Here at last are the photos from the workshop. Alexis Glynn Latner and I took turns taking pictures with the class.


Myself and students.


Alexis and students.

Thanks again for a wonderful workshop.

Okay, on to the important stuff. On vacation, I thought a lot about  the workshop and what we mean to do when we write. I think that beginners often fall into the trap of cleverness. This is the “jar of Tang” syndrome that the Turkey City Lexicon covers so amusingly. It isn’t enough to tell a good story. We want to create that twist, that bit of cleverness, that shocks readers with our genius. (In my case, it was one of my early sword-and-sorcery short stories that was really about rivalry between sisters! Wow! See? So modern! So…clever.)

Cleverness will bite you on the ass if you aren’t careful. Readers don’t really care about clever. They just want a good story.  Cleverness, or seeking the twist, will only get in the way of the story. I read a workshop piece once in which the writer created all these long names with Greek roots for their symbolic meaning that had nothing to do with the plot or the characters themselves. The names were unreadable and the symbolism wasn’t so much. This was a beginner caught up in cleverness.

A good story beats cleverness every second of every day. One of my most successful stories only became successful when I forced myself to just write what happened, instead of going for the overarching metaphor or the singular cleverness of the conceit. (It’s “Into the Dark,” and that’s me reading it.)

I think beginners can make great strides if they forego cleverness and embrace storytelling. The cleverness comes, as so many things do, when we stop trying.

Now, cleverness in the service of story certainly has its place. Worldbuilding requires cleverness, as does plot, character — all of the components. But cleverness for its own sake will only detract. So get rid of the twist endings, the fancy names, the highly convoluted plot, or the unconventional story telling mode (seriously, second person singular will not rescue a bad story from tedium, and neither will telling a story out of sequence).

You have a story to tell. So just get on with it.


Bethe Ann Bugbee · July 9, 2009 at 3:43 pm

YES! YES! YES! This so reminds me of a conversation I had with someone just a year ago. We were talking about how he was trying to build tension in the begining chapters of a novel. Instead of letting the conflict and tension all come out of the action it came from the writer withholding information from the reader. This required lots of “clever” (convoluted) storytelling to avoid letting the reading know things that the POV character was saying and doing.

I think that one of the main problems with such writing is that it only works for the first read. A really great story will retain the reader’s attention through multiple reads. Using a sudden twist or withholding information only really works the first time through.

Patrice Sarath · July 9, 2009 at 5:33 pm

Yeah, withholding information is rank cheating. The reader has to know what the protagonist knows, either at the same time as the protagonist or even a little bit before. By the way, one of the best bits of creating tension by letting the reader in on crucial information, but not allowing the characters to know it, comes in Red Seas Under Red Skies, by Scott Lynch. It’s a wonderful bit of, dare I say it, clever writing, but the cleverness is in the service of the plot.

(I won’t tell you what the bit is, because if you read the book — the sequel to the Lies of Locke Lamorra — you will want to have that same sense of anticipation.)

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