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Lessons from TNEO 07

August 2nd, 2007

(TNEO would be The Never-Ending Odyssey, a writing workshop for Odyssey graduates.)

The usual notes to self:

  • Work harder.
  • Pay more attention to the new stuff. (Read more in general.)
  • Hang out with writers more.

And the unusual:

  • Work not just harder but longer. Deliberation and polish are part of the process, not to mention repeated rewriting. Suck it up.
  • Plot out your story beforehand, even if it is supposed to have no plot.
  • Pay more attention to character motivations–belivability and sympathy–because there can be no plot without them.
  • I think I’ll allow myself some leeway to experiment with different forms. Short-short and poem, in particular. Epic poem if I can build myself up to it. Likewise with novella–I’m still thrashing around in the planning stages.

Thought-provoking stuff I read while at TNEO:

  • “How to Talk to Girls at Parties” – Neil Gaiman
  • “Memoir of a Deer Woman” – M. Rickert
  • “Strange Wine” – Harlan Ellison

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11 Comments »

  • Okay, talk to me about the Gaiman and Rickert stories. When I read them, I thought the Gaiman had pretty writing and cool ideas, but didn’t go anywhere, and the Rickert…what did I think about that? I remember thinking it was missing something. Good writing, just missing something overall.

    Thoughts?

    • mjd says:

      Hmm, yes. There’s a reason I wrote “thought-provoking” rather than “great”. M. Rickert in particular, in the two stories I’ve read from her (the other one was “The Christmas Witch”), seems to have a real penchant for the open ending. And not even the kind of ending you and I talked about on IM the other night, where some things are resolved, but many are not, and the reader is left with much to think about–with the challenge, basically, of composing their own resolution based on the story as a whole. At the end of both those M. Rickert stories, I got the sense I was meant to not get some things. Which I have heard described as a “literary” style ending. At the end of “The Christmas Witch”, however, I was so damn impressed with her skill at manipulating my reactions throughout the story that I wasn’t bothered by the ending. “Deer Woman” didn’t have that. I felt like I’d been looking at an expressionist painting for half an hour–that there were a lot of things I now understood better for having spent that time–but that I still in fact hadn’t a clue about the whole. And that did bother me a little bit, but it made me think. I think I react to M. Rickert stories similarly–though certainly not in as much depth–to the way I react to Shakespeare “problem” plays, like King Lear and The Tempest.

      The Gaiman story I don’t think I can agree with you on. I thought it was frickin awesome. It was the metaphor of the alienness of the opposite sex used to fullest devastating effect without crossing the line into dopey cliche, which with that particular metaphor it is all kinds of difficult to do. I also loved that we got the whole gamut of teenage male experience from those two boys–and that the degree to which they both were changed by this whole supernatural experience would have been almost exactly the same had there been no supernatural element at all–had these girls been “just” teenage girls. But perhaps that’s because I’m a boy.

      The Ellison story sort of uses the same trope/theme as the Gaiman story, but inverted, with less delicacy and sympathy, and with ye meh Twilight Zone twist at the end. I guess I’m listing it as thought-provoking because until now I had refused to read Ellison on (perhaps misguided) principle, and am surprised to find how much of his worldly cynicism bleeds into his writing. I read four stories by him, and this was the only one I found at all enjoyable.

      • I like Rickert’s writing as a rule, but the only story I’ve ever been satisfied with is “Journey into the Kingdom” which was freaking fantastic, and did have a resolution. “The Christmas Witch” left me with too many questions.

        Maybe it IS because you’re a boy. 🙂 My beef with Gaiman’s was that the narrator himself never changed. I read him as oblivious to what was really going on, and when it became obvious that something really, really disturbing happened to his friend, I recall the narrator STILL being the same ole jealous cap, not changed at all. I wanted the story to be from the POV of the friend, the guy who actually had INTERESTING stuff happen to him. Making the narrator the friend who we don’t learn what happened to but still oblivious at the end would’ve been far more satisfying and telling for me. 🙂

        Hmm…I’d love to do a poll about that story. Who liked it, who didn’t, and whether or not they’re a boy or girl. 🙂

        Don’t get me wrong, I saw what Gaiman was aiming at, he just didn’t pull it off for me. 🙂 Then again, I’m a girl. 😉

        • mjd says:

          I’ve got a question for you, Shara: in that Gaiman story, what do you think happened in the room upstairs at the end? What happened to that kid who you want to be the POV character? Because I’m think what happened was he tried to rape that girl. So I totally do not want him to be the POV. Actually, I don’t think the narrator continued to be jealous of his friend after that either. I think he did change–even if the change was all in the implications of an ending that was certainly open to interpretation.

          • Really? I thought he got frisky, but not in a bad way. I thought when he started to make his move the girl showed him (in more a physical way) what the girl downstairs was trying to get across to the narrator.

            But interesting. I hadn’t thought the friend had tried to rape the girl. Hmmm….

            I might have to did up that issue and look at the story again, take a closer read. 🙂

          • mjd says:

            It’s the January 07 F&SF. I just had another look and I am holding to my interpretation. There’s a line about Stella standing on the top of the stairs, all disheveled…and then Enn (suave sexy boy who’s good with the ladies and I hate for that reason alone) punches Narrator in the head. It is certainly ambiguous, and I’m reading it in the reactions, rather than in any information that’s provided. That’s one of the things that impressed me so much about this story, actually–that he can get these things across without having to say them.

          • jeffhowell says:

            Hello, I just read the Gaiman story in question. I believe Vic was the cool kid, and Enn was the narrator.

            I got the impression Vic went too far with Stella upstairs. He yelled at Enn to go, then they ran away so fast that Vic ends up puking in the gutter. Because Stella looked at them like the “universe angry”. Vic responded that “She wasn’t a –” then rammed a knuckle hard in Enn’s template. He was distraught, something had really messed with his head.

            I think the key to the story is in the long passage Triolet tells Enn, about hearing a poem and “there are places we are welcomed and places we are regarded as a disease”. The way I interpret this story is a kind of metaphor tale Neil does often (like in the “Sandman” comics) where the party and the girls were ‘aliens’ from another plane of existance: poems incarnate. Troilet tells the poem to Enn and he has a wonderous vision, loves it and kisses her. I believe Stella tried to tell the poem to Vic, but Vic couldn’t hear the poem, or didn’t listen because he was too busy playing grab-ass. But it did mess him up. So I think he’d side with the people that would consider the aliens a disease to be destroyed. In hearing the poem, in talking to girls, in kissing, a boy’s true nature will be revealed. Vic saw his reflection and it made him sick.

          • mjd says:

            Jeff,
            Yes, you are right, both about the names and your interpretation of the theme. Vic is the bad guy, Enn is the Narrator. That’s quite clever, actually. A narrator named N.

            Anyhow, yeah, one of my favorite things about this story is that even with all the unfathomable alienness and flights of epic poetry, the whole thing still works perfectly as a lesson in the difference between girls and boys. It takes a cliche–the whole ‘women are from Venus’ thing and bends it back around so far it actually ends up meaning something new.

  • MaggieDR says:

    I echo your lessons learned. Especially about hanging out with writers more. Although sometimes I find myself not wanting to hang out with writers at all–with the exception of Odfellows, of course.

    • mjd says:

      Hmm, yes, I suppose it does depend on the writers. Once I joined this undergrad crit group at UMass for a little while, and I ended up just walking on eggshells and not getting much out of it, for fear my true opinions would make them all give up writing. Though on the other hand, my whole centaur world would not exist if it weren’t for a writing exercise from that group. Some line about a “minotaur sandwich” was all it took. So who knows.

  • Erin says:

    Mike, very interesting to read your thoughts about TNEO. Makes me wish I had written such a wrap-up. I may be contaminated by now.

    I still need to finish “The Christmas Witch” — my copy of Year’s Best 7 got Shanghaied to Jay’s place somehow and I forgot to grab it before I left last weekend. But I found “Memoir of a Deer Woman” to be nearly perfect. The ending did not quite come together for me, either, mainly because of the unexpected switch into following the husband’s story, and the way that he ended, but that’s the “nearly”, and I liked so much about it that I’m still digesting and wanting to digest the story nearly a month after reading it.

    I would say that if a literary story leaves you not understanding something, while giving pieces to it, it has failed to some extent. I would like to think that all strong literary stories CAN be figured out, even if it takes multiple readings to do so (and they should improve with subsequent readings), but like a good mystery, the pieces are all there and all harmonize if you can but put them in the right places.

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