Adventures of a First-Time Editor: Stage 1 – Production Writing

As noted earlier, I’m doing a series of posts on the Oregon Coast Anthology Workshop. This is the second of the set.

The first post noted that my daughter (Brigid Collins) and I are editing an anthology in the Fiction River series (it’s titled Face the Strange and it’s going to be awesome!). It also did a little rundown of how the workshop is constructed. The event is a bit of a monster, so if you’re not really familiar with it, I suggest going back to read that post before proceeding.

Anyway, today I’m going to dive into the first full module of the workshop, a segment I’ve labeled “Production Writing.”

I note that this is my term, not the workshop’s. I think they just call it “writing.” Go figure.

In some ways this is the most straightforward of the segments, but that’s no reason to get complacent. When you look at this right, there’s a whole lot more packed into it than might be obvious on first glance. Here’s what I figure I’ll be talking about:

  • The Workshop Model
  • Adventures of the First-time Editor
  • My definition of “Production Writing”
  • Lessons for newer writers (including a discussion on quality)
  • Lessons for more established writers
  • Lessons for stalled writers
  • So, like, let’s get going all right?

     
    THE WORKSHOP MODEL:

    Bottom line: you’re going to write six stories in six weeks.

    The process begins early in December, three months before the event (which happens in late February most years). On the first Monday, each writer is given an anthology guideline and a deadline of next Sunday to produce a short story that meets the guideline. For the events I’ve been part of, these are live anthologies—meaning that editors are actually buying stories to fill an anthology that pays pro rates (I’ll talk more about this later).

    Once the deadline is past, the window closes. There are no extensions. No excuses. Miss a deadline, miss an anthology: Welcome to traditional publishing—at least in the world of anthologies and other such projects.

    This happens two weeks in a row in December, then there’s a break for the holidays, then it happens four weeks in a row in January. Six weeks, six stories. Simple, right?

    Well, read on…

     
    MY ADVENTURES

    Seeing as this is a series about the differences between being an editor and being a participant, I’ll take a minute to talk about our process of creating the guidelines.

    Brigid and I had a pretty strong idea of what we wanted to do even a year back when we first got offered the gig.

    I should probably note that we approached WMG with the idea of us editing a volume a year earlier. In the process, we talked about how we spend time dissecting every manuscript for all the workshops we’ve been together in (Brigid has attended several also). I’ll talk more about this idea in another segment of this series, but the point was to show that we were excited about the idea of doing the work, and in fact were already doing a bulk of the work (Ron’s learning: that was hilariously wrong. The work of doing the workshop as an editor is quite intense). Still, we showed both an interest and capability to do the real work. I can’t speak for Kris and Dean, but I figure that went a long way to getting us the job.

    Anyway, I discussed the specifics of the idea for our guidelines in the first post, but the work to put it together started a month or two before the first prompt went out. Since we were a team, we Skyped and we used a shared Google Doc to jot our ideas down. When we had it perfect (perfect, I say!), we shot it off to WMG and waited for the superlative accolades to come in.

    Hah.

    Kris and Dean had a few suggestions, which I can see in retrospect were quite well made. I’ll talk more about the specific situation we found ourselves in when I get to describing the actual event, but for now I’ll say that a major learning is just how much a great set of guidelines can wind up making the anthology. Bottom line for now, though, is that Brigid and I adjusted the guidelines, and had them approved.

    That was that. Now we were locked in.

    Ever been on a roller coaster as it slowly crawls to the top of that first hill, then hangs there before the big plunge?

    Yep.

    Felt like that!

    Now that this part is done, let’s move onto the module itself. Why is it here? What’s its learning purpose?

    To get into that I need to take a small diversion. Specifically, I want to define what I mean by Production Writing. This is important because the workshop is geared toward people who are pretty serious about the idea of being writers. You don’t have to have been published to be accepted, but you have to be able to show you’re working hard. As I’ve said before, this workshop is focused on traditional publishing of short fiction, but you’ll find people with novel contracts at traditional houses here, and you’ll find a strong vein of people working in the field as indies. You’ll find people like me, who publish short work in traditional markets, and longer work out of my own publishing house. You’ll find newbies who haven’t published at all, but have been see working at various workshops.

    What you won’t find is anyone who has zero clues.

    So I want to take a moment here and talk about what this means to me, because, as you’ll see, this makes a difference in what happens during the “Production Writing” phase of the program.

     
    WHAT IS PRODUCTION WRITING?

    Look, I understand. Really, I do. I know terms like “Production Writing” can make people’s skin crawl. The word “production” is 180 degrees away from the idea of “creativity,” after all, right?

    But hang with me a moment.

    When I first started writing, I had this sense that Production Writing was about speed. 500 words per hour vs. 1,000 words per hour vs. 1,500 words per hour. But that’s not it at all.

    Every writer I know has a baseline number for how many words they produce over a period of time, and that will vary. So by definition, Production Writing is not about word rate.

    Instead, Production Writing, to me, is about focus. It’s about configuring your life around the idea of getting work done to a beat.

    The pulse of your personal beat may eventually vary, but the workshop drives a beat of one short story a week. Whatever your true rate will wind up being, I think it’s valuable to see that your goal is to stop seeing this “productivity requirement” as a whip that’s looming over your head and start seeing it as merely a basic piece of the decision you’ve made to write. This means your goal is to understand you need a beat, and then to find it.

    If you’re with me here, we’re ready to dive into the kinds of learning opportunities the workshop provides. Hopefully, you’ll see why this definition is so important–or at least why it’s been important to me, anyway!

    REMINDER: These are my views, and my views alone. They are, however, developed over several years of attending the workshop, and now one being behind the editors’ table. Read into it what you want. [grin]

     
    ALL RIGHT, WHAT WILL I LEARN IF I ATTEND THE WORKSHOP?

    The answer to this question is highly dependent upon where you are on your learning curve—a curve I hope we can agree never ends. It’s also highly dependent upon where your head is at during the event.

    I realize that kind of overview isn’t much help, though, so bear with me as I break these down further.

    The bottom line for this module, however, is that you’re going to write six stories in six weeks. How you relate to that activity will drive what lessons you take out of it.

     
    LESSONS FOR NEWER WRITERS

    If you are a new writer this may be the first time you’ve ever even attempted to write stories at this pace, so merely completing the task could be a learning moment. That lesson could be anything from hey, I can actually find time to write that quickly! to something even more valuable like hey, I can actually structure my life in such a way as I can write that often!

    Note the difference between those two lessons. One is about what creativity is relative to your current life, and the other is about how you’re going to actively decide to live your life. Both of these, when mindfully considered, are really, really important for people who are newer to what it means to be a career-oriented writer. Either way, though, for a new writer, merely completing the stories can be a major confidence booster.

    YES, BUT ARE THESE STORIES ANY GOOD?

    This is the response I get most anytime I talk about creating words quickly. People ignore my focus on time and attention to detail, and accentuate this idea of just pounding out words. I’m going to talk about this more in later sections, but I want to touch on it now because–especially when you’re a newer writer, and sometimes even when you’re more established–this question is one that can really get a writer’s knickers tied up in knots. So, here goes:

    First, let me ask: Can you handle the truth?

    Because the fact is that, even now, some of the stories I write that quickly are not very good. It’s true. Sometimes they’re rushed. Sometimes I miss entire scenes that are necessary, and that I don’t realize I’ve missed until a Hugo Award winning editor points it out…eep! That’s life. It happens to us all.

    But in most cases—or at least a considerable number of these cases—these stories submitted to Fiction River anthologies are fantastic. Some of them even go on to be named to Recommended Reading Lists, receive Award Nominations, and appear in Years’ Best collections.

    This is one of the more important learnings a new writer can have, really. Trying to answer the question of what is “good enough” in a world of artistic endeavor can be brain-melting. The confidence that comes from realizing it’s actually possible to write an award quality story in a week (or less) can lead to a great sense of freedom and confidence—two traits that are absolutely valuable for writers.

    I suspect I’ll be writing more on this in later sections.

    A FINAL NOTE FOR NEWER WRITERS

    This applies to all writers, but I think it’s most valuable in the early days, so I’ll put it here.

    The fact is that no matter who you are, it’s almost guaranteed that your work is probably not where you want it to be. This could be because you don’t know what your work is (a writer is always a suspect judge of their own work), it could be that your work is actually flawed (your craft hasn’t been honed), or it could be any one of a hundred different things.

    For new writers in particular, though, writing six stories in six weeks gives you the opportunity understand an important truth: the best way to learn how to tell stories is to tell a lot of stories.

    To understand what I mean by that, let me state the counter rule: The slowest way to learn is to keep working on the same story over and over and over.

    The fact is that you can learn either way. But writing six stories in six weeks means you’re constantly going forward, always learning new things. If that story you wrote in week 1 failed, you’ve got the learning from it, now go apply it to week 2. Three months or a year later you might come back to it and know how to fix it, but for now you have other stories to make work.

    There is a balance for this, of course.

    Joanna Penn wrote a great blog post on the idea of being a patient new writer that serves as a good counterpoint here. And realize that, for me, the approach I’ve needed to bring to my keyboard has changed at different points of my life. Sometimes I’ve need to be a faster Production Writer, sometimes I’ve need to slow down. That’s why I say that this is more about focus that wordcount.

    It’s my life, after all. It’s my work. Or, as the Kris & Dean Show once taught me, I’m responsible for my own career.

    But, yes, on the whole, it’s my opinion that newer writers will learn considerably more rapidly by doing new work than they will by treading back over old.

    The workshop’s structure helps you do that.

     
    LESSONS FOR ALL WRITERS

    Perhaps the most important, but oftentimes least discussed, aspect of getting six stories done in six weeks is that it allows writers to gain a stronger understanding of how time boxes can unleash creativity. My personal favorite workshop experience came in a year when we had to write a story literally overnight. Inside that time box, I wrote a piece that I absolutely love. Sure, it needed, uh, editing [grin]. But it was different from anything else I’d done, and would never have been created without that kind of structure.

    In the workshop’s current structure, though, the time box is one week. Some writers use the entire week to finish a story, others write it in the first day or two, still others let the idea stew until Saturday, then let the super-short deadline drive them to write the whole story in a single sitting. Either way, the writer has to approach the time box on their own terms.

    When approached in a mindful way, hitting a tight deadline forces a writer to turn off the editor brain and go into straight creative mode.

     
    LESSONS AND USES FOR MORE ESTABLISHED WRITERS

    Established writers already know they can do six stories in six weeks, and yeah, they know about learning by writing, and they have their routine kind of established, so if things are changing in these areas for the workshop are mostly just little tweaks.

    So, why do we keep paying to come back? I mean, putting aside the idea that you learn something from every story you write, what’s the value?

    First, remember that I’m sitting here in Module 1 (Production Writing). Every writer can and does, of course, learn something from writing any story. I know I do. But beyond this, the workshop has several other learning opportunities. I suggest that for the established writer, the stronger opportunities for pure learning come in other aspects of the experience.

    That said, I’m a more established writer, and while I learn from writing, I get good utility from this module outside of that learning.

    To state the obvious first, I get six stories. Some of those might sell to the anthologies in question, but I’ve also had several stories that were rejected by the anthologies I wrote them for go on to be published in pro magazines.

    I also get a new challenge. Writing is supposed to be fun, you know? For me, writing for an anthology I wouldn’t normally write for is a great challenge. It stretches my skills and makes me think about other genres in stronger ways. Yes, I wrote a Romance for one…it was fun and I like the story pretty well. [grin]

    Then there’s business. Remember business?

    Several more established writers use the workshop to create stories in series environments, meaning that if they don’t sell them at the workshops, those stories will fit into established worlds where readers are going to love them. So for these established writers, the workshop becomes a way to leverage their business’s product lines in addition to whatever other advantages they arrive at.

     
    AND FINALLY, STALLED WRITERS

    At one moment during this past workshop, I told a group of attendees I thought so much of being a long-term writer was about doing what you need to do to keep your emotional state healthy. I knew I was onto something when one of those writers came around later to ask me to say it again.

    This is what I meant above when I said the lessons a writer gets out of the “Production Writing” module depends on where that writer’s head is at.

    Let me wander a bit…

    From a personal standpoint, I’ve been doing this for thirty years. In that span I’ve had cycles where I’ve been frozen thinking about whether I was good enough, and times when I’ve looked at the page and seen nothing but another form rejection coming no matter what I did.

    Writing fiction is not a trivial thing. We can forget that, you know?

    There is a confidence I need to bring to the page in order to do my work, or at least some kind of bald-faced audacity there to help me think that what I’m doing is something worthwhile. If I don’t have that audacity, it can be damned hard to make the words do anything. I think this is true of almost everyone I’ve ever talked with—especially in their newer stages, but it comes up with writers in every stage. These discussions come with terms like “Blocked” or “Burned out” or “Tired” or “Useless.” You can add your own.

    And the fact is that there are probably as many reasons a writer might be lacking that audacity as there are writers.

    For example, also at this last workshop, I listened in on a conversation with a writer who was bemoaning, as kindly as it’s possible to do so, other writers who fall into what that writer called such self-loathing that they can’t write. “I don’t get it,” that writer said. “I’ve never beat myself up like that.”

    “It’s not self-loathing,” I finally said, then went on to say that these writers aren’t hating themselves, or even hating their work. Not really. Instead, they’re just worried. Being a writer often means you’re working without a net, and without feedback. If you’re an engineer, you know that open loop systems are dangerously unstable, and that’s what’s happening here. “Sometimes writers get to the point where they don’t know if they’re good enough,” I said. “and they’re alone, and all they see out in the world is this big sucky vat of sucking darkness that’s draining their soul without giving them an ounce of feedback to let them ground themselves.”

    In cases like this, a writer can get so caught up in themselves that they just flail around and then find themselves stagnating.

    Here are a few case studies of what I mean:

  • If you are a brand-new writer, for example, you might just flat-out have no idea how to do the work, which is daunting.
  • Or, if you’ve been working for a while, you might be feeling the actual grade of the mountain you’re climbing, which is wearying.
  • If you’ve had some success, you might be worried that you can’t match your own success, which is scary as hell.
  • If you’ve had friends succeed you might be worried that you’ll never be able to match them which can tie you up in so many awkward knots I prefer not to think about it.
  • Or you might be just getting around to realizing that you’ll never have a voice like Neil Gaiman’s.
  • Or … well, you get the idea.
  • And that is just a few flashes of thought focused on inter-industry things. Adding in the pressures of work or family, and the things that can get into our heads to tell us we’re no good, that we’ll never make a difference, that no one would ever want to read something we wrote…well, those things are literally infinite.

    All right, you say, I get it. What does all this have to do with what I can get out of the workshop?

    Well. It’s like this:

    Six stories in six weeks clears the head.

    It’s simple. Straightforward. It cuts the noise by giving a writer who is flailing something to focus on. I know this is true because that’s where I was when I came to my second Anthology Workshop. I knew what I wanted. I knew I wasn’t getting there. There were so many moving parts going on around me, so many things to think about. Six deadlines in six weeks settled me out.

    Looking back, I realize I needed those deadlines to get myself into a healthier headspace. Focus, remember? Production Writing is about focus, not wordcount. And once I got there, I came to the workshop fully prepared for the whole learning experience–an experience that, since I was ready, I can probably say went a very long way toward changing my life.

    We’ll have to wait for that conversation, though. Because it comes spread out over a few other modules and a few other adventures…

     


    So there it is, my take on the Anthology Workshop’s first module, the simple one.

    Turns out it’s not so simple, is it?

    Share Me
    Posted in Anthology, Face the Strange.

    6 Comments

    1. Pingback: Writer Wednesday | creative barbwire (or the many lives of a creator)

    2. Excellent post, Ron! I especially like this part:

      “It’s not self-loathing,” I finally said, then went on to say that these writers aren’t hating themselves, or even hating their work. Not really. Instead, they’re just worried. Being a writer often means you’re working without a net, and without feedback. If you’re an engineer, you know that open loop systems are dangerously unstable, and that’s what’s happening here. “Sometimes writers get to the point where they don’t know if they’re good enough,” I said. “and they’re alone, and all they see out in the world is this big sucky vat of sucking darkness that’s draining their soul without giving them an ounce of feedback to let them ground themselves.”

      Real words of wisdom! 🙂

    3. Hi Ron,
      “If you’ve had friends succeed you might be worried that you’ll never be able to match them” = this is me, in a low-low cycle right now! But I keep sending stories anyway.

      I met you and Brigid at the Antho in 2016 (and at one Business Masters). And yes, the Anthology did help me to grapple with the challenge. (I even took the short-story workshop just before, to make sure I could write one story in five days!)

      I have learned a lot: seven editors arguing over your story= priceless! I didn’t find a home for my unsold texts (except in French), but I now write a lot more than before. I am less afraid to write “on spec” and to send submissions away. Hope to meet you at the Antho in 2019!

    Leave a Reply

    Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *