Five things I learned at a professional writers workshop

By Barbara G. Tarn

As an introvert, marketing one’s own work is a huge challenge. Free advertising seems like a great way to get your name out. But how to do that? One way is by publishing a story with a professional magazine. Easier said than done, but better to try than admit defeat before the fight!

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I’ve sent out shorter pieces on and off since 2014, hoping to get some recognition from the market. I got two Honorable Mentions at Writers of the Future contests and collected a few rejections from Clarkesworld, Asimov, Interzone and Strange Horizons. Some were standard form rejections, some had helpful feedback (which doesn’t necessarily mean I rewrote the story afterward!); all gave me a kind, and somehow encouraging, “no thanks, but send us the next story.”

At the end of February 2017 I travelled to the Oregon coast to attend a workshop where six fine editors (including KWL’s Mark Lefebvre) were buying stories for their anthologies. The short stories had to be written in a week and submitted “as is” (fixing only the worst typos) to a specific theme. I didn’t sell any stories during that grueling week, but came back with a pack of invaluable notes, some wonderful networking with other writers and the following insights.

I can write to a deadline, but if it’s a new-to-me genre, I might screw up.

It’s okay, just move on to the next story. Some of those themes were really new to me. The quickest research I could do was watch a movie in that genre. I have hundreds of DVDs and watch more movies than I read books. (I know, bad writer, I’m trying to change that!). Movies and books are very different, and what works on screen doesn’t always work on the page. So I had to improvise more than once, and sometimes I read other stories for that particular theme and thought “Oh, THAT’S what it’s supposed to be like!”—except of course it was too late to rewrite mine!

Writers are the worst judges of their own work.

I heard “stunning writing” about a story I hated and was disappointed they didn’t like my favorites. Like I said, I had to improvise more than I wanted to. I write SFF (Science Fiction and Fantasy) but some themes really weren’t feasible in SFF, so I thought I might give  contemporary fiction a try. I usually don’t like the real world, but I thought I’d be able to write stories in the real world if asked to. And I did write them. All six of them. Not everyone did it, so yay for productivity!

It’s not personal, but a matter of editorial tastes.

I never took the rejections personally, but it was fascinating observing the editors argue about certain stories. I learned terms like “reader’s cookie” (or its opposite, the dreaded “anti-cookie”), “walking to the story”, and other interesting concepts that had never crossed my mind. A “cookie” or “anti-cookie” is something that a reader loves or hates. So if you love cats but hate dogs and I put a dog in my story, I hit your “anti-cookie”. But if my story is all about fluffy little kittens, I hit all your favorite cookies!  “Walking to the story”, on the other hand, refers to slow pacing, which is fine in some instances but not every time. Some genres might be more action driven and if the plot doesn’t move forward, it feels like the author is “walking through the story.”

Of course it’s a matter of editorial tastes. (Or my being slightly off the mark since I wasn’t familiar with the genre, haha!)

I got great comments that spurred me to do a couple of redrafts.

Only on 2 out of the 6 stories, but because I was still excited by those ideas, I gave them another shot.

I normally don’t rewrite much but I thought to give those two a try. One I made shorter and punchier, and weirder, and send it back a month later—if he still didn’t like it, I was ready to submit it to the other magazines mentioned above.

The other is currently on the back burner because I want to turn it into a real novel, since the novella version I had written before the summer seems still lacking somehow. So I’m getting back to that story and hope to publish it before the end of the year—maybe even submit the Italian version to the Kobo/Mondadori contest (if it becomes a real novel, that is!).

Trust your creative voice.

It was scary sending them off without showing them to anyone, not even a proofreader, but luckily none of my stories fell into the “copy-editor nightmare” range. And I’m not even a native speaker.

But since I am mostly a one-draft writer, my critical voice never raised its ugly head. When I write, I’m always in creative voice. I write the bones first, then add the meat later. (Setting? Descriptions? Still my weak spots after almost 40 years. Sigh).

And what did I get out of that workshop? My first professional sale, which will be published next year—just in time to be voted for the Hugo award at Worldcon in Dublin, 2019!


Loncon14082014Barbara G. Tarn had an intense life in the Middle Ages that stuck to her through the centuries. She prefers swords to guns, long gowns to mini-skirts, and even though she buried the warrior woman, she deplores the death of knights in shining chainmail. She likes to think her condo apartment is a medieval castle, unfortunately lacking a dungeon to throw noisy neighbors and naughty colleagues in. Also known as the Lady with the Unicorns, these days she prefers to add a touch of fantasy to all her stories, past and present – when she’s not wandering on her fantasy world of Silvery Earth or in her Star Minds futuristic universe. She’s a writer, sometimes artist, mostly a world-creator and story-teller. Two of her stories received an Honorable Mention at the Writers of the Future contest. She writes, draws, ignores her day job and blogs at: http://creativebarbwire.wordpress.com.

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