David Levine's Clarion Journal: Week 4

posted 7/15/00

7/9/00 - Sunday

Awake at 7:30 again, though I stayed in bed for another hour trying to get back to sleep. Skipped meditation. While I was having breakfast in the lounge, Pat Murphy came by; she had come upstairs to tell everyone which of their stories she had read, and ask whether they wanted her to critique that one or some other one in their conferences. Since I was the only one awake, we talked for some time about "Farers," its flaws, the things to be learned from it, and general writing stuff.

Mark Bourne called while I was talking with Pat, suggesting brunch at the 5-Spot in Queen Anne. Reluctantly, I declined; I have so many things on my to-do list. Then I spent the rest of the morning working on my web page. Pat came by at about noon, inviting me (and everyone else) for a walk down Broadway, but saw me typing assiduously away and said she would leave me to my writing. I confessed rather sheepishly that I wasn't writing, but I still declined this invitation as well; I feel the web page is a public service, as well as a way of integrating and assimilating my own thoughts.

[later:] Spent most of the afternoon writing. Had our first meeting with Pat Murphy at 6:00. She will be presenting an optional workshop on novel structure Thursday evening, and may change to 2 minutes per critique plus a group discussion. Then she went on to discuss plot and structure, and present an exercise for us.

Pat says that the standard 5-part plot structure (character has problem; tries something but it fails, making things worse; tries again and fails; tries again and fails; tries one last time and succeeds (or fails, if it's a tragedy)) doesn't work for her, and in fact she's looked at a lot of stories and never found one that actually had this structure. Ditto the other standard advice, that characters must have conflict with each other; many of her stories have all the characters happily having tea together.

She says, instead, that the one essential element is rising tension: things have to be getting worse and worse (or more and more intense in some other way) throughout the plot. If rising tension is missing, the plot does not compel; it feels flat and the story is put-downable. Sometimes things can slack off a little bit, but then get much worse (Hitchcock does this a lot). Techniques to build rising tension include a ticking clock (or any other way to limit the characters' actions as time goes on), repetition ("Why Grandma, what big eyes you have!"), tension between the character and the reader ("No! Don't go in the basement!"), and just plain messing with the characters' lives ("if the character is trying to leave town, steal his car").

The Pat Murphy Method of developing a plot is as follows:

During this session we each drew a standard SF idea from a bag (I got "The Monster with a Heart of Gold") and developed a plot around the idea using the above technique. I wound up with a story about a golem (or possibly a supercomputer) with an artistic soul; its creator/programmer, who needs the golem to solve a practical problem; and an artist, who is the only person who can recognize the golem's artistic genius. I may or may not write this story at Clarion, since I want my next story (after the one I'm working on today) to be a funny one, and this story is not funny. But it was a useful exercise anyway (mind you, I'm not one of the ones who has trouble with plots -- note that, once again, I have come up with a story idea in which the central character is a machine. At least it's an artistic machine this time).

Pat reminded us that planning ahead like this allows you to write shorter stories. We've had quite a few 7,000 and 10,000 word stories so far; she encourages us to write shorter. She says that when she was at Clarion, people used typewriters, by God, and when you have to re-type a whole story before you hand it in you keep it short!

After that meeting I went back to my room and worked on my current story, finishing it about 10:00. Then I typed it up; it took about an hour, and the typed version contains substantial improvements in language and character development (for example, the characters have names). It's 3700 words and is titled "The Memory of Pain." I think it's an improvement over the last one, at least in terms of character development, emotional involvement, and rising tension. I was deliberately very sparing with details; my goal is that half the people don't understand what's happening. I proofread it, then printed out a copy, since it appears there might be an open slot tomorrow.

I don't think I've mentioned above that, in addition to hand-writing this story, I dove in from the beginning with a phrase ("Naked, he ran screaming into the night") and an image (he gets hit by a car and keeps going), and just wrote from there with no pre-defined plot. Well, that was the idea anyway. The fact is, I failed to shut up the little plot daemon in my head: by the time I actually put pen to paper, I knew why he could get hit by a car and keep going, who he was going to meet up with during the story,and what would happen in the end. But the plot development was a lot closer to the actual writing than it has been (for example, I wrote no outline or notes) and I gave myself a lot of freedom to change the direction of the story as it went.

Wrote in my journal until 12:30. Critiqued one last story until 1:00, then re-read my story until I heard voices in the hall. It was Jen, Patrick, and Miriam explaining Clarion to the security guards. Stupidly, I joined in. Got to sleep around 1:30. Sigh.

7/10/00 - Monday

First class session with Pat. We are doing two-minute critiques with a group discussion afterward, and it's working well. I did turn in my story "The Memory of Pain," taking Jen's slot, since she didn't finish her story; Patrick turned his in as well, but to be critiqued Wednesday. I signed up to turn in another story on Friday; is this mad?

After we finished our critiques, Pat gave a 30-minute riff on viewpoint. Viewpoint contains the story, cuts off directions it might go. This can be a good thing, providing focus, or a bad thing; you have to pick the viewpoint that focuses the story in the correct directions. In addition to the basic question of first, third, or (rarely) second person, past or present, there are gradations (e.g. close third person, not so close third person, or omniscient third person?). Each has its strengths and weaknesses. Omniscient is tempting because it seems powerful, but can get out of hand, allowing the story to wander. Describing setting (a scene or object) in first person or close third person can do double duty, defining the character by her relations to the thing as well as describing the thing itself -- this is an especially good thing in a short story, in which everything should serve multiple purposes (remember, keep 'em short!).

Spent much of the afternoon napping (or at least horizontal with my eyes closed), except for a 15-minute chair massage from Tom Whitmore. Thanks, Tom! It hurt, but I'm sure it helps. Then I critiqued manuscripts. It seems to be "hospitals and soliders" day at Clarion West -- 3 of the 4 stories had both of these themes. The 4th story was, kind of, "cavemen and baseball"; I joked to the author that "no, that's next week's theme!" That one, and one other, were real "blow 'em away" stories -- the stories are just getting better and better, which makes them harder to critique. My story, read in this company, is weak by comparison, but still an improvement for me. Pre-dittos on my story (i.e. Karnak predicts that others will say): no sense of place, villain is too one-dimensionally villainous, hero's motivations could be clarified, climax is somewhat un-built-up-to, and I am sure that some readers will never figure out what "backing up" means -- but then, I did have a goal that half the readers wouldn't get it.

Dinner at a little Italian place, not too far away, that Inez found. Counter service, but sit-down style food. Very nice. Came home to find a postcard from the Hawaii Westercon and a package from Kate containing photos from the IAGSDC Convention, a Convention T-shirt, diary pages, some postcards, and a package of pretzels. Earlier today I got a letter from her, also from Convention, with some newspaper clippings and little self-adhesive flags of New Zealand and Alaska for Miriam and Kameron ("Sorry, no South Africa"). Waah! Well, I'll see her in 17 days. (Only 17 days to go! Jeezuz.)

After dinner, applied the Pat Murphy Method to my "Joy is the serious business of heaven" idea. Produced 1200 words of notes on concept, character and setting... but no actual plot so far. Chatted with folks in the lounge for a while about baseball (it's a simple game...) and the Clarion West T-shirt (it is week 4, after all, time to do that). Went back to my room and typed up the quotes I've recorded so far. To bed about 11:00, huzzah.

7/11/00 - Tuesday

Not a good day. My story got ripped to shreds in the critique. People liked the "cinematic" feel, pace, and language, but.... I knew I had problems with motivation and with the climax being un-built-up-to, but it was far, far worse than that. My female character is an absolute doormat, passive, powerless, defined only by her relationships with men. The male character is an emotionless "movie tough guy" stereotype. Viewpoint skittered all over the place, leaving no sense of either character, but the female especially flat, and then when she got shot at the end it was completely offputting to everyone. Several people said they were offended by the misogyny. And, though I "succeeded" in keeping half the class from understanding the time travel thing, I was totally off base in trying to do so -- the vague stories that people liked, they liked despite the fact that they were vague, because they had real emotion; making a story with no emotional core vague just makes it vague.

I meant better than that. In some places, the story was moving too fast and I couldn't get in details that were really important. In other places, the reading I had intended simply isn't borne out by the words on the page (I thought she was in control in their first scene together, but fundamentally he's ordering her around and she's going along with it). Her motivations are never explained, and wouldn't be believable if I did explain them. And the scenes that were supposed to be character development turned out to be "talking heads." The characters told each other about their thoughts and feelings instead of feeling them; the omniscient viewpoint "skittered around" and didn't get into anyone's head. Pat gave me an exercise to write a couple of paragraphs deep inside the main character's head, but as soon as I finished it I realized it was just backstory, not emotion.

I was terribly depressed after that. After I got back to my room I cried for a while. But in the next several hours I talked with Jen, Pat, and Patrick about the story and felt better. It is, after all, just one story, and although it failed at least I was trying something different.


I have a good start on my angel story: 2000 words of notes on characters, setting, and plot outline. Although I started it before this critique, it's exactly the right thing for me to work on next: a funny talk piece with no physical action at all and plenty of opportunity for character development. Pat gave me a couple ideas that will make it much stronger (feels like cheating, but she says it isn't). I'm writing this at 12:00; do I stay up a while longer and start actually writing, or go to bed?

[later:] Talked with Julian for a while -- he reminded me that we are here to fail, and learn from our failures, and that none of us is on a continuous upward path -- then spent half an hour writing six paragraphs in my angel story. I might wind up deleting them later, but at least I've started. This is important, since I basically have just two days to finish it. To bed at 1:30.

7/12/00 - Wednesday

When I got up this morning I regretted staying up until 1:30, but here I am again. It's 12:50 now and by the time I'm finished with my journal and all the other things I do before I sleep it'll be 1:30 again. So it goes. At least I got a nap this afternoon.

In class today we critiqued 4 stories, all of which had what I see as fundamental flaws. So they aren't all as wonderful as they were yesterday. We are still experimenting, trying and failing. After those 4, Pat gave us a nice talk about her story "Rachel in Love," talking about its history and structure.

"Rachel in Love" began as a twist on the standard True Confessions plot of the love triangle consisting of the Girl, the Wrong Man, and the Faithful Friend (who eventually becomes the Right Man), but with a chimp (having an implanted human personality) as the apex of the triangle. In the first draft (never completed), Rachel was an intelligent chimp going to college and Jake was one of her TA's, but this seemed implausible and lacked rising tension. The second draft put Rachel in a primate research center, in the language lab, with Jake as one of the researchers. Again, just a love story -- not enough tension. But take away Rachel's control of the situation, and things really take off!

In the final draft Rachel's father dies, she gets shot with a tranquilizer gun, stuck in a cage, tortured, threatened with a hideous operation, falls in love with a janitor (the Wrong Man), and eventually escapes to the wild with another chimp (the Faithful Friend). But Gardner Dozois found the ending unsatisfying, because it didn't resolve Rachel's internal tension (is she a girl or a chimp?), so Pat added the final section, in which Rachel is discovered by a sympathetic reporter and inherits her human father's house and fortune. She points out that this section feels tacked-on because it is the only section with a viewpoint other than Rachel's.

Pat also walked us through the story scene by scene, explaining what each scene does in terms of advancing the plot, developing the character, and building external and internal tension. Also, Pat wrote a story this week and we will be critiquing it on Friday. As Jenn says, "kick ass!"

I spent the afternoon working on my angel story, making very good progress. From 7 to 11 I critiqued. We had three very fat stories today (8000, 9500, and 12,500 words), all of which were good but would have been better if they'd been much shorter, especially the two funny ones. I think we are writing long because we don't have the time to write short; using computers doesn't help. I'm going to do my damndest to keep my angel story (which is supposed to be funny) down to 5000 words or less. I did take some time in there to eat dinner (Albert made chicken mole, yummy) and watch Veggie Tales, but this tape (the "Grapes of Wrath" one, obtained from Blockbuster) wasn't nearly as funny as the Jericho one, so we didn't watch the whole thing. I skipped the group viewings of Survivor and Daria. I wrote again from 11:00 to 1:00; the story, which takes place over 5 days, is just entering day 5 and is currently 3200 words (note that days 1 and 5 are substantially longer than the others). It will probably be a very late night Thursday.

One troublesome thing: after doing so much typing in the last week, I find my hands are tingling a bit. This is the first symptom of carpal tunnel syndrome and is very worrisome. I'm trying to take lots of breaks, and shake out and massage my wrists at intervals. I should probably shift to typing with my laptop in my lap, which I think would be preferable to (or at least different from) typing at this desk. Despite the keyboard drawer, it puts the keyboard substantially higher than my elbows. I'd be happier if I had a chair with arms.

Haven't made it to the gym in a week and a half, but my weight is still about the same at 133 (probably more fat and less muscle than before, though). I have been meditating most days, though my brain tends to work on my current story while I'm meditating despite my best efforts to shut it up.

We started work on the T-shirt in earnest, collecting quotes and voting on them, today. There are some extremely bitchin' quotes; it's too bad we can't get all 7 pages of them on.

1:47. Good night.

7/13/00 - Thursday

It's 2:16 as I begin this, so it's going to be brief.

Workshopped three stories today, all of which could (I felt) would be improved by being cut substantially. I was pleased to see that Pat seemed to agree with me. Then, while Pat took Julian to lunch for his birthday, we decorated his room. David S. tied down Julian's stuffed otter on his desk, with toy soldiers all around like Lilliputians; Miriam and Andy built an effigy out of Julian's clothes and tied it to the bed with a knife in its belly; Patrick taped down everything he could find; Jenn pinned a gummi frog to a pentacle on the bulletin board; all of us strung ribbon and scattered plastic vermin everywhere. Great fun. Julian was quite impressed.

In the afternoon I took a nap and worked on my angel story, now called "In the Joy Business." Having talked with a couple people about carpal tunnel, I've switched from my subnotebook to the big computer (keyboard in my lap -- most of the time anyway -- as the keyboard drawer is the wrong height). I'm also taking ibuprofen and trying to remember to take breaks and stretch. It seems to be helping.

In the evening, from about 6 to 7:30, Pat gave an informal session about how to structure a novel. "I don't think I've ever finished a novel," she said; "I've sent them to publishers, and they've been printed, but it's like painting the Golden Gate Bridge, it's never finished." She outlined some of the methods she's used in the past, including writing a novel as though it were a series of short stories joined at the hip (she doesn't recommend that one); writing big chunks (1/3 or so), revising the outline and everything written up to that point after completing each chunk; and writing descriptions of scenes on 3x5 cards and spreading the outline out on the living room floor. She recommended The Weekend Novelist by Ray as a good resource, though its "Aristotelian spiral" is kind of strange. But "there are four and twenty ways of making tribal lays, and every single one of them is right." Karen Joy Fowler just starts at the beginning and writes through to the end, never knowing where it's going to wind up until she gets there.

After that I went back to work on "Joy". I finished the first draft around 9:00, and asked Julian to read it over; he did, and gave me some excellent pointers. I was working on those edits when, about 10:00, Pat came by and said "hey, the moon's full, want to walk down to the fountain?" Jen, Miriam, Alec, Julian, and I came along. The moon wasn't quite full, just gibbous, but it was a nice night anyway. We met 5 dogs who'd been brought to romp on the grass in the moonlight, and saw parts of the campus I'd never been to before -- some very nice architecture. We got back at 10:45 or so. I continued revising "Joy" until about midnight, then printed a copy while I critiqued. Some really good stories today, including one by Pat (I feel so special), but I wasn't able to give them the attention I feel they deserved. The last one in the stack was mine; I made a few more tweaks (cutting a sentence or two here, changing a word there, adding a little more of what's going on in the character's head in one place) and then printed out the final copy while working on my journal.

2:37. Good night. I am taking the weekend off.

7/14/00 - Friday

Last day with Pat. Patrick was out sick; Albert felt ill and left class early, so we postponed his critique until later. Hope I don't get it. Leslie congratulated us on making it through Week 4 in reasonably good shape (nobody's called her up at midnight screaming "I can't take it!" -- "what, that was an option?" came the cry) and warned us that David Hartwell will not be as warm and fuzzy as the instructors we've had so far. Brr.

In honor of Pat's last day, and the weekly class photo, we all wore as much black as possible and put purple streaks in our hair (using a tube of "Hair Mascara" Miriam found at The Pink Zone of all places). Inez put my streaks in my beard. We got some strange looks going to and from class; one guy stopped me and asked why he'd seen so many people with purple hair. "We're just a bunch of crazy writers," I said. "Oh, I thought it was a reference to Purple Haze."

Pat's parting gift is a stuffed husky, a Brazen Husky named "Husk Brazenwell by Merry Maxwell by Max Merriwell by Pat Murphy" (a reference to Pat's writers' group the Brazen Hussies, and the nested pen names in Pat's new "thematic trilogy" starting with There and Back Again). It also has wings and a halo (Wild Angel being the second book in said trilogy), and a braid like Pat's. We presented it in the dorm before the party, because with the wings and halo we didn't think it would travel too well.

I hadn't thought we could get any weirder, but we still are...

My hands are much better today, only tingling a little tiny bit. Switching to the big computer definitely helped. I also picked up a pair of wrist braces on my way home from class (I'm wearing them now -- boy are they awkward, I may give up on them soon), and after my afternoon nap I spent some time rigging up a new keyboard shelf, at a more appropriate height, out of cardboard. Architecture school pays off! But it's really rickety, and may not work long term. We'll see.

As we were getting ready to leave for the BBQ at Tom and Marci's place, Patrick had a brainstorm. If he shaved off his beard, wore his glasses and a Hawaiian shirt, added a braid to his hair, and put light streaks in his hair he'd look exactly like Pat. So he did. It was frightening: suddenly there was this strange man who sounded just like Patrick but didn't look anything like him. We had this whole big comedy-of-errors thing, with people running in and out of elevators, cars driving around to back entrances, and white hair mascara being applied in the back seats of cars, in order to get him to the BBQ without Pat seeing him. And then it turned out Pat was going to dinner with Leslie, and would only be showing up at the party later.

Miriam, David S., Alec, Tom Whitmore and I went to a Fred Meyer near Tom and Marci's place to get stuff for the BBQ, then we grilled hamburgers and sausages and had a nice dinner out of them. Eventually people started showing up for the party, including Pat -- her reaction to Patrick was priceless, and they really did look disturbingly similar. Leslie What was there, with her bear skin on which many writers have been photographed, and she took one of Pat and Patrick together -- they were so cute, like the pair'o'peteias. I also got a photo on the bear skin, but it's not nearly so cute -- I look positively maniacal. Ths is probably the bear skin's last outing; it's going to be made into a sacred Native American coat within weeks.

In addition to Leslie What, several other out-of-town writers were at the party, including Bruce Holland Rogers, and David Hartwell showed up a day or two early (when we were introduced, he said "I already know you" -- I'm surprised he remembered me). Nicola Griffith and Kelley also made an appearance. Kate Shaeffer brought her granddaughter's Barbie Dream House, in honor of Pat's "spirits in the dream house" story which we'd workshopped today. We were all quite impressed and appalled by it, especially its overpowering pinkness and the fact the bathtub was the flip side of the bed (talk about subtext). I had a very nice time talking with folks other than this year's Clarion class, including Leslie What, Eric Witchey (a Clarion West grad from Eugene), Vonda, Jerry Kaufman (who was photographed topless on the bear skin), and a Clarion East grad from 1998 named John.

We all crapped out and left the party by 11, but a bunch of us (me, Jen, Miriam, Julian, Francesca, Amy, and Patrick) sat around in Jen's room (I think it was Jen's room) talking and occasionally tickling, dashing briefly to Bill's room to accost him, then adjourning to the lounge to lie groggily about on the sofas, say nasty things about Orson Scott Card's introductions in Future on Fire, and finally realize that we were awake for no good reason when we all really wanted to be asleep. Amy pointed out that nobody wanted to leave first, for fear of missing something, and we all agreed, so we all finally toddled off to bed around midnight.

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