Tuesday, August 30, 2011

ArmadilloCon 2011: What is Texas Weird, and other gems of wisdom from the writers' workshop

ArmadilloCon writers' workshop followed the familiar agenda from the years before. The unexpected, as always, happened at the time of games and critiques.

The writing game was dreamt up by Scott Lynch at 3 a.m. the night before. Surprisingly (or not), it was one of the more meaningful games compared to previous workshops. (I just can't get into "let's collectively write a story" exercises. If I'm not in a complete control of my story, I stall. This was different.) You had to come up with a 4-sentence a story, or a synopsis thereof. Then an "evil" editor would tell you to make changes to make the story more sellable. You had to make them in 10 minutes. Finally everyone was supposed to read their original story, editor's comments, and the final story out loud. Luckily for me, due to time pressure only 4 or 5 people had to share their works.

Jayme Lynn Blaschke, Allyson and Jason

Jayme Lynn Blaschke, the "editor" (left), gives sly suggestions how to improve Allyson's and Jason's stories at the writing game. More pictures from ArmadilloCon 2011 are in my photo gallery.

The editors were supposed to be intentionally evil: their feedback required the author to throw away his or her precious idea. Let's say you wrote a story where humans, having landed on an alien planet, drilled into its core and found intelligent life there. The editor would praise your hard SF concept, and tell you that the drill actually bore into hell, and it's not aliens there, but demons. Or if your plot is influenced by the physics of a rotating black hole, the editor would say that rotating black holes are so last decade, and you should make it a diamond star (which was on the news recently).

Such an exercise may seem absurd, but its point was to teach us how to write "on demand". An editor can and will ask to make changes, and you have to cooperate even if your muse doesn't. Don't wait for the muse to inspire you, but crank out a product when you're asked to, and don't treat your ideas as sacred.

Paolo Bacigalupi, Lou Anders, and Mark Finn

Paolo Bacigalupi, Lou Anders, and Mark Finn at the critique group. More pictures from ArmadilloCon 2011 are in my photo gallery.

Later it was time for critiques. I was lucky to be in a group that not only was taught by great critiquers -- Guest of Honor Paolo Bacigalupi, and Mark Finn (who, by the way, has an uncanny ability to come up with plot twists to improve students' stories), but a third pro spontaneously joined our group. It was Pyr editor Lou Anders. I don't know what prompted him to join us, but he speed-read students' stories while the other group members were speaking, and gave critiques on the spot. Speed-reading (which, I presume, is all he does as an editor) made the stories look different to him than they did to other members who gave them more consideration. This was good, because it made the flaws really stand out. He didn't pick up on what other people (including the pros) identified as good parts of my story, but immediately pointed out a major flaw. It is invaluable to know how an editor sees a story.

All three pros not only pointed out what was wrong with the students' works, but gave suggestions how to improve them. That doesn't always happen. It gives me more confidence that maybe this will be the year I will revise my story based on the feedback. (No, I didn't do it the previous years. Bad writer. Bad!)

So what is Texas Weird?

A comment by Mark Finn clarified for me what "Texas Weird" genre is. Brainstorming ways to make one student's story better, he said: "Your opening sentence should be 'The President was holding a closed door meeting with severed heads.'" This would put the story in the Texas Weird genre. It pulls the curtain off the key historical moments and shows us how certain world-changing decisions were made, Mark explained. Yes, a president consulting severed heads might not even be the most unreasonable explanation for some US foreign or domestic policy decisions of recent decades.

Pictures from Armadillocon 2011 are in my photo gallery.

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