Category Archives: Writing Workshops

A Critique That Goes Straight to the Heart

Big thanks to the folks at Brain Harvest Magazine for their Fresh Eyes service!

A few posts back I mentioned that I was sending out my 2009 Clarion West Submissions for an external critique. I just received the results and I thought I would share it with you.

To me, a successful critique does three things:

  1. Tells me something I don’t know.
  2. Hammers me with examples of my failures over and over again
  3. Tells me something I know, but have tried desperately to ignore.

If you’re asking for (or paying for) an opinion, it would be nice if you received something back which told you something you didn’t already know about the piece. This may be something as simple as tone or even just plot thread that goes unanswered. It’s something you missed or didn’t think about, and it’s important to get that kind of feedback.

The second point is more a matter of preference. When I screw up, I generally repeat the mistake over and over again. This is often a matter of style, where I’m trying to achieve some sort of effect (and fail). If it rings false, I like to have it pointed out each and every time.

The final element of a successful critique is usually the most painful bit. This is the part that you tried to hide under the covers. The thing you knew was there but that you kept trying to avoid. In my experience, this is the first thing someone else will notice. It’s sort of like trying to hide a dead dog in your living room by putting it smack dab in the middle of the sofa and then crowding pillows around it. You may think you’ve done a good job hiding it, but in fact there’s still a dead dog on the sofa and everyone is going to see that when they walk into the room.

Brain Harvest Magazine’s Fresh Eyes

For my 2009 Clarion West stories, I chose Brain Harvest Magazine’s Fresh Eyes service. I picked this service because the editors at Brain Harvest are all graduates of Clarion West, and while that doesn’t necessarily affiliate them with CW I figured they’d be able to give me something a little different than the average critique.

The price for Fresh Eyes is just $25 per story, and the money goes right back into Brain Harvest so that they can pay real writers for their stories. So, not only do you receive some valuable feedback, but you also get a feel good about where the money’s going. In all, it was a great value and I would highly recommend the Brain Harvest crew. They did a great job hitting all of my points above and then going above and beyond with even more great advice.

In my case, Shane Hoversten and Eden Robins did the crits. The crits came back in two parts:

  1. In-line comments in the manuscript highlighting specific areas that needed attention.
  2. A detailed letter with impressions, advice, and encouragement.

I’m not going to share the full critique in this post, but I am going to hit a few of the high points because I think that they demonstrate the importance of having people outside your normal reading circle take a peek at your work.

Deepest Shade

Shane Hoversten reviewed of “Deepest Shade,” and I was really pleased with the depth of his evaluation. Not only did he hit all three points in my “successful critique” list, he also provided some great insight.

Shane began by dropping the hammer on my lack of attribution in the dialogue. This is something I did for effect, and Shane harped on it over and over and over again. At one point, he said he wasn’t going to do it anymore but then he couldn’t help himself and he did it again.

Now, I’ve been playing around lately with free indirect style, and I really like the effect in this particular story. However, it may just be that I’ve gone a hill to far. I may not heed this piece of advice but I certainly won’t forget it.

In the “Tells Me Something I Know But Am Trying Desperately to Ignore” Department, Shane said something exactly what I might say: needless exposition, no central thesis, and my all-time favorite “this is an illustration of ‘Hey, some weird shit happened.'” I knew this was going to come up. I felt it myself as I was going through the story again. There are entire swaths in the text where it feels… Well, did you read the 7th book in the Harry Potter series? Remember the hundred page march of Harry and Hermione where they never seemed to get out of the damn woods? Yeah, there are parts in this story that feel just like that… and I tried to hide it in plain sight.

This dovetails into the part I didn’t expect from the critique:

“Your story is certainly more polished than the one that got me into CW. It is structured better. It looks, from my perspective, like you knew what you were doing better than I did. But it bites off less. I think that matters. I think that matters because that’s also what matters to literature in general.”

The way I read this is that I’m not taking enough risks. I’ve put nothing at stake here. I’m not swinging for the fences. This cuts pretty deep, as it should, since there’s really no purpose to writing or creating art if you’re not going to take risks.

Good stuff.

In the Biddy’s Kitchen

Eden Robins reviewed “In the Biddy’s Kitchen”, the second chapter of The Fantastic Adventures of Kip Frazier. She also hit all three “successful critique” points. She pointed out two lines that made me cringe but that I left in because I wasn’t sure how much they’d make others cringe. She also beat the crap out of me for rushing through the funniest bits in the story. All true and all things I wish I’d caught myself.

In addition to those points, she asked some great questions about character motivation. Questions I should have asked myself but did not, or rather questions I asked in my notes but did not bring up in the chapter.

As most of you know, Kip is near and dear to my heart right now. This boy is telling me all about his strange and wonderful world and his adventures therein. I’m captivated by his words and his voice… and that was Eden’s biggest hang up with the chapter.

It wasn’t that she disliked Kip or what he had to say. Not at all. Like me, she enjoyed him so much that she’d “follow him anywhere,” which is exactly what I made her do.

“So basically what I’m saying is, I think you give too much air time and detail to things that don’t much matter, even though they do establish a mood. That mood is established early on – you do it very well – so more attention and detail needs to be spent on the things that matter more – the characters, the moments that are crucial to the story. These moments should illustrate the characters. Actions and reactions describe people much better than an outside observer’s detailed impressions.”

This led, quite naturally to the bit below…

“This piece is very polished. It seems like you’ve done many drafts, honing the voice, the mood, etc. You have that down pat. But there’s something missing from the heart of this. You’ll find it, I think, by listening closer to the characters… in their interactions, reactions to each other, the way they act when no one is looking.”

I’m a little slack-jawed over the idea that I’m not taking enough risks in my work. It makes me wonder just what kind of writer I’ve become. After all, I used to take enormous risks in my work. Where did that sense of adventure go?

Writing with Heart

After years of writing, I think I can say with confidence that I’ve developed some measure of skill. I can write. But, where fiction is concerned, am I writing about things that really matter? Am I getting to the heart of things?

When I look to my journal, I see a lot of questions like this. I see questions about the heart of my work, the heart of myself as a writer. I see myself asking that vital WHY about the work I do and the characters I create.

And I don’t have an answer…

When you stare at the pages piling up, it’s only natural to wonder whether you’re doing anything of value. There was a time some years ago, when my characters had lots to say. They had opinions on everything under the sun. They were angry, they were righteous. They were struggling against the whatever the hell they were struggling against and it was my job to give voice to those struggles.

Yes, I think I received good value from the kind folks at Brain Harvest. They’ve given me something really urgent and powerful to ponder…

How about you? Are you getting to the heart of things? Are you taking risks? If so, how do you do it?

Dealing with Rejection

So… I didn’t make the cut at Clarion West. Again.


Now, before everyone jumps to the comments let me say that I’m basically ok. After all, I have the #1 search result on Google for Clarion West Rejection. In fact, I have 3 of the top 10 slots on page 1. Seriously, check it out:



That #1 ranking is last year’s rejection post, Writers Not Going to Clarion West – Rejection. The first is my original post about Clarion West ’08. The last one is a comment thread on LiveJournal.

Well, I have to laugh. What else can I do? 🙂

The Letter

The letter came through last night. It said pretty much the same thing as last year.

Thank you for applying to the Clarion West Writers Workshop for 2009.

We are sorry to let you know that you were not selected for this year’s class. We had a near-record number of applicants, and because the workshop can hold only eighteen students we could not find room for all of the promising writers. We realize this is a disappointment, but hope you will apply to Clarion West again in the future, as your work ranked well with our readers.

We wish you the best with your writing and hope you have a productive summer.

In other words, I was close, but not close enough. I missed it by “that much.” Again.


Like others receiving their notices, I wonder what it was about my work that didn’t click with the readers. Last year, I dealt with this curiosity by sending out my work as submissions. Only to have them rejected… again.


Dealing with Rejection… Again.

You might look at rejection as an opportunity to improve or perhaps to find a more appropriate audience. You could also use it as an opportunity to beat your head against the nearest solid surface. I doubt that’s going to help make your writing better, but the pain should take your mind off the rejection.

Re-rejection is part of the writer’s life. If you’re going to write professionally, you have to learn to get over it and move on. This doesn’t mean it doesn’t sting. Didn’t you see the ouches above? Of course it stings, but you can’t let it stop you.

In my case, I’m sending my submissions to a few pros who are going to critique them. I’m paying for this service. We’ll see what comes of it, but at the moment it’s back to the keyboard.

Yes, that’s right… Back to the keyboard. I’ve got a lot of writing to do. Only 9 months until submissions open for Clarion West 2010.

[NB: A big thanks to all the folks at Clarion West for running such a class act of a workshop. I mean that seriously. The professionalism and kindness shown by the administrators is nothing short of amazing considering the high-maintenance writers they have to deal with on a daily basis. Hats off to the crew and to the readers who have to wade through all this stuff to find 18 worthy souls each year.]

Clarion West 2009: What Is Best In Life?

Uh… How long is this thing again?

A few moments ago, I took a deep breath and hit the send button. My application to Clarion West is on the move across the vast tubular network known as the Internets… Now it’s time to wait.

This is that moment when I feel really good about what I’ve done. Once more I’ve put myself out there. It’s progress. I’m moving forward.

Of course, there’s the unsettling feeling that there is a typo somewhere in the documents. No, scratch that. There is complete certainty of typos. This is me we’re talking about.

Nothing to do but shake my head and laugh!

I will say that I had a hard time writing my letter of introduction this year. Last year, it was easy. Fun. I had a nifty story to tell in that I was trying to get back to the writing game after many years as a hobbyist.

This year, I couldn’t quite tell the same story. Well, I could have, but it didn’t feel right. Much has changed.

So, while I struggled with what to say, I began to feel that I was saying all the wrong things. I am a writer. I am a storyteller. I don’t need to dream about that anymore. No, what I want is to get better and so I had a little fun with the essay.

I only wish I could insert the YouTube clip below into the PDF. I suppose the caption will have to do. 🙂

Let me tell you of the days of high adventure!

Dear Clarion West Instructor:

Every writer has a story to tell about their struggle to learn the craft. Yet, sometimes reading those stories is like watching that scene at the beginning of Conan where the kid is put on the wheel and toils away, going round and round for years, until he turns into a muscled-up hunk. We’re waiting and waiting for some action to take place, but it’s just round and round the wheel till someone comes along and takes the Conan away.

The story doesn’t really get started until Conan becomes a warrior and we find him sitting in a stoic manner in the mongol tent.

“Conan! What is best in life?”
“To crush your enemies, to see them driven before you, and to hear the lamentations of the women!”

And then, without warning, the warrior is set free and tossed out into the world to make his own way.

I’d love to say that’s me, but my hair is sort of going and I don’t think my wife would like me galavanting around on horseback with women in leather bikinis.

No, I’m the the wild man who who wears a pot on his head and argues with the spirits. I’m the wizard who drives away demons in the night. I’m the storyteller who brings you closer to the fire as I thrill you with tales from the days of high adventure.


Or rather, I’ve got the first two pieces. I’m still working on the thrilling tales…

As an artist, I’m drawn to tales that combine effects from several genres. I see the characters not as actors but as real people in a universe to which I’ve suddenly been invited. I’d like to learn more about driving plots to plausible conclusions as my work tends to sort of go on until it suddenly ends.

It wasn’t easy for me to figure this out. I spent many years fighting against what was natural. I struggled, as all writers do, till I came to understand that the best way to learn is to fail, then pick yourself up, see what happened, and try again.

At Clarion West, six weeks of intense work will give me plenty of chances to fail. In the end, I’ll come out a better writer. I might even find out how to be both hero and storyteller, but then I suppose that writers bent on becoming heroes tend to do less writing, since they’re so busy swinging swords.

NB: Yeah, I realize that I’ve taken the liberty of assuming that people know what the heck I’m talking about with Conan the Barbarian. However, Clarion West is a Science Fiction and Fantasy Workshop. People might be too artsy to admit it, but I think the odds are in my favor.

BONUS CONTENT! 😉 For the curious, here are my two story submissions (some revisions occurred since they were posted, but you get the idea):

Deepest Shade (Story – 17 pages)
In the Biddy’s Kitchen (Chapter 2 of Kip Frazier – 6 pages)

Introducing Kip Frazier – My Steampunk Huck Finn

“Hey, there, Mister Writer, you want to quit your dreaming about flowers and posey and get back to work?” ~ Kip Frazier

Those of you who followed me in November know that Kip Frazier is the book I wrote for NaNoWriMo. In a nutshell, Kip Frazier is my take on Huck Finn meets Steampunk (plus some magic thrown in). It begins with the line…

“In all my life, ain’t nobody ever caught me when I was running on top of the air.”

Below is Chapter 2 of the tale.

Chapter 1 is a super hot action thing where Kip is introduced in media res. I’m sharing Chapter 2 first because I am in desperate need of another cup of coffee (you’ll figure that out when you read it). Oh, and maybe I wanted to show that I maybe I can’t write stories but I can write more than first chapters. 😉

Note Bene – ’cause I’m getting all writerly now…

If you don’t read SciFi or Fantasy, references to “the Fey” mean fairy folk. Fey is a medieval term. It wasn’t my decision to use it either. Kip Frazier insisted. In fact, I have an entire author-character discourse in my notes were he berated me for trying to doll it up, “Writers! Always fiddling with the way things is! Stop it!”

Also, when I talk about clankers, I mean robots. This takes place in a time and place similar to Huck Finn, so I try to use words that fit into 19th century. Fantastic or romantic technology based on what was available to makers in the 19th century is an effect known as Steampunk.

READ Kip Frazier – Chapter 2: In the Biddy’s Kitchen (PDF). Just six pages. Won’t take long.

This’ll probably get another polish or seven as I’m the worst proof reader in the world. Of course, when you write in a colloquial style, it gets even more difficult to proof because you’re working off sound as well. It takes a long time to get this kind of thing right.

A big thanks to everyone who voted in my poll. It was a lot of fun to get back to this story, which of course is not a story but a novel…

“Aw, skip it already, Mister Writer!”

Sorry, Kip. 🙂

[Editor’s note: Sorry folks, I already found a typo and changed the name of the chapter. Big surprise, right? The link above is right now. LOL. 20+ years and I still do this every time.]

Clarion West Submission Poll Complete

Still fat. Note to self: turtlenecks don’t help.

Ask the Internet and the Internet responds.

In my last post, I mentioned that I was torn between two different stories for my Clarion West submission. So, since I liked them both, I decided to flip a coin and ask all of you to submit your opinion.

Now the results are in and I’m pleased to announce that Steampunk “Huck Finn” is the winner!


The Responses

32 wonderful people took the poll, which is more than I expected. A big thank you to everyone who cast their vote! I especially enjoyed the comments. I decided to post the lot below.

This is me cheering you on! I rather like the idea of a Steampunk Huck Finn, but honestly they both sound good. Good luck!
Daphné Brunelle

Anything to do with a Mark-Twain-esque theme has got to be awesome. Alice in Wonderland/Nightmare before xmas-ish stuff has been way overdone lately….and it’s just not really as relevant to the here and now, imho. good luck with your entry!

Good luck, Jamie.

Steampunk is one of my favorite genres, so I had to vote for that one. Besides, steampunk + Huck Finn has to be a winning combination!
– Willow Holser

I’m really interested in steampunk – don’t know a lot about it. Good luck!!
Liz C

Feel free to give the book to someone else. Good luck with your story. We writerly types NEED to stick together!!!
Monica Valentinelli

Both of those stories sound interesting. Good luck getting accepted into Clarion. Both prizes look wonderful. I chose the second, because I’ve been thinking recently about all the stories I’ve got that are “almost right” and all the supposed to be novel length stuff I’ve started and abandoned (well, sorta) and wondering what it is that’s stopping me from taking the next step with my fiction. Because I know my prose is good. *sigh* Thanks!
Pamela Lloyd

Best of luck! It’s definitely inspiring that you’re trying to get in to CW despite the earlier rejection. Here’s hoping you make it in. =)
– Cat

Wow… love both pitches, personally. However, I think the Steampunk one sounds more marketable at the moment. 🙂
jaymi elford

Thanks to you for writing about writing and inspiring me. And you are in C-bus. Write on.
– Nancy Smeltzer

Really? You’re soliciting comments from the very people who read your blog? You really are pretty brave. I voted the way I did mainly because I just watched The Nightmare Before Christmas for the first time. And I was less than impressed. Best of luck, Jamie.
Jason Rehmus

The Steampunk “Huck Finn” is something I’d love to read once it’s ready. Plus, I’m curious to see what sort of inventions you’ll come up with.
– RoseColette

Good luck! And you’re totally right, I should be writing instead of surfing the internet right now…
– David Vaughan

Admit your level and how ready you are to learn in your letter. And have faith ;). I wish you all the luck in the world! I hope you make it, and if so, I hope I can make it up to say hi to this year’s class!
– Marguerite Croft

Hi Jamie, First of all, good luck! And secondly, I wholeheartedly agree with the decision to provide differing works for review. Best of luck – your site is more inspiration than you can imagine!
– Amy Morgan

You said one question… you didn’t say it would be so hard. 😛 Damn you, Jamie. One person shouldn’t get that many good ideas.
– Sarah

Both sound really interesting, but I always loved Alice & Wonderland, so I couldn’t resist voting for it. Can’t wait to see what you pick and get to read it. Best of luck getting into the program – it sounds great! 🙂
Elise Koerner

Based on the fact I have nothing else to go off on other than a pitch, I have to go with Alice in Wonderland meets The Nightmare Before Christmas. I’m a huge fan of Lewis Carroll’s and Tim Burton’s OK too. To be brutally honest, I *HATED* The Nightmare Before Christmas. I wanted to love it. But I couldn’t. I watch it often, thinking each time that perhaps a miracle will happen and I’ll exclaim, “OH! There!!! Finally. I love it now.” But that, alas, has never happened. Thus, I think that perhaps Alice is exactly what The Nightmare Before Christmas needs for me to fall deeply, and hopelessly in love. And if anyone could do it, I know that it would be you!
Whitney McKim

Very best of luck to you!! Then you’ll have to change your twitter tagline “never had a lesson” to Clarion graduate ’09. 🙂
– Gigi Vernon

Mostly I’m just desperate to see what Steampunk “Huck Finn” looks like – because (disturbing to me) I have no trouble imagining how “Alice in Wonderland meets The Nightmare Before Christmas” would unfold. (That really is a bit disturbing, isn’t it?) 🙂

These readers (and writers) voted but did not leave a comment. You get a special shout out for participating. 🙂

Lisa Firke
Maija Haavisto
Sam Hetrick
eric orchard
Tim Paulson
Clay Harrison
Amber Stults

The Prize!

Of course, I also decided to give out a random prize. Now that we’re here, I can’t help but give out two. I’m just that kind of guy. On to the winners!

The winner of James Wood’s How Fiction Works is Laura the Delighted Scribbler! You can visit Laura on Twitter.

And the winner of Ralph Keyes’ Courage to Write is Jason Rehmus also known as longstride on Twitter.

Congratulations to Laura and Jason, and thanks to everyone who participated! This was big time fun!

Now I’ll have to scramble because Alice in Wonderland Meets Nightmare Before Christmas was really more done-done than Steampunk Huck. Isn’t that the way it goes?! 🙂