David Levine's Clarion Journal: Week 6

posted 7/30/00

7/22/00 - Saturday

Awake at 7:00 (forgot to turn off the alarm, aargh) though I stayed in bed with my eyes closed until 10. Breakfast, shower, read latest batch of diary pages from Kate, made up a to-do list for the weekend (aiee, it's huge). Wrote up Friday's diary entry. Most everyone else went to an Octavia Butler reading, but I decided to stay here, update my web page, and send my weekly email to friends and family. Then I took a nap.

Left for the party at about 3. The directions said to head north on I-5 to the 164th Street exit, but when we got there there was no exit at that street number. Looked more closely at the directions: 164th Street SW. Aargh, we went north when we should have gone south! So I turned around and drove south (through a major traffic jam) to the other end of town -- all the way to Sea-Tac. But again, no 164th Street exit. Pulled over, found one of the other streets mentioned in the directions on the map. It turned out to be not a Seattle address -- if we'd kept going north in the first place, the street numbers would have started going down again. Aargh aargh! Finally got to the party an hour and a half after we'd left (should have been about 20 minutes). Fortunately, didn't miss the food.

At the party we had good conversation with Octavia Butler, Steve Barnes, Tananrive Due, and Amy Thomson; Neal Stephenson was also there, though I didn't talk with him at all. Big event at the party was the game Mafia, scourge of Clarion East -- a game of suspicion, paranoia, and murder for the whole family. I watched one game, got eliminated immediately in the second game for being too talkative for my own good, and got eliminated almost immediately in the third game for suspicious behavior. (They totally nailed me -- I was one of the bad guys. I'm not playing poker with this crowd.) It was very intriguing to watch the good guys trying desperately to nail the bad guys through logic and intuition, with no valid evidence in play. Mafia is a lot like Our Town by Thornton Wilder -- after you die, you can see everything and it all makes sense, but you can't communicate your insights to the living.

After the third Mafia game Greg Bear fired up his astonishing audio-video system, showing off with the first scene of The Matrix and the opening and launch/spacewarp scenes from Contact. After that he and Steve Barnes gave us a big rah-rah talk about how our mission as SF writers is to do what the big special-effects films can't, to bring back bits of trancendence from the place beyond words, to write about what scares us and what we love. Back to the dorm with a lot of leftover food, arriving around midnight; to bed by 1:00. Much rewriting tomorrow!!

7/23/00 - Sunday

Basically spent the entire day working on my rewrite of "Farers", except for critiquing (12:30-2:00 AM) and our first meeting with Carol Emshwiller. She seems very spunky, down-to-earth, practical (but not in the same way as Pat). She told us she saw a lot of problems with our stories, even the recent ones, and it's important to fix them because "practice doesn't make perfect, practice makes permanent -- only perfect practice makes perfect." Some of these problems are: false foreshadowing (dropping things that look like clues but aren't, even within a single sentence, e.g. "Joe took the teapot, Bill took the silver, Jane took a picture of them both"); problems handling conversation (dialogue can be direct, indirect, or summary; direct dialogue is the slowest way to impart information; you can mix these 3 techniques to control information and save words, but to do this well you have to know what is important); failure to focus on what the reader needs to hear; knee-jerk phrases (cliches -- when one rears its ugly head (whoops, there's one now) turn it on its head or write something more descriptive, make it different and better); use of weakening words (such as very, about, -ly adverbs, and other modifiers, which undercut emotional power).

She also quoted Hitchcock on suspense. Imagine a short scene, say ten minutes, in which a bunch of people get together to play cards with a box as a table. During the scene people come and go. Suddenly a bomb explodes from under the table. Huh? you say. Now imagine the same scene, except this time it begins with someone planting the bomb. That's suspense! Remember: foreshadowing is one of your most important tools.

I have Farers 2.0 about 80% edited, although the ending needs lots of work, there's still lots of character-building to add, and I should really at least look at everyone's line edits (I'm focusing on Geoff's comments so far, not too surprisingly). Shifting the locale to Venice has made a huge improvement -- it gives me a political and legal system to work with, the Ghetto to play off of, names for places and people, relations with other countries, a much better mental image of the setting (which makes descriptions of the setting much easier), a specific voice to shoot for, and a huge pool of ready-made similes and metaphors (e.g. I had something whose size was vague; I now say it's as big as the Piazza San Marco, which shines light on the object, the setting, and the character's relationship with both, all at the same time).

It's already much stronger but still needs much more work, and it's due Tuesday, aiee. It's also much longer -- up to about 8000 words and still growing -- so when I'm done with this editing pass I need to cut, cut, cut!! I still want to get it down to 5000 words, 7000 words absolute max. I've also added an enormous amount of exposition, to address some of the readers' comments; some of that is going to have to come back out to get the length down and keep the story moving. But, if nothing else, I've learned something about the characters by writing it. I hope.

7/24/00 - Monday

This is it -- my last really late night at Clarion. It's 3:30 AM and my last story is due at 9AM. I haven't yet decided what I'm going to do with my spare time (time that I was using for writing before) for the rest of the week. Sleep? See some of Seattle? Write another story (it can't be critiqued, but I might as well use the time for writing, because I'm here and thinking about writing and don't have much else that desperately needs to be done)?

Workshopped a couple of SF transpositions of classic fairy tales today. This is not just a coincidence, though, it arises from a brainstorming session in the lounge last week, and I think there's at least one more coming from the same source. That sort of session is a lot of fun, and I wish we could do it more, but when you involve others in your story you can no longer get a fair critique from them. Speaking of fair critiques, it's going to be interesting to see how people critique the rewrites of earlier stories that we're going to start seeing tomorrow. How can you properly critique a story when you already know the end? (OK, some of the rewrites have different endings than their originals, but they do have something in common, or they wouldn't be rewrites.)

Also handed out the factory-fresh kazoos Kate sent. Miriam had never seen one before; Patrick didn't know how to play one (he blew into it, but nothing happened; the expression on his face when he hummed into it for the first time was priceless). Patrick's beard is back, by the way; it turned from heavy stubble into a beard when he trimmed it back into goatee shape this weekend.

Spent most of today on Farers 2.0. I completed my first pass at 7PM -- 8200 words, aiee. Had dinner, critiqued others' manuscripts, then got out the red pen and started slashing on a printout. I got rid of the Farers' Rutter, damnit -- a darling I really didn't want to have to kill, but I think it saved over 500 words and probably improved the story in other ways as well (it made things too easy for the main character, and a lot of people had trouble with the word "rutter" even though it's a legitimate archaic word). Got it down to 7500 words, then progress slowed, but I kept hacking away at individual paragraphs, then individual sentences, sometimes just a word or two at a time. I finally gave up at 3:30 AM, at 7033 words (7009 if you don't count the return address and title), which I figure is close enough to 7000 that I can call it that. I had really wanted 5000 words, but 7000 will have to do for now.

I have a big checklist of things I wanted to do during the revision; most of the items are checked off. The major unchecked item is to go over everyone's line edits, but I did go over the comments everyone provided in class (as recorded in my notebook) and just about all of the original lines are gone now (or, no matter what people think of them, I like them). Most of the other unchecked items are things that I've definitely done something on but don't think, or can't be sure, it's enough to check off ("change language of dialogue, make it more Venetian"; "make the wife more curious, more active"; "increase threat from discovery -- raise the stakes -- more conflict")

In addition to revision, today I called my father to wish him a happy birthday, called Kate in Vermont, bought groceries, did laundry, and took a nap.

Printout's done, nighty night.

7/25/00 - Tuesday

Today we workshopped two rewrites (the "Taran, Warrior Princess" and "ghost of apartheid" stories), and in both cases some folks (including me) thought the rewrites were better-structured but the original versions had more emotional punch. One danger of rewrites is that you take out all the things the readers objected to, and lose what you were really trying to do with the story. Both of these will appreciate a third draft to try to capture some of what was lost in the second. (A third story today was a rewrite of the author's submission story, but since we haven't seen the original we couldn't comment on that aspect of it. The fourth story was new.)

I think that "Secrets in the Lion's Mouth" (Farers 2.0) will need another draft, but not to recapture emotional punch (since the first draft had none), just to add more. After I handed it in I realized that I need to think real hard about what the story is about, focus on what the characters want, find the main emotional thread, and cut out everything in the story that doesn't support that. That should get the word count down. Then I need to move the whole thing right into the main character's head and add yet more emotion. Handing in a story is like driving to the airport: it is the only way to discover The Thing You Forgot.

Carol talked briefly today about several writing terms/concepts that she felt we should know, such as "unreliable narrator" and "pathetic fallacy" (attribution of emotion to inanimate objects). One that none of us did know was the "objective correlative," which she compared to the actors' "psychological gesture" -- an action that shows the character's state of mind. She quoted the song "countin' flowers on the wall ... smokin' cigarettes and watchin' Captain Kangaroo" as an example; the song never says what the character is feeling, but the actions make this clear. The objective correlative is not the same as symbolism -- in that song, the line "playin' solitaire till dawn with a pack of 51" is symbolism (the only such line). The objective correlative is also used in scene-setting, adding objects to the setting that help the reader (or audience and actor -- one of Carol's children is a set decorator) understand the character's thoughts and motivations. Carol said that our stuffed animals help to characterize us. Don't overuse these techniques; you can depend on the reader to provide a lot. One more piece of advice: "When tempted to use an adverb, use a different verb that says what you mean."

I was so tired today (no duh, I got about three hours' sleep last night), and spent most of the afternoon in bed, either asleep or just staring at the wall. I did get out and take a walk, stopped into Beyond the Closet Books and petted the cat. There's a new Dykes to Watch Out For collection.

Carol's reading tonight (the last one -- lots of "lasts" this week, alas) was a lot of fun. She read three very short stories, all of which I would characterize as "lightly fantastic" and amusing, and she read them very well; the audience enjoyed them tremendously. Also at tonight's reading was the announcement of next year's lineup of instructors, which is dynamite (the only names I can remember at the moment are Octavia Butler, Jack Womack, Ellen Datlow, and Connie Willis). Alas, you can only do Clarion once.

At this moment, across the hall, Julian is reading from a bad romance novel to great hilarity.

Later in the evening Amy came by to say thank you for the line edits I did on one of her previous stories and to ask advice on how to make the climactic scene more emotional. I had a couple of specific suggestions: move the characters closer to the event (they were physically distant from it, it should be overwhelmingly huge) and start with the characters' emotions and describe the event from that perspective (this is based on a writing exercise: "write a description of a landscape from the perspective of someone whose husband has just died, without mentioning the husband or death"). Why is it so much easier to do this for someone else's story?

On the other hand, I noticed today that in workshop I am not commenting on the same things other people are -- I'm spotting continuity and logic errors, they're talking about characters not being convincing and emotional problems. If I can't even see these problems in others' stories, how can I fix them in mine? Frustrating.

7/26/00 - Wednesday

They hated it.

Well, that's not quite true. Most people thought "Secrets in the Lion's Mouth" was better than "Farers," the first version (though a couple thought it had less emotional impact?!), but the characters were still flat -- the wife in particular was still unbelievable, although she's moved from "total doormat" to "veers wildly from acceptance to weepiness" -- and there wasn't nearly enough emotion. The setting was improved but just about everyone thought I overdid the Venice references, and nailing it down to a specific time and place created problems of its own (e.g. "in a country that sacked the Holy Land for cash, would the Council of Ten think twice about defying their own laws to 'get' this guy?"). Also, people still had a lot of logic problems with the interaction of farers with their society. And the writing is flabby, tending to re-state and over-state and use trite phrases, and the dialogue tends toward pompous. Some of the comments in the manuscripts were particularly virulent, things like "Duh!" and "INFO-FUCKING-DUMP!"

I tried to address the characterization problems from the first draft by putting the character in more trouble. This didn't work because I didn't show his reactions to the trouble, and because, though he's in more trouble, he still isn't in much trouble and his life is still too easy. There are still a lot of fortunate coincidences, for example, and though he does get chased out of the market in Skanash instead of just walking away, he still gets what he came for. David S. pointed out that he needs to make his own problems worse by failing -- he should get caught in Skanash, beaten up, and his money taken (and how the heck is he going to explain that?). I tried to make the wife less of a doormat by making it clear that she knows what's going on, but now it makes the main character look like an idiot when he doesn't know that she knows. I tried to address the logic problems by adding more explanations, but the explanations were just infodump and Rod & Don dialogue and didn't address the fundamental problem. Also, making the farers more akin to Jews than gays raised issues of "trivializing the Holocaust."

We were only doing 3 manuscripts today, so we had plenty of time for discussion after the critique. Lots of people had specific suggestions. I think that people really wanted to see this story succeed and were disappointed that it wasn't better. Me too.

I think the problems with this story are fundamental, and largely arise from the plot dominating the characters. Rewriting the story on the same skeleton didn't address this at all. Also, the two basic concepts in the story (farers have magic powers; farers are a despised minority) are incompatible, and no amount of handwaving will fix that. I think these two concepts should be pulled into separate stories. Whatever I do with this story (and I should wait 6 months before touching it again, as Julian suggests) I should start with the characters and the society and work from there. Who are these people? What do they want? Why can't they have what they want? What are their relationships with each other? What can and can't farers do? How do they relate to their society because of this? From this will arise a whole new story -- maybe not the story I set out to tell, but hopefully a better one.

I walked home by myself after class and had a sandwich for lunch. I didn't want to talk with anyone.

My conference with Carol was immediately after lunch. Her comments focused on emotion, characterization, and language. She had a lot of problems with my attempts to describe emotion through trite phrases describing the expressions on characters' faces ("his eyes widened", "her brow furrowed") and other obvious emotion signals like tears and sagging shoulders. Better to use the objective correlative -- what do they do that conveys their emotions? I have characters setting down glasses and sitting back in their chairs when I need a break in the dialogue; their actions should instead convey what they're thinking. Another form of the objective correlative is the use of objects and setting (both the objects themselves and the descriptions of the objects) to describe character and emotion; in just one place I mention the main character's relationship with his father's house, which is good, should be expanded, and could be a big theme of the story. Also, the characters are generic (they aren't even described physically); they need more particulars to make them into people, and they should have emotional reactions to those particulars in themselves and each other ("I hate it when she wrinkles her nose like that"). These can be combined, for example a character could twirl his hair when he's nervous. She also provided a few comments on "Memory of Pain" and said that she liked "Gojo" but the main character needs to be fleshed out to make his later actions make sense.

After that I went back to my room and stared at the ceiling for the rest of the afternoon. I cried a little, but not much. Amy pointed out that in my last three stories I end the penultimate scene with the main character just sitting and thinking, and the climactic decision is made in isolation (and offstage). My characters do this because that's what I do.

I did come out and talk with Kameron and Albert for a while. Kameron also expressed frustration with running into the same problem over and over, and said that Julian does too, so it's not just me. Patrick stopped by, and pointed out that he often rewrites his stories from the ground up several times before he's happy with them, so maybe I have unrealistic expectations of how quickly this process should work. I also spent some time this afternoon on e-mail (there were problems with the OSFCI/OryCon server, which I think we've finally cleared up), and as long as I was online I checked the Clarion East diaries. One of them sounds an awful lot like me, in terms of dissatisfaction with their stories and with their interactions with the other Clarionites. This is, I think, the one that some folks around here said sounded like a suicide risk. Gulp.

Some good news today. I got a package of little goodies from Page Fuller, including some little toys, a tiny mouse made of real fur, and a really old and battered harmonica (I bet there's a story behind that); I also got some preserves from Karen Shaffer's new "low-tech start-up" The Elegant Table (ElegantTable.com). These helped cheer me up. And I got a call from Kate, with her flight numbers. She'll be here tomorrow. Omigod!

7/27/00 - Thursday

I now realize that I had a total self-confidence meltdown yesterday. After writing the above I did my critiques, which took until 12:30 or so. When I was finished with that, I followed my ears down the hall to Inez's room, where a bunch of the usual suspects were getting amusingly tipsy. My timing was awful -- just as I showed up, Inez kicked everyone out. I got exceptionally morose then, with a cycle of "unlovable -- geeky -- talentless -- ugly" running through my head. It doesn't help that I'm always "David L" -- I feel like Charlie Brown. And no matter what I do my characters still suck. Finally I just went to bed, but when I woke up to go to the bathroom at 4AM or so the hamsters started right in gnawing on the same thing and I didn't get back to sleep until some time after sunup. But when the alarm went off at 7AM I felt a bit better.

Then, in workshop today, I was (or seemed to myself to be) the sole dissenting voice on one story -- to me, it had so many logic holes and scientific flaws I couldn't see the story, while others weren't bothered by the flaws and said nice things about the characters. (Later it turned out that some others felt the same way, but didn't raise the issue in their in-class critiques.) This made me feel really isolated.

Took a nap after lunch. Got a couple calls from Kate, tracking her progress across the country despite rain delays in Boston; she's now due in at 8:45. Did my last set of critiques; I find that the quality of my crits is deteriorating -- the stories are getting better, so it's harder to say anything about them, and I'm just getting tired. People started to pack up; I joined in a manuscript-gutting bee (pulling out unmarked pages from critiqued stories to save weight) next door.

Dinner at the little Italian place down the street. Picked up Kate at the airport. General hilarity. Bed.

7/28/00 - Friday

Last day of class (waah!). We did four critiques -- three rewrites and one original story. Miriam (the original story) got the last critique of Clarion West 2000. We each got a list of all the stories everyone wrote; a lot of folks had everyone sign their copies (Patrick signed mine "William Shatner;" when I asked for his real signature he signed it again: "Billy Mumy"). After that we had the graduation ceremony, at which each of us got a diploma, a program signed by all the instructors, a little trophy ("representing our potential" -- huh?), a secret decoder ring, a hug, and a sprinkling of pixie dust. (The next morning I found bits of pixie dust on my pillow.)

Back to the dorm to eat whatever remained in the fridge, then took a nap. Spent the afternoon packing (not done yet). An excellent dinner with Kate at La Spiga, then off to Leslie's for the final Friday party. Howard Waldrop was there, though I didn't get a chance to talk with him; ditto Jessica Amanda Salmonson. Vonda McIntyre brought a Chocolate Decadence, and there was a ceremony to thank the Clarion West staff, especially David Myer who is retiring. We presented Carol with a cute little mouse holding a light-up magic wand. I don't think it had a name, though it came in a telephone box with the label "False Foreshadowing."

Jen summarized our word counts, with the surprising result that the 17 of us produced more stories and more total word count than the 19 at Clarion East (not that quantity is more important than quality, but this is really intriguing considering that they were burning themselves out with too much writing early on).

All returned to the dorm by 11:00 for the first annual Clarie Awards, hosted by Blinky the cockroach (Patrick with a praying mantis puppet -- couldn't find a cockroach puppet for some unknown reason) with presentations by Miriam in a slinky dress and Julian in a sultry leather jacket. Everyone got an award, though some of them were surprises: for example, it was Greg, not Jen, who got the award for "best use of midriff," and Inez beat out Julian for "best vermin." I got the award for "creation of an afterlife most devoid of hope" and Patrick got covered in whipped cream. Then we all adjourned to Paulette's room to compose a letter to next year's class. To bed around 1:00.

I'm glad Kate decided to switch her flight from Saturday to Thursday; she got to see all these people in context and have some idea of what my life has been like for the past 6 weeks.

7/29/00 - Saturday

Woke up around 8:30, to find Albert leaving as I headed for the shower. Others departed, one by one, as the day went on. Waah! I spent the morning packing up my computer and the other remaining things in my room, and got done by about 10:30 (with occasional trips out into the hall to hug and cry as another graduate departed into the cold cruel world). Helped with washing dishes, packing up the lounge, cleaning out the fridges, etc. Kate and I had shawarma at the Middle Eastern place for lunch, then came back, hauled all the stuff down to the car, said goodbye to those who remained, and left. An uneventful drive home, got back by 5:00, found everything in its proper place. Walked down to the Cup & Saucer for dinner, then Ben & Jerry's for dessert. Spent the rest of the evening unpacking, setting up the computer, sorting six weeks' worth of mail, and generally fitting back into real life. I'm glad I don't have to go back to work for another week.

I come out of Clarion with mixed feelings. I wanted it to go on -- I mean, this is what I do, writing and critiquing and staying up much too late -- especially since I still don't feel I've quite gotten it right. But at the same time I was tired, so very tired, and I wanted my sweetie and my own bed and real food and more clothes. So I was sad to go, but also relieved that it was over.

I've learned a lot in the past six weeks -- at least, I've been exposed to a lot of new concepts and techniques, though I haven't learned to apply them all. I still have a long way to go. But consider that, from the time I started writing again (about two years ago) to the time I applied to Clarion, I completed only five stories, one of them not good enough to submit. In the last six weeks I've completed eight stories, two drafts of one of them -- nearly tripling my lifetime total. And that's just a toe in the water as far as a writing career goes. Some folks say you have to write a million words of crap before you can be a good writer; I'm only about 50,000 words into that. This is the very beginning of my career, whatever my age, so I should not be surprised that I have a long way to go.

I have made up a list of things to do for each of my Clarion stories. "Equations of the Dance" is ready for submission, and I think "Tears Do Not Fall in Zero Gee" and "In The Joy Business" will be ready once I've made the changes suggested by their critiques. "Fur and Fire" and "Fair Play" need more work than that. "Primates" needs much more work but might be salvageable. "The Memory of Pain" and "Secrets in the Lion's Mouth" need to be rethought and rewritten from scratch (new characters created and new stories written about those characters). I also have three stories I wrote just before Clarion, and have not yet submitted anywhere, that may look different now, and a pile of ideas for new stories. Plenty to do.

I may never be the kind of writer who wins Nebulas, though I still hope to be published, but I know from comments that writers I admire have made that they are embarrassed by their early work, so there is the possibility of improvement from this point. The thing to do is keep writing, keep getting feedback (now I'm sorry I missed the Chicon writers' workshop deadline), keep submitting -- keep plugging away until I learn to be the kind of writer I want to be.

I also need to become a different kind of human being -- one who pays more attention to other people and is more open with his emotions -- to become a better writer. This diary is an important part of that. I won't continue posting it, though.

It's now eight minutes to midnight on Saturday, July 29, 2000. (I would have been finished almost an hour ago except for a power failure that wiped out the day's entire entry when I was just about done -- aargh!) This is the end of my Clarion diary. Good night.

An interesting concept, though I don't think it works as a story. The main character doesn't grow and change enough (though you tell us he's changed at the end, you don't show it); I'm not sure he's really learned anything from his experience. Also, he seems rather flat and unconvincing, just a self-centered whiner. You should give him more interactions with the other characters, to expand and deepen his character.

I'll be interested to see what else you can do with this idea.

Back to Week 5

Return to David's Clarion Page