What I Did Over Summer Vacation

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Or, What I Learned at Clarion 2006

 

I’ve been trying to put my thoughts together for a little while in terms of what Clarion meant to me, what I learned, etc. The friends I made there is one thing, and that’s definitely something I treasure. Many of those friendships, I’m sure, will continue to blossom over the years. Others, as these things go, will slowly fade away as they (or I) move on to other things. But it’s not really relationships that I want to focus on. It’s what the Clarion experience meant to me and to my writing.

 

There are a few things that stick out in terms of concrete advice. My favorite phrase, I think, was “there are no synonyms”, quoted by Chip Delaney, but I can’t recall who he was quoting (perhaps himself). That’s great advice, the notion that there really are no two words in the English language that mean exactly the same thing. Taken to heart, it will make your writing more exact, will force it closer to what you really mean.

 

I liked Chip Delaney’s week, Week 1. I think he was a great choice for the first week, which may not have been as conscious as I think it was. It could have had everything to do with schedules and availability. But if that was true, it was serendipitous. Chip tended to focus on macro issues, with an eye toward the art of writing. It was great to have that sort of viewpoint from our first instructor, because I tend to get bogged down in technique and my typical reading preferences, as opposed to opening my mind and allowing other forms of writing into my somewhat limited reading background. Chip, in the orientation meeting, said something that really stuck with me, and that is that (paraphrasing heavily here) writing is art, and that everyone will have different takes on what’s good and what isn’t, and thank goodness that it’s so. It was the “thank goodness” bit that struck me. As I said, I come from a rather rigid mindset in terms of what’s good and what’s bad. What a great concept to be reminded of early on: that you won’t like everyone’s writing, and, perhaps more importantly, that everyone won’t like yours.

 

I didn’t realize how important this would become in the following weeks. I found myself staring, mouth agape, at some of my classmates who found some stories enchanting where I found them … less so, or vice versa. It’s a difficult thing to overcome, the notion that you’re “wrong” about a story. You put all this effort into judging a story’s worthiness only to be nay-sayed by a half-dozen other students (or, worse yet, the entire remainder of the class) and/or the instructor. But, taking Chip’s comment to heart, I realized that those differing opinions were perfectly fine. No, it was more than fine. It was good they had different opinions. They were coming from a different place than I was. They’re bound to have different opinions, and thank goodness that it’s so.

 

Yet this brings up some difficulties when being critiqued. Ok, yes, everyone’s going to have different opinions, but there’s some pragmatic decisions the author has to make when revising their story. Whom do I trust? Certainly not everyone, because there are contradictory opinions. I may not even be able to trust most of the opinions given, because I run the danger of making the story so lukewarm that no one will like it. And this is one of the most important things that were reinforced for me at Clarion: learning to trust your inner voice, learning to believe that I have a voice and that I have to embrace it and let it come out as it and the story demand. True, I will alienate some readers with the choices that I make, but that is the nature of art. Better to yell proudly and strong and risk offending than whimper in hopes that all will listen.

 

Another great one-liner from Chip was: writing happens one word at a time. This is another way of saying “don’t use clichés” because clichés come to you in groups. The word cliché, in fact, comes from French. It means, literally, clamp, for the little clamps that used to hold typesetting phrases for speedy composition. Anyway, the notion is that you should be wary when your writing is coming to you two or three or more words at a time, because it’s an indicator that you’re not truly writing at that point–you’re borrowing from those who have come before. It can be useful in dialog, true, but otherwise, avoid…

 

Another thing that Chip talked about was suspense and horror and how to build those. He referenced Hitchcock as being a master of this. At one point, he gave an example of the technique in a simple monologue:

 

“I’m going to scare you. I’m really going to scare you. You’re going to be so scared that your heart will beat out of your chest, your breathing will stop. You won’t know what to do, you’ll be so SCARED!”

 

Imagine, if you will, Chip’s voice starting at normal pace and volume and then, in careful increments, dropping to a whisper and slowing to a crawl. Until, BAM, he shouts “SCARED” at you. The idea, effectively delivered, is that trying to scare the reader by having things burst all over them like a bad Freddie movie will only make them laugh. Only by building the tension before the horror or surprise will the actual event truly be successful. The other element required is that we care about the one that might be hurt or killed during the sequence. If we don’t care about them, we certainly won’t care about what happens to them.

 

There was one more thing I didn’t fully absorb until weeks later that Chip said in week 1, and that is that, in general, you begin a story with a character and determine what they most want. You decide, before you begin writing, whether the character reaches this goal or not. When you reach the halfway point of the story, you take a step back and determine what the story is really about. That last bit, “what the story is really about,” is exceptionally powerful. And little old me, coming from a rather brute force form of writing, had difficulty grokking that early on. I had heard similar things in the past, but they hadn’t really stuck. But, as you know, Clarion is pretty intense and there are a lot of things that get drummed into you whether you like it or not. This was one of those. I see, not just through Chip’s advice and tutelage but through other instructors' as well, much better how to dissect a story either halfway through or after the first draft and see what’s really going on there. It’s not a simple thing, at least for me, but I’m very grateful to be on the road to picking up on the underlying themes and metaphors (Orson Scott Card would kill me if he read this) and try to leverage them. OSC’s opinion was that most of that was crap, that story’s aren’t written that way, and when they are they tend to feel forced and artificial. I largely agree with him, and I want to be careful not to get heavy-handed with this, but I do think there are things that can resonate in a story, and the only way to really make those things sing is to look closely at what the story is trying to be and to make it more so.

 

Now that I think of it, that was another thing that Chip said that I think the whole class really picked up on: make the story more of itself. That’s great advice. Difficult to really wrap your head around, but powerful once you do.

 

Oh, one more thing from Chip. He talked about writing habits. He said that becoming a writer isn’t merely a process of writing. It’s a process of enforcing good writing habits. Continually writing while using bad habits will only enforce those bad habits, will only ingrain them to your writing so deeply that it will be that much more difficult to root them out in future works. You must consciously decide what good writing is (subjective, true, but not completely so) and then actively try to use those good writing habits. Eventually, they will stick, and some time after that, they will become second nature. This is simple but great advice, IMO.

 

Michael Swanwick was our week 2 instructor. I have to admit that I’m a rather pedantic writer. I’m picky about structure and making things work at the lowest levels of writing. In this respect, Michael was definitely my man. He was good at hitting not only larger level issues, but also sentence-level issues, and personally, I can’t get enough of that stuff. I love it. So I had a fun time in week 2. I also loved that Michael was such a passionate reader. He told us so on his first day at Clarion, and he really proved that as the week wore on. He read every story, including submission stories, and commented on every one during the one-on-one sessions with him. True, it was only week 2, but he would have done the same had he arrived in week 4.

 

Michael often quoted Chekhov, who said: If there’s a gun on the mantel in Act 1, it had better go off by Act 3, and if a gun goes off in Act 3, it had better be displayed on the mantel in Act 1. This is just another way of saying that you have to use the things that are prominently displayed in the story (or it should be cut) and that you have to foreshadow the things that are to come. Sound advice, surely, so much so that it became a common critique tool during the remaining weeks of Clarion. “If there are two hot lesbians in Act 1, they’d better get off by Act 3”, etc…

 

Michael also drew these cool character diagrams to show where relationships were weak. They were basically a diagram of all the main characters, with arrows pointing between them where relationships were shown on the page. Sometimes, there was an arrow going to character B from A, but not the reverse, indicating that the story showed effects from one character to the other, but not the other way around. An example might be a son who has clearly been affected by his mother, but the mother remains off-screen throughout the entire story. This is often an indicator (if the relationship is important) that the mother needs more page time. It will very often create a stronger and more believable story. It can also sometimes indicate that a character should be cut entirely, even if they never appear in the story. It can sometimes simplify an overly complex story that is weighted down by unnecessary exposition and mental baggage. It’s a simple tool, but a very useful one.

 

Michael, during our one-on-one session, gave me free rights to rip off, err, learn from one of his stories. I was preparing a story for the following week, and he told me to read “The Very Pulse of the Machine” to borrow the structure of it, which he “borrowed” from Geoff Landis's “A Walk in the Sun”. Both his and Landis’s stories won a Nebula (or was it a Hugo?). In any case, I did as he instructed, and though the story didn’t work out perfectly, I think it has a chance to be one of my most powerful if I can work out the plot and build to the end a bit better. As I said, Michael’s passion for reading really came out during this meeting and all through the week. It was very inspiring to me, in fact, and I can only thank Michael for lighting a fire under me.

 

Nancy Kress came in week three. What can I say? I loved, loved, LOVED Nancy. I had already read her book, Beginnings, Middles, and Ends, which I recommend to all writers, and I had started reading one of her two excellent books on character, so I had some high expectations coming into this week. Nancy was, in fact, the instructor I was most looking forward to meeting when I signed up for Clarion. Well, let’s just say I was not disappointed. She started the week by going over some of the weaknesses she was seeing in our work so far. She had read our submission stories plus our weeks 1-3 stories written at Clarion. I won’t bother writing all that stuff here, because it was specific to our stories, but let’s just say that I think she was on the money and that it was great to see those problems wrapped up in such a succinct manner. She kept going back to those issues time and time again during the week, and it helped me to have a “rule” to go back to so I could reinforce my own writing.

 

I will pass along one thing that she said, that the stories weren’t pushing ideas far enough. Sound familiar? It was the same advice as Chip gave: make the story more of itself, just told a different way.

 

Nancy gave a cool talk on commercial vs. literary fiction, which I thought was great. I had never heard this sort of dissection before. Basically it boiled down to the ending (though there are other differences between the two forms, surely). She said that the ending of commercial fiction, “traditional” fiction, usually resolves the issues that are presented to the characters during the tale, and that modern literary short fiction often leaves the ending unresolved, creating a story that resonates perhaps more than a traditional story would. I’m not sure I quite have my mind wrapped around this, but sometimes it takes years to truly understand some simple statements in writing. This is one of those, I think.

 

Nancy had a great formula for pacing. PACE = EVENTS / WORDAGE. Simple, huh? But that equation packs a lot. When you want fast pace, you chop the words down but make a lot of things happen. When you want to slow down, you do the reverse. It’s only a way of mentally visualizing the process of setting pace in a story, and it’s oversimplified, I think, but it has its place in the writing toolbox.

 

The best advice I got from Nancy was that most stories are improved by a double-concern structure. There is an external concern for the character, which is typically the main story problem, but there is also an internal concern, some internal goal for the main character based on personal goals, motivations, desires, etc. Gene Wolfe suggests having the two conflicts resolve one another. I think Mr. Wolfe’s advice could certainly work for many stories, but it won’t always be possible (or desirable) for all types of stories.

 

I’ve long been struggling to move from plot-driven stories to more character-driven stories, and I think this advice is a HUGE piece of that puzzle. Following week three, I think I made stories that, while not entirely successful, focused on this concept much more closely than the first three that I had written. I think this is one of the last big pieces of the puzzle for me in terms of breaking into publishing novels. I feel fairly comfortable with plotting, but not so comfortable with the character side of the equation. I’m not a slouch, but it’s an area that I very much have to work actively at, whereas plotting comes naturally to me.

 

Nancy had some cool advice on setting (Mr. Swanwick gave some very similar advice, now that I think about it), and that is to not focus on random things when describing setting. Focus on those things that will illuminate the condition of the world, or the city the characters are in, or the neighborhood, or the parents of the teenage girl who finds herself at the center of the story. In other words, don’t use paint color or plants or furniture in the girl’s room in some semi-random fashion. Show the cracked paint that her parent’s don’t have the money to repair, or the extremely expensive toy that’s a stocking-stuffer for them but is too expensive for the normal household. That sort of thing. In other words, make setting perform double duty. Let it brighten the world around the characters but also characterize while doing so.

 

Here’s a cool thing Nancy mentioned: it’s more important to be interesting at the beginning of a story than clear. The common tendency at the beginning of a story (for beginning writers) is to overexplain so that the reader “understands.” Well, the reader doesn’t really care about understanding early on. They care about an interesting character in an interesting situation, something to entertain them and make them want to read on, and that’s almost always not the same as explaining to the Nth detail what’s going on and what came before. Looking at this another way, it’s a technique to produce tension, and tension is what drives fiction. If the reader can be intrigued by something enough to wonder why it’s happening, then you’ve created a form of tension for them, you’ve set them up to want to read on so that they will understand. But it is in that explaining of what’s going on that you’ll pose more questions, making them want to read even further.

 

Despite Nancy’s presence at Clarion, I was getting pretty dejected by Week 3. I had a bad first story, which really bummed me out, and I felt like my week 2 and 3 output were pretty substandard. This was really just an echo of my doubts before coming to Clarion that I would ever make it as a writer. Nancy stayed through Sunday and on Saturday held a world-building talk (which Tobias Buckell attended as well) that really bolstered my spirits. It was some simple advice on paying attention to detail in terms of the world that got my juices flowing again, stuff like: look at the politics, the system of justice, the source of food, trade, technology level, etc. I’ve seen lots of stuff like this before, but Nancy said that by examining these things closely you will undoubtedly come up with additional ideas for your story. And so I did. I had a few ideas I was playing around with for my week 4 story, all of which seemed like pure crap to me before this talk, and by examining a few things surrounding the story, I was able to come up with some cool complications I was able to leverage and come up with a workable story. It ended up being one of the two Clarion stories I’m most proud of (the bee story, for those Clarionites reading this). I never got a chance to thank her, because she was gone the next day, but thanks, Nancy, for getting me over that emotional road block.

 

Joe and Gay Haldeman came for Week 4. I had a great time with Joe and Gay. I love them to death. Hell, I even sang while they were there. Unheard of! One of the first things Joe told us was that we’d have a poetry slam on Thursday of their week. We picked random poem styles as well as topics and we were asked to create a poem based on those. Mine were “pantoum” and “space industrialization.” I had wanted, for the past several years, to get more into poetry, so I was actually pretty excited when I received this assignment. I don’t think my effort was all that poetic, but I enjoyed it, and I want to do more in the future. At the very least, I want to learn more to utilize it in my prose, when the situation calls for it (which is more often than one might think).

 

Joe and Gay helped me, during our one-on-one session, to flesh out some of the problems with the story I ripped off, err, learned from Michael Swanwick. Actually, I think Joe had some ideas that will really help get it into tip-top shape. They really helped to solidify some of the things I was shooting for when I first envisioned the story, things that went astray in the 1-week writing of the thing, but that I can reign back in, I think, before the final revision is complete.

 

Gay held a talk on the business side of writing, which was very worthwhile. And Joe held a cool talk on writing novella’s vs. short stories one night. I must admit that I didn’t quite grok everything he was talking about. It boiled down to this: novellas are the ideal form for exploring one idea, where short stories are more incidents. Novellas often have two climaxes before the resolution, where short stories usually have only 1. It’s that “one idea” thing that I don’t quite get. I’m not quite sure how that differs from a short story exploring an idea. It’s going to be one of those things that comes to me over time, I think. (Any of you Clarionites that understood this better, please pipe in.)

 

One of my Clarion classmates, Alex Wilson, mentioned some cool advice from Robert McKee, taken from a discussion of movie scripts. It was about subtext, and it was simply: if a scene is about what a scene is about, there’s a problem. Simple on the surface, but there’s loads and loads of subtext in that one sentence, which is exactly the subject. It implies that a scene must be about many things, not just the events that happen during it, but larger things as well, things about character, foreshadowing, the world itself, etc.

 

And then came Kelly Link and Holly Black. I’d read Holly’s novel, Tithe, and quite enjoyed it, but I must admit that I hadn’t read any of Kelly’s work ahead of time. I knew she was very well respected, though, so I was really looking forward to these last two weeks. Kelly and Holly had somewhat similar critiquing styles. Holly would often try to bring out the human aspect of the story–in other words, what the story would be without the spec-fic element. This is a very important thing to examine, IMO, and something that I don’t often do. It’s another way of looking at the character side of the story, as opposed to looking at it like a series of events in which any character could travel through. It’s another way of paying closer attention to character building, so I appreciated this point of view immensely.

 

Kelly also focused closely on character, though would word it in her own illuminating style so that, between her and Holly, any problems with character were abundantly clear. Kelly had something else, too, that resonated with me in ways I can’t clearly describe or ever thank her enough for. And here I’m going to go back to what I said near the beginning, that the instructors had a way of looking at what the story was trying to be and would point out ways to make it more so. Kelly did this at such a level that it was, frankly, awe-inspiring. She would find things about the story that resonated to her and would suggest unexpected ways to enhance it, either through technique or through character or through plot. I’m having trouble putting all this into words… I saw in her an ability to turn a story into art that I’ve never seen from another writer. I know that many writers have this ability, but Kelly also has the ability to teach it, at least to the degree that it can be taught.

 

I mentioned Orson Scott Card before, how he doesn’t believe in consciously trying to mold theme or metaphor in story, and again I have to say that I largely agree with him. This isn’t something to become heavy-handed about. But to be able to analyze a story and to make it more of itself, to make it resonate, to shine, to sing, is a skill that I hope I can achieve someday. Kelly, if you’re reading, thank you for this. Thank you for touching my heart. (I’m actually tearing up right now.)

 

Holly said something über cool during critique one day: that while you’re writing you should tap into your inner rage and your inner perv. Use them to amp up your writing. It’s a way of amping up the stressful or erotic or painful moments of a story (of which there should be many). Again, a rather simple statement, but it holds a lot of power. Holly also held a great talk on novel plotting. She basically took the typical, single-line, rising-tension plot line (you’ve all seen this) and added another plotline for the personal plot of the character. This isn’t the same as the character arc, though it can be related. It’s a series of events that revolve around the thing the character wants to become. The personal plot begins before the main plotline, climaxes just before the personal plot does, and ends just after the main plot. Think of Star Wars, where Luke begins as a farming schlep and wants to become a starfighter pilot. This is the beginning of the personal plotline. Then the main plot storms in, destroys his farm, kills his aunt and uncle, and sends him off on a series of events that will eventually have him destroying the Death Star. Both plots progress, circle one another, affect one another, until finally Luke comes to his personal climax, where Han heads out and Luke has to step up and become the man he looked up to. Others may argue that his personal climax is when he finally gives himself over to the Force. Either way, the personal climax happens just before the main climax, when the Death Star is blown up. The main plotline resolves, along with its denouement, and then Luke’s personal denouement happens when he attends the ceremony and receives his snazzy medal. It’s a view of novel plotting I hadn’t come across, and as I’m just now plotting my latest novel, I’m especially grateful to Holly for passing this along.

 

During our one-on-one session, Holly said something very interesting to me, that investigating characters can be so much fun because you'll find things in them that you hadn't thought about and that you can use in the story to interesting result. I often looked at character building like a chore, but the way Holly explained it, it's so much deeper and interesting than I gave it credit for. I had a glimpse into what character-oriented writers take for granted. This is yet another piece of the puzzle for me to becoming a more complete writer by balancing plot and character more fully.

 

Kelly was big on daytime vs. nighttime logic. Daytime logic is logic as we normally think of it: this causes that. Nighttime logic is that which seems to make sense within the context of the story, but in reality makes no sense whatsoever: werewolves being killed by silver bullets, step on a crack, you break your mother’s back, etc. She would often call out when a story used nighttime logic (clearly her favorite of the two) particularly effectively, or when it wanted to use it but didn’t quite do so effectively, or when it had none and needed some. Some people call this dream logic. Whatever the name, it’s a good concept to keep in mind while writing. They both have their place, and can certainly coexist in the same story. And I like the notion enough that I want to try to employ more nighttime logic where I can.

 

When you're learning writing, there are several (dozens?) of ah-HA! moments. I had one with Kelly during our one-on-one session. I feel like I can describe characters fairly well. I don't go overboard, but I think I describe them well enough that the reader can see them sufficiently. But like so many things in writing, words have to perform double-duty. Kelly recommended in one of my stories (the lizard-boy story, for you Clarionites) that I should go beyond mere description when describing Bayard, the troupe's leader. I should also put in a tiny bit of internal monologue from the main character, Grignal, to characterize. This was one specific example, but Kelly was clearly suggesting to do this in a general sense. It's very closely related to Nancy's advice of making the setting decsription perform double duty. In one sense, I was already having it perform more than one function: it was describing Bayard for the reader and characterizing him in a way. He wore a top-hat and boots. He was clearly the troupe's ring leader. But it could be so much more. In that opening description, where Bayard is calling Grignal over to help unstick one of the troupe's wagons, Grignal could note that Bayard always wore a good portion of his uniform to assert his authority. The subtext here is that Bayard feels that he needs to do so, and that the troupe, therefore, must not believe in him unless he's doing so or that they laugh at him behind his back because of it. This is one statement that characterizes Bayard and the troupe, and perhaps Grignal quite effectively. It's a very economical technique. This was one of my biggest ah-HA! moments at Clarion.

 

And then there were the water gun fights and gown parties and late night, drink-assisted, ghost-story-filled read-a-thons that these two instructors instigated. While not writing, per se, they lent a levity to the workshop that was extremely welcome. It shed a lightness on the last two weeks, and indeed, the whole Clarion experience, that made it somehow more precious.

 

Wow. What else? There were of course things I learned through sheer repetition of critiquing 100+ stories in six weeks. Things about plot, character, dialog, story ideas, etc., etc.–minutiae that’s difficult to quantify or put in words. Everyone had their strengths and weaknesses, and it was great to hear so many good opinions of things that I didn’t see or that I did see but someone had a different take on. A special shout-out goes to Livia for her dogged focus on character, because, as I’ve said, that’s the main area I was hoping to bolster while attending Clarion. I learned a lot from her. There are other things–bits of advice, notions while critiquing or being critiqued–that are totally subconscious at this point, but I’m sure will affect my writing for the better.

 

In the end, Clarion was a completely wonderful, worthwhile, rewarding, and satisfying experience that I will never forget. In closing, I’ll borrow the words of a friend and graduate of Clarion 2005, who summed up the experience succinctly and well: I would go again in a heartbeat if I could.