Borderlands Boot Camp 2019: Stepping Way the Hell Out of My Comfort Zone, Part Two

(Update 1/31/2023: My comments on the recent controversy involving Thomas Monteleone’s racist and bigoted comments can be found here:

On Saturday morning, I woke up at 6 am with a huge knot in my stomach. This was it: Critique Day, an entire day of listening to people tell you where you’d gone wrong with your work. Gulp. It’s not like I haven’t been critiqued in the last several years, but having the speakers right in front of you at the time adds a whole new level of terror to the prospect. 

The night before, we’d all drawn numbers and received schedules listing which instructor had which numbers for the four rotating two-hour critique periods. 

I started off with Ginjer Buchanan and circulated through Tom Monteleone, Douglas Winter, and F. Paul Wilson. In the first two sessions, we went around the room going over each person’s submission one by one, with the instructor giving the final in-depth critiques for each piece. 

By the final two sessions, I’d already been in groups with several of the same people, and both Winter and Wilson played with the format a bit and didn’t make everyone talk for every submission.

I won’t give a blow by blow of what was said in every session, but by the end of it, I’d heard a lot of criticism (absolutely none of which was mean-spirited or hurtful), but also received a lot of great feedback and suggestions. And Douglas Winter is truly the king of cutting extraneous material from a story; I haven’t even started working on all his suggested cuts for “Mara.” 

Wilson explained why “Mara’s” ending didn’t work for him; I’d tried to leave the ending somewhat ambiguous but made it a bit too ambiguous, and what he thought had happened didn’t make any sense given the way he’d interpreted the rest of the story. (I don’t want to spoil my ending, but I can see why he read it the way he did and that is indeed a problem, because I’m sure he hasn’t been the only one to make that inference—or think it came out of nowhere.) “You’ve got to give me a vine so I can swing from the rest of the story to its ending. It doesn’t even have to be a big vine, but you’ve got to give me something,” he said. That’s good advice for any piece of writing. He also had a lot of interesting ideas for what I could do to develop my main character and fix the ending. 

The day passed far faster than I’d expected, and by six o’clock I left Wilson’s conference room with my head spinning. I’d survived Boot Camp. Nobody threw my story in a wastebasket! I hadn’t broken down crying in front of everyone! 

There was one last trial to go: On Friday night, we’d each drawn a slip of paper with a sentence, and we had until 9 am on Sunday morning to turn in a two-or-three-page short story using our sentence as the first line.

Some of the sentences were opening lines from actual published novels, and the instructors urged us not to Google them to figure out where they were from. (Other lines were from Wilson’s voluminous notebook of potential first lines.) They also warned us not to get cute and slap the sentence onto any pre-Boot Camp work we already had going. 

Smug little me assumed that all my Weekly Knob writing would be excellent training for this exercise, but it took until Saturday afternoon before I had an idea for a story stemming from my sentence: You think you know about pain? 

I’ve never read The Girl Next Door, so I didn’t recognize its opening line. I’m pretty sure that novel isn’t about a teenage girl who falls down the stairs at her prom and gets relentlessly teased about it, which was the story I came up with. Not my most inspired or gripping idea, but it was the only one I was able to develop into something resembling a narrative.  

After a fun dinner at Peter’s Pour House with several of my fellow Boot Camp grunts, I pounded a cup of coffee and wrote for an hour before the Saturday evening guest talk, followed by a QA session in which we could ask our instructors about any aspect of the business. 

Heather Graham is a prolific writer and a great speaker; she’s full of hilarious stories and I ended up wishing I could hang out at the hotel bar with her to hear more of them. But the QA kept going well past 11:30, and I finally tapped out. I stayed up until 2 AM whipping my entry into a story-shaped thing I would be willing to let people read, and then I fell into bed for a few hours of sleep. 

I returned to this lounge a lot just so I could stare out at the water and recharge.

The next morning I headed up to breakfast and snagged a window table with a gorgeous view of Inner Harbor. And then it was Story Time. Writer Norman Prentiss made a surprise appearance to help read the entries aloud. 

Our entries were all anonymous, which was too bad because I sat there thinking HOLY SHIT SOMEONE WROTE THAT IN TWO DAYS, MAYBE EVEN ONE? WHO EVEN ARE THESE PEOPLE AND HOW DID THEY DO THAT!? Those stories were amazing. I already knew I was in the company of a lot of insanely talented people because I’d been reading their work for months, but I was blown away by how good everything was. The instructors pointed out how much better constructed these stories were, and the overall atmosphere was happy and relaxed. It was a nice way to close out an intense weekend.  

And that was it. We all waited in the Brookshire’s lobby for our various cabs or rides, said our goodbyes, and started looking each other up on Twitter and Facebook, and then Bill came to collect me for a celebratory afternoon in Fells Point. 

You know that surreal, disjointed feeling you get when you’ve been anticipating something for months and then it’s over and you’re wondering what to do with all the sudden free time and headspace? I had that feeling times ten. Bill laughed at how giddy I was; I had so much new knowledge clanging around in my head that I had no idea what to do with it all. 

Coming up next: The thrilling (?) conclusion. 


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