The Most Valuable Lesson I Learned At Viable Paradise, Available Online

If you go to Viable Paradise, the week-long writers’ intensive, you’ll get feedback from some of the best authors in the biz.  It’s well worth it if you can go, as many are this very week, as you’ll get some critical feedback to boost you to the next level.

Now, the most valuable technique I learned was courtesy of Teresa Nielsen-Hayden, a great editor, who I asked to edit my manuscript.  Instead of sitting down with me to discuss the strengths and weaknesses in my manuscript, as the other teachers did, Teresa and I sat in silence while she got out her red pen and yanked useless words out of my story.  It was like watching a literary game of Jenga – she was striking out sentences I was certain were necessary, so many that my story appeared to be gunshot, but when it was done I found my story to be a third lighter and twice as strong.

It was a lesson in how few words are actually necessary.   I sold a lot more stories after that.  I would encourage all you current members of VP to flock about Teresa like birds and ask her to edit you.

But if you’re not at Viable Paradise – and a preliminary survey suggests that you aren’t – then you can get the most valuable lesson I got from Viable Paradise at a web page.

Which is to say that when you go to Viable Paradise, at least six good authors check over your story and tell you what they think.  (That’s significantly different from the Clarion experience, where usually one teacher reads one story.)  And when I had my tale critiqued – which was Riding Atlas, later bought by Three-Lobed Burning Eye and then re-sold for an audio production at Pseudopod – I got the following feedback:

  • This story’s pretty much perfect. Ship it out.
  • This isn’t actually a story.  I don’t know what it is, but it’s unsatisfying.
  • This is a travelogue, a kind of weird trip through the universe, but your language isn’t up to par.  Your prose has to be much more descriptive towards the end.
  • I was repelled by the characters.
  • This is a bloody story, but the character arc is really small and it needs to be expanded.
  • I’d buy this in a heartbeat. (Get it?)

Now, each of them gave me more detailed feedback about how they might fix the story, but the end result is this: Six really smart writers looked at my manuscript.  Two of them would have purchased it, two thought it needed more work, and two wouldn’t have bought it no matter what.

Which is when I finally internalized the lesson about submitting.  I’d been told all my life that editors reject things for different reasons, and there’s no such thing as a universal story… but after Viable Paradise, where I basically got to sit live next to six reactions, I realized that a rejection from any market doesn’t mean it’s a bad story, it means I haven’t found a good home.  Some part of me always internalized “a rejection” as “you’re a bad writer,” but seeing the variance at Viable Paradise made me realize I’m an editor, and I frequently reject published stories.  I do it when I read an anthology and find half the stories “meh.”

That editor’s rejection email often isn’t a “guh!” where they’re pushing it away from the table, repelled – it’s often a shrug, as they find it okay but they need to bring the awesome.

If you’d like to see that kind of editor’s round-table in action, you can go to Wonderbook’s Editor’s Roundtable, where eight of the most respected editors in the business all read the same story and give their feedback on why they would (or wouldn’t) reject it.  You can see the same forces at work: a couple think it just needs a touch of cleanup, others wouldn’t get beyond the third paragraph.  (I didn’t, but I have a tragically low tolerance for dialect.)

If you’d like to be a professional writer, you’re gonna get rejected.  A lot.  I do, and so do the writers I know. But it helps to know exactly how variable a sale is – just because a story got rejected six times doesn’t mean it’s a bad story, it means you hit the wrong seat at that round table.

One of the battle cries of Viable Paradise is Uncle Jim shouting, “Keep submitting ’til hell won’t have it!”  This is why you keep submitting.

This is why you persevere.

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