Now I can let this story sit for a day before editing it -- luxury! I would like to get someone's feedback on it before I hand it in, but most of the people whose opinions I most respect have deadlines in the next couple of days and are panicking. I don't know how I got so far ahead of the game; maybe I just got lucky this time. Or maybe it's good time management (cough). I should start my next story right away, letting this one simmer. (Oh, and I still have one more ms. to critique today.)
Since I got my story done with time to spare, I spent the afternoon working on my web page. I got my week 2 journal posted, plus a couple dozen new pictures, and sent an e-mail update to all the folks on my list. In this mail I included a revised version of "Equations", since many people have asked to see some of my writing.
Kind of a sporadic day for food. I had a reasonable breakfast, but while I was making myself a sandwich for lunch Miriam came by and suggested teriyaki, so I stuck the sandwich in the fridge and went along. 8-10 of us went to the teriyaki place on the corner, but it smelled awful in there (I hadn't noticed this being a problem before) so we went across the street to the Swedish Hospital cafeteria. It was OK, though I think my selection was rather stupidly high in fat. And then Greg made chocolate chip cookies. I ate my sandwich for dinner, but I'll be wanting more later.
Over lunch we were considering "The Clarion Game," something like Chutes and Ladders except that it starts at the outside of the board and spirals down to a black hole in the middle. Or maybe there are multiple end states: Literary Success, Commercial Success, Realize You Aren't a Writer, Slough of Despond. Perhaps it has six phases, with nastier forfeits in each phase. Jen suggested "ditto" cards that double the effect of anything, and "anti-ditto" cards that negate anything. We came up with lots of things that could happen: "oversleep, lose a turn"; "sleep with instructor, lose 3 turns" (or maybe "sleep with instructor, advance career"?); "computer crashes, go back 2 spaces"; "can't come up with story idea, move back 5 spaces"; "your writing is too commercial, move back 3 spaces (but gain $1 million)". The tough part is coming up with events that move you forward. The only one we came up with was "turn in manuscript, move forward 3 spaces" (because you have one less manuscript to critique that day).
It's 7:20 and Candas Jane Dorsey hasn't yet shown -- her flight was delayed and now there's a problem with her luggage -- it'll be 8:00 at the earliest. I should get something real to eat while I'm waiting, and maybe a nap.
Clarion Twin Powers Activate! Form of... a plot! Shape of... a telling detail!
Candas Jane Dorsey showed up at around 8:30, just when most of us were sitting down to dinner, so we took our plates up to the 12th floor and ate while she talked. She's worn many hats in her career -- writer, freelancer, teacher, publisher -- and had many points, which I summarize as follows: 1) Writing won't kill you, but the things you or other people do to prevent yourself from writing can kill you. Writing must come from a heart of passion, of anger. 2) She doesn't believe in genre. 3) Writing is hard. Stupid writing is just as hard as brilliant writing, so you should start with the story that most needs telling. Whatever you practice on, your subconscious will turn it into something important and difficult. 4) She works at "en-couragement" of writers: adding courage as well as process and technique. All these new-agey words have a pragmatic goal: to get good writing out to the reader, not just to improve the writer's life. The effect on the writer is invisible to the reader, but writing that is important to the writer will be important to the reader. 5) If you meet the Buddha on the road, kill him. (In other words, the easy solution that offers itself voluntarily is not really a solution, and must be rejected.) Writer-mind rests within. The important thing is to listen to yourself, learn about your process, and make it as transparent as possible, to make the work of writing easier for yourself. 6) You probably already know what you need to know to create stories; narrative may be hard-wired in our brains (functional people create narratives constantly to help explain the world to themselves). Even a brief poem has a narrative through-line. Readers also understand narrative, are willing to co-create it; the writer's job is to leave space for the reader to participate. Finally, 7) You must throw out your old angst. Don't worry, new and more subtle angst will be delivered in the morning. Go down corridors that scare you. Remember, writing won't kill you -- this is about saving the world.
After that pep talk I went back to my room and critiqued the one remaining story, with an interruption to help Candas completely rearrange her room (we wound up putting one of the beds vertically against the wall to make more space), and another to help her make a long-distance call to Canada, using her Canadian long-distance company, through the uncooperative dorm phone system. I finished with the critique by 12:30, wrote in my diary, got to bed about 1:00. And here I thought I'd get to bed early, since I was already done with my story for Tuesday. Ha ha ha!
She also gave us an assignment: write a story of 500-1000 words using no exposition, only dialogue and a limited amount of action and description. It's due Wednesday; we'll critique them all en masse on Thursday. There was some concern about doing this exercise as well as our regular writing. I called Leslie and asked her about this, and she told me that we're all adults, we are not being graded, and we have the right to skip an assignment if we feel it is not worth the time it would take. But several of us are worried that people will do it anyway and burn out later, and that the class time used for this exercise will short-change those who are getting critiqued that day. We'll see.
In the afternoon I got some groceries, then critiqued today's three manuscripts. I was falling asleep by the time I finished the third one, so I took a nap right there for half an hour or so. Then I got up and had leftover chicken-pumpkin soup for an early dinner, and worked on "Primates".
I had an insight during class, you see. It was right after Candas pointed out that the world is not tidy, and that tying up all the loose ends is not our goal -- our goal is epiphany, for the reader and possibly the character. This got me to thinking: where is the epiphany in "Primates"? What does Gary learn, and how does he change? Then it hit me: Gary is just the viewpoint character. The character who grows and changes the most is Dan, the nominal villain! How can I change the story to play this up?
I got the answer from Julian a little bit later. He was critiquing a first-person present-tense story, and pointed out (correctly) that this style is actually distancing -- it imposes an even pace, with no opportunity for reflection or recollection.
So, paradoxical though it seems: to make Dan the main character, I changed "Primates" from third person to first person (though still using the simple past tense), with Gary as the first-person narrator. I don't know if this will actually succeed in playing up Dan's role, but it definitely sounds better this way. The story was very close to Gary to begin with, and the change was largely a mechanical edit (Gary -> I, his -> my, etc.). I also proofread it, tweaked a couple sentences, and added one brief scene. We'll see what people think of it, since I'm turning it in tomorrow.
After dinner I wrote my "no exposition" exercise, a 500-word SF porn story -- it's kinky, but uses no explicit descriptions and no dirty words. It's done almost entirely in dialogue. I find it humorous and very sexy, but we'll see what others think of it. (Hmm, it's definitely a "we'll see" day.) Especially Candas, whose reading tonight (not Tuesday, due to the July 4th holiday) showed that she has no problems whatsoever with kinky SF sex scenes. In fact, by comparison with what she read it's pretty tame stuff, and not nearly so well written. But I didn't take a lot of time on it, and it's still a useful exercise to have done.
I got e-mail from Vonda McIntyre, in response to something I said in an e-mail to friends and family saying that "Farers" would need a heck of a lot of work before it would be publishable. She asserted that these are first drafts and are not intended to be publishable. "If you're ('you' general not you, David, specific) writing stories that are polished enough to be publishable, then you aren't taking risks, experimenting, trying and failing, learning what mistakes not to make and how to make mistakes effectively." I will try to keep this in mind when I get my next critique.
For my next story, I want to do something completely different for me. I thought, "what scares me?" The answer was: strong emotions, lack of control, and lack of approval (I want everyone to like me). So my next story must be a roller coaster of emotion. It must not be strongly structured or plotted. I have set a goal that half the readers will not be able to figure out what is happening. The story should also reveal something about me that I don't want people to know. I think I may start off with a phrase (such as "Naked, he ran screaming into the night") and just free-write from there, with no plot in mind. Once I've reached the end of that road I can go back and add some structure (forward and backward references) to make it a real story post-hoc.
I'll start on that tomorow. It's 12:30 now and I'm going to bed.
I think chronic lack of sleep is catching up with me. I've been groggy and headachey for the past couple days; I damn near fell asleep in class today. I took an afternoon nap, but it didn't seem to have helped much. So I decided to take the rest of the afternoon off: listen to music (it's the first time in in almost 3 weeks I've put on a CD with lyrics), read some non-fiction (Orion magazine), write a couple letters, pay some bills, read email. I might even skip the fireworks tonight and turn in early. Ha. Ha ha.
Got another batch of diary pages from Kate; sounds like she's having a good time on the road. We're both keeping too busy to miss each other much, but there are moments... My mother sent me a newspaper clipping about robots milking cows in Wisconsin. I got e-mail from Kent Brewster of Speculations saying that "'Seventeen' says it all" and "you should send 'Equations of the Dance' to Analog right freaking NOW," which makes me feel pretty darn good. (Lots of people have been asking to see one of my stories, so I included that one in my last email to friends and family.)
[later:] After writing the above, held my pillow and cried for a few minutes. (Must be one of those "moments" I mentioned in the previous paragraph.) Susan says this helps; it did, a bit, but didn't do any good for the headache.
Even the best convention can get kind of tiring after two weeks...
[later:] Continued taking the afternoon off: read the newspaper, sat and chatted. Some of us ordered pizza for dinner (from Godfather's, not bad) and I felt much better after having eaten. Later, in the hall, we were discussing the news from Clarion East. According to their journals, several of the Clarion East people have been suffering severe angst, and there's no decent food to be had. We all felt so lucky to be where we are, we gave each other a big group hug.
Which makes me suddenly very self-conscious about posting this journal, but hey, being a writer involves taking risks.
After dinner Miriam put a frozen apple pie (it is, after all, the Fourth of July) in the oven, and we went back to our rooms to write and critique. When the pie was done, it was time for fireworks. We all went up to the 12th floor, which has a reasonable view of at least three civic fireworks displays and many smaller ones, and ate our pie with vanilla ice cream while we watched the fireworks and talked about Clarion East and our conferences with Candas and other such stuff. (Actually, the pie got dropped coming out of the oven, so it was cobbler instead, but it was still good.)
At one point I was saying, again, that I didn't think we would have time to critique the 17 "no exposition" exercises as well as the other manuscripts we were doing that day, when Candas put her arm around my waist and said "are you still on about that?" I damn near jumped out of my skin -- I hadn't heard her come in. It was a real awkward moment, but later on (after the fireworks) I chatted with Candas for a while about Worldcons and World Fantasy Con and other conventions we'd been to, and how they differ from one another, and it didn't seem as though there were any hard feelings. I encouraged her to come up to the 11th floor and eat/socialize with us; Paul and John didn't, Geoff did, and I think Candas hasn't just because she's been busy reading manuscripts.
After that I returned to my room and returned to my critiques, finishing up by midnight. One story was a totally campy fantasy that was so over-the-top that I was disappointed it didn't break the frame completely. The second, a Connie-Willis-esque humorous SF piece, was one of the most successful I've seen here. The third story worked great, right up to the end, when I just could not figure out what was happening. And my story... well, I didn't read it again. One person called it "competent." Sigh.
Several folks came out of their conferences with Candas saying she'd told them they were good commercial writers (or, in one student's words, "she said I'm a hack"). I'm expecting the same. On the other hand, people seem to be getting more concrete advice out of Candas than they did from Geoff (my conference with Geoff was basically just a nice chat), which matches the difference in their critiques. By the way, we finished up our critiques right on time today, though there were just 3 manuscripts. There will be 4 tomorrow.
I keep reminding myself: I am here to fail, and fail again. (A person, in a situation, with a problem, who tries, and repeatedly fails, but eventually succeeds, and is rewarded.) There is more to be learned from failure than success. I think I am learning. I am not just failing, I am understanding why I fail. But I fear there may be a gap between understanding why I fail, and being able to succeed.
I see that the "Connie-Willis-esque" story succeeds so well because it can be read as pure metaphor -- it could be rewitten as a mainstream story in which the SF elements take place entirely in the character's head. My most successful Bento articles are also in this metaphorical mode. The question is, can I come up with a story that works in this way?
[later:] "Primates" was more successful than I'd thought, but still fell flat. People said things like "good pacing and structure;" "tight, showed what you needed to show;" "brisk, well-written, slick but in a good way;" and "competent, smooth." They liked the setting and visual descriptions, and several people mentioned liking the description of the Bigfoots (Bigfeet?), so that worked. But everyone found the characters flat and stereotypical, especially Gary ("a robot," "a cipher," "a prig"), and felt Dan's motivations were unclear and his actions arbitrary. The dialogue was also called "better than 'Farers' but still stilted." The "we are all apes" theme was recognized and appreciated, but it didn't work in spots (people loved the tick scene, but the chest-pounding didn't work) and, as one person pointed out, it "lacks pay-off at the end." None of this was a surprise to me; the only surprise was that some felt there was a "menace of the unknown" in Bigfoot which was not borne out by the creature itself. (I think this is something they brought to the story, not something I put in, but I do need to keep this kind of thing in mind.) Candas had several very good concrete suggestions for improving the story, including expanding the Day the Earth Stood Still reference into Gary's character -- what if he is a movie buff who has never lived actual real life?
The critique of the "Connie-Willis-esque" story was a real hoot; we could all tell the story was just about perfect, and though we did come up with a few places it could be improved we just had a great time with it. Patrick had a big Christian imagery thing going; Jen read each of the vegetables in the story as representing a different type of man or aspect of men, each of which was rejected. We were laughing and carrying on. Did I mention the stuffed animals giving their critiques?
Candas is definitely growing on me. We finished up 4 manuscripts by 11:50 today, and I think her critiques are still better than Geoff's (although harsher). And then I had my conference with her this afternoon. I knew going in that she was asking everyone "do you have one burning question?" and I had mine ready: "how can I get more emotion into my stories?" I have been trying since day 1 of Clarion to do this, using a variety of techniques, and nothing has been entirely satisfactory. Candas pointed out that "Gojo", "Tears Do Not Fall in Zero Gee" (telling title), and "Primates" are all about people who are dealing with emotion by failing to deal with it. (Gojo pushes it down; Chris in "Tears" takes pills; Gary in "Primates" sublimates the problem and focuses on the science.) Ow.
She had all kinds of concrete and useful suggestions. None of them comfortable. Of course.
She recommended that I go to those places of greatest personal pain and humiliation and stay there, write them up in detail. (She used the analogy of writing pornography with an erection.) If my life has been free of serious trauma, there are still incidents of strong emotion: "approach the problem of evil through crossing against the light." "It's going to be hell, and the things you write are not going to be pretty." "Give up the assonent sentence; choose words that are rough; give up on plot for a while." "You have Wonder Woman's bracelets all over your body -- you must take them off yourself." She suggested reading authors with sloppy emotion (e.g. Faulkner) and writing with pen and paper instead of computer.
Everything she said was true, and I didn't want to hear any of it. I didn't know this was what I had come here to hear, but it is. I used the analogy of cracking a coconut to describe the process of accessing my most intense emotions (which I fear); when I got back to my room I wrote in heavy black marker on a piece of paper: "HOW DO YOU CRACK A COCONUT FROM THE INSIDE?" I stuck it on my mirror.
I was a little shell-shocked after that conference (which ran over by about 15 minutes); I hugged my pillow and cried for a while, thinking about dreadful things that had happened to me in childhood, but after about half an hour the tears ran out. The problem is, I remember some of the things I did when I got picked on (the time I came home and slammed the front door so hard it cracked from top to bottom; the time I threatened someone with scissors; the time I stuck someone's finger in a pencil sharpener), but I have a hard time really remembering how I felt at the time, and -- oddly -- I can't recall at all what they did to me to get me in such a state. Maybe I've repressed it.
I came out and talked with Jen and Alec about my conference, sitting on the floor with tears leaking slowly out of my eyes all the while. (If it sounds here like Candas made me miserable, that is explicitly not the case. I knew going into the conference what I needed to hear -- see the top of this day's entry -- and Candas just put it in concrete terms for me. Most of the other students got a fairly standard "you're young, you've got plenty of time to try and fail, here are some writers you should read" talk from Candas -- it seems I got something special by coming to her with my shields lowered.) Others accreted onto the conversation as time went on: Julian, Kameron, Amy, Miriam. Julian, our master of memory, pointed out that the most traumatic emotions often come well after the event, because we're too busy during the event to feel anything. Jen said that it should not be necessary to actually rebuild one's psyche to write good stories; this is also valid, but at the moment I think I have to do something serious, or else I'll be building clever little puppet theatres and marching the puppets through them for the rest of my writing career. Gradually the entire herd joined in, and even more gradually the conversation moved from writing to other things.
Pretty soon Jen and Miriam were poking each other. Then it turned into a general tickle fight. Then people started throwing water on each other: first little dribbles, then whole cups, then Tupperware containers. Everyone got soaked. It went on for a good couple of hours; the hall floor will probably be squidgy for days. I got some great photos, but mostly stayed out of the action.
Albert made a wonderful vegetable salad with noodles and peanut sauce (kind of like gado-gado) for dinner. After dinner, the cry went up: We must have Jamba Juice! With vodka in it! To cut a very long story short, Kameron and I drove to the Jamba Juice on The Ave (arriving two minutes before closing -- I bet the staff hated us, but we gave them a big tip) and came back with a dozen Jambas and a fifth of vodka. All of that was gone by 9:30 or so -- personally, I skipped the vodka. The tickle fight resumed, although no more water was spilled. The herd (only slightly sillier than before) took over one room after another, since the floor in the hall was so soggy. I think we were in Julian's room when Candas came by. She'd finished her critiques and was wondering how we were doing. We assured her we were working hard, yep yep yep.
We all wound up in my room, where I gave Candas a slide show of the pictures I'd taken of the water fight (I love digital cameras). I'm afraid we got lipstick on the sheets and red marker on the bedcover; Inez promised to loan me some stain remover. Eventually the herd wandered on, but Candas stayed behind -- did I want to talk any more about what had come up this afternoon? Yes I did, and we did, though it wasn't nearly so intense. We talked until about 11:30. Then I critiqued manuscripts until about 1:00 and I wrote in my journal until 1:40. To sleep around 2:00.
As Candas was leaving, I noticed she'd written something on my "how do you crack a coconut from the inside?" sign. At the bottom, in red pen, she'd added: "with love."
Candas says we should tackle a story that we don't think we can pull off, and be willing to flare out spectacularly. I have several ideas I don't think I have the skills to pull off yet, but now that I look at them again I see they all have central characters who are emotionally repressed in some way (many of them are machines of some sort). I should do some free-writing and see what comes out of that. If that fails, I have an idea percolating (a combination of 7th-grade angst and some things I learned about viruses from Marcia Goldoff) that could work, but as I look at it now I see it has the potential to be another carefully-crafted machine that does nothing; not raw enough and not enough of a stretch for me.
After class we went to the chef school in the SCCC for lunch. We had a devil of a time finding it: the directory said it was on the second floor, but the elevators refused to stop on 2 and all the stairwells were either locked at the second floor or didn't have doors there at all! It turned out to be up a flight of stairs in the atrium (the rest of floor 2 is the library, with controlled access). It was a buffet with a great variety of different foods on a theme (Mexican today) and a lot of very different, very intense flavors. But it wasn't cheap.
In the afternoon I did laundry and critiqued; the lipstick came out of the sheets, and the red marker... almost came out of the bedspread. Then I took a nap. For dinner, we planned take-out Chinese and a discussion of the "no exposition" exercises in the 12th floor lounge; I volunteered to coordinate the food, and collected $10 from everyone, selected the dishes, phoned in the order, and went to get it (Amy came along to help carry, and got brown sauce all over her white pants). It's astonishing what a vast quantity of Chinese food you can get at a cheap take-away in this country for $150. Boxes and boxes. The "no exposition" discussion was worthwhile, although I was disappointed at the almost complete lack of comments on my porn piece. Several of these little exercises were very good stories; many are probably publishable.
I haven't been eating very well; although I kept my portion sizes down at both lunch and dinner, I'm sure the percentage of calories from fat is much too high. I need to pay more attention to this. Nor have I made it to the gym since last weekend. But my weight is still about the same, at least.
After the "no exposition" discussion I returned to my room to find a message from Kate. I called her back and we killed one phone card and almost all of another. She's left Baltimore and Convention, and misses me terribly; I'm mostly too busy to miss her that much, plus I am in one place and have a support network, but I still get wistful when she calls. Okie, my stuffed black leopard, is a comfort. After that I finished my critiques, then followed my ears to Jen's room and chatted with the herd for a while (Francesca passed around her folders of "cyborg women" pictures -- many of them were really disturbing), then decided to (gasp!) turn in early. Finished my journal at 11:24. Good night.
After a quick lunch, drove down to Magic Mouse with Kameron, Amy, and Bill looking for a present for Candas. We asked the clerk if they had any stuffed animals that were "lump-like"; he showed us a very fat cat and a very fat dog, but they were too much like animals; we wanted something more generic. (Yeah, I can see the board meeting at Gund: "this next product is a stuffed lump; we anticipate it will be a big seller in Seattle this year.") We finally settled on a bizarre thing, some kind of crib toy with multiple limbs and a squeaky nose, that reminded me of the Onomatopoeia from the old Curiosity Shop TV show. (Am I the only person who remembers this?) Then we stopped off on the way home to pick up some embroidery floss, but we couldn't find any and got shoelaces instead.
We took our purchases back to the dorm and combined them into an Expository Lump with braids like Candas'. Amy made a card saying "we hope you have the cojones to accept this token of our esteem" (a reference to a story she'd told of a really bad cover letter she once received). Miriam and Jen braided ("plaited", says Miriam) Amy's hair, and I put a hair-wrap in mine, all to honor Candas' braids -- which I learned tonight are not her actual hair; they aren't even real hair, but some kind of synthetic! I'm so disappointed.
Party tonight at Kate Schaeffer and Glenn Hackney's house. Good party, very crowded. Candas loved the Expository Lump, and put it in her hair for the evening. Pat Murphy was also there, having showed up a day or two early. Had a good time talking with Jerry and Suzle, Jane, Vonda, Patrick Swenson, Cliff Wind, and many others. A bunch of us did the Hokey Pokey with Candas and Pat; who'd'a thunk it? We all left about 11:00, then several of us watched Mystery Science Theatre in the lounge; I crapped out around midnight.
Sudden realization: I haven't written anything this week except my "no exposition" exercise, since I finished "Primates" on Sunday. I need to do some serious writing this weekend (my next story isn't due until Wednesday, but critiquing takes a lot of time during the week). Maybe I won't go to Archie McPhee's this weekend as I'd been planning.
Three wrong numbers on my phone in the last 2 days. I wonder why?
A bunch of us got together for brunch (OK, it was 1:00, but most of us hadn't eaten yet so it was brunch) at IHOP with Patrick and "The Damsel" (AKA Patrick's fiancee Karen). In the afternoon I got another wrong number, then a call from Mark Bourne, who's in town for his and Janna Silverstein's joint birthday. We'd talked about them joining me for sushi with Tom and Marci, but Janna had other birthday plans, though we might get together for brunch tomorrow morning. I also got a couple of postcards from Kate, a shortbread from Debbie Cross, and a postcard from Seattle from Spike and Tom (they were in Seattle, so they sent me a postcard?!). I continued writing all afternoon, except for some time spent talking in Jen and Miriam's rooms, then left for sushi just as Pat Murphy showed up in the lounge.
Met with Tom and Marci at Mashiko in West Seattle (it looks like a long way on the map, but at this hour it was only 15 minutes' drive), where we gorged on whatever the chef decided to give us: hamachi you could cut with a sharp glance, salmon, bonito (never had it before), shiro-maguro, squid, scallops, a spicy shrimp-mayonnaise-and-avocado roll that was a bit too weird for me, and finally more salmon and hamachi (but a different presentation). It was more than we could eat and it only cost $15. After that Marci showed me the city lights from the West Seattle shore, a marvelous view.
Returned to the dorm and joined the discussion in Miriam's room of comic books and the SF/fantasy we'd read as kids. Miriam is astonishingly well read in both these fields. Several people came away with extensive booklists, but I'm so far behind on my "to be read" pile I'm not adding to it for a while. Then Greg came back from dinner with a Vegie Tales tape, which we popped into the VCR. It was Bible stories, presented in extremely silly and slightly ironic fashion by computer-animated vegetables. (The two peas on top of the walls of Jericho had outRAGEous French accENTs, and threw Slushies at the Israelites. No shit, really. And I'm trying not to think about the songs.) Julian and Miriam were just flabberghasted. Wrote in my journal after that, until about 1:30.
Forward to Week 4
Return to David's Clarion Page