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Uncle Orson’s Literary Boot Camp—Tuesday

For some insane reason I got up at 6:30am to play basketball with another believer in the merits of sleep deprivation and self-abuse. Mercilessly we cut it short.

We began the workshop this morning by group-critiquing the personal stories we had written. It was an exercise in deep 3rd person POV and avoiding flaws in drifting out of that tense—more structure than content. We only went through a few stories as a large group.

The meat of the day was spent on our story ideas. Yesterday we had to wander into the sleepy town of Buena Vista and interview someone for a story idea. Two more story ideas were to come from observations in town, and two more from the library. These were story ideas, with endings, but brief like a pitch on a query.

We read our pitch, then had to remain silent while the group, led by Orson (OSC) picked over all the plausibility questions—the how’s and why’s and went over all the causality and motivations. These were brief pitches, so the discussion, naturally moved from honest critique to full-blown expansion of an idea into something larger—if the story was a novel in-utero, or fine-tuned if it was an idea fit for a short story or novella.

We did this as a large group with OSC, and later in smaller groups. It sounds painful, but was wonderful.

The story I pitched was about a mentally challenged young man who slowly discovers that his older cousin, whom he considers his best friend, is a pedophile—and a murderer. Cheery, I know. I had other ideas, including one fantasy concept, but for some reason I pulled that one out. At first it was a serious gut-punch to the room that had previously been saying things like “is it a dream––or a mechanism for magical time travel?”

By the time we were done I had a brief outline for a powerful, character-driven, Southern murder mystery that in OSC’s words, “would be a dynamite novel”. It’s a pretty heavy subject. A Harry Crews event-story set in the world of Cold Sassy Tree. I’ll let it simmer, but his process of critiquing made the story come to life.

After dinner we met with OSC for an open-ended Q&A on anything. He said he’d answer questions until we got tired. It took about four hours. Not only is he a phenomenal teacher, but incredibly generous with his time.

The Q&A topics were too numerous to mention but some of the highlights were:

The Writing Life––maintaining health, physical and mental, as a writer.
Paperwork–-queries, contracts, fees, formatting, and working with editors.
Marketing––cover design, word-of-mouth, signings, and conventions.
Motivation––emotional wringers rather than physical danger.
Workflow––outlining, first-drafts, when to chuck a manuscript and start again.
Personal––day-jobs, and what writers sacrifice in terms of family.
Decorum–-meeting the standards of your audience.

And the list could go on and on.

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Reader Comments (5)

jamie, this is incredibly cool. even though i'm published i would love to go to it. i'm sure i could learn a lot -- although i'd be terrified to find out how little i know.

June 13, 2006 | Unregistered Commenteranne frasier
Jamie, how many attendees are there? It sounds like a phenomenal experience. And it must have been thrilling for OSC to praise your idea like that. Way to go!
June 13, 2006 | Unregistered CommenterJaye
It's an interesting mix of people. I don't think there's anyone here who has a big book deal or anything, a few published short stories here and there. There's a mix of people with English degrees, a few teachers who teach writing, a few journalists, and a non-fiction editor all taking the class.

There were about 40 people, but there are 18 of us in the "Boot Camp"--meaning here for the week. The others left after the first part, which was the workshop on character and POV. They left yesterday.

Today we're on our own cranking out a short story from one of our story ideas. Tomorrow through Saturday will be spent reading and critiquing. We're each given at least an hour-long critique.

Having OSC work over your stuff is definitely "tough love"–-dolled out in generous portions. He's very frank, but can articulate his reasons well.If he's going to tear your story apart, it's because there are plausability or causality holes in it. But he doesn't do it without showing how to reconstruct it so it's sound.

June 14, 2006 | Unregistered Commenterjamie ford
Great stuff, Jamie. So glad you're finding time (!) to post.

June 14, 2006 | Unregistered CommenterJimT
Wow, sounds like a wonderful atmosphere and great learning lessons. Love reading about it via the blog. Thanks for finding time to post.
June 15, 2006 | Unregistered CommenterAmra

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