Clarion at home: Planning

This is part 1 of a series on what to do if you can’t go to Clarion, which provides my thoughts on how you can capture part of the magic of Clarion—even if you can’t attend. This post is on planning for your Clarion at home.

Pick your six weeks

Unlike the folks attending Clarion, you can choose any six weeks you want. You could go with the same six weeks as Clarion; one advantage of that is that you could read their blogs and maybe borrow some of their energy. But you don’t have to wait if you don’t want to (or if the reason you can’t go to Clarion is a schedule conflict).

Along with picking the six weeks, commit to a significant degree of focus on your writing during those six weeks. You won’t be able to focus like someone at Clarion—you’ll probably have to go to work or to class, you’ll no doubt have obligations at home—but negotiate to have these minimized during the period you’ve picked, and decide in advance that you’ll let some of your minor obligations slip for six weeks.

Pick a book on writing

At my Clarion, much of week one was spent in classroom instruction, and there was further classroom instruction in varying amounts through the later weeks. To substitue for that, pick a book on fiction writing that you can use to learn (or review) the basics of writing fiction.

Because of his historical connection with Clarion, Damon Knight’s Creating Short Fiction: The Classic Guide to Writing Short Fiction is an obvious choice, but any fiction-writing book that you happen to have or can get from the library would be fine.

Make a study plan

Make a plan for how you’ll work through most of the book you’ve selected over during the first two weeks.

When I went, week one was spent studying plot and character with Steve Barnes (who is quite brilliant about plot in particular—the stuff I learned from him forms a large part of the article I sold to Speculations: Story Structure in Short Stories).

Week two was spent with Kelly Link. She taught us all kinds of stuff, but especially about the importance of telling detail for making description compelling. She also provided a masterclass in point-of-view.

So, to make your Clarion-at-home like my Clarion, read through the chapters of your book on those topics (plot, character, description, POV) during the first two weeks.

Consider joining an on-line critique group

I say “consider,” because your goal would actually not be to get critiques of your work, so it might not be appropriate.

Everyone assumes that getting some thoughtful critiques of your work by people skilled in the field is the most important part of Clarion, but that turns out not to be true. The most important part of Clarion is preparing critiques, and then hearing your classmates’ critiques on the same stories. That’s what teaches you the most—whenever someone else offers a critique that’s different from yours, you learn something.

To get that benefit, you need to find some stories that have been critiqued. An on-line critique group is one possible source. If you can’t find one or don’t want to participate in one, there are other sources. (In fact, there’s a whole field of study devoted to it: literary criticism.)

If you don’t want to join an on-line critique group, you can make do with other kinds of critiques—scholarly papers, book reviews, etc. For speculative fiction in particular, Locus Magazine reviews a lot of published stories, and puts a lot of those reviews on-line. Any source of critiqued stories (with critiques) will serve your purpose.

Once your planning is done, you’re ready to begin. Part 2 of this series will be on writing a story a week.

See the Clarion at home page for links to all the posts in this series.

What if you can’t go to Clarion?

You can capture pieces of the Clarion experience without going to Clarion—pieces that will let you step up your writing game just as much as going to Clarion would.

Acceptances and rejections for Clarion are going out about now, so the writer blogs and twitter feeds are full of excitement and dismay.  Those who get to go to Clarion are in for a wonderful, magical experience. But what if you can’t go? What if you got rejected—or didn’t even apply, because of a lack of time or money or confidence? You can capture pieces of the Clarion experience, without going to Clarion—pieces that will let you step up your writing game, perhaps as much as going to Clarion would.

Of course, you can’t really recreate Clarion at home. You can’t duplicate the community of fellow writers working together on the common goal of improving everyone’s skills. You can’t recreate the network of pro writers who’ll take an interest in your career because they’ve gotten to know you as a person. And you probably can’t recreate the time and space—six weeks with no obligations but to write and critique. Given all that, you can still do a lot.

So, with the proviso that I’m just a writer who attended Clarion ten years ago and has continued writing since then, I’m putting up a series of posts on “Clarion at home.” (Be aware that I tend to over-think and over-plan this sort of thing. A minimalist version of this would probably be just as good, and might be better.)

Here’s what I’m expecting to post over the next few days. (I’ll links here as I get the posts up. I may also edit the list if I make changes.)

  1. Planning: Pick your six weeks—and a book on writing
  2. Writing: Write a story a week
  3. Reading: Read many mediocre and a few great stories
  4. Critiquing: Compare your critiques to others
  5. Expertise: How to become an expert fiction writer
  6. Summation: What about getting critiques?

I’d be particularly interested in hearing from other folks who’ve attended Clarion and have some thoughts on how you can capture a bit of the Clarion experience for home use. I’ll approve pingbacks and trackbacks for this post, so if you write something about recreating Clarion at home, I’ll link back to your post.

[Update 2011-03-28: I’ve gathered the links above together on a “Clarion at Home” page.]

Nuclear power, terrorism, and accepting baseline risks

People are bad at comparing risks, and people like to point this out by making comparisons to risks that people tolerate on a daily basis. For example, pointing out that many more people die in car accidents than are killed by terrorists, or pointing out that providing electricity by burning coal kills and injures more people than providing electricity by fissioning uranium.

At one level, I find these arguments compelling. I find it preposterous that we spend so much money on homeland security. That money would be much better spent (in terms of lives saved per dollar) on traffic safety, or probably a lot of other things. I gather, based on the fact that people keep pointing this out without producing any visible change in funding priorities, that most people don’t find this a compelling argument.

I’ve always wondered about that, and perhaps I’ve figured out why in the “coal versus nuclear” argument, which I don’t find compelling.

Plenty of people die to provide us with power from coal. Miners die from accidents. People die in road accidents moving coal from the mine to the power plant. Workers die in ordinary industrial accidents at power plants. People die from respiratory problems caused by or exacerbated by pollution from burning coal. People die in severe weather—which is becoming more common, probably because of global warming.

Except for that last, this is our baseline status. We know the costs and risks, and we accept them. Some people work to improve things—better mine safety, better level crossings for trains, lower emissions from coal burning—but the baseline is accepted. Importantly, an individual can do a lot to reduce his or her risk, such as by not making a career in coal mining, by exercising due care at rail crossings, and by living some place with clean air (and not smoking).

With nuclear power, things are different. The baseline status is safer. Deaths in uranium mining are very small, because the volume of uranium ore needed is so small compared to the volume of coal. Deaths from industrial accidents are small, because the number of workers is small (and, perhaps, because some additional attention is paid to safety at a nuclear plant for reasons having to do with greater regulation and particular concerns about public perceptions of safety). Deaths caused by the release of radiation are very, very small, because we go to vast effort and expense to avoid them.

But although the baseline status is relatively safe, the contingent risks are huge. The problems that led to the catastrophe we’re seeing now at the Fukushima Daiichi plants are replicated all over the world. It’s not just plants built on fault lines and plants built places where tsunamis can occur. It’s things like redundant safety systems that aren’t really redundant. Most especially, it’s committing to providing active safety over a period that’s much longer than human institutions reliably persist.

On the former issue, I have an oddly relevant memory. As a boy I attended public hearings in Kalamazoo on the licensing of the nuclear power plant at Palisades. At one hearing, a lawyer opposing licensing pointed out that a line carrying backup power for the plant ran through the same conduit as a line carrying the regular power. In some clever showmanship, he snapped a pencil in two to illustrate the fact that this produced a common point of failure. Learning that the backup generators at Fukushima were in basements where they would be lost in a tsunami produced an odd echo of that memory.

The latter issue is really more to the point. We are relying on corporations to actively manage the safety of these plants and the spent fuel—corporations that will cease to exist if the cost of this management burden ever grows to the point that it consumes the corporation’s profits.

I think the degree to which these safety issues needed to be actively managed has surprised a lot of people. I’ve many times heard people suggest that managing nuclear waste was no big deal—just put the stuff in a concrete vault and put a fence around it with signs saying “If you come in here you’ll probably die.” I always knew that was dumb, but I was mostly worried about people deliberately coming in to use the waste to make dirty bombs and the like. I didn’t quite realize to what an extent the spent fuel rods depended on a whole complex system of cooling equipment to keep them from bursting into flame and spreading radioactive smoke and steam wherever the wind blew.

So that, I think, is why we accept coal power and think of nuclear as dangerous. We could give up coal power anytime we, as a society, decided that the cost was too high. If we were willing to cut way back on air conditioning, electric lighting, and all the other things we run with electricity, we could just quit the whole thing. The only dangers left behind would be some moderately dangerous holes in the ground, some toxic heaps of ash, and the pollutants that are already in the air. With nuclear power that’s very much not true. We could give up nuclear power today and we’d be on the hook for decades of active management of the high-level waste and generations of (mostly passive) management of the low-level waste.

I think maybe the issue with risks from terrorism is the same. People know what the trade-offs are for driving. If we, as a society, decided to give up driving, we could cut deaths from road accidents almost to zero. But terrorism isn’t like that. There’s nothing we could give up to prevent terrorism, and the contingent risks are huge. An endless stream of terrorist acts that killed tens, hundreds, or thousands of people seems very different from the many other activities that we engage in that cost tens, hundreds, or thousands of lives.

It’s a bummer about nuclear power, though. It would be cool if a network of high-speed electric trains could provide transportation in a post-peak oil world, and I’d begun to think it might be a reasonable alternative. A mere twenty-five years with no major nuclear accidents was enough to make nuclear power start seeming pretty safe again. This is a good reminder that it really isn’t—and that we need to think carefully about the difference between accepting risks for ourselves now, and accepting risks for everyone stretching off into the future.

[Update 2011-03-23: There’s a lot of  misinformation about whether very low doses of radiation are harmful. Here’s a paper with a survey of what we actually know about the effects of low doses of ionizing radiation (from the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences).]

Ronald M. Laszewski’s Peak Debt and Income paper

In 2008 I posted Ron’s paper on Peak Debt. He recently extended his work, in a new paper called Peak Debt and Income.

Once again, I’ve got a piece up at Wise Bread that provides an overview of paper:

Laszewski creates a simple model of the economy as a tool for investigating the question of how to get household balance sheets back in order after suffering the problems diagnosed in the earlier Peak Debt paper…

Really, though, you ought to read the paper. (The math in this one isn’t as tricky as the math in the original Peak Debt paper.)

Finding your self-sufficient sweet spot

There’s a reason we don’t see more self-sufficiency: It’s not frugal. It almost always takes more time to make something than it takes to earn enough money to buy one—and that’s without even considering the time it takes to learn the skills (let alone the cost of tools and materials). On the other hand, frugality is a powerful enabler for self-sufficiency. So, how do you find the sweet spot?

 

 

[This article originally appeared as a guest post on Self Reliance Exchange, but that site no longer exists and the successor site doesn’t seem to be using my post. Rather than just let the article disappear, I figured I’d post it here.]

Fabric on loom
Fabric on Loom

There’s a reason we don’t see more self-sufficiency: It’s not frugal. It almost always takes more time to make something than it takes to earn enough money to buy one—and that’s without even considering the time it takes to learn the skills (let alone the cost of tools and materials). On the other hand, frugality is a powerful enabler for self-sufficiency. So, how do you find the sweet spot?

My wife spins and weaves. I have a beautiful sweater that she hand knit from hand spun yarn. It’s wonderful—and it’s comforting to know that my household is not only self-sufficient in woolens, we produce a surplus that we can sell or trade. But the fact is you can buy a perfectly good sweater at Wal-Mart for less than the cost of the yarn to knit it.

If you try to be genuinely self-sufficient—in the sense of producing through your own labor everything your household uses, like a hunter-gatherer or a subsistence farmer—you’re going to be poor. Your neighbor who works at a job for wages or a salary is going to be better off by almost every measure.

Oh, his factory-made microwave meals won’t be as good as home-cooked food from your garden and his furniture from Ikea won’t be as good as what you make in your wood shop. But he’ll have so much more! In the time it takes you just to build a kiln he’ll earn enough money to buy a thirty piece set of Corelle ware. Unless he’s only making minimum wage, he’ll probably have enough left over to buy an iPod—and you’ll never be able to make your own iPod from sand and vegetable oil.

That’s why we have trade. If everybody specializes in one or a few things, and then trades with others for what they need, everybody can be better off. It raises your standard of living, but it means that you can’t be self-sufficient.

There are still many reasons to do for yourself. You can make exactly what you want, instead of having to make do with whatever happens to be available on the market. You can use superior materials, and take them from the environment in a sustainable manner. You don’t have to worry that the stuff you use was made in a sweatshop by children or prisoners or slaves. You aren’t dependent on the continued smooth functioning of the vast global economy. But you can’t be self-sufficient in very many things—even if you had the skills and the tools and the land, you’d quickly run out of time.

So, we find ourselves trying to figure out where we belong on the continuum between actual self-sufficiency and ordinary self-reliance. How do you find the sweet spot? Here are my thoughts:

  1. Focus on necessities. It’s a lot more important to be self-sufficient in food, clothing, and housing than it is to be self-sufficient in tennis rackets and rollerblades.
  2. Focus on capabilities. Instead of trying to fill your pantry by hunting and fishing, do enough to maintain and improve your skills—and then start developing your next capability.
  3. Focus on what’s practical. It’s really hard to be self-sufficient in window glass and impossible to be self-sufficient in digital watches. Don’t waste your time.

Start with the few things where homemade actually is cheaper, like gardening. Then move on to things that can be done as a hobby—and that you’d enjoy doing as a hobby. Don’t let point #1 above (necessities) keep you from developing self-sufficiency in something that’s fun and interesting just because it’s not important. It may not be important to be self-sufficient in beer, but the equipment is cheap, brewing is a pretty easy skill to acquire, and the result is better than what you can buy.

Finally, remember that there’s a vast range between being “self” sufficient and being dependent on a global supply chain. It’s almost as good as self-sufficiency to source things from your neighbors. Short of that, it’s still an improvement to source things closer rather than farther—your home town, your region, your state, your country.

Once you set your priorities, don’t hesitate to go with the cheapest option for things that don’t make the cut.  That frees up money that you can use on the important underpinnings of self-sufficiency—things like land and tools in particular, but also things like books, training classes, materials to practice with, and so on.

Then you’re in your sweet spot.

Characters who learn

I want to talk about something that Patrick Rothfuss does very well. It’s really a small piece of his vast array of skills—the lyrical language, the masterful worldbuilding, the high adventure, the compelling characters—but I think it’s integral to the way he manages to hit those powerful emotional high points over and over again.

His characters learn. They learn all the time.

Most stories are about characters who learn. Not all: James Bond doesn’t grow and change; a lot of older episodic fiction was structured so that characters returned to the status quo ante by the end of every episode. But most stories are about a character who needs to learn better. The story leads the character through a series of events that somehow provide the needed education, and at the end the character behaves in such a way that we understand that the necessary lesson has been learned.

A very short story can be not much more than this. In a longer story, though, the result is often quite unsatisfactory, especially if the cycle—flaw leading to wrong action leading to suffering—is repeated. By the time we get to the end of a story like that, I no longer care much whether the hero will learn to care about other people or overcome his addiction or stop blaming himself for some long-ago mistake.

One way for the novelist to handle this is to have other problems for the hero to overcome. If the hero is busy saving the world, it’s easier to accept that he’s not overcoming his personal problems as quickly as we’d like. When, in the end, he does overcome his personal problems—especially when doing so is also key to saving the world—it can be very satisfying. But to make that work, the reader has to be kept aware of the flaw, which means once again we have repeated cycles of flaw, wrong action, suffering. Cycles that I find tedious and frustrating.

The other, better, way for the novelist to handle this is to have the hero make incremental progress in learning what he needs to learn. It’s both more realistic and more interesting. The problem is that it tends not to lead to the sort of rising action that makes for a satisfying climax. Partial learning leads to less wrong action which leads to less suffering—this is not stuff from which it is easy to form a compelling climax.

This is where Patrick Rothfuss displays incredible virtuosity. His characters (not just the hero, but also all the characters around him) learn stuff all the time. Because they learn stuff, they make fewer mistakes, they cause less suffering for themselves and the people around them. And yet, tension continues to rise. How does he do that?

Part of it is that, as they learn, their capabilities grow, and as their capabilities grow, their mistakes have larger consequences.

More important, as their capabilities grow, they choose to take on greater challenges. That’s realistic and interesting, but in less capable hands it often leads to stores that are too episodic. (Rothfuss overcomes that through the structure of a wrapping story, that lets us see early on that all the episodes are leading somewhere.)

I really want to learn to understand this better, because this feature—characters learning— creates repeated mini-climaxes. And here is where the virtuosity becomes manifest.

In inferior stories, the reader can plainly see what the hero needs to do—quit running away from his problems, quit being so full of himself, quit acting like a jerk, whatever—but has to wait to the end of the story for the hero to figure it out. In The Name of the Wind and The Wise Man’s Fear, by the time the reader understands what the character needs to do, the character is well on his way to understanding it as well. And when the character does learn (and demonstrates that learning by making better choices, and the better choices lead to better results), the reader feels the same glow produced by the climax of a great story. Over and over again.

And yet, tension continues to rise. Virtuosity. I want to learn it.

(Oh, and just as an aside: I once won a free book by writing the winning caption for this picture of Patrick Rothfuss.)

Who are the middle class?

As someone who’s written quite a bit about what’s a decent standard of living, I was intrigued by the post on the growing global middle class that Tobias Buckell just linked to in his post the exploding middle class to come. Toby includes a graph from the source article that shows a rapidly shrinking population of poor people, squeezed by modest growth in the rich combined with surging growth in the middle class.

I quickly clicked through to the source article, to see what their definition of “middle class” was, which turned out to be daily spending of between $10 and $100 per person.

Now, in a sense, that’s pretty reasonable. For a family of two that would multiply out to annual expenses between $7,300 and $73,000. At the low end there’s considerable overlap between “middle class” and “poverty” (the US Census Bureau has $13,991 as the poverty threshold for a family of two), but I think that’s fair: From a global perspective, just barely in poverty in the US probably counts as middle class.

But I know, from my own experience writing about our rising standard of living, that people have very strong feelings about these sorts of things. Would a couple getting by on $14,000 a year in the United States feel middle class? Some would. Some people, especially rural folks living a subsistence lifestyle, feel very strongly that they’re not poor, despite a money income below the official poverty threshold. But I don’t think that will be a typical response.

I wrote an article called “Our High, High Standard of Living,” that made the case that, just like in the 1950s, a working man could still support a family with just one income—as long as they lived at a 1950s standard of living. Full-time work at minimum wage would bring in just over $15,000 a year—not only solidly in “the middle class,” but comfortably above the poverty threshold. And yet, many commenters on that article suggested that it would be utterly impossible to support a family on that income.

My sense is that it would only be possible to live a middle-class lifestyle on $14,000 to $15,000 per year under very specific (very lucky) circumstances. At a minimum, you’d have to live in an inexpensive part of the country and you’d have to find unusually cheap housing close enough to where you worked that you wouldn’t need a car. You’d also have to be young and healthy. (My wife and I would qualify as part of the global middle class just on our health insurance spending. But if we had no money for food or a place to live, we wouldn’t feel very prosperous.)

I think this order-of-magnitude spending range for “the middle class” is also at the heart of Toby’s deeper issue—whether or not a rising middle class is good for the planet.

If we see surging growth in households moving out of poverty into the lower end of this range—able to spend $7,000 to $14,000 a year ($10 to $20 per day per person)—we’re likely to see some positive effects. People with that sort of income are in a position to say no to the most pernicious efforts to turn their neighborhoods into dumping grounds for toxic waste, to insist on some level of protection for nearby natural areas, and so on. But if we see surging growth in households moving into the upper reaches of middle class—able to spend $70,000 a year or more—I think we’re in big trouble.

Those people are going to want cars.

After the thaw is over

After the thaw is over

A week of warm weather melted almost all the snow. But now it’s back below freezing. The puddles are just starting to freeze, beginning with little rings of frost on and around individual blades of grass.

We had two January thaws this year, one in December and one in February.

The December one was pleasant, and not very dangerous. We could enjoy a few days of mild weather without any risk of thinking that we didn’t have a full three months of winter ahead of us.

When you get your January thaw in February, though, you have to be careful. It’s easy to hope that you have seen the last of the winter weather. But that hope is a dangerous one—the sort that’s all too prone to be crushed under ice and snow and brutal cold.

Preferring to keep my hopes uncrushed, I’m trying to remember that it’s still a month until spring.

Early morning writing

I’ve known for a long time that writing every day is very helpful to my productivity. In the past couple of days, I’ve been reminded that, at least for my fiction writing, it’s also very important to start early in the day.

I’ve always found this a little hard. It’s tough to get going on fiction, even if I’ve got an outline, or have left off writing at a ragged edge where I know just what needs to come next. Faced with that—or, especially, faced with a blank page—it’s very easy to fritter away a few minutes (or a few hours).

Over the past couple of days, I have started early, and have rediscovered a bit of magic: Once I get my brain back into the story space, it solves problems wonderfully well—even when I’m not writing. While I make a mug of tea, I’ll realize that a scene with a phone call should be redrafted as a face-to-face meeting. In the time it takes me to walk to lunch and back, I’ll figure out that two cardboard characters can be combined into one three-dimensional character. As I shower, I’ll figure out how to replace a dull scene with a one-sentence lead-in to the next scene. (But only if I take my shower after the first writing session of the morning.)

This happens all the time, and if I don’t get started writing until late in the day, it becomes a source of frustration. The ideas will start coming, and I’ll still be fresh and anxious to start working on them—but I’ll be out of time. It’ll be evening. I’ll want to spend time with Jackie, doing something together.

So, a reminder to me: If I’m writing fiction, I want to start early. It’s more productive and more fun.