Au Contraire writing workshop – Jay Lake on Fast Writing, Revision and The Muse.

I spoke to Jay for a while before the workshop started. Sally had met him before and introduced us and I didn’t realise for about five minutes that he was in fact, running the workshop. Jay is an excellent speaker and said lots of great motivating stuff. You should check him out here. This workshop and therefore my write up, was pretty unstructured but it was probably the most valuable session I have ever attended. I am a total Jay Lake fangirl now. And I haven’t even read any of his fiction.

First and foremost Jay endorses psychotic persistence. If you want to become a successful writer you must demonstrate persistence, and at the somewhat psychotic level.

He said that he’d noticed people making commitments to writing a short story a month for a year. He suggested that instead, you try to write a short story a week. Think about it: at the end of the year you have 52 (ish) stories. That’s a lot more output than 12, a lot of practice as well. You cannot wait for The Muse to inspire you, you must start writing and keep writing and The Muse will ride along with you as you write. His essential message was: do more of what you do and finish what you write.

Remember that you must write an entire first draft to be able to do anything. It’s like felling a tree. You need to go up the hill and cut the tree down and drag it back with you so that you can give it to the mill and have it turned into something. If you don’t have the log you can’t do anything with it.

Jay suggested limiting yourself to working on one project at a time, see if it helps your writing flow. It will prevent any bleed over of voice.

You must get out of your own way. Turn off your critical inner voice until you have done the first draft. Don’t stop drafting. Push yourself through the process. Lock up the inner editor. Some people discussed ways they achieve this. Jay said he just writes fast enough to drown out the voice, that’s pretty much what I do too. Sally said she listens to the critical voice, placates it, agrees and then goes ahead and writes all the same.

Jay talked about learning about the craft of writing not as something you hear about and can then immediately apply, it’s more like you take a lot of stuff in and then something will bubble up in your head later on. Maybe even years later. He described his own process of letting ideas steep or rest in his head, saying his subconscious will do the hard work of fleshing out the story and then when it comes to be time to write it he has a good first draft. I wish my brain worked like that, I have to write stuff down immediately or it’s forgotten forever.

Elizabeth Bear’s hand of cards theory: You need a bunch of things to write a story. You need to know about plot, style, tone, language, character, etc. Most people are naturally good at one or two of these things. The trick is to think about what’s in your hand of cards; what are you good at and what are you weak out. Once you have worked out what you’re bad at, you can then work at those things and get better. Thereby strengthening your hand and winning the game. Or something. We did some brainstorming around the table of what the “Cards” might be and came up with this list: setting, plot, chatacter, description, sensory detail (using all 5 senses), dialogue, world building (especially important for crime and science fiction stories), style + voice (your choice of words, pacing, the length of the words you use), tone, person and tense (e.g. Third person, past), grammar, vocabulary.

In flash fic you only have room to focus on one of the cards in your hand. Jay also described the basic story as a person in a place, with a problem.

You can extend your writing by talking to and hanging out with people who are experts on things. They have a different perspective and deep knowledge of their areas of interest. You can learn description from them, ask them what they see? Jay gave an example of a time he went to a river with a fly fishing enthusiast and they saw so many things that he didn’t, just from their experiences fishing in the river.

I have this note, which I have to admit I don’t really understand now: Take the fundamental structure of a story to explore different aspects of writing. Practice opening the door to your muse. If anyone can shed some light on that one, please do so in the comments.

Jay suggested as an exercise in voice to try writing something in the style of someone else. For example write as Phillip K Dick or Robert Heinlen. Choose established authors and have a play around.

Publishing is a meritocracy, but it isn’t just that. you can control the quality of your story. If you write as well as you can AND keep sending work out there then you vastly improve your chances of getting published. There’s that psychotic persistence again. Jay mentioned that there are no publishing ninjas. No one is going to sneak into your house in the middle of the night and steal your manuscript to publish it. You have to put it out there yourself.

You must learn to fail. In fact, reinterpret rejection as feedback from publishers. Jay demonstrated by tapping my shoulder and asking me out for dinner that night. I took a second to catch up and remember that he was talking about rejection before I said “No, thank you.” Perversely I felt guilty about it later on. Again he said do more of what you do and get it out there.

Revision: A writer is the worst judge of their own work. You have to fix it as best you can and then send it out to someone else. Other writers will tell you how *they* would fix it, which isn’t always what you want. But they will have valuable feedback as well. Ask a non-writer what didn’t work for them, that way you get some balance. Jay suggested breaking down your revisions into multiple passes, focussing on just one thing at a time. Do a revision for plot. Do another pass looking at just one character, making sure their voice and actions are consistent, etc.

His advice for the best possible exercise was to write a story of 1500 words then cut it down to 500 words. You learn what you do wrong. The viciousness of the editing can lead to very tight plotting at the end.

…and that was it. Go check out Jay on his website.

4 thoughts on “Au Contraire writing workshop – Jay Lake on Fast Writing, Revision and The Muse.

  1. Wow. Thanks for another great write up. So much wisdom in some those memoral phrases. (I love the expressions Psychotic Persistence and Publishing Ninjas).

    I’m off to check out his website now šŸ™‚

  2. Awesome sauce.

    “Take the fundamental structure of a story to explore different aspects of writing.”

    I’d guess that might have been a suggestion to take an existing story, work out its fundamental structure, then practise rewriting it whilst focussing on different aspects of writing (eg write a li’l red riding hood story where you experiment with setting, a version where you experiment with tone, with character…)

    “Practice opening the door to your muse.”

    Put on your Muse CD. Go to the door. Practise opening it.

  3. Thanks for the write up, that’s one workshop I didn’t get to, and it sounds like I missed something good.

    As to the “write a short story a week”, that’s sort of what I’ve been doing for the last six months – I set aside myself one day a week for writing only and try to have a fully formed story come out of that session (of course, sickness, work commitments and – ha! – cons get in the way). I’ve written some crap, and some good stuff, and even tho the crap feels bad and you don’t like putting aside a baby sometimes you have to get through the chaff to discover what works.

    Rock on!

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