Last week, Bill and I flew out to Utah so I could attend the Futurescapes Writers Workshop while Bill explored the gorgeous natural sites in the area.
I’d applied on a whim in 2018 after seeing the instructor list, and was shocked when I got an acceptance email just a few days later. Each participant had to bring along the first 3,000 words of something they were working on, the first page/250 words of that project for a second group, and a query letter draft for a third session.
If the Borderlands Press Boot Camp in Baltimore was a significant step out of my comfort zone, Futurescapes was like being catapulted into another galaxy. At least I already knew Baltimore really well before heading to the Borderlands workshop. I’ve never been to Utah; indeed, I’ve never spent significant time west of the Mississippi. And I didn’t know any other attendees.
Let me tell you: Utah is GORGEOUS. When we got off the plane, I looked to my left as I was walking through the SLC terminal and saw a breathtaking mountain range out the airport windows. I assumed I was looking at a mural or a photograph. It took me a minute to realize that I was seeing real, snow-capped mountains. As Bill and I drove through Salt Lake City headed for Park City, I geeked out seeing names I recognized from reading John Fitzgerald’s The Great Brain series (which was set in Utah) obsessively as a child.
In an odd but appropriate twist for a gathering of spec fiction writers, Futurescapes was held at Chateaux Deer Valley, a stunning Park City mountain resort hotel which had just entered its off-season. Chairlifts hung idle in the sky, snow piled up in front of the windows, its restaurants were closed, the bar was empty, and the “Overlook Hotel” cracks were flying on Twitter and Facebook before I even landed in Utah. It took all my self-restraint to not scrawl REDRUM on a wall in red lipstick. (But that would have been a mess and the staff was super-nice, so of course I didn’t.)
I’m one of those weirdos who prefer fall and winter to spring and summer and the DC area is just now starting to take on the steaminess that’ll soup up the air until late October, so the snow and the cold weather didn’t bother me, especially because my room had a fireplace. After a very early flight, a long day of travel, jet lag, and the newness of being at high altitude, I spent most of my first night in Utah sacked out in my room.
Before flying out to Utah, I’d been critiquing the work submitted by my group for the 3,000-word session, and I was blown away by the overall quality of the writing. There were a couple of people in my group who I’m certain we’ll all be hearing from again.
But the submissions had me worried half to death, because most of the work was sci-fi of varying levels of hardness. I’d turned in the first 3,000 words of THE KEEPER OF THE KEY, my contemporary YA horror novel. This manuscript has a perfect record of being shut out of every single mentoring competition I’ve entered it in, and I was hoping to get some insights as to why that might be happening. But although horror was cited as one of the genres Futurescapes focuses on, I still felt out of place. You were a ridiculous stupid person for turning that into this group with all these sci-fi writers. What the hell were you thinking? You’ll be lucky if you aren’t laughed right out of Utah.
That’s my brain, helpful as always.
And as it often does, my brain was lying. My group partners had good, useful feedback and couldn’t have been more positive about my submission. Author Eric James Stone was our group’s instructor, and his comments on my work made it obvious that he really got what I was trying to do with my characters and my setting. Although I’ve got some work to do on this draft, the comments I received made me feel that overall, I’m on the right track with it.
My first page critique group was hosted by literary agent Ben Grange. I’ve seen agents write about what catches their eye when they read a submission, but it was very illuminating to hear what jumps out at an agent after he’s read your work literally right in front of you. Unfortunately, I was the last to go in our group and we ran out of time, so I didn’t get as much feedback as I might have liked. However, Ben pointed out that while my first page does a good job of portraying the two adults in the beginning of the novel, he didn’t get much of a sense of my main character. Well. That’s definitely a good note to work with.
My query critique group was hosted by author Dan Wells; after reading his I Am Not a Serial Killer, I was really excited to work with him. He told us up front that query letters weren’t really his forte but went on to make incredibly insightful, helpful comments on everyone’s work. By the time the group was done working over my query, I wished I’d had them all to bounce ideas off of before I submitted THE KEEPER OF THE KEY to RevPit.
The two critique days flew by. In between these sessions, I had plenty of opportunities to get to know the other Futurescapers. In my everyday life, writing tends to be a very solitary pursuit; I talk about writing a lot with other people online but rarely meet other writers face to face.
At Futurescapes, I could wander down to the lobby, plop in a chair by one of the many inviting fireplaces, and join in conversation with any of the other writers who happened to be hanging around. The instructors sometimes mingled with the groups too, and I appreciated getting a chance to know them a little better. Writer Fran Wolfe showed us her beautifully-illustrated writing notebook at dinner on Saturday night, and I’ve been dying to create a similar one of my own ever since.
(However, when I was on an elevator with one of the attending agents, I froze up. I even wanted to ask him about something he’d said in a talk the day before, but JUST SHUT UP, YOU IDIOT kept rocketing through my head. I need to get better about that.)
I sat next to author Matt Kirby at lunch on Saturday and learned more about the Futurescapes full-week workshop for people who want to work on an entire manuscript. If I have a full novel I’m ready to show other people by then (and perhaps if nothing has happened with THE KEEPER OF THE KEY), I might apply for that program.
On Sunday, my first group met with Eric one more time to discuss our experiences at the conference. Because a fair number of people had early flights to catch, we were sent on our way with little gift bags containing chocolates and an incredibly sweet, supportive note from editor Navah Wolfe. Bill and I killed a few hours in Salt Lake City before getting our flight home. In a stroke of luck, I was apparently one of the few Futurescapers who didn’t have to deal with a delayed or canceled flight due to the horrendous storms in the Midwest.
(Something I learned that has nothing to do with writing but will probably come in handy if I need to fly to any more workshops: While meditation and a few phone apps helped somewhat to alleviate my intense fear of flying on the way to Utah, nothing kills my fear better than a glass or two of wine in the airport bar beforehand. The flight home was a breeze; I didn’t even flinch at the little bit of turbulence we encountered. I’d have had a drink or two on the way out too, but our flight was at seven in the morning and even I’m not quite that debauched yet.)
So would I do it again if I could? Heck yes. I’d like to take more of the mini-workshops that were offered throughout the weekend, and as I said before, I’m very intrigued by the week-long full manuscript workshop. And on the whole, it was just a fun time. I’ve been worrying for a while that my work is stagnating, and I’m hoping that getting it workshopped more often and networking with other writers will help me finally break the plateau I’ve been on for a couple of years.
Bringing things full circle, I got an email this week announcing the Borderlands Press Boot Camp for 2020. Very well-played of them to send that to me while I was still on a high from Futurescapes, eh? Looks like I’ll be returning to Baltimore for more workshopping and networking in 2020.