Online Writing Workshop for Science Fiction, Fantasy and Horror

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By author Katie Waitman

Every child makes up stories and draws pictures and, in the beginning, they do so unselfconsciously. It's simply part of being a young human delighting in the world. However, at some point most people give up art and storytelling and move on to other interests. Those who continue--why do they? Well, why do some people like math or restoring classic cars? People who write are curious about a lot of things, disparate things, and feel compelled to record their ideas. They can be interrupted, but they can't be stopped.

What can you do to refine your work? You can take classes (junior colleges and universities offer them, although the latter can be expensive) and workshops to get feedback on style and technique, but the only real way to learn to write is by writing--and reading, reading within and outside your genre. All authors can be teachers, both for what to do and what not to do.

Handling critcism and rejection

This is tough for everyone. If a writer claims not to care what people think about his work, that writer is lying. Criticism and rejection hurt. Your story is your baby--something you've created out of your heart, mind, and imagination--and when someone rejects it, it feels as if you yourself are being rejected. However, it's the way you handle rejection and criticism that is crucial. If you let them defeat you, then you won't see your name on a book jacket unless you sleep with a politician.

One of the first places many writers encounter criticism is a writers' workshop. This may be the first time someone other than a family member or friend has seen your work and it can be a bit of a shock. Admittedly, some people, insecure types who build up their own egos by tearing down others', can be very cutting and sarcastic in workshop settings. If you can, work out at the gym or treat yourself to ice cream afterwards and remind yourself that there is a special circle in hell for these bullies. Do not get hysterical at the workshop itself. That will not accomplish anything. The bully isn't likely to change and you might develop a reputation as thin-skinned and prickly. Besides, in my experience, once someone gets angry, they can no longer hear any of the legitimate suggestions coming their way.

As for honestly given, sincerely felt, well-intentioned criticism: listen closely, take to heart what you can, and take the rest with a grain of salt. Sometimes people do misinterpret what you are trying to say but, much of the time, the manuscript does need repairs. If you can't face the thought of reconstructive surgery on your child, set it aside--for a few days--and let the sting wear off. Then go back to the manuscript and see if what was said didn't, after all, make sense. Almost twenty years ago, a particularly sarcastic writer verbally hacked apart a story I had written and, in despair, I didn't write much for the next four years. That's far too long to mope and gave him the victory--at least for a while. Eventually, I recovered and recently rewrote the story. It's coming out next year.

We all hear stories about the classic masterpiece that was rejected dozens of times before it was purchased and many of us fantasize that we are one of those misunderstood geniuses, artistically ahead of our time and suffering for our art in the 20th-century version of a freezing garret--but, let's be honest. If your manuscript is rejected dozens of times, it probably needs more work. Be flexible. Don't marry the material.

Flexibility is also important when you do sell your story because, no matter how "finished" it seems, it's going to need editing. Perhaps it has continuity problems (an alien with three horns on page 4 shows up with four on page 96 for no apparent reason), or logic problems (unless you explain how, a character cannot be two places at the same time), or it's too long. What!? Too long? Impossible! Every character and episode contributes to the story...or do they? When it comes to editing, you have to harden your eye and ask yourself repeatedly, "Is this bit really necessary? What does this add to the story/setting? Can this character be sacrificed--perhaps to be reincarnated at another time in another work--without damaging the overall story?" The process may be painful, but it's necessary.

Manuscript preparation: If it's hard to read, it won't be read

Your manuscript should be as free as possible of typos, spelling mistakes, and grammatical errors. It should be a double-spaced, clean print (not a fifth generation xerox) that, for all intents and purposes, is "final" as is. Don't even begin your search for an agent or editor until the manuscript is complete. Agents and editors want to see that you can, indeed, complete something.

A sense of humor

Publishing is a long and frustrating process and its emphasis on "the bottom line" may seem antithetical to "vision" and "art." Also, unless you have a gift for hitting one of popular culture's "nerves," you're not likely to make a living as a writer, at least not right away. So, why do it? Because you love it. Because you can't imagine not writing. Because you want to communicate with and entertain others. If writing won't make you a millionaire or earn you the Nobel Prize, it had better be fun. That doesn't mean you shouldn't take your work seriously. Just don't neglect the joy and craziness and unique buzz of creation. Careers rise and fall capriciously. Tastes change. You may think you have everything worked out when, suddenly, "they" rewrite the rules. You need a healthy sense of humor to weather these storms. Writing is one of the "humanities"--and humans are fallible, illogical, and unpredictable. Isn't that wonderful? Enjoy the show. It might give you an idea for a great story...