Rejoice: The sun returns!

The solstice snuck up on me this year. The calendar shows it as being today, which it is if you live east of the United States. But it was actually a few minutes before midnight on the east coast and more than an hour before midnight here.

Happily, Geoff Landis (one of my Clarion instructors) posted a “happy solstice” message on Facebook (with a link to an astronomy site with the details) a few hours before the event, so I was able to appreciate it prospectively.

The longest night of the year has come and gone. I’m glad that’s over.

Why, in just six weeks, it’ll be Groundhog’s Day! And once that happens, it’ll be time start looking for our early spring!

Packing lists

When I was in boy scouts, one of the scoutmasters suggested creating a packing list for camping trips. His key suggestion was to update the list after a trip, adding anything you’d wished you’d had, and thoughtfully deleting anything you’d brought but ended up not using. (Thoughtfully in the sense of not deleting your first aid kit just because no one had gotten hurt on that trip.)

I immediately recognized the value of the idea, but I never really put it into practice, mainly because I was no good at preserving the master list from one trip to the next. That problem was eventually solved by computers.

My oldest pack lists go back to 1992, when Jackie and I took a vacation in London and Wales. Our itinerary was complex, because we were driving to St. Louis and spending the night with my mom, and then flying to London from there, and reversing the process for the return home. The pack list for that trip has things broken down by stages:

  • Worn to St. Louis
  • Carried to St. Louis and worn on plane
  • In carry-on
  • In checked luggage
  • Left in St. Louis, for return drive

The key, though, was that instead of making the pack list on paper, I put it in a file on my computer. Then, the next time I went on a trip, the file was still around. I used it as a starting place to make my next pack list.

I’ve kept the basic format for twenty years now—stuff to pack, sorted by bag. At first I editing the old list for each new trip, but I long ago started letting old lists hang around, and eventually came up with a file name format to include the destination, the number of days, and the season. When I’m planning a new trip, I can quickly look through the old pack lists, find one with some overlap in terms of season and duration, and then use it as the basis for a new list. Because text files take up essentially no space, I’ve let old lists accumulate (in a small way—I’ve got a dozen or so).

Those old lists came in handy again just recently, as we’re preparing to move into our summer sublet. As it happens, I have an old pack list for a multi-week summer outing in furnished digs: my Clarion pack list from 2001. I’m having to adapt it—I don’t need the books by Clarion teachers that I was bringing to get autographed—but it’s not only a good guide, it’s a tested guide.

I strongly recommend making pack lists, and then keeping your old lists forever. You never know when you’re going to take a similar trip.

Clarion 2001 poster

clarion-2001-poster-framedAll the writers who taught at my Clarion did readings at the Archives Book Shop, a local bookstore in East Lansing. To advertise the readings, the Clarion office folks printed up a poster with the names and dates. And, as one of our little perks, we each got a copy signed by all the writers (and by our special guest editor).

I’ve had this poster for more than 10 years now. I always meant to get it framed so I could hang it up, but it was one of many things that I kept not getting around to. But for some reason, this past week it suddenly seemed to be the thing to get around to next, so I did. I measured the poster, went to a local shop that sells ready-made frames in standard sizes, and picked up a frame the right size. It was just what I wanted (simple, black, wood frame), but instead of a proper hanging wire, had some crappy metal bracket for hanging the picture, so I also had to buy a kit with some screw eyes and picture hanging wire, but that was cheap.

It still took a couple of days to get it all put together—picture in frame, screw eyes in frame, wire strung between screw eyes—but now it’s done.

I’m pretty pleased. Maybe having it up will help inspire me to keep at my fiction.

Click through for a picture big enough to read all the details.

Genevieve Kierans

Genevieve at the Clarion Reunion meeting in 2002.
Genevieve at the Clarion Reunion in 2002.

I just learned that Clarion classmate Genevieve Kierans died earlier this month.

It was great to have her in the circle at Clarion. Nobody was nicer or happier than Genevieve, and her critiques were always gentle and often incisive and useful—and often different from what everyone else had to say. It was nice to know that she was somewhere ahead in the circle, when you started getting a lot of “ditto what the last three guys said.”

She’d already had ALS back in 2001, and wrote a number of stories that drew on her experiences with disability. Where she excelled, though, was in telling the story of a callow youth growing into being an adult. Each one of those stories left me with a “How does she do that?” feeling, and I’ve more than once gone back to reread one, trying to tweeze apart the structure of that particular character arc.

I’m sorry not have had the chance to read more such stories.

Applications open for Clarion 2013

Clarion Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers WorkshopEvery year there’s a new Clarion class. Every year I’m a bit jealous of the new batch of students getting to study with the new batch of teachers.

There’s a little overlap this year—one of the anchor teachers, Kelly Link, was my instructor for week two. The others I haven’t studied with, but I’ve met some and read their work and would jump at the chance to study with them.

But you can’t go back to Clarion. (And, to be honest, you wouldn’t want to. Going to Clarion is a transformative experience, but that sort of transformation only happens once.)

I’ve written a good bit about my own experience at Clarion, besides keeping a daily journal while I was there. A year or two ago, I also wrote a series of posts on doing Clarion at home, if for one reason or another you couldn’t go.

But really, if you have a choice, it’d be much more fun to do Clarion at Clarion, if you possibly can. Head over to the Clarion site to apply.

Race and the fictional character

One of my Clarion classmates, Nnedi Okorafor, tweeted today wondering why sometimes authors won’t just say what race a character is. I doubt if she was thinking about me, but I’m one of those writers who is sometimes coy about a character’s race. My answer won’t fit in 140 characters, so I thought I’d write a post.

The most common instance when I do this (just provide physical descriptions, rather than stating a racial identity) is when the viewpoint character doesn’t know the answer.

This is pretty common in real life. There are plenty of people I know whose ethnic heritage is not at all obvious just from their appearance. You’d have to ask.  And these days, I hesitate to ask—some people take offense at the question, and others are simply tired of answering. So, just like in the real world, my characters often don’t know the ethnic heritage of other characters. Sometimes they’ll speculate. Other times they won’t.

The other common instance when I do this is when the whole cultural background thing is complex enough to be a distraction from the story. A character of South Asian heritage might be one whose ancestors had immigrated to Uganda but whose grandparents had been expelled and moved to England. But for story purposes I might decide that all I want to say is that she has straight, dark hair and speaks with an English accent.

Finally, what I’m working on right now is a far-future story where humans have spread to a hundred worlds. Even when they know where on Earth people had a particular skin color, they know no more about the paths their various ancestors took than I know about mine. (I can point to some English, Irish, and Dutch—but there’s reason to believe that one of my male ancestors came from somewhere around the Mediterranean, or maybe Sarmatia.)

I do have one unfinished story where I play around a bit with ethnicity, because the viewpoint character was raised to be interested in it. Due to his background, he’s much better at it than I am, able to look at people and perceive that this one is Celtic, that one Igbo, another Chettiar. It was fun to write those bits, but it got to be a bit much to be just a quirk of the character, without managing to rise to the level of being a powerful driver of the story.

Strategies for writing and revising

One cluster of particularly good bits of advice that I got at Clarion came from James Patrick Kelly. (That link goes to my Clarion journal entry for the day I wrote about it.) Among other things, he suggested that we should:

  1. Save all our rewrites until after Clarion (as a way of carrying some of the energy of Clarion forward),
  2. Do the rewrites in order of salability (and perhaps not bother rewriting any that didn’t seem salable), and
  3. Write a new story for every story that we rewrote. (Otherwise we could easily find ourselves at the end of the summer with five or six nicely polished stories, but totally out of the habit of writing.)

More recently, having gotten several stories critiqued by the Incognitos, I decided to put that advice into practice again. I made a plan to start revising and submitting those stories, in between writing new ones. But I decided that I’d write one more new story before getting going on to revisions.

I made that plan rather longer ago than I’d like to admit, because for quite some time now I’ve had real trouble getting a new story finished.

After two or three attempts at new stories stalled, I should have just gone ahead and gotten going on a rewrite. But, no. Without really thinking about it, I just pushed ahead on a plan A, even though it wasn’t working. That wasted a lot of time, I’m afraid. It was also really frustrating.

But, good news: I’ve finally finished a new story! I’ve sent it out to the Incognitos, and it’ll be critiqued at the next meeting.

And now, finally, it’s time to look at the stories they’ve already critiqued, pick the most salable, and get to work revising it.

Ten years since my Clarion

Ten years ago today was the first day of class at the 2001 Clarion. Steve Barnes talked about plot. (The stuff he talked about that day, together with some some ideas I got a few weeks later from Geoff Landis and some earlier instruction from Bruce Holland Rogers at his Flatiron Fiction Workshop, served as the basis for the article on story structure that I sold later that year to Speculations.)

Those six weeks at Clarion were great—only a handful of times in my life have I had that much fun. Clarion also had a huge impact on my life—everything I’ve done since then has been colored by the things I learned there.

I wouldn’t want to do Clarion again—it only works that way one time—but I would like to do another intensive workshop. Probably one aimed at novels, if I can get a novel written.

That’s for the future, though. Right now I need to write one more short story for my local writers group, then start revising some of the stories that they’ve already critiqued.

Clarion at home: Summation

This is part 6—the final post—of a series on what to do if you can’t go to Clarion. I’ve talked about my thoughts on how you can capture part of the magic of Clarion—even if you can’t attend. This post is on my big misconception of Clarion, on some of the things that you can’t get from blog posts, and on applying these lessons.

What about getting critiques?

Before I went to Clarion, I assumed that the most important thing would be the critiques of my stories. I was wrong.

It’s actually a good thing that I was wrong. After all, the goal of Clarion isn’t to send you home with six critiqued stories that you can polish up and get published. The goal is to make you a better writer. You can only get so much better in six weeks, but six weeks is enough time to give you the tools you need to continue improving your own writing through practice.

A critique (better, several critiques) can help you improve a story. A good critique can help you find the good stuff in your story (so you don’t accidentally lose it when revising). A good critique can tell you that a story has problems.

It’s pretty rare for even a great critique to tell you how to fix a story that’s broken. But when several critiques all have complaints, there’s probably a problem somewhere, and the details of the complaints will often provide a clue as to where that is.

More important—and probably the biggest thing you’re missing out on by doing Clarion at home (aside from some of the fun) is that getting critiques can help you develop your skills in critiquing your own work.

Critiquing your own work is much harder than critiquing other people’s. If there’s some trick to doing it well, I haven’t learned it yet. In particular, getting critiques helps you learn about your blind spots. When critiquers point out flaws in your own work that you should have seen—and especially when they point out the same kinds of flaws in the next story, and the one after that—it can begin to sink in. That may be a quicker way to learn not to make the same mistakes, but the important part is to learn to see the mistakes. Then you can fix them, even if you can’t avoid making them.

Other stuff

Of course, there was a lot of other stuff at Clarion:

  1. A little dorm room with a little bed and a little desk.
  2. A weekly BBQ with that week’s departing teacher.
  3. A session with an editor on the difference between a perfectly good story and a story that sells.
  4. Several different perspectives on the career arc of a speculative fiction writer.
  5. Learning to play Mafia—and being there when John Gonzales invented his varient The Thing.
  6. Practice for doing public readings of our work in front of a small, friendly audience. (I’m still grateful to Rick Polney for organizing these.)
  7. Late evenings on the Owen balcony drinking beer and doing impersonations of the teachers. (You should have been there. It was hilarious.)
  8. Some very specific advice on what to do after Clarion. (That page also has a look at the life cycle of a story.)

All those things (and many others) were great fun; some have been really helpful in various ways. But what helped my writing was the stuff I’ve talked about here.

Once you develop enough skill at critiquing that you can evaluate your own work, you’re in a position to improve it through practice. Then it’s just a matter of putting in the time writing—and monitoring, evaluating, and trying to do it better.

Clarion is great fun, but you can improve your writing even if you can’t go.

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