David Levine's Clarion Journal: Week 2

posted 7/2/00

6/24/00 - Saturday (again)

Posted my diary to the web. Went to Chicken Run, which was brilliant. Sent out e-mail to friends and family; talked to Kate. A quick dinner at the teriyaki place down the street (um, I just realized it was chicken...), then settled in to do some serious writing on my Personal Crisis story, currently titled "Farers." Wrote straight through from 6:30PM to 1AM (except for a 45-minute break to help eat the Dilettante Chocolate cake provided by Albert's partner); the story currently has seven scenes and 3350 words. Big chunks of the last couple scenes I wrote are gifts to the Crap Fairies, but I'm glad I wrote them even if they wind up getting cut. I have an excellent idea of what happens next, and I figure I have about another seven or eight scenes to write, which matches my previous estimate of 5-7000 words, although it could go as high as 9000 words (but if it does I will work hard at cutting it down). Not forgetting the 4 manuscripts to review.

On my way to the bathroom just now, ran into Julian. He was reading my diary on the web (already!?). Turns out he'd heard about its existence from Miriam, who found out about it from her parents in New Zealand via phone. They were looking at my web page, while talking on the phone with Miriam, while I was updating it. Jeezus. (Hi Mom!) Miriam and Alec were also still awake at 1:15. We're all quite mad here, said the Hatter.

Oh, one other thing: I found out Entros is gone. (The company still exists, but they've closed their public facilities and are now concentrating on game development and corporate events.) Damn.

6/25/00 - Sunday

Seattle's Pride Parade and Festival was today, just down the street, but I didn't go, despite strong intentions to do so. I was working on my story "Farers" all day. (Ironic, that I missed Pride because I was working on a story that's based on my own coming-out experience. The emotions thereof, not the specific incidents, he hastens to add.) Finished it at 5:00 -- 7003 words -- and made a quick grocery run, returning just in time for our first meeting with Geoff Ryman. He says that we will be looking at films, particuarly The Wizard of Oz and Groundhog Day.

He also drew a picture that shows the essence of story: a human figure, an arrow, and a larger, lumpier human figure. In other words, a story is a person, moving through time, who becomes different (often growing). He then drew a box around the picture. This is a science fiction story, he said. The SF writer's additional responsibility is to create the world around the person. This is easy to get wrong. The world must be consistent, must reflect and enhance the story in some way, and must have a point. There's no reason to make a story SF if the same story could be told without the SF element.

After the meeting with Geoff I fixed potato-carrot curry for dinner. I made a big batch, and Miriam, Francesca, Kameron, Albert, Paulette, and even Jennifer had some, leaving enough for my lunch tomorrow. It took what seemed like a long time -- just about everyone else managed to cook and eat dinner while I was preparing it -- although it's one of our simpler recipes. I have the ingredients for pumpkin-chicken chowder, which I might fix tomorrow, since I won't have a major story deadline for a while, but after that I think I'll be switching to simpler fare.

During and after dinner I reviewed the four manuscripts for tomorrow, then proofed my story. I had intended to edit it, try to get its length down to 6000, maybe even 5000 words, but I'm too close to it and much too tired. It's now 12:30 (technically 6/26) and I'm going to collapse just as soon as it finishes printing. (Damn, the black ink's out.) (Damn, the color ink's out as well!) (Fortunately, I have replacement ink cartridges and it doesn't take too long to replace them.)

I'm not entirely happy with this story. It's too straightforward, too long, too flabby. Written from the heart, yes, but I think there's far too much head in it. It would be better if I had some time to let it rest, come back and edit it down before sending it off to be critiqued. But that's not going to happen tonight. Oh well, we'll just have to see what people think of it.

Also, this story is set in a place that's just like Venice but different. While Geoff was talking today, I thought about what Paul and John had said and I realized that it should be set in Venice itself, with only those changes required for the fantasy elements of the story. But when I did some web research, I realized why I didn't set it in Venice in the first place: because to do so would require a lot more research than I have time for! So it's still set in Orventio, but when I revise it for publication I may change it to Venice. Or maybe not. Good night.

6/26/00 - Monday

Stupid, stupid, stupid. Stayed up until 1:30 reading my own deathless prose (not doing anything with it, you understand, just rereading it). Now I'm totally wiped out and I have a sore throat. I hope it's just fatigue and hay fever, not coming down with a cold. I hope I hope I hope...

First class with Geoff today. We all met him at his door and walked him to the classroom; later we had dinner with him as well. Today we did for the first time what we thought we were going to do every day: we went around the room, giving individual story critiques, three minutes each. After class we all went back to Geoff's room in the dorm (it's on the 4th floor, all the rest of us are on 11), where we spent about an hour and a half analyzing the subtext of two short scenes from the movie Groundhog Day. (What is Bill Murray really trying to do? What does Andie McDowell mean by that gesture?).

In the afternoon I took a nap, then went to the library to do some research on orangutans for my next story (which isn't due until some time next week, so I have time for this sort of nonsense). I didn't find exactly the information I wanted; I may pick another story idea. We all went out for dinner at a vegetarian restaurant, the Green Table, which turned out not to be there anymore; we fell back on Bill's Off Broadway, a pizza place.

After dinner I critiqued stories, then demonstrated my complete insanity by working on my mad scheme to write a description of each of the 17 of us in 3 paragraphs of 17 words each. I finished the first two paragraphs about everyone; the third is the hard one. Any resemblance to Geoff Ryman's 253 is purely coincidental.

6/27/00 - Tuesday

Last night I dreamed that Kate and I were taking a plane to Los Angeles. When we got to the airport we found half the baggage from the previous flight just lying around the departure lounge. I got on the plane, but Kate missed it -- I saw her waving from the platform (in her nightshirt) as the plane took off. When the plane got to San Francisco I caught the next flight back home (it was my parents' house, not mine), but Kate wasn't there -- I realized only then that she would have taken the next flight to LA and I was stupid to go back. I was extremely disturbed when I woke up.

I skipped meditation this morning to finish up "17". Several people have read it without comment. It isn't as funny or punchy as I would have liked, but then when I wrote it I was thinking about the fact that I'm here for five more weeks and I have to sleep sometime, so I'd better not offend anyone...

Sore throat, which never got really bad, is somewhat better today. I feel a bit feverish but that could just be the heat (everyone is complaining about the heat today).

Got my story "Farers" critiqued this morning. Everyone pointed out that there is no real conflict -- nothing really bad ever happens or threatens to happen for the hero, and everything is just hunky-dory all the way through. Several people complimented me on my nice light tone. Aargh! I thought I was really spilling my guts in this story. Terribly demoralizing. I feel like the sergeant told me "You call that a punch? Go on, hit me! Give it everything you've got!" when I thought I just did. I thought I could take critique, but this critique is affecting me far more than I expected. I guess I put too much of myself into this story, but didn't do it well enough.

I'm not sure I would have had the guts to turn in this thinly-disguised coming-out story this week if I'd known that Geoff was gay. I have my conference with him in an hour and a half.

[later:] Finished and uploaded "17". Had my conference with Geoff; we talked about "Farers," what needs to be done with it, how to revise. Writing strong emotion is hard, because we usually use words to gloss over, calm down, and negotiate; it's tough to use words to inflame. I have to learn to put my characters in serious deep shit, and once their predicament is serious enough the emotions will be unavoidable. For my next story, I want to concentrate on this (I think I did a better job of it in the last one), and do something non-chronological. But what? I don't think the orangutan story idea has the potential.

[later:] Went to Geoff's reading tonight. He read a dynamite chapter from an upcoming book, in which the main character, a young gay man, falls in love with his father, attempts to consummate the relationship, and gets in a shitwad of trouble. The worst possible thing happens, then the worst possible thing after that, then something even worse than the worst thing you thought possible... down and down into a morass of despair. (He said that the character does get redeemed in the end; it's a Christmas-Carol-type story.) It was as though the reading were directed right at me: "You want to see a gay man get tormented for coming out? I'll show you how it's done." It seems that the thing to do is develop a rounded, sympathetic character; flay him alive; bury him in shit up to his neck; and then step on his head. I don't know if I have the courage to do that.

A lot of the other folks here do, though. Of the 4 stories I critiqued tonight, 2 (the 2 best-written!) were totally, utterly, unrelievedly bleak. Excellent description, world-building, character development... all in the service of a totally depressing story with a downer ending. It's depressing, is what it is. What's more, I'm afraid my next story (still thinking about the orangutans, but I have a couple other ideas on the back burner) will be more of the same. As Bomb 23 said, I must think on this further.

One last appalling note: I'm beginning to budget my time with the assumption that I won't get to sleep until 2 AM. (But it's just midnight now, and I'm going to bed right away.)

6/28/00 - Wednesday

Did not mention yesterday that Geoff's reading/performance skills are just terrific. In his reading last night, he had a distinct voice for each character; his voice for the young man (an English boy who spends summers in San Diego) gradually changed accent, becoming more Americanized, as the summers passed, also becoming deeper. All the accents he did were dead-on.

Got a call from Kate first thing this morning. She's at Thom's place in DC for a couple days. She said "I feel like we're two units of the Borg who have gotten separated from the Collective. I'm afraid we will be unable to re-integrate after too long an absence." I told her I didn't think that would happen. She said her trip is having the desired effect: it's keeping her too busy to be missing me too much. I also got an envelope from her today: three Georgia postcards, a Ziploc baggie of red Georgia dirt, a couple newspaper clippings, a letter, and a kudzu leaf (with a strict warning: DO NOT PLANT).

In class today we critiqued four stories. I find myself expressing very different opinions on some of them than the rest of the herd; nobody else mentioned feeling they were too bleak. After the critique we spent an hour brainstorming on the question "what are all the ways SF/fantasy worldbuilding can go wrong?" I have three very densely packed pages of notes: bad physics, stupid villains, planets with monocultures and mono-ecologies, failure to consider the full implications of technological/societal changes, chainmail brassieres... we could have gone on a lot longer, but we were getting too hungry. The next question is: given that there are so damn many ways to go wrong, why do we do it? Geoff promises to address this question tomorrow.

Took a nap after lunch, then spent much of the rest of the afternoon in the library (air conditioned!) researching orangutans. I think I've found a way to really put my character in serious trouble, yet not have a downer ending. I wrote most of the first scene before dinner, then gathered in the lounge for Albert's thai chicken curry. Albert is a saint. Geoff joined us for dinner, and for root beer floats afterward. (Interestingly, neither Canadian Geoff nor South African Julian can stand root beer. Is it an American thing?)

After dinner Geoff pulled out a video cassette of The Wizard of Oz and we all watched it in the lounge, with appropriate commentary. Inez played Crow this time; Geoff provided insights into the production history. "Note how Dorothy's hair is longer. At this point in the filming they decided they needed something to cover her tits." Jen and Miriam braided Alec's hair to match Dorothy's, but he refused to allow any photos to be taken.

You know, that Billie Burke is a real bitch! "Well, Dorothy, you could have gone home right at the beginning, but I didn't tell you that -- I wanted to manipulate you into killing the Witch of the West and bringing the Ruby Slippers to Oz." First time I've watched a movie with the closed-subtext captioning turned on. After that I went back to my room and finished the first scene of my story. Then there was a water fight in the hall. Now I have to critique 4 stories for tomorrow; it's 10PM and I'll probably be up until midnight or so with that. Ah, Clarion.

[later:] It actually took until about 1:00, then I spent about 20 minutes talking with Jen, Alec, Miriam, and Amy. Good night.

6/29/00 - Thursday

Critiqued four stories today. Two didn't work at all, for me: one just showed the main character getting slightly annoyed, then very annoyed, then a solution fell out of the sky; the other had the main character dragged along from one situation to the next, whining all the way. The "ravening poodles and Tracheotomy Boys" story was much more coherent than previous efforts from its author, but still failed to satisfy me -- I wanted to understand what was happening (but others were perfectly content not to know). The fourth story, a gentle, golden tale of a quiet miracle in Italy in the 1900's, was one of the most successful stories I've seen here. However, some people thought the narrator was an asshole, and some thought the ending predictable and trite. Interestingly, there was a strong correlation between the latter group and Catholics/ex-Catholics.

After the critiques, Geoff talked about titles (two of today's stories were untitled) and finding the core of the story. Often the heart of a story emerges only after it is written; good titles can be found by reading the story, looking for the most evocative phrases (my own most successful title yet, "Tears Do Not Fall in Zero Gee," came about in exactly this way). He said that "you must go through what the characters go through," as in method acting (writing fiction is much more like acting than it is like screenwriting) and used Dorothea Brand's phrase "provoking a controlled psychological emergency" to describe the process of re-creating the characters' emotions. In emotional writing, you must say what the characters would say if they had the time to speak -- in real life, these emotions often do not emerge until after the dust has settled. Finally, writing can create "the biggest-budget movie of all time." This is not as much of a differentiator with modern special effects, but writing still has the advantage that it can stop the flow, zero in on the key bits, summarize dialogue where appopriate -- in other words, control the flow of time.

After lunch I did laundry and critiqued stories, then worked on my orangutans story, now called "Primates" (provisional title) and due next Tuesday. The herd, including Geoff, trooped down to a nearby Ethiopian place for a dinner that was delicious but took far too long to arrive (this is typical for Ethiopian, in my experience). Some folks have taken to poking, tickling, and pouring water on each other, and it really escalated on the way to and from dinner. I'm torn between being relieved that I'm not getting picked on, and feeling left out of the group dynamic. I'm keeping a loaded squirt gun handy, just in case.

After dinner I worked on "Primates" again, until midnight. It's now 2205 words and approximately half done. I have successfully gotten the narrator into serious trouble and laid some of the groundwork for the finale, and I know everything else that has to happen, but the long slog down into despair and the climb back to redemption have to be written, plus an anticlimax that is important and has some details I haven't worked out yet. My ambitions for this story are to finish a first draft early enough that I can leave it to sit for a bit before editing it, and for the final draft to be 5000 words or less. Well, and for it to be the most kick-ass story anyone at Clarion has ever seen, but that's nothing new. (Actually, some days I think I'll settle for "doesn't suck.")

One of the hardest things I'm doing right now is suppressing my natural humorous voice. This is supposed to be a serious story. So, for example, when I described the sadistic hick's hat as "so soiled, battered and torn it looked like it had been in a fight with a cougar," I realized I had to change it to "a stained, torn felt cowboy hat" to avoid puncturing the feeling of menace I was trying to create (also to keep the word count down). I first noticed that this was a problem when people laughed during my reading of "Nucleon" at Potlatch, and then when people complimented my "nice light tone" in "Farers." I may make the next story a humorous one, to compensate.

Got voice mail from Kate (but not until after it was too late to call back); she's now at the IAGSDC convention in Baltimore. I wish I could be there, but I wouldn't give up Clarion for anything. I also got a nice e-mail from Susan. I really appreciate it whenever I get mail or e-mail, and I wish I had the time to respond.

I did not go to the gym today. I also did not fix dinner for the group, as I'd been considering. I hope to do both tomorrow (that should take care of most of the afternoon). It's now 1AM. Good night.

6/30/00 - Friday

Last class with Geoff today. He did the critique session a little differently, saying that "if you're driving, and you look at where you don't want to go, you will inevitably go there. It's much better to look where you want to go." So we spent a minute of each of our three-minute critique sessions focusing on things the stories had done well, and techniques we could use in our own writing.

After class the herd had lunch at a very nice Thai noodle place right next to the Pink Zone. I went to the gym, then prepared pumpkin-chicken soup, which was greedily devoured. There were plenty of cars to take us to Nicola Griffith's house, since Albert, Paulette, and I were all present when we wanted to go and Karen Fishler also volunteered to transport a few folks. The party was really excellent; Nicola and Kelley have a great party house and were charming hosts. (They did not have a pool like the one in Slow River, alas, but I really want a writing office like the one Nicola has -- one with a complete 22-volume Oxford English Dictionary and a Nebula!)

I spent much of the time talking with Geoff, Vonda, Tamara Vining (she doesn't go by Tami any more, now that she's doing sound for films, though her friends can still call her that), A.P. McQuiddy, Kelley, and Nicola, who was very generous in sharing her experiences as a novelist with us. I also spent a lot of time with the other Clarionites, since I hated to miss anything. We presented Geoff with a going-away present: a little stuffed dog, "Toto II", wearing ruby slippers and a studded leather collar.

At one point Nicola asked "what is a story?" I responded with the seven-part definition I was given by A.J. Budrys: a person, in a situation, with a problem, who tries to solve it, and repeatedly fails, but eventually succeeds, and is rewarded. If you don't have all seven of these elements, it isn't really a "story." Several people disagreed, including Nicola (who acknowledged that's one kind of story, but not the only kind) and one of the Clarion folks, who said that story is all about emotion. This gave me an important insight into both my problems (my stories are too calm, too rational) and his (his stories are remarkably evocative, but often incomprehensible to me).

We got home from the party around midnight (David Silas talked me into taking a non-freeway route back, which worked surprisingly well despite an unexpected detour) and all sat around in the lounge watching a changing cast of characters continue the long-running intermittent tickle fight, augmented with ice cubes. It's fun to watch, but honestly I hope it peters out soon. The evening was also notable for the appearance of Patrick's evil twin Trick Weekes. Nominally we were waiting for Geoff to arrive so we could do dramatic readings from Viking!, an appallingly bad novel left by Clarion 1998 as an inspiration, but Geoff never did show (probably still at the party).

For some reason I am very, very tired even though it's only 1:00. We're going to the Experience Music Project with Geoff bright and early tomorrow, so I'm going to bed.

7/1/00 - Saturday

Got up at 7:00 this morning, to find only Julian, Miriam, and Francesca awake for the trip to the Experience Music Project. It was cold and drizzly, so Julian decided to stay home and work on his story. The rest of us went down to Geoff's room, only to learn that he'd lost one of his credit cards and needed to try to find it, or deal with the situation if he couldn't. He never did find it, but he came up and said goodbye before he left. I was actually rather relieved the EMP expedition didn't come off, since I had so many things on my list for this weekend. I critiqued one story, then a bunch of us went to IHOP for lunch, after which I took a nap, then critiqued a second story, then worked on "Primates" (now 3460 words, with approximately 500-1000 words to go, and not due until Tuesday -- hah!).

As we were leaving the IHOP, several of us spotted a newspaper box and read the headlines. The lead headline was something about several people being crushed to death at a Pearl Jam concert. I said "well, that gives new resonance to the name of the band,"and one of the others looked at me and said "You're so uncivilized." I was devastated by this comment; I want everyone to like me, and here I am making crude insensitive jokes. As I walked home it played over and over in my head, exactly like in the movies: "You're so uncivilized... uncivilized... uncivilized... uncivilized." I resolved to take more care with my language. Finally, later that day, I went to her and apologized. It turned out I'd misheard her: she'd said "We're so uncivilized," referring to the behavior of the people at the concert. So all is cool. I include this as a record of my emotional state.

Dinner from the freezer, then went to Vanguard (the monthly Seattle fan party). However, there were hardly any fans there -- most of the people there were friends of the host and not fannish. Also very stoned. I hung around talking with Marcia Goldoft about primate behavior and viruses until 11:00, then started to feel tired, and left (though I had a bit of a chat with Carrie Root and Andy Hooper on the way out). Naturally, when I got back to the dorm I heard voices and hung around in Patrick's room for a while. Left at about midnight; got to sleep about 1:00.

A few general notes...

Geoff's style is mostly to summarize the students' critiques and try to create a consensus about the direction the story needs to go, though he does add personal comments as well (clearly labeled as such). I got rather a lot of personal time with Geoff, mostly just chatting on the way to or from somewhere, or at meals. Way cool.

I have been keeping up with my meditation nearly every day, though sometimes I wonder if an extra 20 minutes of sleep would do me more good. I have been going to the gym irregularly, but at least once a week so far. I have not been tracking my calories and fat grams, though I have been eating consciously and fairly well; I have not gained or lost weight.

The dorm rooms are more different from each other than I had expected. The big difference is between east and west sides; the west-side ones get the city view and the afternoon sun, and are often unbearably hot in the afternoon, while the east-side ones (mine is one of these) get the mountain view and the morning sun, and are much cooler. You want an east-side room, trust me. The other differences are more subtle. My room has movable desks and free-standing closet units; others have built-in furniture. My chairs are padded, and rock back but not forward; others have hard chairs (with padded backs) that rock in both directions. My room has a door that always locks; others can be set not to lock. My room has beds that could be assembled into bunk-beds if I wanted; others don't. I don't have a shelf over my sink; others do. The sinks themselves also vary quite a bit from room to room, though only in appearance.

If this desk were in a story I was critiquing, I would say that it gives inconsistent clues about the time period of the story: it has both a typing return and a keyboard drawer (in the place of a top desk drawer). However, this story is definitely set earlier than the introduction of Windows 3.1, because the keyboard drawer has no room for a mouse pad. I have bridged the gap between the keyboard drawer and the typing return with a piece of foam-core board, which works reasonably well as a mousing area. The desk also lacks rails for hanging folders, though (I just found out today) the other desk in this room does have rails, so I may move my papers to that one.

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