What I learned from instructors

From Paul Park, I learned to stay in the present moment, to embed characters in a social context, to avoid emotional shorthand and instead use specific gestures. Relax control over visualization: the reader does not need to see exactly what you see in order for the descriptions to be vivid. Consider the narrative from the viewpoints of multiple characters; each character must have their own motivation, their own narrative. Most of all, we’re here to figure out how to make machines that spit out emotions, not to decide whether or not the machines are worth building.

From Stephen Graham Jones, I learned the importance of endings and taking endings one step beyond their natural settling point. There are art endings and craft endings; neither is more valuable than the other. Writing is like throwing a party, setting out chips and dip, putting on the music, and just as the party reaches its peak and everyone’s dancing, you slip out the back door.

From Elizabeth Bear, I learned that people will try to present lots of rules of writing, but there’s no magical “get published” button. In fact, there are no rules at all; there are only techniques that do and do not work, and what we’re doing is developing toolboxes and learning to use them in the most elegant way possible. Dare to suck, to let yourself fail, and learn from your mistakes. Positivity is constructive: you don’t sell stories by not doing things wrong, but by doing things right. Interest and development come from variation. Make your character want something—then, you can take it away, or have someone want something antithetical to that. Arts is a career path that is largely out of your control; focus on the things you can control, like whether or not you write, and whether or not you’re pleasant to work with.

From N. K. Jemisin, I learned the importance of worldbuilding and the foundations of how to macroworldbuild and microworldbuild. Study humanities and history; you make people real by learning how they work. You can’t write if you don’t live. The creator’s job is to recognize audience assumptions and deal with the incorrect ones. Don’t be afraid to be obvious—it is not talking down to explain your creation to the reader. Doubt is normal; you can’t let it stop you and you have to push past it. Trust that you’re a skilled writer; reach out to friends who know your work and have them remind you of the quality of it.

From Sheila Williams, I learned that, when you send out your story, it’s a goodbye: the more writers try to rewrite in galleys, the more they introduce error. Trust in your story. Editors are all different and have their own preferences. Start the story by allowing readers to get to know the characters instead of having descriptive phrases like “recently reelected president.” When you go to conventions, make an effort to talk to one or two people you didn’t know before.

From Michael Swanwick, I learned that stories are about relationships: you don’t want things just happening; you want people talking to each other. You need at least three characters to form a story; just two is a tug-of-war, an editorial or allegory and not quite a story, whereas a third character exerts pressure on the protagonist and antagonist to take them to unexpected places. Focus on sensory words and verbs that are specific; minimize the use of “gray words.” You’ve got to fake it and sit down and think you’re a good writer—every writer hates the sound of their own voice as they’re writing before they move on. Have faith not in yourself but in the writer you’re going to be.

What I learned from classmates

From Taimur, I learned optimism and positivity, that happy endings need not be trite endings. Speaking unabashedly about what you love will transform any topic into a fascinating one—something as mundane as touching a rock can become magical with passion.

From Betsy, I learned hospitality and generosity, to reach out to support people, to offer kindness without attached expectations.

From Elizabeth, I learned to maintain boundaries, that it was okay for me to retreat when I needed to.

From Jane, I learned self-care, to reach out to people when I needed help, and trust that they would be there to support me and empathize with me.

From Octavia, I learned to write what interests you and to persist in writing what you like, even if you don’t find an audience that gets every nuance in your story at first.

From Paul, I learned to go weird in my stories, that running wholeheartedly with a concept can make it work.

From Alex, I learned to stick to your own style, to trust in your own voice.

From Lora, I learned the depths of how beautiful language can be; I learned that something as simple as a drawing can make so many people happy.

From Cae, I learned to love wholeheartedly, to feel with all my being and throw myself into stories unafraid.

From Jon, I learned to experiment, to be willing to write something that could be divisive.

From Gunnar, I learned resilience and rising up to the challenge.

From Emma, I learned warmth and friendship, to ask for a hug when I needed one.

From Shiv, I learned to chill out, to trust in my own history of things working out: “Wouldn’t you say that someone who ignores history is a fool?”

From Mitch, I learned the importance of play, both in exploring concepts through stories and also through board games.

From Jess, I learned to be honest in critiques and to be brave in pointing something out that could be a problem.

From Gabriel, I learned to embed stories in community, to consider power dynamics and activism in worldbuilding.

From Cadwell, I learned to explore the personal in my work, to try different concepts.

What I learned from Huw & Neile

Compassion. Support. That there are people out there who have my best interests at heart, who are there for me 100% of the time. To reach out before anything happens and trust in their advice.

What I learned from myself

S. showing tattoo and necklace
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Me with my Team Arsenic tattoo and my Octavia E. Butler Memorial Scholarship necklace. I’ve got this.

I learned about my own resilience, my own persistence.

I learned that doubt and moments of “everything is awful” are part of my process and happen every time, and that the important thing is to keep plopping down words until the feelings pass and I have a draft.

I learned that I can do this writing thing, that if I keep at it, I’ll get somewhere with it.

I can do this.

I can.