Surviving the Kris Rusch Death March

I’m writing this from gate D9 at the Portland, Oregon airport, waiting for my flight back to Boston after spending over a week on the Oregon Coast. I’m tired but very excited about my writing and what the future holds.

I was one of eighteen professional writers working with Kristine Kathryn Rusch (and at the tail end, Dean Wesley Smith) on short story writing. I affectionately renamed the workshop to The Kris Rusch Death March because she is (in my ever so humble opinion) two things: the best writing teacher on the planet and also the toughest.

First, a correction.

She refers to herself as a coach, not a teacher, which is an apt distinction. The point isn’t to attain perfection and get an A with a gold star on your paper while at a workshop. It’s to get the tools in your writer’s toolbox to help you consistently sell your fiction.

Think in terms of a bath tub filled with water. (This is Kris and Dean’s analogy, not mine.) Above a certain line is the “selling line” where a story sells to a professional market. A writer’s work isn’t a flat surface of water; it’s made of waves. With some stories (or novels), the wave rises above the selling line. With others, it’s below it.

As a writer adds more tools to her toolbox, she raises the level of the water so despite the swells and troughs — no writer produces the same quality story every time — more and more stories are above the selling line.

Sometimes the work required to achieve that feels like it’s the writer’s blood that is raising the water line. You have to leave your comfort zone and take chances. Perhaps you’re good at some technique that–to use one of Kris’s phrases–is like waving your hands and saying, “Look over here,” to distract the reader from that gaping hole in your story.

That hole is in story after story, whether you realize it or not, preventing you from consistently selling. Kris grabs you by the scruff of the neck and forces you to work on your shortcomings.

There were some very uncomfortable days for me during the workshop. I felt like I’d gone backwards and didn’t know up from down. My brain was spinning like Linda Blair’s head in The Exorcist.

But I’ve emerged from The Kris Rusch Death March with new tools in my writer’s toolbox, especially one I’ll call my new chisel. I’m convinced I’ve taken major steps to raising the water line in the bathtub. And no, even though I felt like I was in agony a couple of those days, the water in the tub isn’t pink.

I wrote four new stories as part of the workshop. One will be going up electronically within a day or two. Another will be going to a traditional magazine market. A third needs to be redrafted from about the two-thirds point. The fourth will be the launching pad for an exciting new fantasy world that I hadn’t even conceived of.

I completed numerous exercises, some of which could in one way or another become transmogrified into stories.

But the best part about the workshop isn’t the stories themselves.

It’s that shiny, sharp, new chisel in my toolbox.


  1. Annie Reed

    Woohoo! Sounds like a wonderful experience, even with the pain and lost sleep. And a whole new fantasy world? How cool! I can’t wait to read what you create with your shiny, sharp, new chisel. 🙂

  2. DeAnna

    I love the waves analogy…it’s so Six Sigma-ish 🙂 Also, I am an extremely choppy writer who likes to drown tourists.

  3. Russ crossley

    Great job, Dave. Nice summary of the experience.

  4. admin

    Thanks, Russ. It seemed odd to be at a Kris and Dean workshop without you and Rita being there.

  5. Dayle

    All of your stories were great, Dave!

    My brain spun, too. I think all of ours did!

  6. admin

    Thanks, Dayle. Loved your stories! You gave us all some tough choices in the “Best of” anthology.

  7. Jim Wilson

    Nice take on the week. It’ll be fun to see how many of the stories written for the workshop end up selling to pro markets. So far, no one’s said much, as far as I know, about the novels that got started. Off hand, I’d bet it’s quite a few.
    Hope to see you on the next hike to Bataan.

  8. admin

    Thanks! I know the worldbuilding I did for story two is pointing to a novel. I’ve got some others queued up before it, based on how I’m thinking right now, but I’d expect we’ll eventually see a bunch of them.

    I’ll look forward to the next workshop we share.

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