Even the Best Stories Have Flaws: Inside Altered Fluid
Altered Fluid is a speculative fiction critique group that includes writers such as N. K. Jemisin, Matthew Kressel, and Saladin Ahmed.
Altered Fluid is the story of a creative writing class that grew into much more. It's also the story of Terry Bisson's generosity toward and respect for his students, who wanted to continue working together long after the writing classes ended.
"Paul Berger, Greer Woodward and I were part of Terry Bisson's Fantasy, Science Fiction and Horror short story class at the New School in the spring of 2001," said Kris Dikeman, an original Altered Fluid member. "When the class ended, a group of us looked at each other and said, 'Ok, let's keep doing this.'"
Bisson's style of encouraging his students and of holding them to a rigorous standard inspired the earliest incarnation of Altered Fluid as they met in each other's Manhattan apartments. The effectiveness of a critique group depends on the personalities of the members and the willingness to put story before ego. Altered Fluid puts craft before personal comfort and their approach is paying off.
Nine years after the original group convened, Altered Fluid has grown to include more than a dozen writers with a growing list of professional sales. Below, I talk with most of the current members about the group and how the critique process works. The result is as revealing about them as individual writers as it is about the dynamics of a critique group.
Saladin Ahmed's fiction has appeared in Strange Horizons, IGMS, Clockwork Phoenix 2, and Beneath Ceaseless Skies. His novel Throne of the Crescent Moon is forthcoming from DAW Books.
Paul M. Berger's writing has appeared in Fantasy Magazine, Strange Horizons, Interzone, Escape Pod, and Weird Tales, among other places.
Kris Dikeman is the author of "Nine Sundays in a Row." Her stories have appeared in Strange Horizons, The Guide to Surreal Botany, Lady Churchill's Rosebud Wristlet and Year's Best Fantasy 9, among other places.
Alaya Dawn Johnson is the author of the novels Moonshine, Racing the Dark, and its sequel The Burning City. Her fiction has appeared in Strange Horizons, Interfictions 2 and the forthcoming Zombies vs. Unicorns.
Rajan Khanna's short fiction has appeared or is forthcoming in Shimmer, GUD and The Way of the Wizard and has received Honorable Mention in The Year's Best Fantasy & Horror.
Matthew Kressel's "The History Within Us" appeared in Clarkesworld and the "The Suffering Gallery" will appear in Beneath Ceaseless Skies. He is the publisher of Sybil's Garage and the co-host of the Fantastic Fiction reading series at KGB with Ellen Datlow.
E. C. Myers' fiction has appeared in Sybil's Garage No. 7 and will appear in a forthcoming issue of Shimmer Magazine. His first young adult novel, Fair Coin, is on submission with publishers.
Devin Poore is an assistant editor and non-fiction contributor to Sybil's Garage, and a writer of short stories and novels in which the world isn't quite as it should be.
Mercurio D. Rivera is a frequent contributor to Interzone with stories also appearing or forthcoming in Unplugged: The Web's Best SF and Fantasy for 2008, Black Static, Nature, Electric Velocipede, Abyss & Apex and elsewhere.
Greer Woodward's humorous short story "Home Swt Home" appears in Shelter of Daylight. Woodward lives in Hawaii and is a satellite member of Altered Fluid.
How did the group form? And where did the name "Altered Fluid" come from?
KRESSEL: "Altered Fluid" comes from the poem "Elegy" by Edna St. Vincent Millay: "On and on eternally shall your altered fluid run. Bud and bloom and go to seed but your singing days are done." My grandmother used to quote that poem a lot, and I think "altered fluid" has a nice speculative ring to it. Others in the group think the poem is horribly depressing, which it is.
JEMISIN: It is. Also kinky.
WOODWARD: I realized the group was going to click when, on 9/11, we emailed each other fast and furiously to make sure everyone was OK.
What sort of teacher was Terry Bisson and in what ways, if any, did he influence Altered Fluid?
DIKEMAN: Back then I was mostly writing horror, so I didn't really know much about him or his work. The day after I signed up for the class I picked up his collection Bears Discover Fire and other Stories. I was so excited to have the person who wrote those stories teaching me.
The class was very hands-on, with all of us reading each other's work and giving our opinions, and Terry going last, pointing out in his quiet way all the things the rest of us had overlooked, both the bad and the good. His teaching style was this great combination of honesty and kindness. He didn't soft-pedal his opinion, if he thought something didn't work he's say so, but then he'd point out all the things that did work, or could work, with a little help.
He took us seriously, he took our work seriously, as a result I think we worked hard to write the best stories we could. I like to think Altered Fluid has that in common with his class. I know for myself there have been times I've been ready to turn something in to the group and stopped, gone back and tried to make it better. I live in fear that one day they'll all tip to what a scrub I am and kick me out.
WOODWARD: I'd loved Terry's amusing story "Get Me to the Church on Time" and when I saw he was teaching at the New School, I had to sign up. I took the class in the fall of 2000 and spring of 2001. Terry set a comfortable, focused atmosphere which continued into Altered Fluid. As a teacher, Terry would often read portions of our material back to us. I was very impressed by the way Terry could read a story from the inside, from the very heart of it, as if he'd written it himself. This sense of understanding was always a reinforcement — and compliment — to the writer.
BERGER: That class was my first chance to get to know a professional writer whose work I read for fun. I think Terry was careful to show that he didn't take himself too seriously but that he did take our writing seriously, and that experience got me thinking that maybe I might be able to write at a professional level too someday. It certainly wouldn't have occurred to me to write regularly or find a group of other writers without that.
RIVERA: I took Terry's class in 2002 and again in 2003 before joining Altered Fluid. I found that Terry's mechanical approach to constructing a short story matched my own style and propensity to outline. He required us to "pitch" several ideas before starting a story, then we would submit our beginnings, middles and ends. One thing I learned from Terry that sticks with me is that not every short story necessarily "clicks," even if all the elements are there. (In hindsight, I suspect he was just trying to make me feel better about a lousy story I wrote).
KRESSEL: When I took the class at the New School, Terry Bisson was on a leave of absence, and Alice Turner took his place. They both are the founders of the Fantastic Fiction reading series at KGB, of which I am now co-host, so you could say Terry and Alice had a lot of influence on me, both writing and otherwise.
What is at the heart of the critiquing process? When does it work? When does it fail? And how do you ensure that it works more often than not?
BERGER: We structure a critiquing session so that first we go around the table and everyone presents their prepared crit without interruption for three minutes, and then after everyone has had a turn, we move into an open discussion. I've found that some of the most inspiring ideas come during that discussion, because by that time we've been hearing everyone else's thoughts on the story for half an hour, and we're all excited about ways to make it work. If that conversation turns into a heated debate, you know something about the story is a winner, even if nobody agrees on which way to take it.
KRESSEL: I think you have to be open to the possibility that what you just wrote needs work. You have to allow for the fact that as others are reading your work, they're looking for flaws, and everything has flaws. The reason why our critique sessions work more often than not is because we engage in constructive criticism. We're not trying to destroy each other's egos, but instead trying to find what's broken in a story and fix it. Or finding what works in a story and make it work even better. And there are a lot of talented minds in that room to do that.
JEMISIN: I get far less from having my own work critiqued than I get from seeing others' work critiqued. I'm too close to my own work to learn anything from the critique; mostly when my own stuff gets critted I just take the advice, make changes, and move on. But when I critique someone else's work, then I also see how other people critiqued it — whether they saw the same things I did in the text, whether things that went thunk for me also went thunk for them, and so on — then I learn.
RIVERA: That's right, a successful critique should leave the writer feeling inspired rather than beaten down. Our critiques typically delve into what's working and what's not working. We then make specific suggestions to improve the story. With ten writers and friends whom I respect all brainstorming about my story, inspiration is inevitable.
DIKEMAN: I think the process fails when you start catering to the group's likes and dislikes instead of going your own way. Having been together this long, I know there are certain things I do that other people around the table don't like, don't agree with. It would be simpler just to take those things out, for the sake of not hearing the critique. But as valuable as everyone's opinion is, I think you still have to write your story, your way, even if you know you're not going to please everyone.
Of course, there are tons of things I do that are flat out wrong — my cursed passive voice, for example. Those are the hits I really need to hear, and the group provides them, nobody throws their hands in the air and shouts "Good God, woman, not again!" (At least not where I can hear them.) Like a dancing teacher, patiently correcting your posture for the gajillionth time, because they know someday you'll get it (hopefully).
AHMED: For me, the critiquing process is about bringing your own insights and writerly strengths to bear on a story without resorting to talking about what the story in question would be like if you'd written it. And everyone in Altered Fluid is pretty good at doing just that.
MYERS: One of the most valuable things about Altered Fluid is the diversity of our members. We all have unique backgrounds, interests, specialties, pet peeves, and strengths that inform the discussion and we each favor different subgenres of speculative fiction. That range of perspectives sometimes makes it more challenging to decide how to revise a piece, but when the majority of the group agrees that there's a problem to fix in the manuscript, I make sure to address it in revision.
Funniest moment at an Altered Fluid meeting?
JEMISIN: You mean besides the time David [Rivera] danced naked on the table with a beer stein on his head?
KRESSEL: Yeah, but by the seventh time he took off his clothes, it got old. And weird.
RIVERA: Sheesh! No one appreciates physical comedy these days.
JOHNSON: There's a lot of punning. A recent one involved "Cookies and Cream," but you don't want to know what it referred to.
BERGER: Eugene [Myers] must have an extra area of his brain that's dedicated to generating puns, and it's running even when he's not aware of it. (And thanks Alaya, the last thing I needed was that "Cookies and Cream" image back in my mind.)
MYERS: You mean my puneal gland, Paul? I only make puns because people enjoy them so much!
Tensest moment at an Altered Fluid meeting?
KRESSEL: For me, it was during a critique of one of my stories when a guest told me how much they hated my story. You could slice the tension in the air that night. But I went on to sell that story, so nyah nyah nyah!
MYERS: That meeting was really tense for me too, because my story was up after Matt's and I was waiting for my own turn at the guillotine! (The critique I received was gentler, but I haven't sold that story—instead I expanded it into a novel as our guest suggested.) As receptive as we always are to constructive criticism, it can be hard to take in the heat of the moment, and we never pull our punches.
POORE: Without a doubt the meeting where we had to ask a member to leave the group. It was one of those bad situations where it just wasn't working out.
BERGER: Ditto Devin. But something in the group just gelled after that point. It was as if we realized how much energy we had been spending trying to keep a dysfunctional situation going, and now it was time to get real about our writing. The overall quality of the whole group's work skyrocketed almost immediately, and we started making a string of professional sales.
What do you do when a critiquer is being pompous or otherwise full of it?
JEMISIN: I would hope we'd kick that critiquer out. I haven't seen that kind of attitude from anyone in Altered Fluid, though, so it hasn't come up.
KRESSEL: Speak for yourself, Nora! No, just kidding. Like Nora said, I haven't seen that attitude in the group and we probably wouldn't tolerate it for long.
JOHNSON: We do some significant vetting of any potential members, so I agree that I can't imagine this becoming an issue (and it hasn't in the three years I've been a member). On the other hand, you're never going to agree with all critiques, and sometimes you categorically, radically disagree with the critiques. But even then, the critiquer gave a lot of time and effort to reading and offering suggestions for your story, so I don't see any dividend to being confrontational in such situations. Take what you can and move on. Sometimes the critiques I disagree with the most also tell me the most about my story.
RIVERA: I tell Alaya to sit down and cut it out. (Kidding! I'm kidding! All right, I'm back to the naked dancing and the beer stein, I guess...)
What are some of the best unintentional things you've learned from a group member?
AHMED: That things which seem perfectly clear to you can be utterly opaque to even the smartest of readers.
JOHNSON: That you can really like a person and really have a hard time with the characters that they've based, in some way, on themselves.
POORE: Or you can really hate a person, and then the characters they write... nah, you hate those, too.
JEMISIN: To avoid nudity and beer steins. Also, I'm too literal to write, or enjoy, good slipstream. I like the poetry of it, but my brain keeps reaching for logic and a plot; I'm still trying, but I'm not sure it will ever be My Thing.
MYERS: My work is influenced by every story I read and every critique I hear. The biggest lesson I've learned, that I'm still learning, is that there are many different ways to tell a good story: as many ways as there are writers. Because I'm exposed to so many different styles and genres in the group, I'm less afraid to try new things, push outside my own comfort zone, and experiment with my own style. Even if I fail, the rest of the group will help me figure it out.
KRESSEL: I think that as Eugene said, it's the critiques of other's stories which often colors the way I think of my own. Sometimes a member has an astute observation about a character or her motivations and something clicks in my brain about a story I'm working on.
I know __________ is really on his/her game when he she __________.
DIKEMAN: I know Paul Berger is really on his game when he gives us a story where the characters are funny, believable and compelling, besides being a zeppelin captain/a bat/living in a house with chicken legs.
BERGER: I know Kris Dikeman is really on her game when we're going around the table critiquing a sci-fi action story and she says, "But the mom should be out in the backyard with a shovel," and suddenly it's a skin-crawling horror story.
MYERS: I know Mercurio is really on his game when he manages to pull the rug out from under me on the last page and completely change my perception of what was going on in the story.
What has been the hardest critique for you to hear?
MYERS: Probably my first novel critique, not because it was harsh but because I had so much time, effort, and emotion invested in it. (Though Kris did draw me a chart of the action that made it painfully obvious the pacing needed work.) No one enjoys hearing that a story isn't working, but we don't take it personally; everyone wants to improve the story and our craft.
DIKEMAN: We're just never going to move past that chart, are we?
JEMISIN: Honestly, I don't find any critique hard to hear. Sometimes I squirm when it turns out that something I thought was working, isn't, but that's a minor discomfort, and it's easily assuaged by the knowledge that any critique is meant to make my fiction better.
BERGER: I think I chose to respectfully disagree with the critique that was hardest for me to accept. It was for a story in which I really wanted to find a way to combine several diverse elements, but it just wasn't clicking. People pointed at a spot halfway through and said, "Your story ends here. Just cut the second half." It was basically a "kill your darling" situation, which is often perfectly good advice. I could have jury-rigged a way to wrap it up, but it felt like that wouldn't have done justice to the idea. Instead, I put it aside, and I hope to return to it with a fresh perspective. I guess I acknowledged the group's general vibe that the story wasn't working, but I wanted to look for solutions other than the one they suggested.
POORE: I'm with Eugene on the novel critique. Mine was the first one that the group did, and while the critique was mostly positive and extremely helpful, there's a difference between putting a short story that you've worked on for days or weeks, and a novel that you've invested months or years of work into. (And I'm still waiting for my chart.)
DIKEMAN: Sorry, I'll get right on that.
What would you get if you turned a story by __________ inside out?
JEMISIN: Something really gross, because Kris writes about zombies, and they're bad enough on the outside.
DIKEMAN: But they're pretty on the inside! All glittery and whatnot.
JOHNSON: If you turned one of David's stories inside out, you'd have a piece about friendly aliens deciding to leave earth and everyone understanding each other really well.
POORE: If you turned one of Kris Dikeman's stories inside out it would be about happiness and sunshine and puppies.
DIKEMAN: If you turned one of Devin's stories inside out you'd get one about an accountant from Bayonne with no magical portal in his basement, no vampire evil twin and absolutely no possessed squirrels in the attic. Borrrring.
BERGER: If you turned half of Alaya's stories inside out, you'd get a wishy-washy old man who ate huge bloody steaks with little tiny vegetables... If you turned any of Devin's stories inside out, you'd get an epic tale of a hero who is the center of the world, and it wouldn't be interesting at all.
RIVERA: If you turned one of Raj's stories inside out you'd be reading about a humdrum, modern-day Jane who hates magic tricks and likes to go absolutely nowhere — because she has nothing to find. Eugene's story would be a dark and depressing exploration of senior citizen politics.
KRESSEL: If you turned one of Paul's story inside out, you'd find a story about the Emperor of the Universe who'd much rather clean toilets in an office building for minimum wage.
Before I joined Altered Fluid, I used to __________.
KHANNA: Follow them around like a lost puppy dog. Sadly, this is true.
AHMED: What Raj said.
JEMISIN: Be in other writing groups. I moved to NYC from Boston in 2007. In Boston I'd been in the BRAWLers, an equally kickass group that really helped me get on my game. So I knew even before I hit town that I wanted to find a good writing group, and I actually started researching Altered Fluid via their website after getting recommendations from people in the SFF community. Altered Fluid had a rep! Alas, they blew me off when I first emailed them, so I ended up joining another group (The Secret Cabal) for awhile. But they weren't really the ideal match for me, so I started bugging Altered Fluid and following them around like Raj and Saladin. Eventually they had an opening, I auditioned, and they graciously allowed me to join, whereupon I yelled at them for making me go through all that. The only sad part is that I had to leave the Cabal, which is a perfectly good group; they just weren't as into promotion as Altered Fluid is, and I really need the promo help at this stage of my career. It's all cool; we're all still friends.
POORE: Turn down Paul's invitations to join the group. I wasn't too bright. I turned him down twice before I sat in on a meeting.
DIKEMAN: Is that true? I did not know that. I used to talk about writing, instead of doing it.
RIVERA: Bounce from writing class to writing class and walked the streets aimlessly between courses.
MYERS: Have every Tuesday night free.
Seriously, things have temporarily slowed down a little but the group generally met every week with at least two stories, which helped to make me much more prolific.
KRESSEL: Drink less.
How has your understanding of the craft changed since you started out?
AHMED: I've only been writing speculative fiction with any seriousness for three years now, but I'd published a fair amount of poetry before that. Poets tend to mystify and obscure the relationship between commerce and art. Genre writers are significantly less prone to this sort of delusion. The most important thing I've learned in the past few years is that professionalism is an inseparable part of craft, whether one wants it to be or not.
JEMISIN: Seeing as I started out when I was 9 years old, I would say I've become a much better speller since then...
BERGER: When I started out, I was somewhat under the impression that the really good stories all leapt fully-formed straight onto the page. And that criticism of the story was really an aspersion on the personal genius of the author (i.e., me). Now I know – it's work. Hard work. The people who make it look easy are just making it look easy.
MYERS: My first "short" story was 22,000 words long. By the time I went to Clarion West in 2005, I was averaging 13,000 words, to the annoyance of my classmates. My first story for Altered Fluid was around 9,000, and I remember Devin commenting on how remarkable it was that nothing happened in it at that length. Now I can actually write 4,000 or 5,000 word stories if I put my mind to it, so naturally I've switched to novels.
KRESSEL: Paul, you make it look easy. I used to write stories and think, "Isn't this wonderful? Altered Fluid will think it's wonderful." And they would rip it to shreds and I'd go home devastated. Now I know that even the best stories have flaws, that writing a story is a process of gradual improvements.