Writing and Storytelling

My nana's fabulous, often harrowing, adventures about Mr. Giant are the first stories I remember. As a three year old, I'd lie on her green velvet couch, a chocolate bar in hand, and listen for hours until she finally challenged me to tell her a story. "Once upon a time," I'd start, "and do you know what happened?" She would shake her head. And I would giggle. A beginning, but no middle or end. Nana's house was haunted, and every night we had to gather the ghosts  from the closets where they hid during the day and toss them out of the windows before I could go to sleep. The effort was worth it; no ghost ever disturbed my slumber.

When I was in elementary school and grown-ups posed the "What do you want to be when you grow up?" question, I had a ready answer. I planned to illustrate the children's books written by my best friend, who preferred, inexplicably, writing to drawing. For years, we had it all worked out, but sometimes best friendships don't last, and interests change, and an artist becomes a horticulture major at university. 

And so it was not until I became an adult with young children that I began to write in the wee hours of the morning. 

Writing is not a solitary endeavor, not like I had been led to believe. Or perhaps I should say that learning to write has not been a solitary experience for me. I have been fortunate to have wonderful mentors, critique partners, and readers. 

When Octavia Butler visited Rochester as part of Writers & Books annual event, If All of Rochester Read the Same Book... I had finished a draft of my first (now-in-the-closet) Peerian novel and wondered what to do next. She recommended attending a writing workshop. With little awareness about what I was plunging into, I wrote my first short story as part of the application process for the Odyssey Fantasy Writing Workshop. A friend who critiqued the story kndly asked if I had ever heard of point of view. Point of view? 

My personal writing odyssey began with the acceptance letter from the workshop's director, Jeanne Cavelos, and a six-week intensive workshop in Manchester, New Hampshire. My first formal critique was with the fabulous Melissa Scott. She read my second short story. Despite pointing out my tale, as lovely as it was, had no plot, her kind words about how I put words together sustained me like armor through six grueling weeks of writing, revising, being critiqued, reading, and lectures. I left the workshop filled with hope, with direction, with skills and knowledge that might otherwise have taken a lifetime to acquire. Jeanne Cavelos is an extremely gifted teacher, and I highly recommend attending Odyssey.

Back in Rochester, I searched for a community of science fiction and fantasy writers and found them through workshops with Nancy Kress at Writers & Books. In the first workshop, I met my long-standing critique partners, and many of the group eventually formed the Rochester Speculative Literature Association (R-SPEC). Until Nancy Kress moved to the West Coast, I attended every workshop she offered. One could not ask for a more talented, helpful mentor. 

Sarah Totton, my roommate at Odyssey, inspired me to submit stories to the quarterly Writers of the Future (WOFT) contest. With the tenacity and determination I find in so many writers, she had submitted 17 times before winning. Over the next seven quarters, I entered seven stories to the contest; all but one was was either a quarter- or semi-finalist. I danced in the kitchen when Joni LaBaqui, the contest administrator, called to tell me I was a finalist and, after a long wait, that I was a winner. The judges for that quarter included Robert Sawyer, Eric Kotani, and Tim Powers. The Oscar-like awards ceremony was preceded by a week-long intensive workshop led by Tim Powers and K. D. Wentworth. Guest speakers included Larry Niven, Frederick Pohl, Jerry Pournelle, Joey Brown, Rebecca Modesto (who introduced me at the awards ceremony), and Pat Rothfuss who warned of the dangers of spending too much time on the internet establishing a fanbase to finishing work. 

One feature of the WOTF workshop included writing a story in 24 hours to show us that we could actually do it. For inspiration, we were each given a trinket (mine was a tiny plastic Saint Nicholas), told to speak with a stranger, and instructed to incorporate an aspect of the conversation and the trinket into the story. We also had an opportunity to conduct research in the beautiful Augora Hills Library. I finished the story, and after revisions, it's now one of my favorites. Someday I'll turn the story into a novel, but my initial 24 hour effort had an intriguing beginning and end but no real middle.

"The Bird Reader's Granddaughter" was published in the Writers of the Future: Volume XXIV. The very talented Ilya Shkipin, provided the illustration. Publishers Weekly, in its review of the anthology, singled out two stories, describing mine as "beautifully written" and saying "Based on these efforts, fans of the fantasy genre need not worry about an infusion of fresh blood, readers can expect more gripping, imaginative creations from these authors." How very inspiring!

While Nancy Kress was teaching in Germany, I had the opportunity to join Nick DiChario's small, year-long novel writing course with five other writers. Every other week for a year we read ten or so pages out loud and critiqued each other's work. I learned how powerful reading out loud can be in helping to establish the story's cadence. 

I now write stories with beginnings, middles and endings, though I am mindful of Ursula K. Le Guin's thought about endings as quoted in an interview with Lev Grossman: "I have nothing against endings, but I do write in a form that doesn't take them too seriously."

© KA Gillett 2011-2017