Clarion Journal, 2003

Friday, July 25, 2003
The Odyssey Snafu

So, I'm sure most of you all have read
this letter from gene wolfe. There are also two journals from Odyssey participants here - wolfe arrives on day 29 - and here

There has been much talk of how childish/whiny people were (or on the flip side, how brave). Of course, a journal is all about your feelings, so where else are you going to vent while perhaps putting on the classy brave face in real life? (Hell I whine and boast and all kinds of selfish things all the time - because it's all about my journey of becoming a writer. It's all about me me me! - isn't everything? *grins*)

I am troubled by the idea that one person perhaps made a decision for the entire group - that doesn't seem right. I'm troubled that an instructor felt he had to leave early and some folks didn't get feedback from him. Sigh.

And I do think telling someone not to write their novel is bad advice. But you know what - all the instructors are human and not all their advice is right for you. (I note from the journals that the first week the the Odysseyites were there they got a list of twn things not to do, including flashbacks, so really, I think that advice totally sucks too - I'm all about disagreeing with the instructors *grin* I probably would have written a story containing all ten in protest, 'cause I'm stubborn like that.)

I'm freshly back from Clarion East, and the first week I was rejecting the advice Howard (Waldrop) gave me on one of my stories. And Howard is a writing god. (Did I mention I heart Howard?) Except as far as I'm concerned, not on this story *grin*

There was also the time Maureen (McHugh) did a dramatic reading of my dialogue - made me wince - she was so right, and it was the best way to get that information across. (This was on a story that Jim - James Patrick Kelly - told me I could probably sell just based on one really good scene in it.)

At times we had instructors say "this is awful and it was a good experiment for you, but you probably ought to trunk it" (or the very polite equivalent there of) and other instructors would say it was almost saleable. It's all opinion.

But, there were some people who were really unhappy receiving feedback at my clarion, not because people were mean, hurtful, unduly harsh or any of that. Just because of their personality.

So what are you to do? Give softball crits and watch the person not really get any better AND not help yourself or your classmates? I dunno. It's a tough choice.

I went for being honest with everyone because I thought that was the experience people were paying for. Could I maybe have helped them have a better time? Maybe. But I'm hoping they knew my comments were honest and heartfelt and really meant to help.

And really, I think that's what Gene Wolfe was trying to give them too. The advice they needed to become better writers. Maybe he wasn't as tactful as he could have been. And that's too bad, I guess.

But it's also too bad that people couldn't take the comments in the spirit they were meant in. In a way this goes back to the idea some people donít do well at Clarion style workshops - notice how they were in week four when this all happened.

I hope Gene Wolfe won't give up on instructing and I hope none of the Odysseyites give up on their writing.

When you get right down to it, I value honesty way over tact in critiques. Because I really want to be a pro writer - so Gene - how about critiquing something for me? *grins*

And that's enough about that.

Wait - PS I loved all my Clarion instructors and classmates - hugs and smoochies for all of you - don't try to hide in the corner, Joel. *runs off to write, 'cause that's the point, isn't it?*

posted by chance 12:46 PM
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Thursday, July 24, 2003
On Writing

So I got to Clarion and the first thing I was afraid of was that I wouldn't be able to write another word, and then once I wrote one story I was petrified I'd never write another one. Or that all my ideas would suck and everyone would be supergeniuses. And of course I was afraid that Lister would say I was an untalented hack and throw me out of the class *grins* well maybe not so much. So some thoughts on writing:

1. Take a deep breath and quit worrying. Really. If you don't write a word while you are here, you will still get a hell of a lot out of the experience. And once you give yourself the freedom not to write, I'm betting you will be able to just fine. I think people in our class wrote between 4-8 stories, with most folks at 6 and under. More doesn't mean better, it just means more. *grin* So if you write slow, that's fine too.

2. Bring some ideas with you. I used two ideas that I had somewhat formed in my head - the story I submitted the first week, and the one I submitted for week three (though all words were actually written at Clarion.) During week three I had been doing a lot of research for a story I wanted to write on Iceland, but it wouldn't come together - I hadn't written a word in almost a week, so on Tuesday I abandoned the idea and jumped on one that had been sitting in my brain for a while. (I had particularly wanted to write an SF story that week because Richard is pretty much (at least to my knowlege) exclusively an SF writer. So I was really glad I had something SF on deck (This actually ended up being the week I submitted my longests story - over 9k)

3. Leave the trunk stories at home. Really, do. Unless you finished the story just before you came, you probably don't wrote like that any more anyway. We had a guy who was submitting trunk stories in week 5 and 6 - not only could we tell, we were making the exact some comments we made during week 1 - so what help was that really? The other thing is you get tired - really tired, and critting trunk stories is a bit of a waste of time for the group - you aren't that writer anymore. (they also tend to be longer stories, so they doubly rankle)

4. Write to the professional's strengths if possible. If the week three pro writes only high fantasy or hard SF (or whatever) and you can manage it - try submitting a story of that type while they are there to maximize the feedback you get from them. This isn't necessary, but I always find it harder to crit things about stuff I'd less interested in, and the pros are only human, so .... (and I do think generally the more the pro was in sync with a particular story, the more specific the advice they were able to give rather than the nebulous "the ending doesn't work, but I don't know how to fix it")

5. Give yourself permission to write crap. All kinds of crap if you like. The worst crap anybody every thought of . In fact, I give you permission too; I'll even make you a certificate if you want one. Because really, that's a damn sight better than writing nothing at all. And sometimes you have to wade through all the crap to get to the good stuff. Or the really great idea will come from the last sentence of ten pages of crap and you would have never gotten there if you hadn't written the crap first. (And really, it's probably not nearly as bad as you think it is, at least that's always been my experience.)

6. It's not a competition. Every time someone would turn in a particularly good story, there would be a wave of fear through the class with the thought "how am I going to compete with that?" well, you aren't in a competition. you are a writer You are the writer that is uniquely you, so you damn well better get used to it. And if someone writes a great story or makes a sale, there is nothing to stop you from writing a great story and making your own sales. So be genuinely happy for your friends - after all, you do like them. The truth is, not every writer is on the same level at Clarion, or in life. And sometimes people get that special serendipty where they exceed their skills and craft a great story with no real clue how they did it. But either way, with hard work you will get there -there is no limit on great stories in the world.

7. Stretch your limits. We had one woman in my class who loved historical fantasy, and will probably make her career writing just that, but only half the stories she turned in were historical. (and the one that she turned in later in the workshop that was historical fantasy was experimental in other ways) I think she really grew as a writer because she wasn't afraid to try things out of her comfort zone. One of the things Maureen talked about is that to get published as a pro yhour writing needs a boost - something that lifts you above the crowd of merely competant writing. I think the more you push your boundaries, the more likely you are to find the thing that lifts you up out of the slush pile. I also think the more you are going to learn about yourself as a writer.

8. Don't expect to come to Clarion and expect to write six saleable stories. It's far more important that you develop as a writer and develop the tools that will alloq you to make a career out of writing. So don't let the publishibility of what you are thinking of writing be any kind of guide. Find your weird and then push beyond it. Go places you've never been before and don't worry about what you do with it after. Fail, and fail spectacularly. It's far more interesting that your average conservative story that could probably sell to some second tier mag.

9. Writing is Fun. The three most important words you should take with you to Clarion. There are far easier ways to make a living - so don't forget to enjoy it. Never ever let Clarion take that from you. One of our class said he was giving up writing when he left; I can't think of anything sadder. Writing is not about making the sales, getting paid, or joining SFWA or any of that. You should write because you enjoy it, and your writing gives others enjoyment. Sometimes it's hard to remember that while you're under the gun to write another story, or you get all caught up in comparing yourself to other folk. During week 5, I'd written a story that I quite like, but every word was like pulling teeth. I felt like I had to get another story in to make an even six, and I couldn't think of a thing I wanted to do less. So I gave myself permission to write a bunch of absurd goofiness for Matt, based on some silly brainstorming we had done (Yay! "Monkey and the Baby Jesus") No, it wasn't a good story, but damn, it was fun to write. And it made me want to write more serious stuff.

A friend of mine has a sign above his computer that says "Writing is Chocolate" - it's a treat, one of the best things in life, don't forget. Writing is Fun!

posted by chance 10:45 AM
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Wednesday, July 23, 2003
On Receiving Critiques

I'd only done one face to face workshop before coming to clarion (though I had been online workshoping for while, but face to face is a very different experience). You can't hide how you are feeling - so if you feel like everyone hates your story, it's probably going to show on your face. It's also a lot more dynamic, and there's something about the room chemistry that makes the feedback that much better. I received the very first critiques for the very first story we read, and although reponses were pretty favorable, I was still glad I'd done at one workshop before. (I recommend you try one before you apply to clarion - some people don't doe well in this type of setting - the critiques feel too personal, and they need the distance of just pieces of paper, or words on a screen) After clarion, I knew I wanted to find a face to face workshop in my town.

So, some thoughts on receiving critiques:

1. Everyone in the circle is your friend and wants to see you do well. So everything they are telling you is in your best interest. Sometimes it may feel like they are picking on you, but they probably aren't. (the one time a critiquer did actually pick on someone, they got smacked down by the resident pro right quick). So first and foremost, no matter what anyone says, he or she is your friend and wants to see you become a better writer, and we all love it when people sell stuff that we helped with - almost as good as selling something yourself.

2. If you think all you are hearing is negative stuff or positive stuff, most likely you aren't listening fully to the critiques. (this happens far more often on the negative slant where all the author can seem to hear is the negative.) remember to appreciate the positive words too. It can really be hard at Clarion for people who have trouble hearing the positive, especially since you don't turn in your very best work

3. You are turning in very rushed drafts - not even really first drafts. Sometimes the ending isn't going to be fully cooked, or the characters totally developed. It can't be helped in such a short time, and on the flip side, people are doing four or more critiques a day, sometimes they will miss stuff you thought was totally obvious. So just remember to place all the comments in this context.

4. If three people say you are drunk, you ought to lie down (with nods to Maureen). So if three people comment on something specific in your story, you really ought to look at it, and chances are good that changes are in order. Now, it doesn't mean the changes they suggest are the ones you really ought to make, but look at that section with an open mind.

5. Just because everyone says you are drunk, doesn't mean you are. Sometimes if you know you are right, stick to your guns. When we critiqued one of my stories, almost every single person hated the last section and wanted to see it cut. I disagreed. It stays. (Of course it doesn't hurt that one of the few that disagreed was Kelly Link, but you shouldn't be afraid to stand alone, if need be.) However, it doesn't mean that it stays as is - the fact that so many folks had a negative reaction clearly means that it needs a goodly bit of work.

6. Take the best possible notes you can. Firstly, if you are playing secretary for your story, it helps to give you a little bit of emotional distance. Second, the more notes, the better off you are later on. People say a lot of things in the circle that don't actually make it onto the hardcopy they give you - without a record, all you will have is your memory. And don't just note down the stuff you agree with - the things you disagree with the most vehemently at first may be the most helpful things later.

7. The same day, go through all the manuscripts people gave you, write up detailed notes on their comments. This is one I never did and wish I had. People say a lot in critique that are only partly supported by their notes. You may also have questions on their comments - if you wait too long, they aren't going to remember what they said or why. (It doesn't hurt that this will reduce clutter and the end of the workshop organizational panic)

8. Don't argue with people. Not while they are apeaking, and not when it's your turn either. (You may want to explain why you did X or Y, because that can help flesh out why you didn't create the impression you intended.) Always remember, you can't make people like your story (plot, characters ...) - the story has to sand on its own merits, so arguing isn't going to help.

9. Anything that raises passion in the reader, is a good thing, even if he is telling you how he threw your manuscript across the room. Generally things were working really well until that point - I always make a point of paying special attention to whatever set off the diatribe. People don't get mad about stories unless they provoking real emotion - always good, so don't let that get lost when the critter is yelling at you. *grins*

10. Remember to say thank you - these people just gave up an hour or more to read and critique your story - don't forget to appreciate that effort.

posted by chance 2:51 PM
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Tuesday, July 22, 2003
On Critiquing

This is why you go to Clarion - not to meet famous authors/editors/make connections. Not to spend six weeks with a bunch of talented writers. Not even to write and have your stories critiqued by your peers and professional writers. Clarion is a Milford style workshop, so the bulk of it is sitting around in the circle critiquing others, and listening to other folks critique them. So here are some random thoughts on critiquing:

1. Critiquing is the most important thing you will do at Clarion. So if you ever need to skimp somewhere, don't let it be on your critiquing. You can get a hell a lot out of Clarion even if you never submit a story. But you'll get almost nothing out of it if you don't do any critiques. A lot of folks get really caught up in the idea that you must submit a story a week. And it's nice if you can, but don't fret if you can't. And don't take huge amounts of time away from critiquing to do it.

2. Don't skip class. If you sayed up all night to get your story ready to turn in, and you haven't even done the reading, go to class anyway and listen to what folks have to say. And if you didn't do the critiques, make them up.

3. Pay attention when you are going around the critique circle - listen to everyone. Try not to let your mind drift. I learned the most listening to other folks. You learn what's important to them in story construction, things you might have missed. Hell, occasionally I saw a story in a whole new light. You might learn exactly why something rang false to you. You might recognize problems in your own writing. And I don't just mean the instructors - most of the wisdom is going to come from your classmates.

4. Remeber to include praise in your critique. There is always something to praise in a story, so look for it and mention it. And if you can't find anything, look again, because there is always something there. And mention it, be sincere. It's far too easy to get all caught up with pointing out flaws. Frequentlt it's easy, and it makes you look smart. But pointing out the good stuff is also of value, in some ways more important. So don't be the person who only says negative things in a critique. Sometimes I didn't remember to include praise, and everytime after I wish I had.

5. Be sincere. Don't say nice things just because you don't want to hurt someone's feelings. Don't say you liked the story when you only liked the prose or the character development, or you liked the story, but hated the end. Say what you really liked. People appreciate it, and then believe you when you do say you like something. And that means a hell of a lot more than hearing "I loved this" from the person who loves everything.

6. If you don't like the person being critiqued, too bad. You owe him (and yourself) the same exact effort as you do everyone else. This is your job for your six weeks there, and six weeks isn't a long time. So do your very best for everyone. You'll feel better about it, and will have learned way more than someone who was unable to put their personal feelings aside. You look more professional and it's way better for the group dynamics if you ignore personal conflicts during critique.

7. Never critique the person - you are here to critique stories. Your personal opinions of their political views, hygene, haircut, et cetra have no place in the critique circle. This sounds easier than it really is. Sometimes political views or religious or cultural issues come up in a story and it can be hard to separate what is portrayed in the story from the personal views of the author. If cultural stereotypes are portrayed in a story, it doesn't mean the author is a bigot. It may have been intentional; it may have been accidental. Bring it up in critique, but don't forget you are critiquing a story. We had one story our last week that dealt with some fairly out there sexual stuff. (ok, it was out there to me) We teased the author that we all saw him in a new light. And honestly for a few seconds after I read the story I was like "whoa! I can't believe that came from X's brain" because I couldn't yet separate the author from his work.

8. Be honest, but not brutal. Don't say things just to hurt, just because you can. During the last week, one guy said a story had no redeeming value - yeah, that's constructive. Even if you hate hate hate a story, your comments should be designed to offer ways to make it a better story. If the characters aren't believable, that's ok to say. If you don't like the characters, that's ok to say, too. But then try to offer ways to fix those things (and you might want to consider that the characters are unlikeable for a reason).

9. It's not your story. Don't try to make it into your story. Yeah, it's ok to make suggestions on how you might change the ending, but completely rewriting the story into a new one is generally useless, and doesn't actually help the author, anyway. Your job is to help the story be the best it can be, in the author's vision. (I found this one of the hardest things to do, because I think there is a natural tendency to want to take a stake in any story you critique, and one way we do that is by making it our own. or I'm just a control freak *grin*)

10. Don't beat a dead horse. If ten people have already said that your character could have called the police on his cel phone that he used in the scene before, trust me, the author gets it. Write it on the papers you plan to hand in to the author, but otherwise, sometimes enough is enough.

11. Use a timer, but don't be ruled by it. The first week we didn't use a timer, and critiques went on and on, to the point where people sometimes went through page by page on a story pointing out nits. The second week we started using a timer, and it really helped people focus. But if you have what you think are important points that go on for more than two minutes, go ahead and speak your piece. The timer is just a guide. (I am perhaps the worst person to give this bit of advice, because I was notorious for going way over time. yeah, my words weren't really that important, but I couldn't help myself.

12. Give the author a written summary of your thoughts. Some people didn't, and as hard as you try to take notes, it is impossible to jot everything down, so you are doing the author a real favor if write something up, no matter how informal it is. And don't be afraid to add to the notes during critique - some of the best thoughts came during the crit session.

13. If something is not really your cup of tea, it's ok to say so, but that's not an excuse for not giving the critique your full effort. So what if you don't like high fantasy - Maybe you won't know the conventions of the genre, but it doesn't mean you still don't know prose and characters. (and they might like whatever genre you write in just as little, so be fair and give your full effort for every piece.)

posted by chance 9:36 AM
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Monday, July 21, 2003
On Breakthroughs

I've decided I'm just going to natter on about topics that relate to Clarion for this week to summarize my thoughts about the Clarion experience. I think the one that tends to be front and center in most people's minds when they are applying to Clarion is breakthroughs.

You go and you hope there will be that magical click and everything about your writing will come together and you'll go from unpublished neophyte to Ted Fucking Chiang (*waves to Maureen*) or slightly more realistically everything will come together for you and you'll start selling your fabulous stories. Please, don't go to clarion expecting to have a breakthrough.


(just in case you weren't listening.) Because here's the thing - you have to be in the exactly right place in your writing, get the exactly right feedback, and the right story idea for it all to come together. And you may pull it off for one or two stories, and then when you get back home, slide back into old habits and still have to wait for your skills to catch up to that aha moment. (and whether was an actual moment is open to debate, too.) And looking for something you aren't ready for (or maybe are already past) breeds disappointment

Of the folks in our group, I felt like two people had breakthroughs, based on a sharp jump in their writing from week to week. So two of sixteen, around 12 percent - not a huge number. And sometimes people (including me) would feel a bit sad about not having that big moment. But really, I doubt there ever was a big moment, conscious anyway, for those two. Hell, they may not even think they had breakthroughs, that's just my analysis based on exterior data. And one of those two was the last week, the second to last story we critiqued.

So go to Clarion expecting to learn a shitload about yourself as a writer, about other writers of your generation, how to provided helpful feedback and use those tools to improve your writing, to make connections with writers in the field. And most of all, to have some fun. Breakthroughs are serendipity. Every single person showed really big improvement in their writing, in very different ways. And that's what's important.

So, in complete contradition of what I just said, I think I did have a breakthrough while I was a Clarion, just not the one I expected - not the mywritingjustgotawholelotbetter breakthrough everyone wants. I went to Clarion with the idea that I was just going to go hogwild experimenting in style and voice and narrative structure, and anything else I could think of to play with. So I did, and one of the most frequent comments I got was "I enjoyed this, but I didn't understand it ...." heh. me neither too.

So I'm perking merrily along, moaning about the lack of breakthroughs and doing my funky thing, which was leaking into my more straightforward writing (you know, one pov, two timelines, one forward, one reverse - *grin* totally straightforward) and then I had my conference with Jim and Maureen.

And they told me that I was inveting my own genre, that I was going to have to teach people how to read my stories (and bleh - that it might be hard for me to find an editor open to them) and after that I realized that I am thinking about storry telling in new ways - ways that I'm only at the edges of grasping - but also that I am really not the same writer that came to Clarion. (Yeah, I know this is clear as mud - I'm not really sure what I discovered about myself, but I know it was something, and something important.)

Maureen said that my writing now has a sense of wildness that my pre-clarion writing didn't. And I think she's right. I think I was scratching around the edges of it last winter when I wrote the Elvis story and Broken Feathers, but things change fast when you are writing a story a week, and critiqueing 15-20 of them. Or more.

But there is still a huge way to go before I find where I am trying to get to.

Anyway, I got a breakthrough, just not the one I had expected. And maybe everyone gets that kind of breakthrough - where they learn something about their writing, what makes if unique, or how they need to grow. Alas, that doesn't quite have the sizzle of the huge jump in skill level.

I do think the more you push yourself while at Clarion, trying things outside your usual neighborhood, the more likely you are to get the most out of the experience and grow as a writer. And your breakthrough might come weeks or months after clarion, and without the group around you, it might even slip by unnoticed because it came in inches rather than miles all at once.

But don't go to Clarion expecting to find the Holy Grail, or at the very least, remember to enjoy the hunt.

posted by chance 10:38 AM
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Sunday, July 20, 2003

So I'm home again - got the car unpacked (mostly) and am settling in. House is still standing, so that's a good. Came home to two rejections, so that's less so. Had a really nice visit with Mary Rickert last night, so that's the best thing of all.

I'll blog longer tomorrow - now I think it's time to read and veg and other good home stuff.

Tomorrow I resume work on my novel and start revising my clarion stories.

Woo! go me - I'm a clarion grad!

posted by chance 5:37 PM
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