Category Archives: Writing

“I love your little monkey.”

“If I may offer you some advice, Anshinnal,” he said, “taunting the crow is a really poor idea.”

My last story at Clarion West, I wrote a fantasy story about an assassin with painfully heightened senses forced to fight in daylight out of desperation. I spent a ton of time on the world and the dynamics, the sweeping conflict he’s caught up in, the economics of a slavery economy, and most of that ended up torn out to make deadline and focus on the story at the heart of it.

It’s been two weeks, and I still don’t know what to do with it. Putting the larger world in means I’d be running at novelette size immediately, while trimming it down seems like an even more painful cut.

My Clarion Five

I wrote five new stories at Clarion West. In order, they are:
Nature and Applicability of Incompleteness in Marketing and Domestic Contexts. Wooo!
Earth in the Future is Earth in the Past. I like this a lot, but it needs some quality rework.
Single Incident Study of Modern Training Programs Competing Against Genetic Doping in High School Athletics (aka “King”). Here’s Clarion for you: it’s hard to me to believe I wrote this, I like it so much.
Making a Killing. Near-future heist setup. Nice concept, needs connective tissue. Could be expanded into a book.
Marks. My try at fantasy. I don’t know what to think about it still.

And I rewrote Archipelago almost entirely in week one: the Word diff shows ~80% new, which doesn’t mean I at least rewrote the sentences and scenes as I went.

Decompression day one

I packed up and left the house today, and for all my ironic distance and whatever, it got a little dust in my eye saying the last goodbyes.

It took ~15m after I got home before I made a joke that bombed but I’m sure would have been funny to, say, Erin and Jon.

So… Clarion West. Strange, strange time.

I got to spend a week with my hero Nancy Kress, and went drinking, learned dialogue, and danced the “Graham Joyce” with Graham Joyce. I had one of the most interesting half-hour conversations in my life with Larissa Lai. I talked to Kelly Eskridge , who I totally dig, about what I think was the best story I wrote in my six weeks, and then got to talk about ebooks and Tor with Patrick Nielsen Hayden, and it all wound up with the legendary Samuel Delany (Kress and Delany together make up a whole shelf of my library).

That boggles my mind — I drank Bud Light and ate pizza today with Delany.

Everyone who attended will look back at this Clarion West as the birth of farmpunk science-fiction. Pay attention to farmpunk.

The best part (and I didn’t appreciate this until I was there) was that writing with 17 other similar people in these circumstances meant I got a chance to see how other people worked. Lilah turned in beautiful pieces with lush setting and description I wouldn’t have encountered if I’d kept on reading down my standard hard-SF/cyberpunk/whatever, but I’d read one of her pieces a week and think “I have got to get better at these things”. I’d read Ava’s and study how to get action scenes clearer, and so on, down the list — almost every story I would find something to ponder, where I’d look at the things they did really well and try and pull some lessons from it. And then I’d curse at them for turning in such polished pieces.

And every week, they’d get better.

I found a couple overarching lessons of Clarion West:
– Work harder. Harder. You’re not working hard enough.
– If writing it isn’t horribly stressful, exciting, and makes you worry that your audience is going to crumple it up and throw it back at you, stop. You’re not pushing hard enough.
– Bleed. No, more. Way more.
– Everything in service to the story.
– Apply every lesson you’ve ever learned about writing, from dialogue to plot to characterization, all at once, to everything. Even the contradictory ones. This turns out to be possible.
– To succeed, to even have modest success writing science fiction, it’s not enough to be good, or even great: you must outwork everyone else.
– You’re still not working hard enough.

I understand why people graduate a Clarion program and give up, even the most talented. If the future of your career is ridiculous toil for modest gains, and you don’t have a trust fund or a rich spouse or whatever, it’s hard to make that choice, and harder still if you’ve got family to provide for. And having a day job means you’re screwed because you can’t devote the time to writing… yeah. That’s a whole other rant, though.

Tomorrow I start writing again. Fuck the slump, and much love to my classmates.

Last Clarion West story in

I have a Friday (technically) slot, which means that my stories go out on Monday and are critiqued on Tuesday. So that’s it for me – I’m not scheduled to turn in again.

In keeping with trying to go as far out on limbs as possible, I wrote fantasy this time, prodded by a bet by one Mike Underwood (who for his part wrote space opera for week six). I turned in at ~8,800 words, which is huge (it’s 50 formatted pages).

Here’s what’s crazier, though: that’s small. As late as last night I was well over 11k, with big chunks missing. At the suggestion of trusted advisors on the matter, I slashed huge subplots and world stuff out of it, boiling it down to just under 7k, then completed required scenes to get to 9k. My *cut file* from yesterday to this morning runs 26 pages. 26 pages.

I haven’t slept. I look horrible. I have no idea how good it is: I’m not anxious the way I am every week, I’m not worried about whether I pulled it off or not. I’m not even concerned this is the story Delaney will critique on Tuesday. All I want is a shower, a shave, and some decent sleep.

If I’d kept everything in, if I’d completed all the other plot threads instead of taking them out, this story might have run 20k easily, and likely even over that, at which point it’s a fat novella or looking to turn into a book manuscript.

Crazy. Time to head back in and work on tonight’s dinner.

Bricking a story

Every week, I’ve tried to write the story around an avenue from an instructor conversation: I bled all over a story after Kress, I wrote two narrative/voice pieces after talking to Lai, and this week I attempted a structure piece where I wrote only the essential scenes… and it clanked. Last week I worked on it for ~3 days and it didn’t get better until Friday, when I was sick, I threw the towel in and sent it in. And today it came back around for critique.

In retrospect, if one of the things I’m wrestling with is clarity, experiments in minimizing the story might have been exactly the wrong thing to do, but the problem with a story-a-week schedule that on day six in this situation, you’re pretty much passing that week or turning in the thing that isn’t working.

So in critiques today, I was taking my notes and nodding along, and then smiling. Yes, you’re right, that didn’t work. Yup, that didn’t tie in. Yup, I didn’t connect that either. Sorry. And that? Yeah, that’s confusing, too. And yeah, I have an answer to that, but it’s not in the text. Sorry.

I knew that if I tried stuff like this every week there was a good chance I’d put up an airball every week, but it’s another thing entirely to actually put the shot up and wince even as it leaves my hands, then watch it miss.

The good news is I got a lot of excellent critiques on how to improve it if I revisit it for a rewrite.

Too close

Part of the problem with writing and rewriting in the best of circumstances is that it’s hard to pick up on your own errors. It’s even worse in a situation like Clarion, where we’re writing a story a week, so each day you’re desperately trying to make progress and then edit for structure and then, maybe, if you’ve done really well managing your time, get down to a couple passes for spelling and line edits.

For example — we did a crit on a story I wrote last week today, and I knew the voice needed to be as close to perfect as I could get it, because… well, anyway, the voice is much of the story. I put a lot more time into sentence-by-sentence editing and so on, at one point looking through the whole story for ways to make sentences convey meaning in fewer words even if it broke grammar rules.

I turned it in and didn’t look at it for two days. Today, during crit, people pointed out some obvious stuff (like I mentioned uniforms repeatedly without adding anything) and when I re-read it, they’re totally right. In going through it repeatedly, I kept adding stuff to two different sections, and made them both half-adequate and duplicate each other. And there’s a whole set of minor word-missing errors and stuff.

Ugh. Time pressure doesn’t allow us to step away from a story for a day and, like many of our weaknesses, our problems are greatly exacerbated by the constraints we work under.


The weekly Clarion cycle of anxiety

Day 1: Freedom from the tyranny of stories! Woo-hoo! Sure my story sucked, but I got one in!
Day 2: Ah, that was nice. Those were insightful critiques, too. I should think about all of that stuff when I pick my next idea. What do I have in the idea hopper? A couple of things, that’s good.
Day 3: Which of those ideas looks like it might a substantive story, one that requires me to stretch and look at things I’ve learned? None of them? Uh oh. Why does my stomach hurt all the time?
Day 4: I gotta get going. That sucks. And this sucks. Well, how far did I get? -100 words? How is that even possible?
Day 5: I better pick something and pound it out, and if it sucks, well, I’ll go down with the ship.
Day 6: Shit shit shit shit shit, this is terrible. How can I sleep when this story sucks so badly?
Day 7: shitshitshitshitshitshit fuckitall, polish this, turn it in, make the deadline. I hate this story! Why did I pick this idea in the first place? I need a drink.

… and repeat.

The time demand of Clarion

For all the warnings about how hard this would be, how sleep-depriving, I didn’t really grasp it until I was talking to Gary this week, and we figured out that even if you skip breakfast, your day runs

9-1: Critiques, lectures, lunch. Often this runs to 2.

Then at some point, to do a really good job on the critiques, you need to spend three serious hours on them. If you do them right after lunch, then, it’s time for dinner, which takes an hour.

So every day, assuming that you want to get eight hours of sleep and showering/etc takes an hour a day, you have six hours a day to research and write your next story for the week. Tuesdays you lose a couple of hours to the reading, and Fridays you lose an evening to a social event. And this ignores the ever-ratcheting pressure to write something that measures up to the increasingly good efforts of everyone else.

I brought some books with me for reading material. I’ve barely read a page.