In the last two weeks, I've driven an insane number of miles. First, I drove 700 miles to Chatanooga to attend a gathering of my fellow Codexians. We were graciously hosted by the family of Codexian Mary Robinette Kowal, and had as a special guest the legendary editor Ellen Datlow. Best-selling author David B. Coe also made a special appearance for a night of grilling... I don't mean barbeque, I mean we questioned him about every last aspect of making a living as a writer, and his answers were an inspiration for everyone in the room. Codexwriters.com was started a few years ago by Luc Reid as a gathering place for writers at the start of their career. It's members have since gone on to publish more books than I can count. One of the qualification that will let you join the group is if you've attended one of the major writing workshops, like the Odyssey Workshop in New Hampshire.
I attended that Odyssey back in 1998, and learned from such luminaries as Harlan Ellison and James Morrow. So, it was a tremendous honor to leave Chatanooga after a wonderful long weekend of writing and drive 1200 miles to Manchester New Hampshire, to return to Odyssey as a guest teacher.
There are certain milestones in my life that have increasingly made me feel like a writer. It seems odd, perhaps, that after having written 8 novels, 60ish short stories, and published a respectable chunk of them, that I still sometimes have to remind myself that, oh, yeah, I'm a writer. The goal I sat out to achieve back when I was 25 has been met. I can walk into almost any Barnes and Noble in America and find my books. For that matter, I could walking into any Waterstones in the UK and get them as well. I'm invited to be a guest at cons, editors of magazines solicit stories from me, and I actually have, you know, made a little money at this game. Yet, none of these accomplishments have quite given me the adreneline rush that returning to Odyssey did. Because, when I was at this workshop ten years ago, with every writer who visited to teach, I was sitting in the classroom thinking, "One day, I want to be up there." So, last Friday was one of the greatest days of my life.
Also, one of the most nerve-wracking. I've never really been nervous about speaking in public. I'm really comfortable when I'm on panels at cons, and I love doing readings and signings. Yet, at Odyssey, I was a complete nervous wreck the whole time I was in front of the class. Part of it was that I'd made the mistake of reading my lecture out loud the night before around midnight, when I should have been going to bed... and realizing that my lecture was the dullest, driest, most boring thing I'd ever written. So, the next day in class, I pretty much decided to wing it. I had a few excercises to fall back on. I knew the big points I wanted to make. I had no idea if I had enough material to fill up 2.5 hours. Also, I'd forgotten to turn my cell phone off, so the whole time I was in front of the class, I kept thinking, "It's going to ring... NOW. It's going to ring... NOW." Luckily, it didn't ring. The more or less random collection of thoughts I had bouncing around in my skull all managed to find their way out without me saying anything too embarassing.
The subject I was speaking on was "How to get a reader past the first page." Fortunately, I'd stumbled onto a good metaphor for the point I wanted to make as I was getting ready for the workshop. During my ten days away from home, I'd saved a shirt and a pair of pants specifically to wear when I taught the class. I'd obsessed about what I was going to wear for months. I didn't want to go too formal... I'm there to lecture on writing, not banking. On the other hand, a tee-shirt and shorts seemed perhaps a bit too casual. So, I'd saved a pair of black jeans that are well broken in without being torn or stained, some nice shoes that were a decent balance of dressy and comfortable, and a Hawiian shirt that's actually moderately tasteful... it's black with large pale flowers, nothing too loud. I spent a lot of time thinking about how I was going to dress myself because I know that visuals matter. I was going to be judged before I ever opened my mouth. Which led me to the most important point I had to make about writing: A writer must dress the first page of his story with the same care and obsession that I brought to dressing myself to teach the class. The images and sensory detail matter to readers judging your story in the same way that they matter to students judging a teacher.
Of course, it's difficult for many writers to think of details, especially the right details, to include on a first page. Writers need to have a mental bucket full of these images that they can draw upon when the time arrives to actually write. So, one of my excercises was to send the students on a mission to actually fill buckets with images. I gave them stacks of paper strips only an inch tall and three inches wide and told them to go search for actual, concrete items that would be interesting if they were placed onto a page. This was a tough environment for this excercise, since classrooms aren't exactly full of exciting and interesting objects like jet fighters or switchblades or dragons. Yet, the class performed admirably, spreading forth and returning with strips of paper populated with autoflushing urinals, black gunk on the edge of the stairs, wet grass, and toenail fungus. We dumped out nouns into the bucket and passed them around, with everyone taking six and writing a story opening with all the elements interwoven.
I must say, they did a great job. This was a really talented class. My fellow Solaris author Justin Gustainis was there as a student, as well as fellow Codexian Sara King. In all, I read and critiqued 7 stories by 6 authors, and, with no offense to my classmates from back in 1998 intended, I thought that, based on this random sample, this was a much more advanced collection of students than it was when I attended. It makes sense, I suppose. Odyssey was fairly new when I attended. Now it's starting to rival Clarion in reputation. Competition to get into the workshop is no doubt becoming more fierce with each year. Jeanne Cavelos, who runs the workshop, has certainly earned bragging rights in developing this workshop into such a success.
After the lecture and critiquing, the Odfellows had a cookout. I've never turned down free food in my life, so here's a photo of me chowing down, taken by Chad Wilson:
Although, upon closer inspection, despite the fact that my hand is near my mouth, I think I'm actually signing a book in this photo. I'd carried up a case of books and gave one to everyone at the workshop, so the aftermath of the cookout became my first ever outdoor book signing. Hopefully I didn't get too much mustard on the books... I'm going to make a bold, and potentially wrong, statement and say that the woman whose book I'm signing is Breanna Wojcik. Maybe. It will be embarrassing if I'm wrong, since I talked with Breanna for twenty minutes in a one on one critique of her stories. But I also talked to Jasmine Hammer as well for a one on one critique, and there's a reasonable chance this could be her. Or maybe it's neither of them. It was a long day. I can tell you in great detail about their stories (or could if the critiques weren't confidential), and can say with some authority that, whoever the hell this is, she's off to a good start as a writer.
If my memory has failed me after one week, I have a good excuse: Immediately after the cookout, I embarked on the 900 mile drive back to North Carolina. I was exhausted and nearly brain dead after over a week on the road, and what few synapses I still had firing were shocked into stupor when I paid $4.68 for gas in New York. I made it home roughly 24 hours after pulling out of New Hampshire and collapsed into my unmade bed instantly snoring for twelve hours while my cats crawled over me, licking my fingers and ears. They were either attempting to revive me in hopes I would give them attention after my long absense, or else taste-testing me in the event they are one day forced to feed upon my corpse. With cats, you just never know. *
*At the Codex gathering, I was assured by Laurel Amberdine and Jenny Rae Rappaport that if I talked about my cats on my blog, I'd double my readership. I'm not sure that they had in mind that my cat's first appearance here might be as potential body eaters, but what the hell.