Borderlands Writers Boot Camp 2020

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

Towards the end of January, I headed to Baltimore for my second year at the Borderlands Press Writers Boot Camp. Under the auspices of Tom Monteleone, Ginjer Buchanan, F. Paul Wilson, and Douglas Winter, writers meet in groups and get their work thoroughly critiqued by the instructors and their fellow Boot Camp grunts.

I had trouble organizing my thoughts this year, which is why this writeup took so long. Here are my overall impressions. 

The good: Meeting a whole new crop of writers, some of whom I’m certain I’ll be seeing on bookshelves and in magazines before long. I was the only returnee from 2019, and while I missed some of the folks last year who I’d had a blast with, it was nice to make new writing friends. 

Also good: Guest of Honor Chet Williamson. He’s funny and eloquent, and dear god, does he ever do an amazing job of reading people’s work. He encouraged us to take a few acting or voice lessons so we’d sound engaging when reading our own stuff at cons or signings (and thus sell more books), and after listening to him, I’m a believer. 

I submitted the first three chapters and synopsis of The Keeper of the Key. I’d implemented some of the feedback I got on KotK from Futurescapes and while I’m getting a little more interest from agents, it’s still not going over the way Tidepool did. Most of the students who gave me feedback were pretty positive about it, and their criticisms were fair and actionable. I do indeed abuse semicolons, and I also use filtering words way too often. 

There was more curiosity about one of the characters than I’d expected, and that’s making me wonder if I’m on the right track with him. My goal with the novel is to trick readers into thinking an OK guy is the Bad Guy, while the real Bad Guy has been hiding in plain sight pretending to be the Good Guy the whole time. I’ve got some work to do.

The not-so-good: On Friday night, we drew numbers and received schedules showing which numbers were meeting with which instructor during a given time period. 

Sounds straightforward enough, but the way the groups are arranged means that you’ll be in critique groups with some of the same students more than once, while not getting to meet with other students at all. And that frustrated me.

Last year, I kind of rolled with it because I was just completely wigged out at being in my first live writing workshop in years and years. This year, it grated a bit. There were writers I was dying to meet with whose paths I never crossed. 

Tom swears there’s no way to do this differently and every algorithm they’ve used to try to make the groups more balanced has failed. I believe him, and I don’t know what the solution is because lord knows anything involving math is not in my wheelhouse, but I hope they find one. 

The “I can’t believe this happened:” 

I still don’t like “Bookstore Browser.” Didn’t like it last year, didn’t like it this year. While I get that you have very little time to grab a new reader before they put your book down, I think this exercise encourages people to be way harsher than they would be in a real-life browsing situation, sometimes to the point of mean spiritedness.

Some of the students this year were sticking their hands up almost immediately and really ripping on the submissions. It happened often enough that the instructors finally told them to knock it off and wait at least a paragraph or two. This was a tough crowd. I only raised my hand a couple of times, usually because of blatant grammar glitches that truly would cause me to put down a book.

I’m just putting that out there because when Ginjer read my submission, I waited for the hands to start going up. I was in the back row, so I’d know right away when I was losing everyone. I waited.

And waited.

And waited.

Someone in front of me tentatively put their hand up but then dropped it. So I waited.

And waited.

How could this be? I thought my excerpt from last year was way better than this one, and that got shot down fast and cruelly. 

Ginjer finally stopped reading at the two-page mark. 

The instructors assumed my story was one of the ringers—first pages from an actual published novel or short story by a well-established author (including a couple of the instructors, to their credit). Stephen King and H.P. Lovecraft were two of that evening’s ringers. They both got hands-upped.

So who wrote this? the instructors asked.

It was a submission, Ginjer said. 

That was from someone here?” Paul asked in disbelief. “Who is it?” 

I was too freaked out to talk, which was just as well because Ginjer reminded him that the submissions were anonymous.  

“Well, whoever you are, you hit a home run,” Tom said at last. 

So yeah. I was practically doing the Joker Stairs Dance on the way back to my room that night, because if I achieve nothing else in my writing career, I can point to the one night when my work got a better reception than Stephen Goddamn King and H. P. Fucking Lovecraft, and I tricked a whole panel of professional, award-winning writers into thinking I was one of their own. 

But I still don’t like Bookstore Browser. 

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