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July 24th, 2011:

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.