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Geeks With Books
by Rick Klaw

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Bruce Sterling's Workshop Lexicon
Lewis Shiner
The Twilight Zone
Comic-Con International
Chad Oliver
Neal Barrett, Jr.
Turkey City Writer's Workshop and Neo-Pro Rodeo

The Right Thing to Do

Why do I do it? This past summer, I taught at my third consecutive Armadillocon Writer's Workshop. Roughly a month before each workshop1, I am sent 7-8 stories While I read these stories, I complain to my wife, friends, and co-workers. Sure I mention any problems with the stories, but mostly I talk about how I would rather be doing anything else. Reading amateur stories, often in genres I care little for, is not one of my favorite pastimes.

Why do I do it? Because it is the right thing to do.

I was nineteen, a few months into my first bookstore job. At the time, I thought this was just a pit stop until I either went back to school or made it big as a writer. Lewis Shiner, who had just published his second novel, was a regular customer. I literally spent weeks steeling up the nerve to ask him to look over some of my writing. When I finally did, he gladly agreed.

Geek Confidential My roommate and I had conceived a Twilight Zone-like tale about a bookstore that terrorizes a customer during the Christmas season. We were both working retail and the story was cathartic. Based on our mutual plot, I wrote a comic book script. About a week after I gave Shiner the script, he called at 10 AM (waking me up) to critique the story. I quickly emerged from my bleary state when he talked about how I understood the basics of plot and had some talent. There were some flaws (most notably my script format2), but at that moment it all blurred into the background. Perhaps I really could write.

After that, I got stage fright and didn't write for another six months. But once I started up again, Shiner met with me every Thursday for the next year and a half . Under his tutelage, I learned how to write and edit.

The comic book story was later "sold" to The Twilight Zone comic book.3 Maybe sold is too strong of a word. I met the editor at the San Diego Comic-Con4 where she was offering the princely sum of $100 per page for original Twilight Zone tales. In the early nineties, this was a lot of money for an unpublished writer. We talked and she asked me to send her a story. One month later, I was offered $50 per page for the story. Not the $100, but still pretty good. The only catch was that I had to wait sixteen months for publication. The forthcoming Christmas issue was full, so mine would appear the following year. September came and Twilight Zone still didn't have my script. I read the comics catalogues for the December comics (comic books are offered to stores three months before publication) and there was an ad for the Christmas issue with my tale as the cover story! And they still didn't have the script.

I called my editor.

"Rick! I need to FedEx you a contract. It's for $30 a page."

"$30? We agreed to $50."

"I know but now it's $30."

"Well, I can't do it for $30."

I held my position. Going from $100 to $50 was bad enough. Eventually the publisher called me and threatened me. He told me that either I would do it for the $30 or I would never get published. I decided to take my chances and told him it was $50 or nothing.

The Twilight Zone Christmas issue never came out and the comic was canceled. Within a year, the publishing house was gone as well.5

I learned a valuable lesson. Never enter into a deal that you are not willing or able to walk away from. If I had allowed them to use my story, I would have compromised my principles. Publishing should be a partnership with both sides honoring their agreements, verbal or otherwise. The whole sordid episode was battle in self-respect. At the end of it all, I was able to look at myself in the mirror. I did the right thing.

So why do I teach? I don't get paid for it6 and the publicity is minimal. The reading and critiquing take away from my own work.

It is the right thing to do.

If it weren't for Lewis Shiner's (and others) help and encouragement, I sincerely doubt I would be producing Geeks With Books. I would have never edited 17 books or produced a collection of essays.

By volunteering for the writer's workshop, I am sharing with other writers what Shiner taught me. He spoke of authors like Chad Oliver and Neal Barrett, Jr. and the advice they gave him when he was starting out. How Oliver tutored the young writers at the legendary Turkey City Writer's Workshop and how Barrett was always available for guidance and encouragement.

Recently, I ran into Terry, a participant from the most recent Armadillocon Workshop. He wrote a near future story about a frustrated man having trouble crossing a freeway after his car breaks down. I could see some real strengths in his story and offered him advice for tightening his work. Terry told me that he followed most of my advice and felt my suggestions improved the tale. He went on to thank me for giving him some of the best criticism he ever received. He felt that the Workshop made him a better writer. That wasn't the first time this has happen.

Weird Business

The inverse has happened, too. During my first time as a teacher, one of the students badmouthed me to the entire convention. I saw some serious problems in his story and writing. I was honest with him and told him what I thought. Much like I did with Terry, I offered suggestions and comments to improve. He didn't take it well. That writer probably doesn't have much of as future as an author. A writer must be able to take negative and constructive criticism without anger. We all hate receiving bad reviews, but it is a fact of the creative life.

Perhaps my favorite workshop student was Sarah Arnold. She was among the writers in my first workshop. Sarah's tale confused me. Oh, I understood it. Her ideas were mature and well thought out, but her writing style didn't equal the maturity of the concepts. I didn't look forward to critiquing this one. Nothing worse than telling an adult that they lack the skills to accomplish what they are attempting.

Then I met Sarah and it all became clear. She was seventeen! As a craftsman, she did lack maturity and experience, but her vision was light years beyond her age.

Though I haven't taught Sarah since, I've kept an eye on her. Her other teachers confirm my suspicions. She is becoming a better writer, a person whose potential is enormous. With practice, her abilities will certainly catch up with her ideas.

Terry and Sarah and others like them are the reason I teach. They are the reason that I've met with many new writers and corresponded with many more.7 I like to blame Shiner, but really there is no other way. It is the right thing to do.

1 At the workshop, my fellow teachers and I review the stories with the writers. The students also give peer-to-peer commentary.

2 There is a wrong way and a right way to write a comic book script. At the time there was very little written about how to do it.

3 My first "professional" sale.

4 Now called Comic-Con International. It was then, as now, the largest comic book convention in North America.

5 The story still hasn't been published.

6 Teachers get a free lunch at the ArmadilloCon workshop though.

7 Though I only critique stories in a workshop settings. Please, Do NOT send me your stories.

Copyright © 2004 Rick Klaw

Not content with just being a regular columnist for SF Site, Rick Klaw decided to collect his columns, essays, reviews, and other things Klaw in Geek Confidential: Echoes From the 21st Century (currently available from Monkey Brains, Inc). As a freelance editor, former book buyer, managing editor, and bookstore manager, Rick has experience with most aspects of the book business. Currently, he is an internet collectible sales specialist for Half Price Books, where he gets to actually fondle the books that are kept behind the glass. This column marks the beginning of the fourth year of Geeks With Books. Who'd a thunk it?

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