Vonda McIntyre, Criticism, and Maybe a Bit More

If you follow science fiction, there’s a good chance you know that Vonda McIntyre recently passed, recently meaning this past April. Among many other things, she wrote Dream Snake, a far-reaching piece that won a Hugo and a Nebula. She wrote in the Star Trek universe. She was instrumental in Clarion and mentoring new writers. I’d like to say that I knew her and that I kept up with her closely, but I didn’t. That’s the thing about this field, it’s both very small and very large.

I did have one personal brush with her that I’m thinking about lately, though.

Over the past few days I’ve had email conversation with a couple newish writers of my recent past—both of which have included thoughts and questions about critique groups (or “work groups”) and talked about how those groups are either working for them or not. If you’ve read my views, you know that I take an oddly selfish approach toward participating in critique groups. Simplifying dramatically, my responses to one of these writers was: The critic group is always interesting—it’s nice to get some feedback, but, at some point, you have to do your own thing. At that point, the value of a critique group is that it can give you a deadline. If you’re able to create without it, though, then you may not need it.

The painful part of a work group is that it can be harsh. The problem in that light is that while every reader is right, some workshop critics can’t convey their angst over a story in a way that helps that writer (or worse, some critics don’t care to help the writer at all, but instead are trying to do other things). To be blunt, sometimes people in work groups just don’t know what they are doing.

The joyful parts, however, are those moments when a person provides a critique that helps you see the world in a different way.

On that note, here’s my Vonda McIntyre story:

# # # # #

I was a very new writer—unpublished at the time—and Vonda McIntyre was coming to a local convention I was to attend. For some sadistic reason, she had agreed to read some manuscripts and offer one-on-one feedback sessions. There may have been a small fee. I don’t recall. Starving for such an opportunity, I immediately signed up.

At the assigned time, I went to the assigned location.

The room was smallish for a conference room, probably held 30 people at capacity. I remember she was seated calmly behind a table. I want to say the skirt on the table was red, hanging down to give the idea of a barrier. I was nervous, but trying not to show it. Here I was, a total nobody, and there Vonda McIntyre was, most certainly not a nobody.

We exchanged brief pleasantries, but Vonda got to business quickly.

I can say she was complementary of the story—so, yeah, this is a tiny humblebrag. “Tiny” being the important word here. Because after that praise she pulled the manuscript out of her handbag and placed it on the table, turned around so I could read it. “The problem,” she said, “is that you’re writing too hard.”

Aside: I wish I could remember Vonda’s exact and actual words here, because they—in conjunction with a few other experiences at the time—changed me. I remember “writing too hard,” though. So I’m pretty sure they were in there.

I remember, my gaze going to the manuscript, and my heart crashing. It was cram full of mark-ups. I mean, it looked like she had murdered my work. But, as I focused on the page, I saw that wasn’t what she had done at all. Instead, she had done nothing but strike through words. Nothing. From page one to the end, she had simply taken out words, physically showed me how to write tight prose. Oh, sure, she’d added a word here or there, most connecting words to make things read right, but otherwise all she had done was strike through words I didn’t need.

I want to say the original manuscript was maybe 4,000 words. When she was done it was probably 3,000. And, yes, even there in the room I could see how the story suddenly sang.

In that one moment she had explained what it meant to be a writer.

I remember her talking about storytelling then, and how it was good to get out of the way of readers, which I understood immediately because she had just shown me exactly what she meant. I also want to say she talked about what I mean these days when I say “setting is character” and “opinion is story,” but I’m pretty sure I wasn’t at the right place to understand those things, and maybe I’m just filling that part in.

Regardless, I left the room with my head spinning.

# # # # #

So, that’s my Vonda McIntyre story.

To be honest, I still fight with “writing too hard.” I’m a writer who needs editing, one who is constantly working to take words out of my work. I’m also one who is always just as amazed at how many words I can spare the poor reader after I think I’m finished with something. But this was important. An earlier run-in with other writers had convinced me I could one day publish something, but it was Vonda McIntyre who showed me the kind of work I needed to do to make it happen.

She was 70 years-old when she died of pancreatic cancer. She wrote until the very end.

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