The Covid-19 Creative Writing MFA Program

…a recap of my writing studies in 2020.

The fact that so many conventions and seminars adopted an online format this year was a huge opportunity for me to improve my writing, and there’s nothing like constant daily reminders of your own mortality (and losing financial security anyway) as motivation to chase your dreams.

At the start of the year I joined David Farland’s Apex Group. This was enormously helpful because it gave me access to his full set of writing courses at a monthly rate that I could fit into the budget. Going through those classes was helpful, just as I expected, but the twice weekly speakers became a larger part of my writing routine than I ever anticipated. The regular zoom meetings rekindled my excitement whenever it faded.

The free Writers of the Future Online Workshop was worthwhile to work through, and on the contest forums, Wulf Moon’s Super Secrets Workshop gives a book’s worth of advice for short fiction.

I was lucky enough to get into two of Clarion West‘s online workshops during the early scramble to move content online: Landing the Gut Punch with Helen Marshall and Moving from the Novel to the Short Story with Arkady Martine. Both taught lessons that I immediately applied to this year’s writing.

But Fyrecon in November was truly the highlight of my remote learning, with an incredible density of classes for writers. I took Wulf Moon’s plotting workshop and tried to drink from the fire hose of useful material.

I am on track to finish the year with five new short pieces, major revisions to two previous short stories, and between five and six chapters drafted of the current novel. It’s a personal best in number of complete narratives (although not in word count; working through full narratives has been much more helpful this year).

Finally, this year has been a class in professionalism. If I want to break through and make writing something that generates income, I’ll need to meet external deadlines without excuses. I accomplished everything listed above in an average of 2 hours a day, working at the time of day when I feel sluggish and least creative. I kept writing through massive baby-caused sleep deprivation, family deaths, children being always present, and the sound of constant sirens as the city destroyed itself. I’m now certain that if I get to a place where my writing income can justify spending more time on it, I can scale up the number of words that I produce, no matter what happens around me. My next learning goal is to work on storytelling so that those words land.

Finalist in Writers of the Future

“The Healer of Branford” was a Finalist in the Writers of the Future contest, making the shortlist of eight stories for the 3rd Quarter. Those eight stories are passed on to a pool of judges drawn from professional authors, so although it did not place I am filled with warm fuzzy feelings knowing that some authors I really enjoy reading have now read my work.

Full results for the quarter here.

What was the biggest difference between my submission that placed Honorable Mention last year, and this one that placed higher? I’ve been working on many aspects of storytelling, but the single largest insight that I had was into suspense. In June I took the Writers of the Future Online Workshop (which is free) and was really struck by the essay on creating suspense. I revised the story right before submission with the goal of keeping multiple possible outcomes open at each step of the story. This particularly helped the final third, which lost too much tension in the earlier draft.

The Writers of the Future contest has an incredible online community associated with it. Sharing the goal of getting into this specific anthology series helps to cut through much of the subjective non-advice that clogs other online writing communities. The forum is also defined by a spirit of helpfulness in which past winners often stop by to help current entrants succeed. The teacher who’s invested the most into the official forum is Wulf Moon, running his Super Secrets Workshop there, which is a fantastic resource because it covers all the pieces of a functioning story in bite-sized lessons. It’s been an incredibly helpful framework for digesting the writhing mass of writing advice that I stuffed in my skull and I am honored to be officially joining the workshop for the coming year.

I plan to enter every quarter of Volume 38, because this contest provides a unique opportunity to test myself against the same first reader and judge four times a year. I want to prove that I can consistently write at a high level even more than I want to win.

Living the Fairy Tale of COVID-19

I bought some magic beans.

It’s what I usually do when stressed. Seeds help me remember that the future will be different than the present. I highly recommend it. And not practical seeds, but seeds that grow into frivolous beauty.

Clivia seeds sprouting.

Clivia miniata seeds are my favorite to stress-buy. They are large and glossy, like a satin Christmas ornament ball. You can handle them. You can even anxiously pull them up and look for the small bump of developing root without ruining the whole endeavor. They feel weighty, magical, and precious.

I grow my clivia indoors and I do not have perfect conditions, so it may be a long wait for flowers, but one seed parent has a light scent and this excites me. I’m interested in fragrant houseplants this year. I am also trying some sinningia tubiflora from seed which will bloom sooner, and plan to order a streptocarpus variety that’s said to have a light scent if we don’t move this year.

In this weird and trying time, please find your magic beans and plant them. Find something with a spectacular and wondrous payoff that you can anticipate, and tend it daily.

Pinecones: Author Notes

Pinecones appears in Fell Beasts and Fair: A Noblebright Fantasy Anthology, published by Spring Song Press.

I love the term “noblebright” that my editor C.J. Brightley coined as a response to the “grimdark” trend that boiled across fantasy. Grimdark’s just not my thing: I prefer getting the opposite feelings from books, and giving the opposite feelings as a writer. So noblebright as a reactionary label had my attention enough to see the call for stories, and I had a half-formed story idea about a dryad who’d fit the “fair beasts” part of the anthology theme.

I’m consciously exploring Tolkien’s idea of eucatastrophe in all my short stories: that an apparent defeat is itself the mechanism of victory. Some pinecones only open and release their seeds during forest fires. Horrific disaster is part of their process. This idea combined with the flower-dryad as a way that plant-based creatures might reproduce.

Pinecones and dryads as central elements gave me the satyr with his thyrsus staff as my firestarter.

All artwork becomes a record of where you were at the time, and I hope that the hard work I’ve been putting in since Pinecones will show as growth in my next publication. The prose already feels a bit too cautious and stilted to me, and I think that has two causes: first, that I have to piece together my prose from very fractured thoughts with young children in the house, and second, that I relied too much on automated editing software. I plan to write more about the strengths and weaknesses of the latter.

Image by bigdan, licensed via depositphotos.

Candy Story Update

My submission received an Honorable Mention in the Writers of the Future contest for the second quarter of Volume 36.

It stars a candy-maker and is directly inspired by the fantastic mini-documentaries about candy making from Lofty Pursuits and Public Displays of Confection, so I’m eating a bag of their nectar drops to fuel my revisions in the hope that my story will see publication one day.

What do the Victorian Nectar Drops taste like?

In case you’re wondering about the secret, historically accurate taste: honey and marzipan is my best description. The sweetness is more complex than white sugar, and I feel convinced that there’s a tiny almond note in the finish.

The pieces are smaller and more ornate than the last modern hard candy I bought, and feel very precious. The detail, particularly on the starfish, is amazing. The way the pieces fit on your tongue almost changes the taste.

I also realized that I have never actually eaten fresh hard candy in my life and it was as much a revelation as fresh green beans would be if you’ve only ever eaten canned. I was careless about resealing the bag and the last few pieces changed significantly, and dulled into something closer to sugar cubes. So I both recommend that you order some, and that you eat it before the magic fades.