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April/May 2007 : Essay:

Danger, Norm Partridge!

An Alternative View on the Value of Workshops for the Young Fantasist

I. INTRODUCTION

In his revised and expanded Stoker-award-winning collection Mr. Fox and Other Feral Tales, writer Norman Partridge not only offers some of the best dark fiction of the past fifteen years, but also lengthy essays targeted towards the young writer. Each is based on Partridge's own experience slugging it out in the horror field after the boom went bust in the late 1980s. He discusses the value of meeting and learning from other writers, as he did with Edward Bryant, Connie Willis, and Steve and Melanie Tem, at the famous Little Bookshop of Horrors store in Denver, Colorado. He charts his own struggles in various markets, dealing with rejection, and offers helpful suggestions and strategies on a wide array of topics. In fact, each story is introduced with an essay of great value to the novice writer looking for advice on the writing life. All the essays rang true to me, a novice writer. Except one.

In "A Keyboard Built for One", Partridge largely dismisses the value of informal and professional writers' workshops, especially the practice of writers reading and critiquing each other's work. His experience with an informal writers group at university was uniformly bad. Students often had little tolerance for any other genre or form than their own and some relished tearing each other apart. Partridge had no interest, and saw no value, in other readers critiquing his work, preferring to work his stories out on his own.

He was also skeptical about what help he could offer those writing "romances, or tweedy literary stories, or tales of bohemian angst, or whatever else the other members of the group had written." He was writing horror stories, a genre he knew, loved, and had studied, and wasn't comfortable offering his take on these foreign tales. "And if a group member's story fell short in a more obvious way...well, I wasn't comfortable with ripping anyone a new asshole, either." (1)

So, how did Partridge respond to his own rhetorical question about the value of genre-based writers' groups, or of even groups of pros looking for criticism from other pros?

"Danger, Will Robinson!"

He admits workshops can work, "sometimes, for some writers. But I don't believe that writing is a team sport. I believe in creating a solitary vision. That's what works best for me, and that's what drives the fiction I admire." (2) What about the young writer who needs guidance and can't seem to figure out what's wrong? How do they know why it doesn't work? "That's why God made editors...and that's why He gave them those rejection slips." (3)

Granted, Partridge does make the caveat of having his wife, World Fantasy Award nominee Tia Travis, as his first reader. She knows his story sense and style better than anyone does, and he trusts her criticism and takes it seriously. "But I don't always follow her advice. In the end, it's my call. After all, it's my story." He concludes his essay with this comment.

Early on, I decided that I'd tell my stories, and I'd tell them my way. My best teachers came to me from the other side of the page. I studied the work of writers who'd succeeded writing the kinds of stories I wanted to write. I read as much as I could, learning from both the good and bad, and I applied what I learned to my own work. I've said before that it was a process of osmosis. It was also, for the most, a solitary process. Working that way taught me a lot. If I had problems with a story, I didn't reach for the telephone. I didn't figure, 'Hey, there's a meeting next Tuesday, maybe my writers' group can tell me how to fix this ending.' No. I sat alone in my office, and I figured it out for myself. In short I learned self-reliance. They don't teach you that in a writer's group. (4)

Partridge's essay raises some excellent concerns regarding writing workshops, but I'd suggest they have more relevance applied to the case of bad workshops or of novices using good workshops poorly. The fears he raises and conclusions he has drawn, based on his own experience, are valid, but not universal. From my own experience as a 2005 graduate of the Odyssey Writing Workshop, I can assert that none of the negatives he attributes to workshops or group critiquing came to fruition for me. There were also gold mines of value at Odyssey that Partridge's essay does not deal with. In this essay, I offer an alternative view on the value of workshops within a larger historical context than the distinct experiences of one professional writer or a single novice. Hopefully, like Partridge's essays, it will be of value.

There is a strong literary tradition of informal and formal writers groups, of peers and mentors reading and critiquing each other's work to good effect, and this is especially true in the genre world. Partridge is right that workshops are not for everyone, but some of the heavyweights of twentieth century literature took the road that Partridge disliked. From Hemingway on the Left Bank, to Tolkien and Lewis in Oxford, to Ray Bradbury in California, all have benefited from the insight provided by writers critiquing their work, and the tradition continues in professional workshops such as Odyssey and the Clarions.

II. HEMINGWAY AND HIS MENTORS

A Nobel Laureate whose fiction is filled with the kind of rugged melancholy that echoes through much of Partridge's own fiction, Ernest Hemingway's stories have reshaped the nature of prose since his first publications of the 1920s. (5) But before he became a legend, Hemingway was an unpublished writer from Oak Park, Illinois. His journey to become the author of The Sun Also Rises, The Snows of Kilimanjaro and Death in the Afternoon, was helped at different stages by different writers who provided him with insights that furthered his growth in the profession of letters.

In Chicago during the early twenties, writer Sherwood Anderson, then glowing in the praise of his recent work, Winesburg, Ohio (1919), befriended Hemingway. Hemingway biographer Michael Reynolds argues that Anderson's literary influence was minor, but real. Anderson took the time to read the young man's unpublished work and offer advice on it and the writing life. "By April 1921, Anderson had verbally critiqued a number of Hemingway's stories, finding in them a correspondence with Kipling, who, along with O. Henry, the young writer had completely digested. But Anderson's criticism was less important than the fact that he was reading Hemingway and encouraging him. In the face of continuing rejection slips, Anderson was the boost Hemingway sorely needed." (6)

Hemingway also served an informal six-week apprenticeship with Gertrude Stein in Paris during the 1920s. (7) Unlike Anderson, Stein was highly critical. "If she read any of the manuscripts carefully, they were the probably the short stories, including Up in Michigan which she told Ernest was un-hangable like a painter's private erotica." (8) Still, she did read his work, introduced him to new writing styles, exercises, and approaches, and included him as one of the Left Bank's modernist vanguard. This before he'd even sold a novel.

Even when his professional star was in ascendance, Hemingway had colleagues critique his drafts. In the 1930s, after the recent publication of A Farewell to Arms, Hemingway finished the draft for his bullfighting novel, Death in the Afternoon. In 1932, he gave his manuscripts to fellow novelist and ex-Left Banker Jon Dos Passos, who provided a critique via letters. There was a lot to praise, but Dos Passos attacked Hemingway's loosely disguised jibes at actual friends and associates, and said the philosophizing was tedious. "And when you...give them the low down about writing and why you like to live in Key West, etc., I was pretty doubtful...it would be a damn shame to leave in any unnecessary tripe." (9)

How did Hemingway, the "tough" writer who praised self-reliance as a virtue of manhood, respond to being told he had written "tripe"? He took Passos' advice and removed many of the criticized passages. As Reynolds recounts:

Gone was the discourse on the transient beauty of Spanish women, gone such passing comments as "it takes a long time to be a good whore and receiving visitors is a form of whoring." And the last chapter, the one he was so certain was the "miracle we always have make happen at the end," he ruthlessly pared down to its solid core, leaving only the best parts about Spain. "Having just finished cutting out all you objected to," he wrote Dos Passos, "and may god damn your soul to hell if it's not right. Seemed the best of the book to me." (10)

Hemingway, at the height of his powers, still took the advice of a peer, not even a mentor or editor, to make his work better. Other authors, such as F. Scott Fitzgerald and Ezra Pound also read and critiqued Hemingway's work. In contrast, Max Perkins, Hemingway's editor, almost never provided comment on his fiction. (11)

III. THE INKLINGS

Dos Passos' comments, though, were provided at a distance. Hemingway did not sit and listen as his friend tore at his manuscript, which is something that does happen in workshops and which Partridge laments. Indeed, correspondence critique between a professional and a novice writer is a tradition in the horror genre. In the early 1930s, H.P. Lovecraft, the great recluse, provided long, serious, and intensive critiques for such diverse up-and-comers as Robert Bloch and Fritz Leiber. (12)

But there is also the tradition of writers gathering together to read and critique each other's work in person. The most famous pre-war example of such a group is the Inklings, an informal "affinity" group at Oxford consisting primarily of C.S. Lewis, J.R.R. Tolkien, and Charles Williams. From the 1930s until the late '40s, this group would meet once a week at a local pub or Lewis's home to read aloud their work and offer critiques. Such works as Lewis' The Screwtape Letters, Tolkien's The Lord of the Rings and William's All Hallows' Eve were run through this process. (13)

These meetings served two purposes. The first was to provide eccentric British fantasists a space for camaraderie. According to Lewis biographer Alan Jacobs:

[T]hey provided an enthusiastic, but constructively critical, audience for all sorts of stories and arguments; they formed a society in which formerly lonely and isolated men discovered that it was not necessarily crazy to believe in God and miracles or to write stories about Elves and Dwarfs and creatures called "hobbits." It must be remembered that these were highly unusual people, Lewis and Tolkien perhaps above all...The tastes in literature shared by the Inklings were minority tastes indeed. (14)

A precursor to groups like Partridge's cadre at Little Bookshop of Horrors? Indeed.

The second was to help each other with their work—‌although Lewis and Williams embraced the process more than Tolkien did. As Tolkien later recalled, "C.S. L. had a passion for hearing things read aloud, a power of memory for things received in that way, and also a facility in extempore criticism, none of which were shared (especially not the last) in anything like the same degree of his friends." (15) Tolkien, like Partridge, did not respond well to critiques. According to Lewis, Tolkien could not be influenced to make specific changes. He either enjoyed the praise of the group, or, if they didn't like it, often started from scratch and tried again from the top. Tolkien also disliked Williams' work as a whole and had severe reservations about Lewis' Christian writings.

Nor did Tolkien only receive praise. One member, Hugo Dyson, hated Tolkien's stories so much he actually groaned and even swore during his readings. This, coupled with growing personal difficulties between Lewis and Tolkien, eventually led to Tolkien's work being removed from Inkling meetings. But critiques were critical and such storms had to be weathered. Lewis himself did not want the Inklings to become merely a "mutual admiration society," and criticism was always encouraged. (16)

In response to a critical reading of one of Lewis' works that upset the author, Tolkien admitted to Lewis that he was no critic. In words that echo Partridge's concerns, Tolkien argued:

I think 'criticism'—‌however valid or intellectually engaging—‌tends to get in the way of a writer who has anything personal to say. A tightrope-walker may require practice, but I doubt if he starts a theory of equilibrium he will lose grace (and probably fall off). Indeed (if I dare yet venture on any criticism again) I should say that I think it gets in your [Lewis'] way, as a writer. You read too much, and too much of that analytically. But then you are a born critic. I am not. You are also a born reader. (17)

Still, regardless of his admitted failings as a critic, Tolkien cherished the Inkling's meetings. They helped provide deadlines for Lord of the Rings, which he often feared he'd never finish. In a letter to his son dated 30 March 1944, regarding a meeting with Lewis, Tolkien said, "That indefatigable man read me part of a new story! But he is putting the screws on me to finish mine [Lord of the Rings]. I needed some pressure, & shall probably respond." (18) And from his many letters to his son, it is clear that he wanted Lewis' approval, if not always his opinion, and did use the reaction of the Inklings to gauge whether his work was succeeding or not. They were a sounding board he found of great value. (19)

III. BRADBURY THE APPRENTICE

Young Ray Bradbury, as unpublished as Hemingway in the 1920s and Tolkien and Lewis in the early '30s, also searched for like-minded souls interested in stories of the fantastic. And not just for company, but to learn from, to have his work critiqued and helped along, to teach him what he was doing wrong so he could get it right. His first tutors came from science fiction fandom. He joined the Science Fiction Society, meeting such authors, editors and fans as Forrest J. Ackerman, Roy Squires, Arthur K. Barnes, and Henry Kuttner. "The group changed my life," Bradbury recalled. "They took me in. I was nowhere, I had nowhere to go. They gave me focus." (20)

Bradbury also joined the Mañana Literary Society, founded by Robert Heinlein and his wife Leslyn, which had a more serious literary bent. Heinlein went out of his way to help Bradbury. He critiqued and helped sell one story to a literary mag, Script. The late Jack Williamson, who had been publishing since the 1920s, also offered guidance. According to Bradbury, after showing him his stories, Williamson "could hardly keep his gorge from rising they were so bad." (21)

Bradbury also received critiques from pulp legend Henry Kuttner, who was merciless. Though Ray always felt that Kuttner was simply putting up with him, thinking him immature and crazy, the older man critiqued Ray's manuscripts with a meticulous editorial eye. Once, when Ray handed him an over-written, over-described story, Kuttner said, "If you ever write another short story like this, I'll kill you." Kuttner called Bradbury's work "purple" mockeries of Poe and Lovecraft, archaic and contrived. (22) Kuttner also provided a critique and alternative ending for the first story Bradbury sold to Weird Tales, The Candle. (23)

But Ray did not stop seeking advice after his first taste of success. His next, final, and perhaps most important mentor was none other than Leigh Brackett, pulp SF writer and future screenwriter for such films as Rio Bravo and The Empire Strikes Back. (24) In the early 1940s, Bradbury took weekly sojourns to her home and together, they'd read and critique each other's stories. "Leigh taught me pure storytelling," Bradbury remembers. "Her stories were very simple, and well plotted, and very beautiful. I learned from her how to pare my stories down and how to plot...There was nothing I could criticize, it was always perfect, a wonderful adventure in its own terms." The same could not be said for his work. "[S]he'd read my stories and kick the hell out of them, God bless her." (25)

This apprenticeship continued for almost five years. (26) And after ten years of writing, of learning from the pros who took the time to tell him where he was going wrong and what he was getting right, Bradbury wrote what he felt was his first really important story, The Lake. Here, according to the man himself, Bradbury's own voice emerged from his influences.

There is no doubt Ray Bradbury would have been Ray Bradbury without such guidance, but I doubt it would have happened as soon as it did without the aid of such teachers as Heinlein, Williamson, Kuttner, and Brackett, a cadre of leading American fantasists. And, given the chance again, I doubt Bradbury would have turned down the opportunity to learn from them for any reason.

Bradbury was also keen to help those as he'd been helped. One of his most famous pupils was a young Charles Beaumont, future writer of some of the best short stories and Twilight Zone scripts of the 1950s and '60s before his tragic death in 1967. In the early 1950s, Bradbury promised Beaumont that if he showed up every Wednesday with a new story, Bradbury would read it. Beaumont did this, writing fifty-two stories that year, and he even revised some of them the same week as well. Miss Gentilbelle, a Beaumont classic, came to Bradbury's house nearly four times to be read, critiqued, and resubmitted. "With this, and other stories," Bradbury recalled, "I wanted Chuck to learn to how to cut his stories. Like every writer in the history of the world, including myself, his stories ran long, and needed shaves and haircuts." (27) In the introduction to the Beaumont collection, The Howling Man, Bradbury shares some telling things about the experience:

I wish I had some of the original versions of Miss Gentilbelle in front of me. For it is obvious, in reading our old letters, that he revised and cut the stories three or four times. At one point, I rather rigorously insisted that if he didn't edit his stories, I wouldn't read them. That seems terribly harsh, now that I look back. But young writers are often stubborn, and remembering my own stubbornness about my own immortal prose, I had to nag Chuck. It was all worth while, as can be seen by the story here. Chuck revised it at least four times, and I became its friendly agent to several magazines. My luck was not good. When I had sent it around five or six times, I passed the story on to other hands. It finally sold. (28)

And it was this sale, claims Bradbury, that helped open Beaumont's career.

When his career was rising in the early sixties, Beaumont also paid it forward by teaching at writing workshops. One of his students was future dark fiction maestro Dennis Etchison. According to Etchison, Beaumont "suggested that we submit stories, read them or allow him to read them aloud if we wanted an oral critique, and entertained us with anecdotes." (29) Etchison read them his unpublished work, and offered them a premise for a ghost story, to do with as they pleased. Guests showed up. William Nolan lectured on the value of notebooks. Ray Bradbury gave a lecture. William Shatner did a cold reading of a student's story! Etchison also had his early short story Wet Season critiqued. The lessons he took away from that class stayed with him for life. (30) Etchison attempted to repay the debt he felt he owed Beaumont by teaching his own version of the same class at UCLA Extension.

IV. ODYSSEY

In the early 1990s, Etchison joined Dell's acclaimed Abyss horror imprint and worked with an editor who would also establish a professional workshop. Jeanne Cavelos had created and edited for Abyss, and its literary sister imprint Cutting Edge. These efforts won her the World Fantasy Award for editing in 1993. During her eight years in publishing, she worked with such diverse talents as Etchison, William F. Nolan, Robert Anton Wilson, Kathe Koja, and Peter Dickinson.

After leaving Dell to pursue her own writing, Cavelos created a science fiction/fantasy/horror writing workshop called "Odyssey" and launched it in 1996. Odyssey, along with Clarion and Clarion West, holds a reputation as one of the premier writing workshops in any genre. Currently located at St. Anselm College in Manchester, New Hampshire, Odyssey is the only such workshop run end-to-end by a professional editor. Its roster of lecturers has included such legends in the field as Harlan Ellison, Charles Grant, and George R.R. Martin. Many of its graduates have started successful careers, publishing novels with Warner, Tor, and DAW Books, and short stories in magazines ranging from Analog and Realms of Fantasy to Cemetery Dance. On average, 46% of the students have become professionally published since graduation. (31)

I attended Odyssey in 2005. It was not an easy decision. There were serious costs in time and money, and as a grad student in the midst of a Ph.D., I had little of both. It had a reputation for being a tough six weeks. But it also looked like a golden opportunity to learn with leaders in the field, and I was in need of some guidance.

I had been writing for about five years. I had made two sales, one semi-pro, the other pro-rate, but I'd hit a dark spot. I was losing focus. I couldn't get my stories to work. They felt deflated, and I wasn't sure why. No form letter rejections or writing books or bouts of reading the best in the field helped me understand why my latest batch of stories wouldn't come alive.

I never thought of quitting, but I didn't know enough about the craft to fix everything on my own. Who does? A workshop seemed like an answer and an opportunity. Especially Odyssey, since I love reading and writing in different genres. So I sent my best story to date and waited to see if Jeanne Cavelos thought there was enough talent there for her to work with. Thankfully, she did.

That summer I dedicated six weeks of blood, sweat and tears solely to improving my craft, alongside other novice writers who have since become colleagues and friends. Jeanne provided the lion's share of guidance, instruction, and inspiration in lectures and thorough critiques on six stories. We were also fortunate to have some excellent guest lecturers who also participated in critiques, both private and with the class. These included James Morrow, Allen Steele, Elizabeth Hand, P.D. Cacek, and Asimov's editor Sheila Williams. In week five, we had Partridge's mentors Steve and Melanie Tem as our writers-in-residence to participate in the whole week's festivities. How could a young writer of dark fiction resist working with Jeanne Cavelos, Trish Cacek, Liz Hand and the Tems, let alone the rest of the all star lineup? With due respect for Partridge's approach and evident success, suffering alone, whatever the rewards, just couldn't compete with working with the best in the field. It was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.

It is hard for me to boil down the value of those six weeks. I made friends for life. I cut years off of my apprenticeship. I sharpened skills and built new ones. And in the process I also broke the dark knot I'd been tied in, thanks in large part to having experts and colleagues read my work and tell me the good, the bad, and the ugly of my prose. Since the heart of the Odyssey process is critiquing, I thought I'd share some experiences on their value, since they stand in dramatic contrast to the sour ones Partridge relates.

Jeanne Cavelos' crits were a singular boon. She provided in-depth, critical, and instructive critiques of six of my stories in the same time you might get one or two form letter rejections in the mail. She analyzed how I wrote, how I was changing, what tools I was using to good or ill effect in each story.

Such insight is often painful. Jeanne gets into the story and pulls it apart to show you how and why some elements worked, and others failed. She pulls no punches, nor does she relish suffering. She has two rules for crits: be honest, and be constructive. Jeanne never lied to me when I dropped the ball on plot or description or sentence rhythm, but she was cheering me on when I overcame some of these handicaps in revisions. But perhaps her greatest asset to the young writer is a near-perfect compass for seeing the story that you were attempting to write, but failed to achieve. She'll point out where things got messy, awkward, or confusing, but, and this is critical, the decision on how to fix it always stayed with me. She offered suggestions, or alternatives, but no fiats. Like Partridge said: in the end, these are my stories. I almost always considered her views, but in the end took from them and did something on my own that I arrived at through the process of revision.

Thanks to her guidance, I could also spot-check my weaknesses and had new tools to improve them in revisions or avoid them in new stories. And she achieved all this by paying attention to how I developed over six tales. Rare is the magazine editor who has the time or the interest in such a relationship with an unknown slush surfer, so Jeanne's work with me was alone worth the price of admission. Which made the rest of the experience that much greater.

The class is also crucial to the critique process, and the ethos of honest and constructive comments was always in play. I had to read and crit stories that ranged from high fantasy to erotic horror to hard SF, sometimes on the same day. Critiquing your colleagues is tough. I had a commitment to be dead honest as to whether I thought a story worked or didn't, and I had an obligation to provide suggestions on improvement. I didn't like all the stories I read, but that was fine (I know some folks did their best with me despite disliking anything resembling horror). I could still comment on the use of dialogue, or character development, or plot, what I thought worked or didn't in terms of storytelling technique. I'm sure some folks didn't agree with my assessments of their work. That's fine, too. In fact, it's normal. Usually, a crit session will point out a few common flaws everyone but the author could see, but many of the other comments will diverge. You take everyone's opinion and you consider it, then make a decision on whether their insight is in sync with your goals. In that way, a crit circle was no different than Partridge's argument on taking or leaving his wife's advice on his fiction. At the end of the day, it is the author's story.

Of the guest lecturers, I got to work with Trish Cacek, Sheila Williams, and Steve and Melanie Tem (everyone had their work read by the Tems). Trish tore my story apart, said I had too many moving parts, and chatted with me about what singular point I wanted to focus on. She was kind enough to say the premise was neat, and worthy of revision (once the bleeding stopped!). It hurt to hear, but it was necessary, since I learned over and over again that week that I often had two tales competing for space within a single story (something I might have discovered on my own, but hadn't yet). Sheila Williams was also tough as nails on a horror story that, while disturbing her, failed to resonate because I dropped the ball on the ending. She was bang on and I spent a month on revisions to make it a compelling story that did not resort to an EC comic's splatterfest finale that was, I admit, written in the desperate hours of the night before. But the ending stunk, so I had to take my lumps. You don't forget your lumps.

Perhaps the best example of what Odyssey offered me happened during the Tems' week. Steve and Melanie were great lecturers. They often challenged each other whenever one thought they'd found an absolute rule of writing. And they were very different critiquers: If Steve's a surgeon, using laser-like precision to hit the key spots that worked or failed because of technique or voice or style, then Melanie's a GP, going over you head to toe, good and bad, weak and strong. A lethal combination.

Their week was a real gem for me. They were friendly as hell and encouraging beyond measure. So when my turn came for a story, I decided to follow Liz Hand's advice from a few weeks before: write beyond your range just to see what you can do. And if you fail, fail gloriously so that you can learn how to get better.

Over the course of an all-night writing session in the computer lab, I tried to stretch myself in every way I knew how. Structure. Theme. Description. Dialogue. Characters. Plot. I gunned it, experimenting at Mach 10, doing things I don't normally do, and burned at all cylinders. And after revising until my eyes were fuzzy and the janitor started his morning shift (scaring me half to death), I typed "The End" and handed it in.

The reaction of the class, Jeanne, and the Tems was generally the same. It was my best story so far. It showed a hell of a lot of emotional weight for a first draft. And it could easily be published...if only the ending didn't stink like flaming garbage.

Endings. My eternal nemesis.

It was true, too. The ending stunk high and mighty, but I'd accomplished my goal. I wrote something under high pressure, testing everything I had learned, and if the ending failed, it failed so badly that I knew I could fix it given some time. Steve and Melanie, after spending more than an hour with me in a private chat on my career post-Odyssey, even suggested some markets to try, once I cleaned it up and rethought my ending. A month later I did a few more drafts, employing some of the comments folks made, and fired it out to the markets.

Has this one been published yet? Alas, nope. But it's come damn close, and it ain't finished making the rounds yet. Of all my stories from Odyssey I feel it has the best chance of being published. And I never would have written it without those six long weeks in Manchester.

I learned a great deal from all the lecturers, both formally and informally. I can proudly say that Jim Morrow and I talked about the critical importance of reading outside one's genre while enjoying New England chowder. Allen Steele shared with me some great memories of working with the late great SF legend Hal Clement. Liz Hand provided an exercise in class that served as the basis for my first post-Odyssey sale. Hell, I'm still digesting the wisdom from the award-winning talents that took the time to help me with my craft.

Not sure where the bad comes into this. So far, it's been all good.

V. CONCLUSION

In looking back at Odyssey, it seems clear now that it embodies much of the structure and ethos of the informal and formal writing groups previously discussed. Like Hemingway's work under Stein's eye, it took six weeks and was often painful. Like the Inklings, it provided a place for the unpublished writer of the fantastic to gather with kin, and critique each other's work. Like Bradbury's apprenticeships, it allowed the young nobodies, like this ex-cemetery-groundskeeper in grad school at the Royal Military College of Canada, a chance to have the best in the field provide guidance and advice to help his young career. Odyssey even passes Partridge's test of those the young should allow to vet their work, since Jeanne Cavelos is an award-winning editor. All this, and I made friends out of strangers in a profession known for its solitary confinement.

Norman Partridge's advice to young writers is sage and tested through the crucible of his own experience. I suggest any young scribe of dark fiction should run, not walk, to buy a copy of Mr. Fox and other Feral Tales. When you reach the essay "A Keyboard Built for One," read it, but remember this essay, too, before you dismiss the value of workshops. They are not an anathema to self-reliance. They are just an alternate means of achieving it. Because your words should always be your own. Be you at a keyboard built for one, or at a workshop filled with colleagues.

Footnotes

1 Norman Partridge, "A Keyboard Built for One," Mr. Fox and Other Feral Tales (Burton: Subterranean Press, 2005), 156.

2 Partridge, 157-158.

3 Partridge, 158, note 1.

4 Partridge, 159.

5 For a solid overview of Hemingway and his influence, see Philip Young, Hemingway: A Reconsideration (Pennsylvania: Penn State Press, 1966).

6 Michael Reynolds, Young Hemingway (New York: W.W. Norton and Co., 1986; reprinted 1998), 185.

7 Michael Reynolds, Hemingway: The Paris Years (New York: W.W. Norton, 1989; reprinted in 1999), 34, 41.

8 Michael Reynolds, Hemingway: The Paris Years, 37.

9 Michael Reynolds, Hemingway in the 1930s(New York: W.W. Norton, 1997; reprinted in 1998), 85.

10 Michael Reynolds, Hemingway in the 1930s(New York: W.W. Norton, 1997; reprinted in 1998), 85-86.

11 Ibid.

12 For a sampling of Lovecraft's role as mentor to Bloch and Leiber, see S.T. Joshi, "A Literary Tutelage: Robert Bloch and H. P. Lovecraft," and "Passing the Torch: H. P. Lovecraft," in The Evolution of the Weird Tale (New York: Hippocampus Press, 2004): 107-123; 124-35, respectively.

13 Tolkien wrote this short account of the Inklings to the author, William Luther White, in 11 September 1969, for a book on Lewis. J.R.R. Tolkien, The Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien, edited by Humphrey Carpenter, with the assistance of Christopher Tolkien (London: Harper Collins, 1981; reprinted in 2006), 387.

14 Alan Jacobs, The Narnian: The Life and Imagination of C.S. Lewis (San Francisco: HarperSanFrancisco, 2005), 201.

15 Alan Jacobs, The Narnian: The Life and Imagination of C.S. Lewis, 194-195.

16 Alan Jacobs, 205.

17 J.R.R. Tolkien, The Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien, edited by Humphrey Carpenter, with the assistance of Christopher Tolkien (London: Harper Collins, 1981; reprinted in 2006), 126.

18 J.R.R. Tolkien, The Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien, edited by Humphrey Carpenter, with the assistance of Christopher Tolkien (London: Harper Collins, 1981; reprinted in 2006), 68.

19 Examples from Tolkien's letters to his son Christopher during this period make it clear the Inklings were an anchor and largely positive event in Tolkien's life. 23 April 1944 to son. "I read my second chapter, Passage of the Dead Marshes, to Lewis and Williams on Wed. morning. It was approved." Tolkien, 73; 11 May 1944 to son "I completed my fourth new chapter ('Farimir') which received fullest approbation from C.S.L. and C.W," Tolkien, 79; 21 May 1944 to Son. "Having trouble writing, the book is winding up to the climax. I worked very hard at my chapter—it is most exhausting work; especially as the climax approaches and one has to keep the pitch up: no easy level will do; and there are all sorts of minor problems of plot and mechanism. I wrote and tore up and rewrote most of it a good many times; but I was rewarded this morning, as both C.S.L. and C.W. thought it an admirable performance, and the latest chapters the best so far," 81; On trying to finish the book sections before exams, he managed it reading the last two chapters to Lewis. "He approved with unusual fervour and was actually affected to tears by the last chapter, so it seems to be keeping up," Tolkien, 83.

20 Sam Weller, The Bradbury Chronicles: The Life of Ray Bradbury (New York: Harper Perennial, 2005), 86.

21 Weller, 102.

22 Weller, 103.

23 Weller, 110.

24 Weller, 107.

25 Weller, 108.

26 Weller, 108.

27 Ray Bradbury, "Miss Gentilbelle, Introduction by Ray Bradbury," in Charles Beaumont, The Howling Man, edited by Roger Anker (New York: Tor, 1988), 1.

28 Ray Bradbury, "Miss Gentilbelle, Introduction by Ray Bradbury," in Charles Beaumont, The Howling Man, edited by Roger Anker (New York: Tor, 1988), 1-2.

29 Dennis Etchison, "Introduction to Free Dirt, by Dennis Etchison," in Charles Beaumont, The Howling Man, 78.

30 Dennis Etchison, "Introduction to Free Dirt, by Dennis Etchison," in Charles Beaumont, The Howling Man, 79.

31 See the Official Odyssey website for details.


Copyright © 2007, Jason Ridler. All Rights Reserved.

About Jason Ridler

Jason S. Ridler is a fantasist whose work has been published in magazines such as Dark Recesses and Andromeda Spaceways Inflight Magazine, and in the anthologies Dead In the Water, Fantastical Visions IV, and Bash Down the Door and Slice Open the Bad Guy. He is also a Ph.D. candidate in War Studies at the Royal Military College of Canada.

COMMENTS!

May 14, 22:09 by IROSF
A thread to discuss the benefits and drawbacks of writing workshops and critique groups.

Jason Ridler's article can be found here.
May 15, 17:03 by John Kratman
I did not read Partridge's essays, but I found your arguments fascinating. In fact, its made me resolve to look up a fellow writer I haven't seen in quite some time to talk some shop.

A very interesting article. Well done.
May 15, 19:27 by Jason Ridler
Cheers, John. Thanks for reading it.
May 16, 06:43 by Michael Kelly
Excellent article, Mr. Ridler! Thank you for invoking the name of Charles Beaumont. He, along with Partridge, are true masters.

Here's hoping you sell that Odyssey story soon. ;-)
May 16, 09:36 by Jason Ridler
Ha! Thanks, Mr. Kelly. The story is at Ellery Queen as we speak. Fingers crossed and never say die! Always happy to pimp Beaumont!

JSR
May 16, 12:17 by Abby Goldsmith
I also attended Odyssey, and it helped me immensely. I'd say my writing and (just as important) my confidence in my writing have improved 200% since Odyssey.

I've always advocated the value of feedback. If you want to write just for yourself, then feedback may be a waste of your time. But if you're aiming to sell your work to mass audiences, then you must seek feedback. It's a requirement. You need to test the waters of audience reaction, because they're usually deeper, or colder, or warmer, than you expected. Once you get a few good reactions, your writing will respond and grow in the right directions. And seeking feedback just makes good sense if you plan to put your work in public places where critics will talk about it. Those book critics and Amazon readers will give you feedback whether you want it or not ... so why not get used to it first?

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