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Taos Toolbox 2011, Part 1


I got home yesterday afternoon, and the smoke is still coming out of my ears. I haven’t posted here recently because it was all I could do to stay ahead of the coursework and the critique. My friend Jim Strickland described it as “a 500-level course on the art of the novel crammed into two weeks.”

That’s putting it mildly.

What I’m talking about is Walter Jon WilliamsTaos Toolbox writers’ workshop, which just concluded yesterday morning at the Snow Bear Inn at Taos Ski Valley, New Mexico. The workshop was taught this year by Walter Jon Williams and Nancy Kress, with a guest lecture by Jack Skillingstead. Jim Strickland drove down from Denver Sunday morning and stashed his car in our garage, then joined me in the 4Runner for the 225 miles to Taos. I took my completed steampunk computer table, to which I had grafted the Aethernet Concentrator scant days before we left. Carrying the table, the pipe legs, the Concentrator mast, a Dell GX620 system with 20″ monitor, an ammo can full of tools, plus clothes and a cooler full of food up the stairs from the parking lot took some doing, as we were at 9,800 feet. Mountain geek I may be, but one chases oxygen atoms like fireflies up there.


This is not a workshop for beginners. Jim and I were two of fourteen students, of which I was the oldest. Not one was under thirty. Most of us had already sold one or more short stories, and at least three of us have sold novels. Jim has two novels in print (plus a short Drumlins novel), and astrophysicist Alan Smale was recently nominated for the Sidewise Award for alternate history. Christie Yant is Assistant Editor at Lightspeed Magazine. One had the sense of a mass of talent around the common-room table that could (with just a few more neutrons) go critical.

For two weeks we heard lectures, took notes, discussed the issues, and presented both written and oral critiques of one another’s work. Oh, and sometimes we ate and (more occasionally) slept. When we were not at the big conference table, we were back in our respective lairs, reading manuscripts and hammering on laptops or (like me) larger iron. All told, we each read and critiqued about 200,000 words of material. It took ten days for us to loosen up sufficiently to set aside time to crack a few bottles of wine and a bottle of The Kraken 94-proof dark rum. (This was highly appropriate, as student Jeffrey Petersen had presented a novel starring a giant…flying…squid.) Walter complimented us as being the hardest-working class he’s hosted in several years conducting the workshop. We worked so hard that almost nobody hit the hot tub. By the last day, Nancy Kress herself told the class, “I am just about out of words.”

Words. It was about words. It was about making our words do precisely what we want them to do, and then getting them into the hands of our readers. It was one of the most intellectually challenging things I have ever done. I left emotionally and physically exhausted and am still catching up. It was expensive, but worth every penny. It may have rebooted my career as an SF writer.

More tomorrow.


  1. Sibyl Smirl says:

    Hi, Jeff:

    “It was about words. It was about making our words do precisely what we want them to do…”

    I just finished reading a first novel mystery story avec cats, and I’m thinking about reviewing it on This woman is a good storyteller, and she kept me reading, but her style drives me up the wall. I’m not yet sure whether I’m going to read the second in the series, which is already out. She just loves words, adjectives especially, and she uses them promiscuously, and incorrectly, which is a distraction from her story. She has one character juggling a cucumber in a hotel kitchen, and she describes it as a “tubular vegetable” — she has _got_ to know what a tube is, surely! and that a cucumber ain’t it! Everybody has seen cucumber slices and pickle slices, and there is no hole in the middle! A few paragraphs away, in the same hotel kitchen, a large commercial dishwasher is “arduously” steaming white china plates. Now it’s not difficult for a commercial dishwasher to steam china plates, so why the “arduously”? Maybe she means “assiduously”, but I don’t think that one needs to be there either: the cucumber has something to say about the character who is juggling it (a real flake), and if she’s got to describe the cucumber, “cylindrical” would do better, but the dishwasher is just part of the kitchen scenery. Okay, it’s there, but why the adjective for steaming plates? There are 300 pages full of this kind of thing.

    Sorry, but this just happened to be still on my chest (wondering whether to write that review) when I saw your FB entry and followed it home. Now I’ve used your “blog” to get it off my chest, so maybe I won’t write the review.

    Glad you had a fruitful workshop!



  2. […] 1 here.) The Snow Bear Inn is really a set of ski condos only a quarter mile from one of the Taos Ski […]

  3. […] Jon Williams is still taking applications for his Taos Toolbox SF/fantasy writers’ workshop. I attended in 2011 and it was spectacular . (I didn’t finish the Contra series because my house almost blew up. […]

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