James Hall

Published by Wendy Dye on

Notes from the Odyssey Workshop

A Blue Ear Books Special series of articles by James Hall, graduate of Odyssey 2001, reprinted from Blueear.com

What is Genre Fiction?

My first visit to Manchester, New Hampshire, home of the Odyssey Workshop, reveals an old city recreating itself anew. Driving through this city from the airport, I saw the dark waters of the Merrimack River rush past long rows of old red brick buildings where New England mill workers labored a century ago to produce cloth and clothing. There is an economic hierarchy to the setting, with the old mill factories themselves closest to the swift-moving river, taking advantage of its force to produce the power needed to weave and cut cloth. Higher up the riverbank, the old brick tenements which housed the mill workers form in a line along the River Road, and higher still, in the leafy wide streets above the river valley, the comfortable wood trim houses and Victorian mansions of the mill overseers and their bosses still survive.

Today, however, Manchester is part of an information age economy, not a manufacturing economy. The mill buildings are being turned to upscale restaurants, the tenements to shopping malls, and the mansions are owned by lawyers, accountants, and dot.com millionaires.

In much the same way the genre fiction we are attempting to write here at Odyssey has transformed itself from its roots in romantic and gothic fiction and in commercial pulps to a prominent place on the world’s literary stage. Critics like Oxford’s Tom Shippey have hailed the 20th century as the great era of “fantastic fiction,” with major works like George Orwell’s Animal Farm and 1984, William Golding’s Lord of the Flies and The Inheritors, Kurt Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse-Five, Ursula LeGuin’s Left Hand of Darkness and Thomas Pynchon’s Gravity’s Rainbow all celebrating the power of the fantastic over realism. Shippey himself considers J.R.R. Tolkien to be the best author of the 20th century.

So what is it about fantastic fiction, in particular the fantasy, science fiction, and horror genres that has captured the modern and postmodern imaginations? Tolkien himself makes a stab at an answer in his long essay “On Fairy-Stories” in Tree and Leaf (1965), where he takes issue with anyone who would relegate tales of Fairie to literary falsehoods or juvenilia. The good storyteller, says Tolkien, creates a secondary world into which the reader can enter and through which what he relates is necessarily true. The creation of this world, for Tolkien, goes well beyond Coleridge’s “willing suspension of disbelief,” compelling the reader’s belief and changing the reader’s perception of reality after the book has been put down. (Something that Tolkien’s books have done for many of us.)

Ursula LeGuin offers us much the same idea in her short introduction to The Left Hand of Darkness when she eschews the definition of science fiction as a literature that extrapolates the future. To LeGuin science fiction is descriptive rather than predictive, a thought-experiment engaged in to tell us something about ourselves today, not about events occurring in the future. Says LeGuin, “In reading a novel, any novel, we have to know perfectly well that the whole thing is nonsense, and then, while reading, believe every word of it.” As a result, when we’re reading, we are changed in some difficult-to-describe way. For LeGuin the conventions of science fiction are modern metaphors which point to the timeless truths that the imagination realizes.

These words echo the advice of our workshop director Jeanne Cavelos, who urges us, paradoxically, to approach genre fiction by reading everything good outside it as well as much inside it. Read the best works of nonfiction, read works from different cultures, read what has been done before and done well in your chosen genre. What you learn provides you with the tools to appreciate a genre’s past, and to then to recreate it in a new, different way. One look at Manchester, New Hampshire, would tell you that this is how both life and art work.

Notes from the Odyssey Workshop:  June 25, 2001
Genre Trapping and the Camaraderie of Writers

After two weeks, I am into the flow of the workshop. Our daily routine is well established: we warm up with an hour of theory talk, usually by Odyssey’s Director Jeanne Cavelos on the finer points of setting, plot, scene, or characterization. Then we workshop two or three of the stories or novel chapters written by our fellow Odyssey writers (which includes something of our own work weekly), then we have about twelve hours to critique the next day’s stories and work on our own. Weekends are to catch up with the rest of the human race and do more writing. We’ve quickly realized that there is never enough time for writing.

We live on the campus of Southern New Hampshire University (formerly New Hampshire College) in student townhouses, living two or three writers to a townhouse, all of them side by side. I share my townhouse with a horror writer from New Mexico and a fantasy writer from Ontario. The townhouses are spare; no television or other outside influences unless we bring them with us. A half-dozen out of the sixteen of us have cars, and are socially prominent since the University is far enough from civilization to make walking anywhere ridiculous.

Each Thursday evening we hold a reception for the Odyssey guest speaker of the week, an experienced author, agent, or editor who has come to speak on a writing-related topic and to tell about their own relationship to the writing life. Our first guest was fantasy writer Craig Shaw Gardner, who broke into the writing business in the 1960s during fantasy’s publishing heyday.

Craig Gardner challenged the serious fantasy writing of the time by writing fantasy humor, penning three trilogies that included novels like A Malady of MagicksA Difficulty with Dwarves and my personal favorite Revenge of the Fluffy Bunnies. One of the things Gardner has learned about the business is that publishers like to typecast authors. After nine books he became associated with “funny fantasy” (as he calls it) and found publishers resistant to his desire to write other kinds of works, including serious fantasy and horror.

When the market for funny fantasy dried up, he found it necessary to apply his writing talents elsewhere. Under the pen name Peter Garrison, he authored serious fantasy in the Changeling War trilogy. He wrote a trilogy based the fantasy world of Ali Baba and the Forty Thieves, and only recently has he returned to write serious fantasy under his own name with the Dragon Circle Trilogy, the latest book of which is Dragon Burning.

Genre trapping isn’t necessarily bad when a writer really enjoys writing in a particular genre. The writer’s name becomes a brand: see a book by Arthur C. Clarke or Larry Niven and you know you’re in for good hard science fiction; a Steven King or Dean Koonce denotes a great horror novel read; and you approach a Terry Brooks or Andre Norton for quality fantasy. But if you’re one of those unfortunates who want to regularly cross genres, you must have a genre-busting reputation like an Ursula LeGuin or a recognizable brand like F. Paul Wilson’s Repairman Jack, a character who gallivants back and forth between the fantasy and horror genres at his author’s whim.

Despite the difficulties of genre trapping, particularly in a moribund field like funny fantasy, Craig Shaw Gardner has managed to remain a full-time writer with a significant body of work. Today he writes Sherlock Holmes stories, and even copy for the professional wrestling magazine Rampage, a job he began as a favor for a friend and continues for the sheer fun of it. He is hopeful that the success of J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter series and the soon-to-be-released feature film version of J.R.R. Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings signals a rebirth of the fantasy genre, and of funny fantasy along with it.

Gardner was as curious of us as we were of him, and asked about our daily practice of workshopping and living together. Oddly enough, residing with a group of fellow writers has become one of the most interesting and satisfying parts of Odyssey for me. I’ve grown accustomed to the solitariness of the writing life, and to have other writers to share stories with, to talk about grammar, favorite inspirations, and the frustrations of rejection slips is nothing short of wonderful. Who else understands your fear of clichés, your frustration over character or plot development better than a fellow writer?

The writers here have become friends in short order. We could have just as easily split apart into bickering groups of mutually hostile critics, but the hard work of writing and critiquing and living together has caused the sixteen of us to bind together in ways that would never have occurred in a less pressure-packed environment. Undoubtedly a lot of this has to do with Jeanne’s management of us; her willingness to listen to our complaining, her ability to spot the flaws in our work, and most all her patience with our foolishness.

Craig Gardner spoke enthusiastically about the usefulness of the workshop process, and confessed that he has been sharing his work with the same group of writers for twenty-five years. He urged us to cultivate the same sort of relationships with writers whose judgment we trust; but I think we already realize this now, after only a short period of time here. Meanwhile, with lots of work to do, and with people to share our thoughts about writing, we move forward on our Odyssey.

Notes From the Odyssey Workshop: July 2, 2001
Realism v. Story

In the third week of the workshop, the weather has warmed up and the heat’s increasing on us to perform as well. We’ve each gotten a personal assessment from Jeanne, we’ve been knocked around several times (in the most friendly way) by our fellow writers in workshops, and we’re laboring hard to correct our worst errors. Some of us struggle with the vagaries involved in creating believable characters, while others wrestle with plot, or fight the bad habits of passive construction and a repetitive sentence structure. Stories that once seemed like thoroughbreds now appear as they really are: swaybacked, limping candidates for the glue factory.

One of the problems we face now is the difficulty of writing new things without our internal editor telling us, “No, you’ve got it all wrong. This will never work. This is crap.” The workshopping we do daily has that editor on full edit mode, while our creative selves have been beaten down and only occasionally get the encouragement and praise they crave. Yet to create new stories, we must put the editor to sleep, or on hold for a while. Our creativity will come back to us in time, we’re told, but for now the dreaded editor rules us.

An issue we are grappling with at the workshop is what role realism ought to play in depicting what are essentially fantastic realms in horror, fantasy, or science fiction. How realistic should our characters be, how realistic the dialogue or setting when we are depicting what are essentially fantastic events?

Our workshop guest writer this week, author and medical doctor F. Paul Wilson would seem to be a consummate realist writer. He’s written a trio of medical thrillers and some hard science fiction. Wilson, whose work also includes the fantasy novel The Keep, the Repairman Jack series of dark fantasy novels, and recent work for the Sci-Fi Channel (he co-wrote the Faster Than Light minute reports produced during the Channel’s first three years), did a lot of basic research for his latest Repairman Jack novel, the soon-to-be released Hosts. Much of the book is based in New York City, locations around it, and within a New York subway.

Dr. Wilson (who still practices medicine two days a week while writing five), spent a lot of time researching each scene, taking the precise subway train (the # 9) where he organizes a pivotal scene with Jack, covering all the neighborhoods that Jack frequents, and in the process discovering some unintended links–like when Jack’s escape route from a murder scene passed by the Dakota, the apartment house where John Lennon was murdered in a similar way. Realistic details like this can enrich a book’s action and supplement its theme.

On the other hand, a mistake in depicting reality can just as easily detract from the story that a writer wants to tell. Wilson described an early book in which he confused the characteristics of an automatic weapon with a revolver, and received dozens of letters from readers complaining about the mistake. Not only has he carefully researched his weapons since, but his plot in Hosts turns on the discovery of a rare but powerful small handgun, a 45 caliber Semmerling, which Jack carries and must use to protect himself.

Based on the testimony of his research habits, you might call F. Paul Wilson a realist, but there you would be wrong. Most writers of realistic fiction write to show us the world as it is, selecting their details to show us elements they believe we ought to know. Writers like Tom Wolfe, whose Bonfire of the Vanities also depicts New York, have declared that the realistic depiction of a society ought to be at least as important as the story in which it is situated.

Wilson, however, sees himself as a storyteller first, and the elements of reality that he incorporates into his books go towards the telling of the story itself, making the fantastic elements within it seem more real. The writer must get the details right to advance the story, but the details themselves are not the story. Other writers of fantastic fiction seem to agree. Steven King calls writers “God’s Liars,” whose work reveals a truth different from the literal truth of realism. Writer and agent Donald Maass calls for larger-than-life characters, dramatic dialogue, and fantastic events that become metaphors for the truth we discern in the creation of our story and want our reader to see as well.

As for those of us here at the workshop, we’d just like to be able to tell a simple story, any story without our internal editors going crazy. At the midpoint of our workshop, we’re still slogging uphill.

Notes From The Odyssey Workshop: July 9, 2001
The Business of Writing

Week four of the workshop brings lovely fall-like weather to New Hampshire, enlivening our bodies and lifting our spirits. Or was it the all night dance party we held to celebrate the halfway point of Odyssey? The party was an impromptu event brought about by the big thud! heard after a large group of us attended the premier of Artificial Intelligence (AI) in a Manchester theater.

AI failed for us not only because it was a monster with a Kubrickian head, a body by Spielberg and too many (lengthy) tails, but because it violated all the rules of SF moviemaking, from its long narrations at the beginning and end to its cliche of a premise (robot wants to be human). That’s a wheel that has been reinvented far too many times in the genre already. One of the reasons you are supposed to read heavily in your chosen field is to avoid rewriting what has already been written and written again.

What’s really sad is that AI is actually based on a good short story by UK science fiction/fantasy writer Brian Aldiss, “Supertoys Last All Summer Long (1969).” It is a story that not only avoids cliche but is actually a thoughtful exploration of humankind’s relationship and responsibilities towards its machines when they grow complicated enough to respond to us in a meaningful way–the way a child robot would respond to its mother. That’s something that comes through only momentarily in the movie itself, which can’t avoid taking the Pinocchio twist instead.

The need to avoid cliches is just one of the business tips brought by our last guest, agent Donald Maass. Maass runs a successful literary agency in New York with over 150 author clients, of which about a third publish genre fiction. He’s also spent time both as an editor in a publishing house and as an author of fiction and nonfiction, his latest work being Writing the Breakout Novel.

Over the past twenty years Maass has seen the market for writing tighten considerably, until there are now principally six major publishers for most works of fiction. These publishers are in turn owned by major media corporations who expect a far higher percentage in profits than the 2-3% that the publishing business has historically returned its investors.

This means that today’s publishing houses have fewer opportunities to develop writers. Once they could wait until a promising writer’s third or even fourth book hit paydirt to recoup their losses and garner a profit. Now the ceaseless search for profitability means that a writer’s first book must be an instant success to justify a second book, much less a third. Not only do today’s publishing houses keep an eye on the bottom line, but large bookstore chains like Barnes and Noble and Amazon.com carefully scrutinize their own sales records and have been known to balk at accepting books from writers whose works don’t show a proven track record of sales.

What does this mean for the writer trying to break into the fiction field? Be good right away. Find a winning formula for success. For Maass this formula boils down to gripping, well-rounded characters, nonstop action, and originality of content. Write the novel that hasn’t yet been written, and by all means avoid cliches like AI. Only a Steven Spielberg can get away with them, and the way things are going in markets these days, not even him for long.

Notes From the Odyssey Workshop:  July 19, 2001
Research and “Hard Science Fiction”

The beautiful, fall-like weather continues in New Hampshire, though an occasional surprise shower dumps its load on the unwary student walking out of a class or cafeteria. We spend much of the week examining our own writing, determining our style or lack thereof. Are our favored sentences convoluted or simple? Are they all the same length? Do we lean heavily on adverbs to make our verbs limp weakly along? How exact to our meaning are the words that we choose to use? Examining our writing leads to the unpleasant discovery of bad habits—habits that must be broken.

Along with our stylistic self-examination much of the week is spent talking about the impending visit of Terry Brooks, the fantasy writer who’ll be leading our workshop all next week. With over 16 million books sold, Terry’s one of the most successful writers in genre fiction, a driven author who has never failed to have a book of his reach the New York Times bestseller list. We’ve heard rumors of Terry’s hard-nosed, confrontational style developed as a Chicago lawyer. Jeanne warns us that Terry will ask us to explain and defend our story decisions. Terry promises longer workshops and has asked Jeanne if anyone has left a morning workshop session in tears yet. His query puts many on edge, wondering how he’ll find our work wanting, and as the end of the week approaches, the tension level rises.

We also have a visitor, Zoe Ingalls, a journalist from the Chronicle of Higher Education, who spends Thursday and Friday attending our workshop sessions and interviewing us for a feature article on the Odyssey Workshop. (Full disclosure: her article will feature this writer’s cyborg story getting the full workshop treatment.)

The end of the week also brings our guest writer, Allen Steele, one of the up and coming stars of hard science fiction, who joins us to talk about research. Steele, whose first book Orbital Decay was published in 1988, is known for constructing his science fiction and techno-thrillers like OceanSpace with the best scientific information available. In order to write OceanSpace, a book involving an undersea research facility on North America’s continental shelf, Steele learned to scuba dive, interviewed oceanographers, read research reports, and even bought drinks for professional deep divers in a Dominican bar to hear their stories. Allen made a detailed drawing of the research center that appears in OceanSpace, and had the book reviewed by several oceanographers before it was published to avoid reproducing factual errors in his story.

Much of Steele’s research is done before he ever conceives a book or story idea. He collects articles and ideas that interest him in file folders appropriately labeled. (Alan has a file folder for each planet in the Solar System, for space station design, spacecraft design, interstellar astronomy, life sciences, etc.) When a story idea strikes him, he generally has a wealth of background information to fall back on to develop it before he does his in-depth research. He then puts together a folder for a story or a notebook for a novel that contains the information vital to the story, including scientific background, character sketches and a story outline.

The sort of science fiction that Steele writes is often characterized as “hard science fiction,” a sub-genre of SF whose definition Allen disputes. He believes that well-written fiction based on realistic science is the essence of both classical and good modern science fiction in general. Readers of science fiction are as interested in how the science works as they are of the story told through it, and are inclined to penalize a storyteller whose solution to a problem involves violating scientific laws. The critics’ isolation of hard science fiction in the last thirty years to a handful of writers, often conservative/libertarian Anglo-Saxon males writing in venues like Analog, where the science frequently overwhelms the story, is a trend that Steele sees reversing as more women and people of color enter this booming field, and more people become interested in reading and writing science fiction that works scientifically.

Meanwhile, feeling the strain of Terry Brook’s impending visit, we Odysseyites jump into our friends’ cars and spend the weekend doing our story critiques at New Hampshire’s one beach, located forty-five minutes away at Portsmouth (a name the locals pronounce “Portsmith”). The beach itself is quite nice, the sun appropriately warm, but the water’s a dark, dark blue and freezing cold, reminding us that Terry will soon arrive to throw cold water on our work.

Notes From the Odyssey Workshop: July 26, 2001
Terry Brooks Week

New Hampshire’s fabulous fall-like weather continues, but at Odyssey we hardly notice it, so tense are we about the visit of best-selling author Terry Brooks. Even before he arrived, Terry put us on notice that we’d work harder this week by increasing our weekend reading load from 3 to 15 manuscripts. He promised longer workshop sessions, and gave us just two days to rewrite our stories after he had demolished them with a series of penetrating questions about character, theme, beginnings, and endings.

Still, it didn’t take us long to see that behind Terry’s take-charge attitude, aggressive questioning, and insistent quest for perfection was a real desire to encourage writers to give their best efforts when telling their stories. Terry considers himself a veteran storyteller, whose own need to tell better stories has led to consistent improvement over time as a writer, and an extended stay on the NY Times bestseller list.

Brooks credits his success in part to habits learned from legendary editor Lester Del Rey, who insisted on extensive rewrites of Brooks’ first novel, The Sword of Shannara (1977), the first book published under the Del Rey imprint and a book that created the market for modern fantasy after Tolkien. Del Rey taught Brooks to be aware of his story’s theme and its central characters, and to be ruthless in cutting out any element that doesn’t advance the story. In return, Terry urges us to compress our own story elements, characters and settings, and even to go with a single story line to avoid confusing the reader. Story conflict is personal and should occur between people, not groups of people or forces of nature, and characters must solve their own problems. The conflicts that characters engage in and obstacles they overcome should cause them to grow throughout the story. The story ends, according to Del Rey and Brooks, when the story question is answered, and no further elucidation is needed.

Terry complains that many writers today don’t know when and how to end their books, and consequently leave the reader feeling dissatisfied, even when the first two-thirds of the book is well-written. To avoid this problem, he strongly advocates using a story outline. Brooks writes an outline that includes a paragraph for each chapter with setting, characters, and action. Though he often deviates from the outline when he begins to write, he inevitably returns to it to get back on track and end the book where he wants it to end, keeping his central conflict and story theme intact.

Del Rey also taught Terry another lesson by throwing out his second book, insisting that it was good enough to be published but not good enough to be successful. He taught Brooks to aim higher and work harder with each book released. The result has been two highly popular Shannara series and their successors, The Magic Kingdom of Landover series, and the Running With the Demon series, as well as two books written for movies: Hook and Star Wars: Episode One.

Along the way, Terry has learned something about readers, too. He’s seen that many readers want more of the same book they read the last time. Brooks’ greatest successes have come from writing a series of books where the same or related characters continue their conflicts in familiar settings. His most difficult sales have been selling books with new characters and new settings to those same readers.

At the end of the week, we are exhausted but also exalted with Terry’s vision, a philosophy of storytelling that unifies character, plot, and theme, capturing and keeping the reader’s attention. He’s given many of us a method we want to try; and others one to contrast with their own ways of writing. Terry takes the group out for a pizza party, and characteristically takes all our orders, organizes and passes out the drinks and salads and pizzas to each of us. Whether it’s writing a novel, a sequence of novels, or planning a dinner for twenty, Terry Brooks remains in control of his material.

Notes From the Odyssey Workshop: July 31, 2001
Luck, Persistence, and Talent

By the beginning of the sixth week of our Odyssey, we’re all punchy. Energy is at an all-time low, and often our collective response to Jeanne’s questions is a slack-jawed look of perplexity. Over the past weeks, by my count, we’ve read and critiqued 90 manuscripts, written and revised six of our own, and taken pages of notes on character, setting, theme, and the business of publishing. Yet as we count out the days until we return to civilization, we are at once eager to resume our lives and reluctant to see the Odyssey workshop end.

At the end of the fifth week Terry Brooks, his literary agent Matt Bialer, and fantasy writer R. A. (Bob) Salvatore, one of the hardest working writers in the business, join us for a panel discussion. During that panel, Brooks writes down a short list of qualities necessary to be a successful writer, which the panel enthusiastically agreed were true. Quality number one was Luck, number two Persistence, and then, leaving a large blank area, Brooks wrote at the bottom of the chart, number 63, Talent.

That formula could be true of many of the writers we’ve met this summer. Brooks himself told of the luck involved in sending his Tolkienesque Sword of Shannara manuscript to Lester Del Rey at the exact time when that editor had begun to look for a work fantasy to inaugurate the Del Rey imprint. Allen Steele told us of fourteen years of stories rejected by magazines until a chance meeting with an editor at a convention finally led to a string of his stories getting accepted.

R. A. Salvatore, who has written 43 novels in 13 years, said his first published novel, Chrystal Shard (1988) came about as a result of good timing. A book proposal sent to games/book publisher TSR arrived at a time when company executives were desperately seeking a writer for a new series based on their Forgotten Realms material. Salvatore had an unpublished novel to show and promised TSR a quick book, which he executed for them on time. Salvatore himself says that his submission six months earlier or six month later would likely have not been accepted.

Salvatore got his start writing novelizations for the Forgotten Realms fantasy game and still writes several books a year for them. He also writes his own work for Del Rey and is one of those rare writers writing books simultaneously for two different publishers. He’s also writing the novelization for the next Star Wars movie, Episode II, for Del Rey, a topic about which he’s been sworn to secrecy.

Salvatore considers novelizations of fantasy games, shared fantasy worlds, or of television/movie series like Babylon 5 or Star Wars to be a good place for a beginning writer to learn the craft and for a steady writer to make a living. His own work in the Realms of Fantasy licensed world has been a mixed blessing for him. He notes that payments for first-time novelists writing licensed novelizations are generally low, and any characters and setting developed by the writer become the property of the licensing corporation. On the other hand, the first printing of a licensed novel is often huge compared with a first novel (TSR printed 140,000 copies of Salvatore’s first book versus a printing of 5,000-10,000 copies for a typical first novel) and the publisher often spends significant time, effort, and money publicizing it, while most beginning writers outside of novelizations get little if any publicity.

At the end of the week we have a graduation party, and meet some of the Odyssey alums who have joined us to participate in a graduate workshop the following week. We tell each other about our goals for the coming year and pose for a few group pictures. After the party we walk back to our townhouses together and talk about our past six weeks. We linger in each other’s company for hours, realizing that this may be the last time we’re together. We’ve all made friends here, and for many of us Odyssey has been one of those rare life-changing experiences. With luck, persistence, and talent we hope to join the ranks of those who have successfully written and published genre fiction.

Wendy Dye