If you spend much time as a writer, you'll eventually, inevitably, face the question -- do you try workshopping?
Why do writers workshop? To get some feedback on stories before sending them out to shiver in the harsh editorial wind. To try things out; to experiment, to play. To read the work of one's peers, to critique their work, and learn from the process of critiquing. To make stories better. To talk to other people who know just what it's like -- writing can be an immensely lonely business, even if your head is populated with a thousand chattering characters. Workshops aren't for everyone, and some workshops are just plain awful, but when they work, work the way they're supposed to, they can be quite enlightening.
New Jersey (l to r): back row: William Mingin, Ef Deal, Michael Belfiore, Jed Hartman, Nick Mamatas, Nora M. Mulligan, Karen Perry. front row: Amy Sisson, Alex Gurevich (host), Sandra McDonald.
There's a vast array of workshop types -- the MFA program ones, the local neighborhood ones, the online ones. I've tried all of those -- they each have their advantages and disadvantages. If you're a spec fic writer, it won't be too long before you're hearing about Clarion, about Milford and Odyssey. You might be considering Sycamore Hill. And if you were paying attention and hanging out in the right places last summer, you might have heard about the Strange Horizons Summer Workshops.
Yup -- we had some workshops this summer. Two of them -- one in New Jersey and one in Oregon. I hosted both workshops, joined by Jed Hartman in New Jersey and both Jed and Susan Groppi (two of our fiction editors) in Oregon. The New Jersey workshop space was loaned to us by a kind spec fic-lover; the Oregon space was the Oregon Writer's Colony House, available at remarkably cheap rates to writers. We spent three days in New Jersey, two days in Oregon. We talked a tremendous amount. We read and critiqued. We walked on the beach. We looked for photoplankton. We watched The Lord of the Rings on video. We wrote and argued and thought and wrote some more. The workshops went swimmingly (we did some swimming in New Jersey -- Oregon's ocean was too cold), and I think both the authors and the editors learned a lot.
Oregon (l to r): back row: Marshall Moseley, Dianna Rogers. middle row: Thomas M. Doyle, Jed Hartman, Ruth Nestvold, David Levine. front row: Damian Kilby, Susan Groppi, Jay Lake, Kenneth Brady, David Moles.
Why a Strange Horizons workshop? Aren't our writers already fabulous? Well, yes -- obviously, we think so. But that doesn't mean they can't get better. We'd like our writers to just get better and better and better. And there aren't a whole lot of tools out there to help them do that. Clarion, for example, is really designed more for a beginning writer, one who hasn't sold stories yet, or hasn't sold many, at any rate. MFA programs are often not so friendly to speculative fiction (though there are exceptions). We started wondering -- how can we help our writers develop? How can we push them further, push them harder, make them work to write not just stories that are selling, but stories that are as good as they can be, stories that don't just satisfy, but blow you away?
It wasn't an easy question -- if we had the formula for great fiction, we'd (a) be using it ourselves, and (b) be handing it out to everyone we met, so we could read more of it! There's no formula that we know about. But in our experience, there are certainly some things that are conducive to advancing a writer's craft. A quiet place to write, to think. Congenial company of like-minded souls -- ideally working at a similar level to your own, with similar concerns. An editor or two to provide additional feedback from that side of the fence. Discussion of craft -- of plot and character and point of view, of structure and voice and style. A pile of stories to read, to re-read, to write thoughtful commentary about, to discuss with passion and intelligence, with kindness and honesty. And lots of good food. An ocean nearby doesn't hurt.
Four Authors and an Editor
We can't guarantee that these writers will improve as a result of our workshops. But we can hope that we helped a little, and we can watch their future work with interest and excitement. At Strange Horizons, we're interested not just in publishing good pieces (of fiction, poetry, art, nonfiction) -- we're also interested in building a community of writers and artists and readers, a community of people who love speculative fiction, and who want to see it grow and learn and change and surprise us with the strange new places it's going. We want to foster the dialogue around the amazing work being done in spec fic -- it's precisely this sort of cross-pollination that most richly fertilizes the field.
Susan, Jed, and I had a tremendous time working with these writers this summer. It was a pleasure and a privilege to try to help our writers improve their craft. We hope to do it again next year, and for many years to come.
Mary Anne Mohanraj is Editor-in-Chief of Strange Horizons.