Category Archives: Writing

A Farewell to Ursula K. LeGuin

Ursula K. LeGuin died Tuesday. I loved her work and am endlessly grateful that she shared it with us.

Jason Kehe wrote this week in Wired:

“The fiction we now call ‘speculative’ derives its power from freedom: freedom from the present, from its norms, its oppressions. Le Guin exploited that freedom and made it her ultimate theme.”

Kehe wrote that LeGuin had “The Sight,” and that her speech at the National Book Awards in 2014 showed it.

In the interest of  sharing that speech, I am posting the transcript (thanks to the Gunn Center for the Study of Science Fiction). For those of you who want to hear it, the video follows.  It’s a short speech, but it still resonates today.

My favorite quote from the speech is this one: “Any human power can be resisted and changed by human beings.” And she goes on to remind us that “resistance and change often begin in art.”

TRANSCRIPT: Ursula K. LeGuin, National Book Awards, 2014:

Thank you, Neil [Gaiman, who introduced her], and to the givers of this beautiful award, my thanks from the heart. My family, my agent, editors, know that my being here is their doing as well as mine, and that the beautiful reward is theirs as much as mine. And I rejoice at accepting it for, and sharing it with, all the writers who were excluded from literature for so long, my fellow authors of fantasy and science fiction—writers of the imagination, who for the last 50 years watched the beautiful awards go to the so-called realists.

I think hard times are coming when we will be wanting the voices of writers who can see alternatives to how we live now and can see through our fear-stricken society and its obsessive technologies to other ways of being, and even imagine some real grounds for hope. We will need writers who can remember freedom. Poets, visionaries, the realists of a larger reality.

Right now, I think we need writers who know the difference between the production of a market commodity and the practice of an art. Developing written material to suit sales strategies in order to maximize corporate profit and advertising revenue is not quite the same thing as responsible book publishing or authorship. [ad-lib response to audience:] Thank you, brave applauders.

Yet I see sales departments given control over editorial. I see my own publishers in a silly panic of ignorance and greed, charging public libraries for an eBook six or seven times more than they charge customers. We just saw a profiteer try to punish a publisher for disobedience and writers threatened by corporate fatwa, and I see a lot of us—the producers who write the books, and make the books—accepting this. Letting commodity profiteers sell us like deodorant, and tell us what to publish and what to write. [ad-lib response to audience:] Well, I love you too, darling.

Books, you know, they’re not just commodities. The profit motive often is in conflict with the aims of art. We live in capitalism. Its power seems inescapable. So did the divine right of kings. Any human power can be resisted and changed by human beings. Resistance and change often begin in art, and very often in our art—the art of words.

I have had a long career and a good one. In good company. Now here, at the end of it, I really don’t want to watch American literature get sold down the river. We who live by writing and publishing want—and should demand—our fair share of the proceeds. But the name of our beautiful reward is not profit.

Its name is freedom.

Thank you.

Thank you, Ursula K. LeGuin.

Lessons from Contest Judging

Writers are often advised to enter their work in contests. Winning, or placing in the top, can be great exposure and give authors something to add to their query letters.

But I’ve never had anyone advise me to judge a contest.

It’s a good idea though. I recently  judged one category in an international contest with many categories and many entries. Just like critiquing others’ work, judging taught me more about writing. But it also gave me a look behind the scenes of the contest, and, by extrapolation, insight into the publishing process.

So here–for your edification–are some of the things I learned judging a contest.

Submit your best work. This seems like a no-brainer, but apparently, it must be said. Submit your best work to contests, agents, editors, and readers. One of the manuscripts I read was so bad that I made a note to myself not to buy any of that author’s work. Ever. Having to spend my limited free time reading that manuscript was painful–and annoying.

Exposure works in many ways. One of the entries I read was a book in a series, and I liked it so much I bought the entire series. Entering a contest can sell your books, because judges are readers, and they know other readers. Even if your book doesn’t win, the fact that it’s getting read could lead to more sales.

It’s hard. Contest judging gave me a glimpse of how hard it must be for an editor or agent to turn down a good book. In a contest, you can only pick one book for the top spot. If you’re lucky enough to have several good books to judge, choosing the best one is difficult.

It’s subjective. Just like editors, agents, and readers, contest judges have different tastes. In the category I judged, there were several judges and all our scores of the same books were different. (Except for the horrible one. It got low scores from all of us.)

Judges don’t talk. I had no idea how my fellow judges had rated the books until after the results were determined. In fact, I didn’t even know who the other judges were. Judging is like writing: you do it alone in a room.

Show appreciation. The people who run most contests are volunteers. The people who judge are volunteers. The people who publicize the results are volunteers. Organizing, judging, and  publicizing contests and their results are gargantuan thankless tasks. It doesn’t hurt to be appreciative of the effort.

Be a judge.  These contests don’t happen without people volunteering to do the work. Even if you’re not a writer, many contests are “readers’ choice” contests that need avid readers for the judging. If you are a writer and want to have contests to enter, give back by helping out. You don’t have to do it for every single contest, but do it at least once.

I promise you’ll learn something.

A Week at the Barn

Barn Sign

One of the things writers have to do is attend conferences, workshops, retreats, or classes to demonstrate to the IRS that they are serious about writing—that it’s not just a hobby. So every year, writers look for opportunities to advance their knowledge, improve their craft, and satisfy IRS rules.

The farther along I got as a writer, though, the more challenging it was to find events I wanted to attend. Then—in the events listing of the SCBWI magazine—I saw a blurb for a full novel revision retreat. Intrigued, I went online to check it out.

This retreat would be held in Austin, Texas, at a place called the Writing Barn. Only 14 attendees would be accepted—and you had to apply, with a writing sample. Instead of random critique groups, faculty mentors would give attendees feedback on their full novel manuscripts. These mentors were accomplished writers who were also faculty at the Vermont College of Fine Arts—i.e., writers who were also skilled at reading and critiquing the work of other writers. Lodging was available on site and included in the full price, as was breakfast and lunch.

I had a full novel in need of revision, so I applied. When I was accepted, I hesitated, nervous about spending an entire week at a revision retreat. What if it was as disappointing as others had been?

It wasn’t.

As another attendee put it in his blogpost, the week was like a “mini-MFA program” with great food, engaging colleagues, and an adorable mascot (a Chihuahua named Toby, who should have his own blog, but doesn’t).


Buddha statues scattered all over the property set a contemplative tone…


Leavened by the appearance of Godzilla (yes, Godzilla wears a bolo)…

Godzilla Bolo

A gator I named Jaws Junior…

Jaws Junior

And more cowbell.

More Cowbell

The Writing Barn occupies 7.5 acres in south Austin—acres where you feel removed from the world. Deer wander through the grounds daily. Attendees stayed in the Book House, while the Writing Barn was the venue for craft sessions. The picture below was taken from the Book House porch.

Evening Deer

A week before the actual event, I received an in-depth editorial letter, plus my full manuscript with comments, from my mentor, the wonderful Rita Williams-Garcia. Those two things alone assured me I had made the right decision. Before the event even started, I was getting serious feedback on my novel.

And once I got there? Even better.

The atmosphere was casual, with plenty of time to interact with the faculty and other attendees–a mix of published and unpublished writers who offered another source of information and inspiration. Everyone had several face-to-face meetings with their mentors to discuss their books and their revision strategies. There was ample time to do the actual revising while away from all the distractions of home.

In addition to mentoring attendees, each faculty member (Kathi Appelt, Rita Williams-Garcia, Shana Burg, Bethany Hegedus, and TA Anne Bustard) offered a session on some element of craft.  In the evenings, local writers like Greg Leitich Smith and Cynthia Leitich Smith, Varian Johnson, and Jennifer Ziegler came out to the barn for informal discussions.

The entire week was relaxing, engaging, and inspiring. Wine, chocolate, and ice cream (among many other things) were always available, and the vegetarian lunches were incredible. Everyone—faculty, attendees, and guests—was kind and generous. But what stays with me is this: Attendees and their work were taken seriously, whether they were published or not.

And that, as they say, is priceless.


Still to come at the Writing Barn in 2014:

Writing Outside the Box, October 9-12 with Ammi-Joan Paquette and K.A. Holt.

The Art of the Sale, December 4-7, with Jenny Han and Siobhan Vivian.

Four Questions

I was listening to an interview with actor William H. Macy on NPR’s Fresh Air and was struck by something he said about how he, as an actor, analyzes scenes. Relating how he approached some sex scenes he had to do for a movie, he said that to overcome the self-consciousness he felt, he asked himself the four questions he asks about any scene:

“Where does it start, where does it end, what changed, and why is it in the movie?”

Just change “movie” to “book,” and these are four valuable questions for any author. All four will help you keep your writing tight by pointing up unnecessary words or action that can be eliminated. The second two will help you see whether your scenes are building your story, or are just a string  of unrelated episodes.

Originally published on April 3, 2013, at