison had been particularly critical, not neccessarily of me, but repeating a dozen times that, if you aren't selling stories, it's because you're not good enough. As someone with over a hundred rejection letters by that point, that was a tough pill to swallow. There was also a great deal of discussion from all the guest writers Odyssey about how tough the writing business was--gripes about royalties never being paid, publishing houses closing, top writers dying penniless, etc. I left Odyssey more or less feeling as if the goal of writing for a living was forever beyond my grasp. Before Odyssey, I mailed off every story I wrote in hopes of publication. After Odyssey, I kept writing--I have to write or my head will explode--but I stopped submitting stories. My writing was now something I did purely for my own amusement. It was during this time that I wrote Nobody Gets the Girl--and then never even read it. I had satisfied my creative urges writing it, but didn't see any point in spending an ounce of energy rewriting a novel that had such slim chances of getting published--at least according to the advice I'd gotten about markets from Odyssey. Publishers don't like taking gambles on hard to classify works, and Nobody Gets the Girl was a very strange beast, a graphic novel without the graphics.
It was only through a long shot that I heard about the first OSC Boot Camp. My second ex-wife, whom I never speak to, actually e-mailed me an announcement about it. I have no idea how she heard about it, since I don't think she's ever read anything by Card. But, since the workshop was in Greensboro, where I lived, and since it only required a week invested of my time, versus six weeks for Odyssey, I figured it couldn't hurt to at least apply. I used the first page of my short story "Little Guilt Thing Goin' On" for my submission sample. A few weeks later, I was accepted.
Card was like the mirror dimension good twin of Harlan Ellison. While Harlan had badmouthed the industry, Card told stories that made writing for a living seem like a pretty swell job. Harlan had said that good style hid the flaws of a weak story; Card said that a good story will hide flaws in style. Card also put all the contradictory advice I'd gotten from Odyssey into one coherent philosophy. There is no one way or formula to write a good story. It is okay to write a story that emphasises setting over character, or vice versa. There are markets and precedents for almost anything you can imagine. Card also dismissed the worries I had that my stories weren't original enough. He flat-out stated that originality is an overrated attribute, that most writers make a living exploring themes and ideas that have been done a zillion times before.
When I had my Boot Camp story idea critiqued in front of the whole group, the idea was picked into so many pieces that Card actually suggested pick a new idea. I could tell he was completely unimpressed. But, luckily, John Crowley's advice from Odyssey was still with me--good stories have their own voice. I went home that night, lit my tiki torches on my deck, mixed up a jumbo margarita, and typed on my laptop until about 5am, turning out a story I was proud of. It was like ten years of writing advice finally clicked, and I was able to write a story that seemed to have a little bit of everything--good sensual detail fleshing out the setting, a tight plot, engaging characters, all tied together by the very stylish voice of my narrator. The reaction from the class was terrific. I felt like I had undergone a trial by fire, and passed.
In the final hours of the class, Card did something that really helped me more than anything. He went through the one page submissions that he'd used to select who would attend the class. He read them out loud, then talked about what he saw in them that made him think that the writer had promise--if they'd started with a good setting, or an intriguing character, or the promise of a good plot, whatever. When he got to mine, he read it out loud, laughing at the places I wanted him to laugh, and then summed up why he's chosen me for the class--"This was a no brainer." It was a huge boost to my confidence. After Boot Camp, I started submitting stories again. Six months later, I'd won the Phobos contest with "Empire of Dreams and Miracles." A year after that, I sold my "unpublishable" novel to Phobos. I've sold my short stories "Little Guilt Thing Goin' On," "Perhaps the Snail," "As It is in Heaven," and "Absolutely Brilliant in Chrome," all at pro (or at least near pro) rates. And even my rejections now are almost always direct from the editor, with few form rejections.
I'm a long, long way from being able to support myself writing, but at least I made enough money last year to really make filling out my taxes this year a pain.
One final note: All of the stories I've sold to date (with one exception) were written in the three year gap between Odyssey and Boot Camp, so apparently Odyssey helped me more than I could see. But when I was writing these stories, I often felt like I was flailing around in the dark. The main thing Boot Camp did for me was to help me see the light at the end of the tunnel. Card gives a great pep talk.
Thanks for the post. After being on this board for some time--and after reading a lot of books on writing--I am convinced that to be a writing teacher one must have a magnanimous mind and soul: a magnanimous mind because one must be able to see the good things in works or authors they don't particularly care for, and a magnanimous soul because the only way one can become a successful writer is a steady dose of faith, optimism, and perseverance. I find these qualities in John Gardner's books on writing, and it seems that Orson Scott Card has them, too.
(A digression: I think Harlen Ellison is the most over-rated SF writer who has ever lived. I have never read a story of his that I've liked, and whenever see him praised I am mind-boggled how he has duped yet another person. I've also read some interviews with him and . . . well, let's just leave it at that.)
Two things struck me about your personal quest. First, you had a long and solid apprenticeship--something I think a lot of writers forget about--before you started selling on a regular basis. Sure, I suppose we can all look at odd balls, people like Terry Goodkind and Tad Williams who sold the first thing they wrote. (I like Williams, but I've never read Goodkind.) The ordinary way of making it is by working on your craft for a number of years. There's just too much that goes into making a piece of fiction a good piece of fiction. And it takes time to learn that.
Second, I noticed that the vast majority of everything you've sold was written when you were too afraid to publish. I wonder if you had a Faulkner-like experience. After Faulkner had sold his first three novels, his publisher told him it call it quits. Faulkner figured that his writing career was over and decided to write the story he wanted to read, which ended up being The Sound and the Fury--the novel that launched a very prestigious career. I wonder if there's a moral here, namely, that when we view publication as a kind of validation for our writing, we're doing ourselves a disservice. I'm reminded of the advise I posted from Somerset Maugham, which said, in effect, that a writer should take pleasure in the act of creativity and the unburdening of the mind that comes with writing and not worry about publishing success or failure. Interestingly, John Gardner gives the same advice to novices.
On a personal note, the reason why the subject about publication is on my mind is because lately I've had a kind of epiphany. I've discovered that I am not a short-story writer. Every idea I have seems to explode to either novella or novel length. For two years, I've resisted this, writing a lot of pseudo-autobiographical short-stories. I don't regret doing that; I learned a lot in the process. But at the beginning of the year I decided just to write the novel that's been on my mind for the last four months. Its coming along splendidly. I've never enjoyed writing so much as I do now.
But at odd times during the day, I ask myself, "What am I going to do with it when it's done?" I certainly can't answer that question until it's done; the final product will be something very different than what I have in my head. But I've noticed that the more I ask this question--or, the more I take this question seriously--the harder it is to write. Part of me really wants to say, "To hell with it, I'm just going to write this thing," and I suppose part of me is looking for validation for doing precisely this.
Anyway, I don't want this thread to become a Jerome Vall counseling session. Thanks again, James, for writing your post.
I don't want to get personal...but just as a bit of advice, James, avoid the phrase, "my second ex-wife," whenever possible. "My ex-wife," would be strictly accurate...and the extra precision is really only necessary for people who know you have more than one ex-wife and really care which one is being mentioned
I'm just messing with you, man.
Harlen Ellison has had a tremendous impact on getting SF taken more seriously as literature, and for that many people revere him. I think that most of his work in that direction has had an evil tendency...and in fact...okay, I might agree with the statement that he is a personification of evil.
I've liked all his work that I've written, even where I found the writing quite thin. But an important thing to remember is that when he says good style can cover insubstantial stories, he's not talking about his own. He secretly (okay, not secretly) thinks that most of the stories that people like have no 'substance' and therefore imagines that the only reason people buy those stories (often in preference to his work) is something to do with 'style'.
The fact of the matter is that really good style not only can't hide a weak story, it will make it so obvious that the story is weak that even ordinarily very tolerant readers will be cursing the time you forced them to waste reading your idiotic story. After all, I learned to detest Carl Sagan's astrology career, but I didn't dislike him personally until after I read Contact. His writing style is so strong that there is simply no way to hide the fact that the narrative isn't a story (I'm sure that the movie did something to correct this deficit, but since reading the book my dislike of anything to do with Sagan is personal).
"Uncle Orson's Writing Class and Literary Bootcamp 2004 will be held at Southern Virginia University in Buena Vista VA. The dates are June 7th and 8th for the Writing Class, June 7-12 for the Bootcamp. Registration details will be posted soon."
Anyone interested in applying should check the home page regularly.
Actually, it's really just two aspects of one flaw: I started the story in the wrong place.
1. I try to create false suspense. Kodara knows why she would prefer suicide to being captured, but the reader does not know, and won't know for a while. Generally, the character should not know something significant that the reader does not. Real suspense comes from wondering what will happen, not wondering what the character knows that you don't.
2. I move into a major flashback on the first page. Tell the story in time order unless there's a good reason not to.
For the second one, I felt I had a good reason. I had written a different version that started at the beginning of the flashback. I read that first page, and I thought it gave the impression that it was a story about torture. Since it's not really a story about the torture, but rather about the escape, I decided it was better to start during the escape and flash back to the torture, so the reader would have a better idea of what kind of story it was.
OSC's suggested solution was to start the story even earlier, so that the first impression is not that it's all about torture.
[This message has been edited by EricJamesStone (edited February 19, 2004).]
The year I attended the class was divided into two sections. For the first two days, Card gave open lectures to a very large audience. Easily over a hundred people there. The writing workshop that took place later in the week was limited to 20 people. At the end of the first day there was a homework assignment to go out and find story ideas. The ideas of the 20 workshop participants were then discussed and critiqued in front of the larger audience. At the end of the second day, the workshop participants had the assignment of actually writing the stories, with 6 people having to turn them in by the next day. We had a cookout with Card the next day--we turned in our stories and copies were made and handed out by the end of the cookout. Then we had to go home and read the six stories and write our comments. The next day we workshopped these six stories, and the next two days we workshopped seven stories. It was unbelievably intense and exhausting to process 20 stories in three days, so the boot camp label is well deserved. But, it's a very rewarding experience if you survive it.
Last year, the arrangement was similar to what James described. Monday and Tuesday were "Uncle Orson's Writing Class," which was open to anyone. I believe there were about 100 people there.
The rest of the week was only for those who had been accepted to Boot Camp. I don't know how many people applied, but only 18 were accepted. (Something OSC said implied that about half the people who applied were accepted, but I don't recall anything specific said on the subject.)
Wednesday there was no class, because it was writing day. The procedure was a little different from James's experience. Instead of assigning 6 people to finish their stories by Thursday morning, OSC said that was the deadline for all of us. He also said that he knew some people would not finish, and that for them, the deadline would be Friday morning. And some people would be unable to finish by then, and so for them the deadline would be Saturday morning.
I turned my story in on Thursday morning, and it ended up being #15, the last of the stories turned in the first day. So most of the people finished by the first deadline. (OSC was rather surprised.)
While stories were being photocopied, we practiced our critiquing techniques on some of the writing samples people had used to get into Boot Camp. (Some of them had already been critiqued on Monday or Tuesday in front of the large class.)
Once we had stories to read, we read the first few and then began critiquing. That's what took up most of our time on Thursday, Friday, and Saturday.
No, that's just tuition. Last year, they offered housing on campus at a reasonable rate and several Bootcampers took advantage of that, though it worked out better for me to stay at a hotel.
Posts: 1516 | Registered: Jul 2003
I'm actually interested in the age demographics of Boot Camp. What was the age range? Or rather, what was the average and was there a large standard deviation?
Posts: 1621 | Registered: Apr 2002
At the boot camp I attended there were people from college to late fifties (maybe even early sixties, I don't remember) and everwhere in between. There were quite a few in their twenties and thirties, but I wouldn't know where to put the mean. I'd say you'll probably feel comfortable whatever your age.
Posts: 3567 | Registered: May 2003
You might want to stay away from Southern Virginia University -- they're apparently having some kidnapping problems. According to their website, they're offering $3000 for returned missionaries.
Sorry. I couldn't resist. It's actually to returned missionaries. Although it does say "for." And only up to $3000. (CW, you're a nasty influence on me. )
[This message has been edited by Kolona (edited February 19, 2004).]
There is a link to he registration form (in PDF format, and therefore printable) on the Hatrack home page (use the link at the top of this page) or go to the registration form directly with this link:
I would desperately like to attend. However, I have neither the money nor the time. Such is life...
As far as the cost, I recall seeing $750 for the camp and $30/day for on-campus housing. If you ask me, it's a steal. I've paid a lot more than that for IT certifications which I'm learning don't amount to much. Essentially, if you take advantage of on-campus housing, you could get the full camp for under $1000--no including airfare, of course. But to me you get personalized instruction from a very sucessful author for a full week in the audience of peers who are undoubtedly talented else they would not have been selected to attend...what more could you want?
And aren't they fun. I agonized and fiddled and hopefully properly proof-read (my great nemisis), and finally stuffed said page in the envelope. Still a bit twitchy about it.
I can be a twitchy person anyway though, so at least I'm used to it.
But really, what's the worst that can happen? They say "No." So you go for the 2 day part and try again next year, and hope no one else in the forum read this thread and knows you didn't make it in 'cause that would just make you feel silly (Oops, too late for me on that one). <laugh> But then how silly can you really feel about faceless names on the internet in the long run anyway.
Send something in if you want to go. You aren't going to embarass youself if what you send is like the Paint and Bloody Ashes story.
[This message has been edited by GZ (edited March 16, 2004).]
Good for you! And if it's any consolation, at the two day session OSC spends some time ripping apart the first pages submitted by the bootcampers he selected....gives you a chance to see where you went wrong whether you made it or not. He looks for promise, not perfection, and every applicant had one flaw in their opening, across the board.
I believe there were samples shorter than mine, which might have been due to using a monospace font, or including more info on the page, or including just 13 lines. There were definitely samples longer than mine: at least one was more than a page of single-spaced 12-point proportional font.
So, in the absence of specific guidance from the guidelines, do something that can reasonably be construed as following the guidelines.
[This message has been edited by EricJamesStone (edited March 17, 2004).]
I fully advocate trying out for Bootcamp. Like Scott told us, the first filtering process is definitely the money and the time. It narrows down the field considerably. And the pressure of having to write an entire story in one day...yeah, it's a little scary.
When I applied last year, I decided that if I didn't get into Bootcamp, I wouldn't make the trip for the 2-day seminar. Luckily, I got in and had the benefit of both. Knowing now what I almost missed, I might have changed my decision. As for Bootcamp itself, I had never been to a writing workshop before. To me it was utterly priceless.