Because science into life doesn't go

Saturday, July 29, 2006

Clarion Week Five

Steve Berman knows how important a fallback career is

Crickets keep me awake at night. Outside my window, a mere three feet above the ground, live the biggest crickets in the world. They rub their legs or whatever it is they rub, and make a colossal noise like a child scratching a frying pan with a stick. The sound gets inside my head and I begin to picture monstrously overgrown crickets sitting on the window ledge purposefully tormenting me. That in itself tells me I need to sleep more, but there's the rub.

I'm not helped by leaky shower faucet that offers a metronomic drip drip drip twenty four hours a day seven days a week. Thankfully my hearings not so great -- too many nights in clubland -- and I can usually phase out the sound.

I begin this entry in this manner because this is the week my body struck back. Cans of Monster (500ml Red Bull clones) are no longer helping. The combination of bad food, little sleep, near constant mental exertion, and no excercise, has finally caused my body to say "Enough!". Kelly Link and Holly Black joined us as the last fortnight instructors, but my fatigue has meant that their presence is not as concrete as it should be. They work and play hard, and they've setup discussions and excercises most days, but it's like I'm experiencing things through a thick fog. On Wednesday I missed the circle in an effort to get some extra sleep and clear my head.

In the critique circle they've definitely got their unique styles, which again is very refreshing. Kelly really makes us think about who are characters are and how we can show who they are. She has helped me understand how people think and hopefully stopped me being (i) the plot's bitch instead my characters', and (ii) so heavy handed in my character's rationalisations. It's like people can be rational, but the way they rationalise in their head isn't through sequential logic but much more through intuition. This means I should leave out a lot of explicit reasons which are implied by character action anyway. Holly takes a more holistic approach and pursues different elements as she sees fit. Both of them have a lot to say after each story has been critiqued by the group and often talk for up to twenty minutes.

And then there's R2D2...Kelly and Holly story-arc Star Wars

Post-critique discussion of stories is declining and I think that's a function of fatigue. It'll be super-fantastic if the stories we've made here steadily bleed their way into the published-world. Not only will I be stoked for the authors, it'll be a real personal pleasure to buy the magazines, anthologies etc and reminisce about the tales. So Clarionites: get those stories out there!

One excercise involved a method employed by a writer whose name I've forgotton, but was always in awe of Raymond Carver's utterly real characters. Carver told this writer that his realism of situation came from being an organic writer who just set a scene and then let it write itself without planning. One weekend the writer got layed up with the flu in a hotel room and decided he was going to write sixty first lines. After that he would write sixty first paragraphs and then pursue the most promising ones. It led to a dozen or so very good stories. So our task was to compose sixty first lines. I got to twenty-seven. And I cheated a little by sometimes writing two lines. Some of my own favourites include:

1. Cut a worm in two and you've got two worms; cut a baby in two and you've got major problems.
2. Under the kitchen table, beside an old bolognese stain, Ritchie, the mechanical ant, scrathed his hind leg.
3. Rachel's skin tasted of salt and kerosene.
4. Fucking is way more fun in zero gravity.
5. Go down Duke Street, turn left at the Hippy Happy second-hand clothes store, wait by the telephone box with the broken receiver and when it rings scream "Walstack Industries are headed by a pus-brained cocksucker!"
6. Snow-capped mountains, burbling streams, vistas of rock studded hillsides -- everything Jack talked about made me want to vomit.

I will definitely work with some of these.

Alexandra goes for slutty while Rahulia goes for coy

After the usual Friday night at Harper's -- we did make an effort to go elsewhere, but Harper's was just too good to resist -- Holly and Kelly threw a cross-dressing ball on Saturday night. Except it wasn't really cross-dressing; everyone wore women's clothes. A number of people went out to a thrift store to buy dresses -- including Michael who bought two! -- but I used my sarong and a breezy black shirt to be transformed into Stephanie. Actually, I have Shveta to thank for the bulk of the transformation. She applied eye-liner, lipstick and nail varnish, supplied bracelets and a hairclip (lost later during the water fight -- sorry!), and showed me how to cross my legs. Let me tell you, I got a lot of attention that night! -- mainly from some very butch looking women...

At the party everyone hit the drinks hard -- an effort to put out of their minds some of the horrors that stalked room, I think. This led naturally to ghost stories and later a Call of Cthulu role-playing game led by Will L. The story was a mix of Boy Scouts in the woods meets Blair Witch project. There was certainly exterior and interior conflict, for sure. Good job, Will!

Saturday, July 22, 2006

Clarion Week Four

Joe Haldeman's The Forever War Reignited my Love of Sci-Fi

So, the Haldemans have been and gone. Nancy Kress is a distant dream. Michael Swanwick and Chip Delany seem like people from another age. Time is passing as fast as its ever done for me; I guess that's one measure of a great time.

Joe and Gay are like your favourite Uncle and Aunt (if you have such a thing): full of wonderful stories of a life well-lived, generous spirited, and a great source of fun. For the experiences that they've been through, I think that's a remarkable thing. In many ways, their lifestyle is the one I would most like to emulate. Writing is at the heart of their lives, but it is not the master of them. When Joe writes five hundred words in a day he is happy. And since he's an early riser that leaves plenty of time for other pursuits. They cook, paint, sing, and strum -- all activities that foster interaction, unlike the major part of writing. Perhaps that's why I see them as the closest I've come to role-models so far. Plus, they're very down-to-Earth, and I mean that in a good way. I believe everyone has too much shared experience for people not to be essentially the same. That's why it's so refreshing to see a man with an IQ over 150 acting like a regular guy without airs and graces. I hope to see them again someday.

Alex Shows Inexperience in the Skirt-Wearing Department

The anticipated 'Week 4' strife hasn't really materialised, although many of us are pretty worn down and near to scraping the barrel when it comes to forward momentum with the writing. I know, for me, because I didn't come here with anything near outline stage -- just random one line ideas and no characters -- I've had to spend a lot of time brainstorming and then letting the unconscious brew on things for a while. This has necessarily limited my writing time and contributed to the shorter lengths of my work (about 5000 words). I have a slight concern too much focus on short story writing will inhibit novel writing ability, but since I don't have any plans to write a novel for at least two years it's not a biggie. Plotting and writing a whole story in one week is very satisfying though. Even if it feels like a Herculean effort at times.

Aimee Affects the British-look -- Without the Bad Teeth

Some of the relationships through the class are getting scratchy. It's pretty much guaranteed in the pressure-cooker environment that characterises Clarion. We sleep, eat, talk, read, and write fiction. And we all care passionately about this. This makes people extra sensitive, so I'm not surprised it's happened. For my part, I avoid conflict like the plague and have stayed out of the brush-fires, although give me a couple of beers and I'll start shouting my mouth off. Which is exactly what I need from time to time which is what made last night at Harpers so much fun. Quite a few people have had partners over this weekend, and I'm envious of that. They look so recharged. Hi Tammy, btw!

Unfortunately, Clarion lost a couple of people this week. BK got a call from his new HR department the week before, and he set off for SoCal on Friday morning. Luckily for him, he had company for the long ride. BK, we salute you and expect great things in the future. Also, one of Liz's assistants, Sarah, had her last day on Friday too. All her help was much appreciated and I wish her well.

The Talented Mr. Levy

The blow of these departures was lessened somewhat by the Poetry Slam that was instigated by the Haldemans and held on Thursday evening before they left. On Sunday night we picked two slips of paper from two different envelopes. On one piece was written a SF trope and on the other a poetic form. I drew Monster and Double Dactyl. After consulting Wikipedia I was able to ascertain that the Double Dactyl was in fact the poetic form and not a relation of the pterodactyl. That probably tells me something about dactyls but I can't figure out what right now. Anyway, Thursday afternoon I boned up on double dactyls and discovered they're a very exacting form. It was a good workout for my analytical brain to come up with something that conformed. I can't post the piece because I've got great plans in store for those two stanzas. Mwa-ha-ha-ha!

The Slam itself was spectacular -- and not only because of Alex's sartorial flashes. I dislike 90% of poetry, but my Clarion classmates delivered hit after hit. Perhaps that means we wrote crap, but I enjoyed it -- so much so, that I agreed to compile the efforts in one script and hand it on to Liz to print out. After the recitals -- which I realised was a very subtle way for us to get more comfortable with readings (which hopefully we'll all be doing some day) -- we ate cake, sang, jammed, and played speed scrabble. All in all, a great night -- and one that made me want to learn an instrument, probably the piano.

Also, I've started telling everyone my dream of buying a property in rural, southern, France, and becoming a bohemian artist type who entertains and collaborates 52 weeks a year. Maybe it'll happen one day. For the time-being I'll enjoy each day as it comes.

Edes alomok.

Quotes of the Week:

Joe Haldeman - "Skateboards and video games, in my old age, scare me."

Joe Haldeman - "I'm too shallow to lose confidence."

[BACK] Liz, Nye, Shveta, Caillaigh, Aimee, Will, Steve, BK, Jemma, Michael, Casey, Rahul, Felice, Livia, Chris, Gay, Joe [FRONT] Brad, Vince, Will, Robert, Sean, Alex, Steve, Sarah

Wednesday, July 19, 2006

A Day in the Life

I wake up around 7.

Sometimes I need the alarm, sometimes I don't. It depends how active my subconcious is. For example, if I have a vague idea for a piece but haven't got to the stage of character and plot, then I'm much more susceptible to wake naturally. This morning I woke at 6, triggered by vivid images of Mayans, dark matter, and giant blue-black ostrich birds. Unfortunately this was someone else's story from the day before that resonanted with me, so it's a non-starter as a story seed.

I stumble bleary-eyed to the shower, wash in the dark (because those cubicles are claustrophobia-inducing in the light!), and then get dressed while groaning at the stack of yesterday's stories that I've read but not commented on. I sit at the desk, crank the brain machinery, and stare at the wall until a useful insight comes. When that doesn't happen I just write stuff like 'The prose is very smooth' or 'Isn't gravity 9.81m/s2 rather than 10m/s2?'. I'm a goldmine for the other writers! Seriously, I do find that I'm still fumbling around in the dark when it comes to criticising a piece, and especially, suggesting improvements. A lot of this comes down to deciding what category of fiction the story is and then answering the usual questions accordingly. For example, from one writer today, I learnt that a God's motivations, in their opinion, should never be revealed. My criticism tends to come down more on the technical or factual side of the writing. I figure a range of thoughts is a good thing for the author anyhow.

Clarion '06 Likes to Eat Out

Owen Hall's cafeteria sucks big style, but breakfast is usually safe. Around 8.30 I finish the crits and wander over. Since discovering English tea in the hot drinks area, I've pretty much stuck to tea and toast and sometimes porridge. You have to work hard to cock those up. At the table, Steve Berman is usally gesticulating wildly, but I ignore that sit down and eat. At this time, I have trouble following the conversation, never mind contributing so I just smile politely in the British way. It seems to work, but I sometimes get the impression Steve is making fun of my country.

Clarionites put Cockerels to Shame

The crit circle begins in Van Hoosen at 9. Clarion's very strict about keeping private what goes on inside the circle, but I am allowed to say that it involves goat sacrifice, bagels, and iron maidens...only kidding, bagels and iron maidens would be ridiculous. Apparently we follow the Milford technique which involves stopwatches, one-liners, and dittos. Look it up. The crits are often preceded by a mini-lecture from the instructor, but that varies week to week. Also, there is coffee. Average finish time for the circle is 1pm.

Ceallaigh, Will, and Sarah are so Tired they Stumble into a Cyclotron Tour

By this time, everyone's so mentally drained they forget how bad the food in Owen is and get sucked into the cafeteria. Halfway through meals people often realise that they're eating horrible crap, but are too tired to do anything about it. Jokes about the day's reading, collected at the end of the circle, are usually cracked. 'My God, what a terrible first line -- oh hello, Steve' etc. We drift away from lunch, one by one, as if the conversation is keeping us there when really it's work avoidance strategies. What everyone else does for the next two hours is a mystery, but I suspect it involves procrastinating and feelings of malaise, which is what I get.

Go Away! BK Follows the Steve G Method

By 3 I'm usually hunched over my keyboard, fingers moving furiously, and letting the creative juices flow. It's such a release. I do have to find a quiet place to do it though, as the lobby and the cafeteria have too many people for my taste. I normally go down to the basement and sit in the hall where cheesy music is piped 24 hours a day. I've just started to begin to write to music, but I am picky. Aimee described it as a shell of sound which is a pretty neat way of looking at it. Isolation and lack of distractions are my muses.

Taste the Power...or the Sugary Snacks

Two or three hours in one spot is usually enough. Then I often move to the Circle of Power where Sean, Felice, Shveta, and sometimes others can be found. It's a huge round glass-topped table with room for twelve, and we usually stay there the rest of the day unless there's an evening activity. Dinner is transforming into cans of Monster (like a double Red Bull) and blackberry pie early, followed by pizza or chinese later. My productivity here declines but by the end of the day I normally have 1500 words -- 2 of which are perfect -- and lots of silliness. Bedtime is around 2am. Sometimes I watch an episode of Firefly if I'm not too shattered, but that's a rarity.

Tuesday, July 18, 2006

Links to Pics

Btw...a few Clarionites are posting pics like the one below on Flickr:

My Pics
Will's Pics
Livia's Pics

Love Thy Inner Geek

Saturday, July 15, 2006

Clarion Week Three

Brad, Tobias, Nancy, and Liz

It's late Saturday night at the end of week 3. Tonight everyone--minus those with prior engagements/visits from loved ones--hung out in Van Hoosen and sang and goofed around with Nancy Kress and Tobias Buckell. We played Apples vs. Apples (I think) where the stupidest draw must've been: Leeches, A Flat Tire, and Humphrey Bogart for the category 'Chewy'. Also the Quartet of myself, Livia, Aimee, and Casey sang Queen's Bohemian Rhapsody.

Then something got spilled and the evening ended.

Faultlines are beginning to appear. But this is to be expected. The experience of Clarion is fucking awesome (to coin a phrase), but the relentless focus on writing is stressful. I would like to be able to spend more time with people individually since cliques have developed, but time pressures make that difficult. Instead there's a lot of group hanging-out with extroverts holding court while the less extroverted types listen on. It's fun, but not a real relationship in many ways. Everyone's in the same boat regarding writing. Weekends are chances to do a lot of writing, but this means they're not the relaxing time they could be.

Drama before exposition! Omigod!

Weekends I'm managing around 3500 words which sets me up for a 5-6000 word story handed in by Wednesday. Unfortunately, the majority of the class is on this schedule so we tend to have a glut of stories late in the week. I haven't really out a freak-out time yet and I feel like it's not going to happen. I have a vague story idea mapped out for Week 5 and my Week 4 story is well on the way. What's going to happen in Week 6 I don't know.

Writing wise, I feel like I'm improving. Concentrating on dramatic scenes, and waiting for an understanding of the story before penning a word, seem to be helping. Plus I think I'm learning a lot of editing skills which I'll apply to a lot of stories I've already written. The stories from other writers are getting better too. This week I read a number of stories that with a little more loving will sell. One in particular blew me away and made me want to read a whole new genre. The whole Clarion experience, more than any technical improvements, is motivating me to keep at this, make it the focal point of my life, and for that I'm very grateful. I can't think of anything more enriching, challenging, and entertaining than writing fiction.

Brad and Nancy

Nancy Kress is a real experienced hand. Aside from their advice, all the instructors have been examples of how passion is such an essential component of a succesful career. The obstacles that Nancy overcame to get to where she is, is an inspiration. She combines a no-nonsense approach with a sardonic detachment. I've learnt a great deal from her methodical analyses. Her reading on Wednesday night was the literary highlight of the week. After listening to her story and thinking about the crits of my own story I felt like I had an epihany about writing. Stories are like houses of cards. They are far more fragile and delicate than I realised. Everything is an illusion. (Fiction is a lie, and good fiction is the truth inside the lie). Stacks can be conveyed with minimal prompting. The skill of the writer is to evoke structures (emotional, physical, metaphorical) in the reader's mind with minimal effort. Research, detail, and choice phrases are the heart of the accomplished writer. In some ways I feel like I'm losing my style, but I think I need to strip down to essentials before I rebuild. Also, I've realised every reader wants to categorise a story within three sentences. If you mess with a reader's expectations be prepared for failure unless you pull off something amazing. A lot of stories fail because they sit uneasily between established genres. It seems a short story has less license to combine tropes than longer fiction.

Already feeling melancholy about the inevitable end. The silver lining is the twenty-one plus people scattered over the States I will know. I plan to road-trip across the country someday, and although I haven't asked yet, I'm hoping for a place to bed down and write....

Of course, everyone's welcome to come to England and stay with me where we have gas lamps and boiled vegetables...

Quotes of the Week:

Hisako Tsukade: "I come for vengeance! Helloooo Ice Hailstorm Attack!"

Jemma EveryHope: "I want to feel people dying."

Anonymous: "I thought that was a smooth read."

Sean Eyeballs Every Word

Saturday, July 08, 2006

Clarion Week Two

Now I'll teach you to levitate!

Clarion's planned Week 2 instructor, Gardner Dozois (pronounced DOZE-WAH if you ever want to name-drop), wasn't able to make it due to personal reasons.

Instead, Michael Swanwick, spec-fic writer extraordinaire, led the classes.

On the Sunday night, he told us he was going to work as hard as was humanly possible for us. He said that if we worked as hard as he did--for the whole six weeks--we would be dead.

At the time I scoffed.

Now I'm inclined to believe him. To kick-off his work he read everything we had written during Week 1, plus our submission stories. This amounts to around sixty-six stories. And he didn't just read them. He line-edited every single one. And then he thought about the story between the lines. He razed passages, re-ordered sequences, figured out identities of characters, and reached deep into the guts of the story to find its beating, though often sickly, heart. And then he gave literary CPR. He even came up with new titles if he could find them--like a man with a divining rod. (He suggested "Hiroshima Sunflowers" for one of mine, which is a vast improvement over "Uncle Zack and the Day the Bomb Dropped").

In the critiquing circle he listened to our two minute windows like a yogic master. Bare-footed, and sat cross-legged on his chair, he seemed to be digesting our words in a different plane of existence, barely reacting to the jokes and stabbings and puns that shuttled back and forth the room. When his time came to speak he would talk like that story--or the one behind it--was the most important thing in the world. He'd gesticulate wildly, jump up to diagram character relationships, and veer off on wild tangents for minutes at a time. His analyses were always novel and thorough.

BK: You think Sean's taking his Spiderman research too far?

On the Friday we had six stories to crit. We started at eight and finished around two. After the crits Michael's schedule involved seeing all the writers who'd been on the sacrifiicial plinth that day. We each had fifty minutes with him. This meant he wouldn't free up his day to around eight or nine. Then he had to read the next day's stories. If I was of more morally dubious character, I'd have suspected pharmaceutical assitance.

My meeting came on the Thursday. Michael's apartment--a small child's stone's throw from the critique hall--looked liked a student's dorm. Styrofoam coffee cups, plastic food packages, and bundles of foolscap manuscript folders lay scattered around his chair. I sat on the sofa and Michael pulled out my stories. We talked, or rather, he talked and I occasionally made small interjections, about the details of the story and anything that sparked off those details. It was a very rich discussion and I'm glad he marked the scripts with most of his ideas, because I can't recall half of it now.

Friday afternoon a large slice of the class visited the cyclotron across the block. Liquid nitrogen was spilled, bubble track chambers fawned over, big rooms full of screens oooed at, and underaged physicists stared at. Somebody's going to hand in a atom smasher story I'm sure....

Friday night a few of us went to Harper's, a frat-pack bar in downtown East Lansing. Shveta, Felice, Vince, Robert, Brad, Sarah, Alex and myself, drank beer, played pool and busted moves on the dancefloor. Steve B made a brief appearance, but decided the music was outgunning his voice to an unacceptable extent.

Bad food, room avoidance, and episodes of Firefly also happened.

Quotes of the week:

Michael Swanwick - "No erectile tissue in Asimov's." (Forcing Chris to re-think his five page alien sex scene).

Robert Levy - "The characters dance around the protagonist's cock like it's a fucking maypole." (Frank criticism on Casey's classy hooker story).

Writers Discover Bars

Sunday, July 02, 2006

Clarion Week One

Dear Steve, Don't Give Up the Day Job...

It's Sunday night, 9pm. Samuel Delany has been and gone, and myself and the twenty-one other Clarionites are gearing up for the second week with Michael Swanwick at the helm (who has already given us a kick-ass pre-week talk about how hard he's going to work for us---the guy's read our submission stories and the batch of stories that were critiqued from the first week).

Samuel Delany, as well as being an iconic figure of the spec-fic world and a stand-up guy who is great fun to hang-out with because he's lived so much life, really hammered the mechanics of writing during the first week. As well as hopefully becoming a better writer, I'm becoming a better reader, too. I say that because my critical facilities that I take to a piece of writing are not up to the standard required to begin to write a high-quality piece of work. Clarion's teaching me these critical facilities. I've noticed that a piece of fiction can often mesmerize with stunning prose, or novel ideas, or interesting voice. What I'm learning here is that the best stories are all those things and more. Does the story have good dramatic structure? Is there received langauge? Has the author grounded the piece adequately? It is only when all the elements come together at the same time that there is a really satisfying reading experience.

Casey: Okay, Sarah's Acting Weird

Outside the morning critique circles, the days have been filled with reading and analysing the following days' stories, writing, watching World Cup games, bouncing ideas off one another, seeing Superman Returns (really awful--and I can tell you why in lots of story-based ways now...but I'll spare you that), attending a Delany reading, and lots of goofing around. Oh, and the occasional few hours sleep.

About my fellow Clarionites. They are talented, passionate, articulate, funny, kind, warm people. And those are the qualities of every single one of them--not a cumulative thing. From Steve's intelligent wit to Will Luwigsen's dry humour, from Livia's fascinating critiques to Felice's boundless energy, from BK's take on an American Psycho to Sean's zen-like focus, from Nye's knowledge of how to poison a man to Shveta's infinite kindness, from Rahul's laconic, guided-missile thoughts to Brad's quiet hilarity, from Vince's wild imagination to Ceallaigh's pure passion, from Alex's one-liners to Chris' editorial expertise, from Casey's flaming swords to Sarah's clay people, from Michael's alien stories to Robert's late-night bellowing, from Will Alexander's theatrical flourishes to Jemma's precocious talent, and not forgetting Aimee's fictional crows, these are people I like being around. And I'd place money that this group is going to spawn many great works of fiction in the future!

A Rose Between Two Thorns


Quote of the Week:

Chip Delany - "If you're going to fuck the dog, put it in all the way."