I attended the Odyssey Fantasy Writer's Workshop as a student back in 1998. Tomorrow, I'm going back to talk to this year's class as someone who has managed to build at least a modest career out of fiction.
As a result, I find myself in an introspective mood, thinking about what I've learned in the intervening nine years, trying to figure out if I have any useful advice for the current batch of students.
While advice from me may not be as valuable as advice from J. K. Rowling, I do have one nuggets I can share with the class:
The worst book you put onto paper is more valuable than the best book you keep in your head. Twice in my life, I've found myself in positions where I've been asked to show my work on short notice. The first time, Keith Olexa, the editor at Phobos, called me up to tell me I'd won a Phobos Award and asked if I'd written any novels. The year before I'd written "Nobody Gets the Girl." The novel at the time was short, only 55K words long. And, the ending was just dumb, nothing at all like the published ending. Before I sent it to him, I tacked on a new ending that was even worse, in which Rail Blade gets killed when the World Trade Towers fell on 9-11. A few months later, Keith called me back and said they wanted to publish the book, but the ending really needed to change. Knowledge that the book would see print proved a powerful creative force and I was able to arrive at the published ending, which I'm still quite proud of.
The second time, of course, came about when Nadia Cornier went from being an intern with an agency to being a full agent, if she could build a portfolio of clients. When this news reached me via the Codex boards, I was able to send her "Bitterwood," but a much shorter, less developed work than what is seeing print today. Still, while I look back on that version now as being amazingly devoid of setting details and shockingly thin on character development for the supporting cast, it still had the plot, pacing, theme, and energy that the final book has.
Can I write better novels than Bitterwood and Nobody? I think I can. I've got one book in my head that I think may be the book that turns me into a household name. Unfortunately, you can't read this book. I can't show it to an editor, and I've never been able to share more than a brief outline with my agent. It's a book I always feel I need to do just a little more research to write. It's a book I've become intimidated by. And, as a result, my perfect, fantastic book has never been read by anyone, while the good-but-could-be-better books I've published have been (or will be) read by thousands of people.