Thursday, June 16, 2011

REVIEW: Storyteller by Kate Wilhelm

A few posts back, I had mentioned how reading one particular book led me to shunning writing books. Almost immediately afterwards, a fellow writing comrade, and friend, lent me "Storyteller: Writing Lessons and More from 27 Years of the Clarion Workshop." I begrudgingly took it, still bitter from the last book. Turns out, I no longer have 3 writing books I regularly refer to, but four.

Wilhelm's "Storyteller" is half memoir, half no-non-sense writing guide. She recounts her days at the famous Clarion science-fiction writing workshop where she instructed along the sides of people like Neil Gaiman, Harlan Ellison and Howard Waldrop. You don't get to hear about a lot of those people, but it's a testament to the workshop's success. Instead, like a good writer, she keeps the name dropping to an absolute minimum and focuses on the workshop's struggle and conflict to survive since its conception in 1968. As if channeling Mr. Miyagi, before you realize it, you're learning about writing through her short anecdotes about her students and their struggles with writing.

"Storyteller" starts moving in a great rhythm of hardened writing lessons and the results of those writing lessons through recollections of critiques and discussions with her former students. A lot of the guidance the book bestowed upon me I had already known, but it galvanized that previous knowledge with a logic I hadn't been able to put into words before.

Example: I have always loathed when ever a book, movie or television show opens with a hectic, climatic moment and then rewinds itself back to "48 hours ago" or "One year earlier..." To me, that was a queue to put the book down or change the channel. But I had never been able to put words or logic to that instinct. To paraphrase Wilhelm, if you start your story at the climax, your story can only go down hill from there. Pieces of common sense like this are woven through out "Storyteller."

Where the book really sold me though was Wilhelm's approach to something as simple as setting. In my online writing workshop, I've come across a lot of setting issues when critiquing people's pieces, settings that just don't make any sense, even in science fiction. I've often restrained myself from calling these people out on it, because, you know, it is SCIENCE-FICTION. In an infinite universe of infinite mathematical probability, anything is possible, right? Luckily, Wilhelm bolstered my unspoken grievances with setting in science-fiction and fiction writing in general.

She uses the example of space farmers. Apparently, there was a running trend through out the Clarion workshop where students would regularly turn in stories about space farmers and colonists. The farmers would be coverall clad and slaving away in the alien soil all day to grow potatoes and carrots, Earth food. She asks questions like, how did the space farmers know that Earth food would be even remotely sustainable in an alien soil? Would it poison your food? Would your food poison the soil? Is there fauna on the planet that would destroy your gardens, eat the food and that would then somehow cause a mass extinction of that animal? She also points out, that if the human society is so advanced as to colonize planets, the technology for making food has probably progressed beyond a till and back-hoe. If space colonization is cheap, the technology is incredibly advanced. If space colonization is still in its infancy and is expensive, humanity is not sending space farmers and they're not sending back-hoes. On top of all that, what's their economic incentive for being there? That last question really struck me. Recalling a lot of history, very little exploration has happened without the backing of people hoping to gain something from it, whether it be land, money or resources.

Wilhelm also goes into detail about mapping out direct environments in your stories. She talks about making mock layouts of cities and houses for her characters, trying to see as far as her mind's eye can see. I imagine this is extremely detrimental in her mystery writing.

All the basics of dialogue, plot and story structure are covered with discussion oriented examples of the do(s) and  don't(s) of each. Wilhelm's rules towards these things often come off as rigid and unforgiving, but she does preface several chapters with 'Clarion is boot camp for writers' and that once you have mastered these things, then you can break the rules; like Picasso's early, and startlingly, traditional portfolio before he delved deep into the abstract.

Admittedly, "Storyteller" can be a bit of a schlog at times, especially when she's talking about the early days of Clarion and it reads like a voyeuristic look into a bunch of people who just read Tom Wolfe; you know, THE SIXTIES and early seventies? But underneath it all, the book has a beating heart. It's a love letter to all those wonderful summers at the workshop and the continuous epiphany that is craft of writing. If anything, it made me really want to join the workshop for a summer.

It's a fantastic book all around and I now place it among my 'go to' list of writing books on my shelf. It's also short and cheap on Amazon. GO GET IT!

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