Three weeks ago, I was in Greensboro, North Carolina at Orson Scott Card’s Literary Boot Camp. I had some excellent teachers while earning my MFA at BYU, but I learned more in six days at Boot Camp than I did in any graduate workshop. I would definitely recommend the Boot Camp experience to any emerging fiction writer, regardless of genre. Today, I’d like to try to articulate just why I felt like the experience was so valuable for anyone who may be considering it.
Before I do that, though, a few updates on the Four Centuries of Mormon Stories contest. The official rules are now up. There’s an interview about the contest on By Common Consent. I also recently wrote a blog post about spiritual experience in fiction authors may find useful in brainstorming. And there’s still plenty of time to contribute to the prize kitty–including four tickets each left to the past and future dinners.
OK. Now back to Boot Camp.
What is it?
The Boot Camp experience actually consists of two parts. The first two days are a large group writing class in which Card teaches “most of what he knows about writing” in general (that’s his claim, not mine–but the class certainly covers a lot of ground). Anyone can register for the writing class for $175. The third through sixth days are reserved for the fourteen-member Boot Camp. Boot Campers write a complete short story between the evening of the second day and the morning of the fourth, and then spend the fourth through sixth days in workshop with Card. Admission is by a one-page audition two months before Boot Camp begins. Tuition for Boot Camp is an additional $550 (for a $725 total writing class and Boot Camp experience).
Probably half of the content of the writing class is delivered clearly, though less colorfully or forcefully, in Card’s craft book Characters & Viewpoint. In that book and in his course, Card is very good at articulating the advantages and costs of specific choices in technique. Although I’ve been writing for some time, no one specifically pointed out to me that 1st person narrators trade vocal proximity for distance in time, or that we typically use the present tense in English storytelling for jokes or anecdotes, while we use the past tense for truth.
To take one specific example, Card’s class helped me see why the choice of a present tense, 1st person narrator in the Hunger Games series (rather than a 3rd person past tense narration with deep penetration) created significant strain in the third book when Katniss ceased to be the sort of person who would tell her own story. Even though I’ve been writing seriously for seven years, I don’t think I had enough awareness of basic craft choices and their likely consequences to make an observation like that about my own work until my experience in Card’s writing class.
In a way, I feel like someone who’s been learning to bake by tasting baked goods and experimenting for years–and who was only recently taught in detail what leavening agents are and how they work, or how changes the oven heat changes the baking process.
By moving systematically through techniques of invention and arrangement, handling character, structure, and point of view in detail, Orson Scott Card gave me a clear vocabulary to sharpen my attention to my own writing. He has his own preferences in some cases, but he explains the strengths and liabilities even of techniques he rarely uses so that you have more informed options in your own work.
I’ve heard people say that in the texture of a piece of marble, Michelangelo could see what sculpture the marble might become, and that he wasn’t so much creating his works as freeing them from the rough original stone.
That’s basically what it was like to listen to Orson Scott Card give detailed critiques during the workshop portion of Boot Camp. If there was a story I found mediocre at best, Card would simply tell the core of it back to the writer in a way that was beautiful and heartbreaking, or else pick out a specific element that had potential well beyond a short piece and explain how valuable it was–and I would be forced to admit that he was right, that I (and perhaps also the author) had missed the vast potential hidden in the story.
But because he can so often see the masterpiece locked in rough stone, Card isn’t afraid to cut. He is thorough to the point of ruthlessness in his comments on weakness in a story. I never felt like he ragged on an individual point longer than the author needed for clarity, but he was very good at pushing writers to eliminate poor choices, to “thicken” the worlds of the stories. He demanded that we see our characters’ own internal moral logic and give it the consistency it deserves (no matter how warped it may be). He’d spin around the piece and show a multitude of possible structural choices, helping the writer and other participants see the potential and limitations of each. He’d talk about the text as a blueprint for a house readers build in their minds, and he’d help give us a sense of how that blueprint might interact with the pre-existing terrain readers’ initial assumptions create.
Watching Card examine and critique a story gave me an ambition for the future. When I’d see him go to work, I got hungry to be good enough to see stories like that someday. It was incredible.
Should you go?
Read Character & Viewpoint. If you like it, you probably will be able to learn a great deal that isn’t in the book from the writing class and workshop. You will also probably learn things that were in the book and that you thought you got, but that are driven home more fully through live interaction.
It doesn’t matter at all if you’re interested in Science Fiction. My Boot Camp story was a literary fable involving a Palestinian Christian and his quest to restore his lost childhood, and Card was very helpful. His vast experience in culture and his ability to imagine himself into different scenarios were as helpful for me as a multicultural writer as they were to those who wrote imaginary worlds. His personal love for chick lit and his interest in family dynamics made him an eager and articulate respondent to stories far from those he’s best known for writing. If you write fiction, there’s a lot he can offer you.
So think about it. If you decide to go, mark your calendar to send off an application next April. And don’t procrastinate (like I did) telling yourself for a few years you might try next time. Orson Scott Card is 60 now, and though it’s possible he’ll be able to sustain intense morning-to-night instruction for a week at a time for the next decade, it’s also possible that he’ll retire sometime in the next few years like a normal, reasonable person would.
Orson Scott Card is one of many skilled LDS writers today, but he may be the best writing teacher we currently have. And it would be a shame if an emerging generation of Mormon writers simply passed on the opportunity to learn from someone so passionate about sharing his knowledge of the craft we share.