How I Got in to Orson Scott Card’s Literary Boot Camp 2003

In order to attend Orson Scott Card’s Literary Boot Camp, I had to submit a writing sample: the first page of a story. I wasn’t sure whether it was supposed to be a sample of a completed story or one I was still working on. (It turned out it could be either). I also wasn’t sure whether it was one page in double-spaced manuscript format or not. (It turned out it could be either.) Of course, if the guidelines for future Boot Camps specify such things, follow the guidelines. (To better see how my sample looked in terms of formatting, click on the image.)

The following is what I ended up submitting. It’s the beginning of a still unfinished (in fact, barely begun) fantasy short story. Be sure to read my comments after the sample.

The torch flickered one last time, then sputtered out. For a moment, Kodara thought she saw a light ahead, and she drew an excited breath, but then realized it was only an afterimage.

The darkness pressed in around them.

She was still holding Speri’s tiny hand, and she gave it what she hoped was a reassuring squeeze. Dropping the useless torch, she groped to the right until she could feel the cold stone of the cave.

“It’s dark. Like the hiding cupboard.” Speri’s voice was innocently cheerful.

She still thinks it’s a game. Kodara forced herself to match Speri’s tone. “Yes, honey. Like the hiding cupboard.”

She began feeling her way forward. If they followed the cave wall, perhaps they would find a way out before they finished the food she had hurriedly packed. If not… Well, she had Zerul’s knife. Please, don’t let him notice it’s gone. Not until we’re free or dead. Let our luck hold till then.

Their luck had begun two days before, although it did not seem so at first. It had been more than two years since the last time Zerul had left her shattered and bleeding on her bed, and she hated herself for hoping he’d found someone else whose screams he enjoyed more than hers.

Only the slaves’ shouts praising Zerul’s glory as he approached had given her sufficient warning to get Speri into the cupboard before he splintered the door and strode into her room.

“My dear, I’ve been neglecting you. How have you been?” There was a warmth in his voice that she knew he did not feel.

First of all, if you’re planning to apply for OSC’s Boot Camp, do not use this writing sample! (If you’re not able to write your own sample, there is no point in going. Besides, he might recognize it.)

Second, at one point during Boot Camp, we discussed the writing samples of the Boot Camp attendees, and pointed out their flaws. (The flaws of the writing samples, not the flaws of the people.) By the time we got to mine, it was obvious that it had two major flaws. (One of them was something I knew was a problem, but had done intentionally to avoid what I felt was a worse problem.) And yes, OSC mentioned them (and gave me an idea on how to solve them.) The point is: You can submit a writing sample that has problems and still get in. But you should show that you know what a story is, and that you can think creatively.

Update: Some people want to know what the flaws were.

Actually, it’s really just two aspects of one flaw: I started the story in the wrong place.

1. I try to create false suspense. Kodara knows why she would prefer suicide to being captured, but the reader does not know, and won’t know for a while. Generally, the character should not know something significant that the reader does not. Real suspense comes from wondering what will happen, not wondering what the character knows that you don’t.

2. I move into a major flashback on the first page. Tell the story in time order unless there’s a good reason not to.

For the second one, I felt I had a good reason. I had written a different version that started at the beginning of the flashback. I read that first page, and I thought it gave the impression that it was a story about torture. Since it’s not really a story about the torture, but rather about the escape, I decided it was better to start during the escape and flash back to the torture, so the reader would have a better idea of what kind of story it was.

OSC’s suggested solution was to start the story even earlier, so that the first impression is not that it’s all about torture.