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bear by san

March 2017



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bear by san

Some people's children


It seems to me that if Gene Wolfe tells you your skills could use a little improving before you expect to sell a novel it might be more realistic to listen than to pitch a fit. It's interesting to see what the SFF community has to say about it.


You've got to be kidding me!

What the hell is the point of asking for critiques if you can't take criticism? Or of going to a workshop to learn if all you really want is to be told how good you are? Grow up, I say!

I bet these were the kids who's parents believed in never saying 'no' or telling them there were some things they weren't capable of.

Perhaps the "students" needed Neil Gaiman to explain Gene Wolfe's critiques and comments to them.
He approved of some stories and not others? My god, he's a million times worse than HITLER!
Yeah, no editor would ever say that.
[From Gene Wolfe's letter to Locus] "...he explained that I approved some stories and criticized others, which the students felt was unfair."

Of course I wasn't there, so it's difficult to judge what went on, but I would like to comment that just because someone can do something well (in this case write), it doesn't automatically follow that they also have the ability to teach that skill to others. Teaching well is a different skill set entirely.

I've never seen Gene Wolfe at a convention, so I don't know what he's like in person, but he and this particular group obviously didn't hit it off. If the students perceived unfairness, there must have been something in the way he was presenting his critiques that gave the impression that he was favouring some students over others.

[From the same letter] Further on he says, "...to the best of my memory it complained that I had told several students who had begun to write novels that their skills were not yet up to the task.

I did wonder how he thought students were going to learn to write novels, except by writing novels, albeit bad ones. The idea that you can learn to write novels by starting with short stories just doesn't work for people who are "natural" novelists.

Perhaps writers should have at least a little training as teachers before they try to teach novice writers?

Well, yes and no.

The Odyssey workshop isn't really supposed to be for "Novice" writers--like Clarion, it's for people who are serious about their graft: it's not a high school or undergrad workshop. These are grownups who want to be professionals, and one goes to a workshop like Odyssey, Viable Paradise, or Clarion to have one's bad habits brutally broken and to be exposed to as many opinions as possible. Clarion instructors are notorious for giving diametrically opposing advice. (A friend of mine at Clarion this year was also told that she should shelve her novel for a year and work on short stories to develop her craft. It's not uncommon advice. It is the student's prerogative to decide how to use it, of course.)

Traditionally, these things are make or break situations: I know several people who have attended Clarion, and it's, not to put too fine a point on it, boot camp. Which is something writers should be aware of going in.

There *are* things it is much easier to learn in terms of a short story, because they're so much more manageable. The biggest one, at least from my experience, is sentence-level craft. Short stories teach a writer how vital each and every sentence is.

If you chase the story through the links at sff.net, you can see the perspective of some other individuals who were taught by Mr. Wolfe., and links to the online diaries of two of the Odyssey students, for the other side of the story.

Based on the journals (one of which mentions him saying "Your sentences are bad"), I would bet that sentence-level craft was one of Mr. Wolfe's major complaints.

Obviously, I wasn't there, and I can't really comment on the dynamic or who was right and who was wrong. But Mr. Wolfe's comments as recorded in these journals aren't out of line with anything I've heard from other workshop attendees, creative writing students, and convention workshop attendees. The major complaint seems to be that some pigs--stories--were seen as more equal than other pigs.

And frankly, some pigs are more equal than other pigs in this context.

Re: Well, yes and no.

I actually learned to write short stories by writing novels, and vice versa: I realized I couldn't write shorts, so I tried to write a novel, and couldn't write that. But that half-finished novel somehow taught me to write shorts, and after six or seven years of writing shorts, I suddenly learned how to write novels. Which just goes to prove that nobody learns the same way as anybody else.

The abuse that's being poured on them without any effort to see their side of the story is making me feel slightly sick.

Yeah, and I think there have been some very seriously overstrong reactions from the peanut gallery on this. I don't agree with all the comments on sff.net by any means. I do have to wonder, in the wake of Clarion East funding crisis, what this is going to mean for spec fic writer's orkshops overall.

I think the Locus letter is totally appropriate in tone: I can't see anything to fault it on. The response, however, seems a little one-sided.

On the other hand, one of my most useful readers will, in fact, say things very much like "Oh come on." And when she does it, she's generally right. I've avoided Clarion, etc, for the simple reason that I frankly don't think I could handle the pressure, although I'm a member of an online workshop that's quite intense and with which I am very pleased. But in that situation, you can shut the computer down and go get a beer if you hit the end of your rope.

Has it made me cry? Hell yes. I actually was joking about getting a t-shirt to wear to Worldcon that says "Kelly Link made me cry." *g*

I dunno. Harsh advice sucks. But I don't think a unilateral demand for apology is really appropriate either, and it is a very strong reminder of how transparent the walls of the houses in this genre are.

Re: Well, yes and no.

The Odyssey workshop isn't really supposed to be for "Novice" writers--like Clarion, it's for people who are serious about their graft: it's not a high school or undergrad workshop.

It's interesting that with writing I find that "novice" is something of moveable goal post as far as I'm concerned. Despite 3 professional short story sales, I still think of myself very much as a novice; the two people I know who've gone to Clarion this year haven't sold a story yet, so I think of Clarion as for novices. Not raw beginners, of course, and certainly serious about writing, but still novices.

You're right about being able to practice improving at the sentence-level in a short story, but there's no reason why you can't do it in a novel either. And only a novel can give you practice at structuring a novel. To me, a short story is a completely different animal to a novel. Some people can write both well, others will just waste time writing lots of bad short stories if you tell them to stop working on their novel.

Of course what sometimes happens is that advice given very specifically to one writer to help with a problem they're having with their novel is generalised and applied to all writers having trouble with their novels, even when the advice is not going to be helpful in their case.

Re: Well, yes and no.

And only a novel can give you practice at structuring a novel.

advice given very specifically to one writer ... generalised

absolutely true.

I see your point about novice writers, and that's also a big truism about the "moveable goalpost." I actually think the more I learn about writing, the less I know. Well, the more I know. But the less of a percentage of what I'm aware of in terms of craft have I mastered.

And with sentences like that, I can see why.

Yeah, I read that with my jaw hanging. If Gene Wolfe were to critique my work and scribbled "Oh, come on" next to parts of it, I'd sit up and take notice, not whine about how callous he was.

Isn't it an unwritten law that writers must have thick skins? Maybe that should be put on a plaque somewhere on the Odyssey grounds.

And on a tangent, I'm imagining the wet, weeping puddle these folks would be in if they'd had Harlan Ellison as a teacher . . .
I'm reminded of my favourite rejection letter ever, which I am someday going to have framed so I can hang it behind my Hugo. (hah! dream on!). It's from Algis Budrys of the late lamented Tomorrow, and after explaining what I did wrong, it ends, "...this made me sad."


But you know what? That rejection letter saved me. Because it sank in where a gentler letter might not have, and made me realize that my first drafts weren't perfect and that I had a lot of craft to learn.

And that this poor editor, who I had been harrassing with my blotty and ill-mannered printouts, cared enough about me and my desire to write that when I sent him something with an iota--a shivering droplet--of potential in it, he took the time to kick my ass about why it failed.

I do understand that reactions and emotions run very high at these things, and feelings are very raw. But if I were one of the students who missed out on a day with Mr. Wolfe, no matter how he was taking my hide off with a scouring brush, I would be saddened and upset.

If anything, it *is* an object lesson in how the gossip tree in the SFF community works, and why it's a good idea to try to stay on the right side of the grapevine.

Of course, I'm as guilty of spreading scurrilous rumors as anybody, at this point, but I find the whole thing really--fascinating--on a social dynamic level.


That's how I feel. I hate when in a community as small as scifi/fantasy, something like this happens to cause sides to be taken. I think I'm finding it very hard to totally side with Mr. Wolfe. I don't think it's very probable for several people at once who are bad writers to just decide to take him to task for not praising him at once. Possible, but not very probable. Mr. Wolfe's reputation and career demands respect, and he certainly has mine. Do you really think those people went to class looking to get into a fray with him?

You see, I have thin skin, which I do try to keep to myself, but which makes me sensitive none the less. While one commenter said aren't writers supposed to have thick skins, that's like saying aren't all policemen supposed to be used to dead bodies. I certainly will not dismiss a comment out of hand, or be insulted because someone didn't love my work, but I find it very hard to see the comment (Oh come on) as a helpful one. I think if someone said that to us on the OWW we'd do a double take and say 'what the hell does that mean?'. Just because Gene said it, should we excuse it?

I know Harlan Ellison's style is not for everyone, and I think Gene is one of these people. Not necessarily polite, but honest and as so often happends, unabashedly opininated. I think the possiblity exsists that his brashness ticked off those who were subject to it when they're trying just as hard as those who were better and therefore might not have had to endure such dressing downs. As you pointed out, the members are professional hopefuls - they want to be treated as professionals.

The snippets I've seen here makes me wonder if that's what they felt was missing - basic professional respect. Whether they were right or wrong, I can't see a bunch of 'novices' deciding to write a letter like that to a giant like Gene Wolfe in a hissy fit. You have to really be moved to do something like that. Is it fair to just ascribe ego?

But we all know that we've had a rejection letter from a publisher/editor that felt patently unfair, that left us crying. For some, and don't think they're all untalented hacks, that's enough to quash a promising career for a time. For others, it's a chance to learn, pick up and move on. But just applying the words 'thick skins' to us is not enough to say how we should react as writers. Anymore than a bad review or rejection letter from an editor necessarily reflects his view of your writing or worth as a whole.

All in all, it's an unfortunate situation that we only have one side of. And although some, like you, EBear, have come to appreciate the help of a bad rejection, that doesn't mean all bad rejections from good editors are warranted. Ask any bestselling author how many rejections they go from very good editors on the work that became hailed as a masterpiece. In the sense of what Odessey is and has meant to writers, I can't just see this as a simple case of 'good editor meets whiny students' until I have been in that situation myself.

And if that ever happens, the benefit of the doubt, on both sides, would be a really wonderful thing, I think.

Re: Upset

The snippets I've seen here makes me wonder if that's what they felt was missing - basic professional respect. Whether they were right or wrong, I can't see a bunch of 'novices' deciding to write a letter like that to a giant like Gene Wolfe in a hissy fit. You have to really be moved to do something like that. Is it fair to just ascribe ego?

But basic professional respect is exactly what the students didn't show. Let's set the debate about Wolfe's reputed harshness aside for a second -- let's pretend he did something that we can all agree would be completely unprofessional and useless for the students, like showing up to class stoned out of his mind and mumbling to himself.

How should students who think of themselves as professionals handle something like this? Well, first off, they might want to discuss it with him in person, and talk about why the stoned-and-mumbling teaching style wasn't meeting their needs. If he seemed unmoved, they could talk to the director of the workshop about how this was a waste of their time and money, and how they might be due a refund, or perhaps a rescheduled week later on with a more suitable teacher.

Behind-the-back gossip and "we won't come to class if YOU'RE there" are not professional ways to handle a dispute, particularly when we're not talking about grossly obvious malfeasance on the part of the teacher, we're just talking about a teaching style that may not have been very effective.

Re: Upset

But you see, I don't think putting complaints in writing to the person you have a problem with is unprofessional. I do think going to Jeanne might have derided as going over Gene's head. I mean, I agree with you that it would have been preferable for them to go to him and talk first, but it's conceivable that people who are upset about a situation might not do things in the best way. Hindsight is 20/20 after all.

I don't see how 'behind-the-back gossip' was part of their tactics, when we've all been in situations where a group of people might discover a shared problem and decide to do something about it in the course of discussion. There's nothing here to suggest that didn't happen. And the letter may have laid out ultimatums, but until I see the actual letter, I think reserving judgement about what was said and how appropriate it was is the sensible thing to do, since we only have one side of the situation.

And that's my point. Given our small community, is it really a good idea to start taking sides on a issue like this, when it's patently obvious none of us are in a position to know all the facts? I just think there's an awful lot of bashing going on over a incident that needs to be relegated to the spat files more than anything else.

Re: Upset

is it really a good idea to start taking sides on a issue like this

Oh, I agree. I'll happily call Wolfe unprofessional, too, for not sticking around to teach the remaining students, and while I'm at it, I'll call *us* all unprofessional for critiquing from the sidelines. Plenty of blame for all. ;-)

But I do so love a good conflict. The dynamics are so fascinating.

Re: Upset

I'll call *us* all unprofessional for critiquing from the sidelines.

I seem to have left my conscience under the pot. Or perhaps it was in the kettle--
Well, I agree it sounds like a hellish overreaction. On the other hand, I do feel that I'd rather hear what the people who walked out have to say before rendering judgement, and that doesn't seem to be possible - at least, I've seen no links to any reports from them. I don't even know whether Gene Wolfe is used to teaching writer's workshops: some people who can do things very well themselves are hellishly bad teachers. But I do think that a student walk-out is the weapon of last resort, to be used only when there seems no other way of getting the teacher to pay attention.