David Levine's Clarion Journal: Week 5

posted 7/22/00

7/15/00 - Saturday

Woke up at 7:00, as usual, but got back to sleep and woke up for good at 10:00. Nine hours' sleep, hallelujah!

Spent much of the day working on my web page and sending out my weekly mail to friends and family. Lots and lots of keen pictures, tough to pick a small subset to post. Did laundry. Drove Patrick, Miriam, and Alec to Jamba Juice for lunch; mailed a printout of the web page to Great Camp Sagamore for Kate (by the time she receives it, there will be only one week to go). Some programs were complaining about lack of disk space, so spent an hour clearing stuff out; went from 6MB to 212MB free. Ten of us went to the Italian place we found last week for dinner, but it was closed, so we tried La Spiga; it was truly excellent, although a bit spendy by starving-student standards. After dinner I critiqued for a while, then got up to stretch my legs and wound up watching Alec, Jen, Miriam, and Inez's husband Andy playing The Settlers of Catan in the lounge. Neat game, not too hard to learn -- kind of a cross between Civilization and Go Fish.

Not a very busy day, but like I said, I'm taking the weekend off. Still stayed up until 1:30...

7/16/00 - Sunday

Woke up about 9:00, not too bad. Got up, washed up, headed out -- looking to improve the ergonomics of my environment. Borrowed a phone book from the front desk, found the nearest Office Depot (down on Airport Way). I got a Microsoft Natural Keyboard, but they didn't have a keyboard drawer that would do what I wanted (it has to be about 6" below the desk surface to work for me with this chair, and none of them went that low). Failing that, I asked if they had shelves, so I could replace the cardboard keyboard support with something more stable; they didn't, but the clerk told me how to find a Home Depot nearby. I wandered around there for about an hour, looking at wood and brackets and such, and finally just bought a pre-finished shelf for $3 and put it where the cardboard box was. It's a definite improvement.

The Natural Keyboard will take some getting used to -- I have a bad habit of hitting the 'B' key with my right index finger, which means I keep getting N's when I want B's -- but I think it's an improvement as well. I refuse to install the Microsoft software that came with the keyboard, so the 19 little blue buttons on the top row don't do anything (I bought the MS keyboard, though it was the most expensive, because it seemed to have the best shape and the best keyboard feel). I think I can get used to this... (but I need to remember to hold my wrists off the wrist rest).

After lunch, went to Archie McPhee's. Lots of weird stuff. I picked up a cute little angel bunny that plays "Jesus Loves Me" for $3. Got home to find a package from Kate: two T-shirts, a postcard, and 20 car-window stickers from Clarion University in Pennsylvania. Cool!

Went to the library to do some research for my Homo Habilis story ("Runt and the Fire God"). The public computers were all tied up with people doing e-mail and chat, so I couldn't access the card catalog (aargh!). Finally one of the librarians logged me into one of the "Seattle U Students Only" computers. I found one good book, but time was running short and I don't have check-out privileges -- so I used my digital camera, which I had with me because I'd meant to take a picture of the outside of the dorm (oops, just realized I forgot to do that), and photographed each page of the relevant chapter. Felt like a spy doing that, but digital photos are free while photocopies cost a dime. Later I viewed the images on the big computer and took 2 pages of notes on the little one. It truly is the 21st century.

First meeting with David Hartwell. He talked for about an hour and a half, and did rather natter on a bit, but he has a lot to offer -- he's had 22 Hugo nominations without winning one, a record. He said that he will be talking this week about titles and openings (most of ours that he has read are not very good), genre (genres are "coherent conversations among texts and audience", not to be confused with modes (e.g. horror, humor) or marketing categories (e.g. magic realism) -- many of our stories are between, among, or on the fringes of genre), reading experiences and influences (you are what you eat), and markets and marketing (we need to understand that the editor's job is to reject as many things as fast as possible). He also talked some about fandom, and recommended some conventions; and he gave everyone a copy of his book Age of Wonders and sold copies of Those Who Can (which Pat had recommended) for $10.

After the meeting with Hartwell I continued research on "Runt" for a while, then critiqued the last story and a half, then worked on the characters and plot of "Runt" using the Pat Murphy method. To bed about 12:30.

7/17/00 - Monday

First class with David Hartwell. The first thing we say about each story must be favorable; we get two minutes with no warning and no group discussion; and we should say something about the title. He focused on titles today; their purpose is "to seduce and attract the reader." Note that the title appears on the cover or in the table of contents, away from the story; it has to convince the reader to turn to your story without additional help (unless your name is a big draw). Publishers change titles a lot, for this reason. We did an exercise of suggesting new titles for Albert's story (not that it had a bad title, it was just there). He also briefly discussed worldbuilding, saying that "worldbuilding" is a misnomer -- the author doesn't build a world, just presents the illusion of a world with as few details as possible. He recommended an essay called "World Reduction in Science Fiction" by Jameson, published in the 1970's.

We critiqued "In the Joy Business" today. People generally liked it, several thought it was totally hilarious, and they found the main character sympathetic (yes!!). Negative comments were that it was too light, not a big enough idea; that some of the jokes were overdone or stopped the story action; that some of the themes were not resolved in the end; that it wasn't much of a stretch for me. This may be true, but I think I really needed a positive critique so I'm still glad I did it. It was also a character-building exercise, and I think it succeeded as that. Hartwell said that it has a very strong opening and good tone, though there is some stylistic clunkiness, and it needs to be tightened a bit. Is it a genre story? Not really; it's a religious fantasy, which is a branch of American literature (e.g. "The Screwtape Letters", C.S. Lewis, and "Letter to the Earth", Mark Twain) rather than of SF/Fantasy, but the ending fits in no known theology (there are no third parties in the Heaven/Hell dichotomy). Several people commented that "heaven as bureaucracy" has been done before.

In my conference with Hartwell we talked about my writing and about markets. He said that my plot-driven writing style, though not highly regarded in the character- and emotion-focused Clarion context, is the mainstream of SF and should not be dismissed lightly -- but the actual writing could be better, more lyrical. I read a Delany story right afterward and I could definitely see the difference; I will try to address this in my next story (though it's tough to make big improvements in a short time on something like this). Revise, revise, revise! OK! As to markets -- just about anyone will buy funny stuff if it suits their particular sense of humor (though I know Warren Lapine doesn't want to see funny stuff at all). For example, Gordon Van Gelder at F&SF might buy "Joy" if the ending works for him (Hartwell says the ending lives or dies on the theology of the story, which needs work). Other potential markets for funny SF include the Greenberg anthologies (e.g. Catfantastic); these aren't open, you have to write to Greenberg to find out what's in progress. Mind you, funny is hard; I don't want to get stuck writing only funny stuff. We discussed my next story idea (H. habilis, with almost no dialogue); he says it is one of those that is easy to do, but hard to do right. Well, I'll give it a shot.

Spent the rest of the afternoon and evening working on my story. Continued to research for far too long. Had no luck finding the names of animal, and especially plant, species that would have been contemporary with H. habilis, finally found a web page with a few modern species in the area, so I'm using those plus saber-tooth tiger. Wonder what a commiphora tree looks like? At Hartwell's suggestion, wrote a short poem from each main character's point of view in order to get a handle on them -- it's bad poetry, but I think it was a worthwhile exercise. Also wrote out a few sentences on the emotions of each character in each scene of the outline. Now nearly 3000 words of outline and notes, including the poems. Started actually writing after supper. First two scenes written by midnight, 1200 words. This isn't good, because I have 12 scenes all told -- 7200 words at this rate. I need to cut scenes or make them shorter, get the story down to 5000 words (4000 is better). Fortunately the scenes I have written are among the biggest, and at least 4 of the scenes in the outline are very short. Best to keep writing as rapidly as possible, so I can get it finished with time to go back and cut. Took a couple of brief breaks, for readings of The Barbarian Wizardess Octiad (a Hurley/Weekes production) and group brainstorming in the lounge. To bed shortly after 1:00.

7/18/00 - Tuesday

Workshopped four stories today, three of them flawed (one Hartwell called "a textbook example of the use of distancing devices", one well- written but lacking any significant decision by the main character, one lacking an ending), one way cool but still able to be improved. Hartwell talked a bit about distancing (it's OK to use it, as long as you understand why you're doing it) person/tense ("always draft in 3rd person past tense, only shift to something else if the story works better that way"), and setting ("the most common failing in an otherwise publishable but rejected manuscript is inadequate setting, or 'off-the-shelf' worlds", and 1st person makes it hard to define the setting).

We also went through the exercise again of coming up with new titles for someone's story. Many of these were hilarious. This is OK, sometimes a title that makes you laugh when you first hear it is the perfect title, even for a serious story. Many of the titles suggested different directions for the story (different emphasis, different ending, different viewpoint character), and Hartwell pointed out that spending 10 minutes coming up with alternate titles for a published story is a way to generate new story ideas for yourself.

I took a few minutes in class to write down some alternate titles for my H. habilis story, working title "Runt and the Fire God": "Cain", "Deal with the Devil", "The Sun on Her Fur," "Two Million Years Deep." I don't like "Cain" because it telegraphs the end (maybe it needs telegraphing) and because I think a similar story with that title has already been done; currently my favorite is "The Sun on Her Fur."

I had decided, perhaps foolishly, to make dinner for everyone today. After class I hauled out the bread machine (first time) and started it going, then had a quick lunch. I went back to my room and critiqued manuscripts, then was about to take a nap when I realized it was time to get the bread out of the machine. Since I was using quick-rise yeast, I decided to make another loaf right away; it would be done just in time for dinner. (Good decision; both loaves got eaten.) Once I was done with that it was time to start chopping onions, thawing sausages, and boiling water, and I kept pretty busy (except for a quick call to Kate and a few minutes of writing) until 5:00. Nobody was there to eat right at 5, but I knocked on a few doors, and all the food was gone by 6:30.

Most of us went to the bookstore for David Hartwell's reading, which was an essay on "Modernism vs. Science Fiction." It was informative, though I might have gotten more out of it if I knew what Modernism as a literary movement was (I know what it means as an art movement and as an architecture movement, but they're different from each other and it sounds like both are different from the literary movement). Francesca tried to explain it in the car on the way back to the dorm, but it sounds a lot like the "I know it when I see it" or "it's what I'm pointing to when I say this" definitions of SF or pornography.

When we got back from the reading I was very tired, since I hadn't had an afternoon nap. I took a half-hour nap, then got up and started writing again at 10:00. The remaining seven scenes of the story (I cut one and combined some others) went surprisingly quickly (one of them wound up as one six-word paragraph), and I finished up a first draft about 1:00. 3200 words all told. I think it's rushed at the end, but I don't want to just add words; I hope to get someone else's opinion on it tomorrow. It's damn bleak; I hope the main character is sympathetic enough and motivated enough to make it a tragedy. I should check Faust, see if I can bring this story in line with that archetype.

To bed around 1:45.

7/19/00 - Wednesday

There was a fire alarm at the SCCC today, just as we were getting ready to start class. We sat around for a while hoping it was going to stop, but it didn't, so we trooped down four flights of stairs to the street and stood around with the community college students, watching the fire trucks pull up. It was over pretty quickly, though. I grabbed the Verisimilitoad on the way out, its head and arms sticking out of my backpack; I'm told it got some very strange looks as I was going down and up the stairs.

Workshopped three stories today, all very good (though others had more negative comments than I did). I see everyone else improving so much, but I don't think I am. I hope this is just because I'm too close. Hartwell talked a bit about alternate histories -- he says that the point of an alternate history story for the reader is to know the split point, so hit that early in the story and hit it hard. The story under discussion was one of those Waldropian ones in which, unless you really know your history, you'll never know which of the elements are history and which alternate. I thought it worked anyway.

Hartwell then talked about openings for a while. Well, to put it bluntly, he brought three "best of" collections and read us the openings. He had asked us to bring our copies of Those Who Can and had mentioned an exercise, but what he actually did was read one opening after another. Aloud. For an hour. Hearing 40-50 SF short story openings in a row, even good ones, is like eating the frosting off the top of a dozen cakes.

Right after lunch I took a nap. Then I got back to work on my story, revising it fairly heavily (like, there was one character who was killed despite being an innocent bystander, so I made him nastier so he'd deserve to die). By 4:00 I had a second draft, 3700 words. I asked Jen to come in and take a look at it, and she did, and we spent the next two hours talking about it. She properly identified the story as a "nerds vs.jocks" story, pegged the love interest as your basic cheerleader bitch type and suggested I make her more sympathetic, and provided a lot of other advice about improving the characterization. We spent a lot of the time talking about the murder at the climax, and whether the main character could commit murder and still be a sympathetic character. I think I finally understand that if the main character's sympathetic, the murder is going to be unmotivated, and if the murder feels motivated the main character can't be sympathetic (same problem affects "Gojo"). (Exception: self-defense. But that doesn't apply to either story.)

Jen and I brainstormed for about an hour, and between the two of us we came up with a completely new ending, changing it from "main character goes to hell" to "sunshine and fluffy bunnies." In terms of the plot, the change actually affects only the last two or three manuscript pages (out of 15), but I made a lot of changes in the characters and descriptions as well (some required to set up the new ending, others just to beef up the characters). When I was done with that, it was up to about 4100 words. I took a break for Daria and ice cream (sugar to rot your teeth, fat to rot your tummy, and cartoons on MTV to rot your mind) from 10 to 10:30, then critiqued manuscripts until about midnight. Then I went back into my story and tightened individual sentences. A lot. I was surprised to find I'd gotten it down to 3900 words.

I waffled a lot about the title. After settling on "The Sun on Her Fur" for the draft I showed Jen, the new ending seemed to demand a new title. It's currently called "Fur and Fire, Stone and Stick" but I'm really not happy with that. It sounds ugly. I also find a lot of the sentences sound quite flat now that I've reduced the word count; they tend to fall into a very subject-verb, subject-verb rhythm. But I don't think I'm going to get lyrical prose at 1:40 AM.

This might be my best serious story so far at Clarion. ("Joy" was very well received, but it's fluff -- I still want to be able to write real emotions.) I can't really tell, I'm too close to it. Even if it's fully as good as I hope it is, though, it's not as good as some of the ones I've read in the last couple of days. I had just about no negative comments on some of them. I really feel outclassed. And it's not as though it's because I've been socializing instead of writing -- I have been socializing, but not all that much, and some of the best stories are being written by people who are socializing a lot more than I am (also pulling all-nighters, but you can't have everything). Waah. I'm sure I'll feel better about this when I get back to the real world. I keep reminding myself that I am comparing every one of my stories with the very best I've seen here; these same authors have produced other stories that are quite flawed (but their flaws are different from my flaws, so part of me says they aren't as bad as mine -- after all, they can do the things I want to do, it doesn't matter to me if I can do the things they want to do).

T-shirt design is finalized; we voted on colors today, and I think the order went off to the printer. Thanks to Paulette for doing the design work and negotiating with the printer. And one Clarionite, who shall remain nameless, got the anti-Crap-Fairy ward tattooed in the small of their back this afternoon. No shit. I mean, back in week one I said we should all get Clarion tattoos, but I was kidding.

Lots and lots of typing today. Ergo keyboard and new work surface are making a difference -- no tinging in the hands -- though I have a bit of a pain in the wrist at the base of the right thumb (my spacebar thumb).

7/20/00 - Thursday

People keep telling me I'm being awfully hard on myself in these diary pages, but it's an honest reflection of my moods and attitudes (and you aren't seeing the real black stuff -- these pages are edited for public consumption). I spent some time today thinking about why I'm so down on my work. For one thing, I'm deliberately trying hard to do things that I know I'm bad at. If I get compliments about coherent plots and competent prose, those just wash off me -- I know I can do that, I want to hear about the emotion, characterization, and motivation (and I keep failing at those, and sometimes my attempts at them manage to drag other parts of the story down as well). Others' stories that succeed in these areas seem like successes to me ("gee, I wish I could do that"), even if they completely collapse in other areas. Also, even when I feel that my work, on the whole, is better than that of some of the others here I take no solace in this; I want to be as good as or better than those whose work I am really impressed with (i.e. those who are better than me). It's really a no-win situation, alas. As I've said before, I'm sure I'll feel better when I get back to the real world (and get some sleep!).

Two radical experiments in style in the workshop today: nanopunk and faerie noir. Both were stylistically very impressive, although I found myself disagreeing with the rest of the class on both as stories (one I thought more successful than the rest did, the other less successful). Both had plot problems, but shouldn't be too hard to fix; I would expect to see both of them published within a year. Hartwell selects the beginning person and direction at random for each critique, rather than starting with the author, and I wound up going last on 2 of the stories and first on the 3rd. Awkward.

With only 3 stories in the queue today, we wound up with an hour to spare, so Hartwell gave us an hour's riff on "how to get your stuff published." Basically, the most important thing is to know your markets. Editors buy good books that they know how to market, and it's unlikely that an editor who has a history of publishing hard SF will buy your Fantasy book, no matter how good it is. Use word of mouth and personal contacts to find out who's buying what. The editors do talk to one another, and are not shy about telling people what they want. Always determine the most appropriate editor for your book at a particular publisher, and send the manuscript to that editor by name. Manuscripts sent to "The Editor" get read by interns. If rejected, keep sending to less and less apropos markets until you reach your personal bottom line, then set the manuscript aside as "presently unmarketable." The field, or your career, might change in such a way that the same book you can't sell today can be sold in five years.

Despite the doom and gloom you may hear about the state of publishing today, there have been much worse times for first novelists in the past. Tor is publishing more hardcover SF per month than the entire industry did before 1992. Flip side: fewer mass-market paperbacks. This is due to massive mergers in the magazine/PB distribution industry.

Hartwell also mentioned that the movie Wolf, which is set at a book publisher, had sets based on Tor's offices in the Flatiron Buiding -- they took lots of reference photos, and all the books on the walls are Tor books. If you want to see what Tor looks like, watch the first 40 minutes of this movie (skip the rest, he says). He also said that those sets were built in the Bradbury Building in L.A. Cool!

Got a nasty surprise as we were heading back to the dorm after class -- my story was missing a big hunk of pages in the middle. At this point there is no telling where they were lost, though I suspect my printer may have decided not to print them (and I didn't check the printout before handing it in). I dashed to Kinko's and had new copies made, slipped them under people's doors in the early afternoon. Then I took a nap. After that I took a walk downtown, to stretch my legs, enjoy the sunshine, and think about my next story (I have in mind a stylistic experiment in the Cordwainer Smith mode). I did some shopping, but didn't buy anything.

We had another Jamba Juice and vodka run, but it was far more subdued than the last time (some of the livelier participants last week were out cold today, sick or just exhausted). Again, I skipped the vodka. I had manuscripts to critique. Took a half-hour break to watch "Celebrity Deathmatch" (more MTV cartoons to rot your brain) and spent some time in the lounge chatting with Hartwell and most of the rest of the gang.

I see that some of the other Clarion diaries online include tables of what they've written so far, so here's mine, with word counts and date completed:

I have one more story to come, due Tuesday.

I'm beat. To bed about midnight.

7/21/00 - Friday (post hoc)

Workshopped "Fur and Fire." Comments generally quite favorable, especially on the characterization and emotion aspects I was trying to focus on. Yay! On the downside, people had problems with the anthropology. I'm prepared to take my lumps on the things I made up or made assumptions about (weaving, estrus) but there were also a number of people who disagreed strongly with details that came directly from my research (tools, fire). Other aspects (religion, language) are really beyond argument, but opinions differed on whether or not they worked in story terms. Biggest story problem was that the through-line was muddled, which isn't too surprising considering I changed the ending at the last minute.

In his closing remarks, Hartwell strongly suggested that for the sixth week we revise and finish a story from an earlier week, rather than writing a new story. It's a separate skill set and is absolutely essential -- writing draft after draft (never finishing and submitting) is a stalling tactic to protect yourself from rejection.

After our now-traditional Friday lunch at Noodle Studio, I went to Twice Sold Tales nearby. I couldn't decide which story to revise -- "Farers" or "The Memory of Pain" -- and I would let kismet decide: if I found a good coffee table book on Venice, I would do "Farers." Well, I found one, and it was only $8. So that's what I should be working on right now; it's due Tuesday.

In the afternoon I took a nap, read a keen article by Ian Watson about his work with Kubrick on AI in a copy of the New York Review of SF that was lying around in the lounge, and skimmed the Venice book. Sat around in the lounge for a while chatting with Paulette and her husband, fixed myself some pasta for dinner. Somehow revising my story just didn't appeal. Then we went to the party at John Cramer's place. Only about 8 of us went; we'd seen Inez and Miriam and Jen and Julian go down the elevator, and when it got to be 8:00 and still no sign of them we decided to leave them to their own devices.

The party was pleasant, although when we arrived the power was out neighborhood-wide, due to a lightning strike at a nearby substation. The clouds were gorgeous, though: huge thunderheads with occasional lightning flashes, and lines of shadow cutting all across the sky from the sun setting behind a cloudbank. The Cramers' place has a spectacular lake view. Unfortunately, it lacked John Cramer, who's on the East Coast. Family portraits all over the place -- wait a minute, what's David Hartwell doing in them? I hadn't known that his wife was John Cramer's daughter. In one portrait the entire Hartwell clan (including the infant Peter) was wearing identical ugly ties, which reminded me that I haven't mentioned what he wore this week. He never wore a tie, but he showed up wearing a striped shirt under a checked sportcoat and tended to short-sleeve shirts in loud, unnatural colors and patterns (tonight it was a patchwork Hawaiian shirt, very scary).

Anyway, at the party I had nice long chats with Ted Chiang, Amy Thomson, and Melissa Shaw, and presented David Hartwell with Elmer the brightly-colored patchwork elephant (and a book about Elmer, to read to Peter over and over and over...). We all left about 10:45.

Back at the dorm we found the rest of the gang had finished the vodka from Thursday, a bottle of wine, and quite a lot of beer, and had obviously had a much better time than we did. Almost immediately when we arrived, an expedition was assembled to see the midnight show of The Princess Bride at the Egyptian. I succumbed to peer pressure and went along (ooh, twist my arm). Great flick, lousy print. After that we sat around in Andy's room (a first) until about 3 AM. For much of that time I was sitting quietly in a corner, thinking that I should really go to bed, but too tired and stupid to move. Peer pressure again, I guess.

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