Guest post from Jeff Duntemann: Taos Toolbox

We asked Taos Toolbox 2011 graduate and veteran SFF writer Jeff Duntemann to tell us about the workshop experience at Taos Toolbox. Many thanks to Jeff for his contribution!

Taos Toolbox 2012
Where: Taos Ski Valley, New Mexico
When: June 10-23, 2012
How much: $3100 if application is received by February 1; $3300 thereafter
Application fee: $35. Applications close when class is full.

I am not a new writer. No indeed; I will turn 60 this summer, and I’ve recently retired from a successful dual career in computer programming and technical publishing to see if I can approach a fiction career as systematically as I approached my nonfiction career.

That, in a nutshell, is what the Taos Toolbox workshop is about: to systematize the craft of fiction according to the approach you’ve already learned. The workshop’s two instructors represent the two broad approaches to fiction: Workshop organizer Walter Jon Williams is the epitome of an analytical writer, and Nancy Kress is the epitome of an intuitive writer. Walter begins with a plan and the words follow; Nancy begins with the words and the plan soon falls into place. Both are legends, which suggests that both approaches work well. The challenge is on the students’ side, to recognize which approach we’ve come to use and then learn to make the most of it.

Toolbox follows the Milford model, which I first experienced when I attended Clarion East in 1973. The first part of the day is lecture, the second part group critique, and what’s left is divided between reading manuscripts for upcoming critique and writing new material. Oh yeah; sometimes there’s a little time for sleep.

Heh. Make no mistake: The Toolbox experience is intense. Over the two-week period we read and critiqued just under 200,000 words of student fiction. During one breathtaking morning Walter dissected the entire length of Samuel Delany’s novel Nova. (We had some warning on that one, and I read it before I got there.) I wrote 10,000 new words during the workshop, and took notes on the remainder of my novel that I am still working through six months later. This was no lazy-hazy touchy-feely gathering of aesthetes among the pines. As my roommate Jim Strickland put it, Toolbox is a 500-level graduate course in the art of the novel crammed into twelve days. The smoke is still pouring out of my ears.

Walter and Nancy are both superb teachers and are not to be missed. I was startled, though, at how much I learned from my thirteen student colleagues, not solely through their critique of my own work, but also by seeing how they themselves create and manage the many moving parts in a novel-length story. Walter chose a pretty diverse group for the 2011 workshop, and our interests ranged from paranormal urban fantasy to steampunk to weird westerns to things that simply defy description. (Flying, talking giant squid? Sperm that crosses the time barrier? All in a day’s workshop.) The cliquishness and mean-spirited infighting that spoiled my Clarion experience a little were simply not there. I might describe my colleagues as un-seasoned professionals, trying hard to master that seasoning but always as professionals. There was not a poseur in the bunch, and while we’ve been in only sparse touch since the workshop, I am proud to call them all friends.

This leads to a very important caveat: Toolbox requires a certain minimum level of expertise in the fundamentals of writing. It’s not for absolute newcomers. The discussion is about world building, plot, dramatic tension, pace, reveals, nuances of characterization, and other high-level concepts that must be in every writer’s toolbox. You need to know how to create complete sentences and coherent paragraphs before you get there; nay, long before you get there.

Other odd notes: The ski-resort environment is drop-dead gorgeous, the catered dinners stunning. There is a hot tub. Sea-levelers take note: At 10,000 feet you chase oxygen molecules like fireflies. Plan a little time to acclimate. Oh, and there are bears…

Was it worth it? Of course. I’ve always written fiction intuitively, often with no more than a few hundred “back of the envelope” words to frame the concept at the outset. I’ll never use an approach as analytical as Walter’s, but listening closely to Nancy taught me that intuition can be harvested most successfully when it is carefully primed, and only lightly supervised while it works. (I edit too much; such habits are dangerous.) I have a hunch, still unproven, that the more analytical techniques Walter described might be capable of resurrecting some long-aborted tales gathering dust in my trunk. Intuition is necessary but may not always be sufficient. At this point, I probably know enough to find out.

So. Prepare to work. Prepare to listen. Prepare to be surprised. (Prepare to sleep for three days when you get home.) It worked for me. It should work for you as well.

Jeff Duntemann retired from the technical publishing industry in 2007, having been a partner and co-owner of Coriolis Group Books and later Paraglyph Press. He has sold both SF and technical nonfiction into paying markets since 1974, and has had two stories on the final Hugo ballot. His dozen-odd technical books include Assembly Language Step By Step and Jeff Duntemann’s Drive-By Wi-Fi Guide. His first novel, The Cunning Blood, was published in 2005. Jeff’s other interests include astronomy, vintage technology (steampunk/dieselpunk) amateur radio (as K7JPD) and kites. He lives in Colorado Springs with his wife Carol, an engine lathe, four bichon frise dogs, twelve computers, over a thousand vacuum tubes, and three thousand books.

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  • DItto, ditto, ditto, and ditto. Jeff, you’ve summed up our Taos Toolbox experience with aplomb. If anyone would like to read the journals I wrote during and just after the two week workshop, the series can be accessed at 

    The only thing that could improve Taos Toolbox would be an alumni track inviting back past participants for another shot. Walter? Nancy?

    Waving and blowing parnormal kisses to all the Diesel Bears…

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