Clarion West 2008 – Part 8 of 10

This post is the eighth in a series of ten about my experiences at Clarion West Writers Workshop (Wikipedia; Twitter) as a member of the 2008 class. I’ll talk about the final week of the workshop, Week 6, when Chuck Palahniuk (Wikipedia; Twitter) instructed. (It’s pronounced PAUL-uh-nick.) Here are Parts 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, and 7 of the series. In Part 7 I talked about Sheree R. Thomas‘s week and the beach reunion my class held in October 2011 in San Diego. We’re tentatively discussing another reunion now — maybe Las Vegas or Portland.

I should note that on August 31 2009, my Clarion West comrade Pamela Rentz said as a comment to Part 3:

Cool! At this rate you’ll have the workshop covered by 2012.

It is now February 2013. Part 7 was published on January 3, 2012 — more than a year ago. At this rate I hope to have the workshop covered by the time I’m dead.

Of course, Week 6 was the last week, so this should be it, right? Except for the remaining Parts 9 and 10. I think Part 9 will be my last remarks on the ’08 workshop plus a report from our forthcoming reunion. I should also write about the surprise guests we had at the workshop who gave talks or taught for just a few hours. Part 10 will just remain open; you never know what might happen.

Famous person at bottom left

Chuck Palahniuk — or “Chuckles,” as we began calling him before he arrived, perhaps in an effort to defuse his celebrity power — was the most wildly creative of our instructors. Leading the workshop, he took the day’s stories and came out with several ideas for each, some off the top of his head, ways to make them more powerful: this scene could mirror that scene if you change this about the setting, or this object one character carries around could also be used in another instance ironically, or other more powerful uses for motifs and structure. His mind was so flexible; he could invent possibilities for the formal properties of a story so felicitously. If you’ve read Orson Scott Card’s How to Write Science Fiction & Fantasy, you probably remember Card’s “Thousand Ideas in an Hour”; Palahniuk has the same fecundity.

Here’s an example. His week I turned in a short story about a mentally ill son and his mom. The mom wrote poetry with a favorite fountain pen, and during an author reading at a bookstore the son took the pen from her and crazily insisted on writing with it while talking aloud, becoming a social nuisance. Palahniuk pointed out that the pen could explode and cover the son’s arm with Rorschach-like inkblots. The pen is a tool for creativity; the pen, like his mind, breaks; control of the pen is contested, just as control of the son’s life is contested. This was just one of the twenty-something ways he came up with for amping up what was already in my story. Hearing him do this, you couldn’t help but learn some of the ability yourself. Afterward you read real-life stories better too, interacting with people and catching on to their recurring motifs or themes.

I notice the manipulation of formal story properties (character, setting, etc.) a lot while watching TV shows. Lost or The Twilight Zone come to mind. But writing is not contained by formalist wizardy. Sometimes writers just create mood (think of JD Salinger) or just wonder (think of Haruki Murakami) or tell you what’s what (think of Philip K Dick talking about God). And that’s all great, despite the business-like emphasis of some writing instructors on “Make everything in the story perform multiple functions, OMG, we gotta be economical here to turn a profit.” It got on my nerves the way Chuckles constrained everything as if there’s one true way to write. Art and sex are some of the only areas in life where you get to escape rules; people, especially those giving advice, just want to bring rules in because it reduces uncertainty — at the cost of quality and freedom. (Gay Saul Morson’s Narrative and Freedom: the Shadows of Time is a great critical theory book about how traditionally structured narrative clamps down on possibilities and the sense of freedom in fiction.)

He had plenty of rules for sentences, many of which are often totally helpful. Here’s a list of some. (Pam Rentz noted some others.)

  • Don’t use “specific” figures like “100 degrees” or “55 mph.” That’s missing an opportunity to characterize. What do those figures mean to the character? Is 100 degrees hot for him or not bad?
  • Use lyrical prose as a contrast. Don’t use it often; it gets tiring over time. Use it for effect. [Oh, poo.]
  • No abstract verbs: no remembering, considering, etc. [Oh poo again. What if the narrator is an abstract thinker or you are emphasizing uncertainty?]
  • No filtering. “I smelled the sour stink of sweat coming off him” should just be “The sour stink of sweat came off him.”[Same poo as above.]
  • “Going on with the body”: Go visceral, flesh-and-blood. Describe palms, feet, smells, flavors. Don’t be cliché, but if you don’t do it at all, your narrator will seem disembodied.
  • Never/seldom use forms of “to be” or “to have”; use more descriptive action verbs.
  • Make your settings (and physical descriptions of people) move. You want a movie, not a framed picture, unless for effect. [E.g., instead of “He wore a black button-down” write “His black button-down came loose from his slacks” or whatever.]
  • Don’t shortcut by saying “ugly dress.” Describe the dress and why the POV character thinks it’s ugly.
  • Attributive tags for dialogue are good. Not only do they keep the reader clear on who’s talking, they serve as the natural pause in conversation.
  • “Submerging the ‘I'”: Circle the pronoun “I” in your manuscript and figure out ways to reduce the use of it. Ideally, use it no more than once per page (!). It reminds the reader the story is not happening to them. Me/my/mine/we/ours do not seem to do this. You can use the word “I” a lot intentionally to create distance.
  • Use a lot of dentals: d’s, t’s, p’s, k’s. They sound good.
  • Be specific. Is it a maraschino cherry or a Queen Anne cherry or a … A gun is never just a gun.

Here is some other advice he gave to the workshop or to me in the one-on-one conference. Same caveat (from me) as above about “rules.”

  • Set specific, measurable, actionable, realistic, timed goals. Big ones. Tell them aloud to each other and everyone else constantly. Hang them on your walls, etc. etc. [I don’t go for this Tony Robbins self-improvement stuff, but here I’m noting what Chuckles said. I believe a person should set goals, but not forced ones. Something like, “I’ll write fiction for two hours every morning.” That’s a lot more human than the bodybuilder obsessive stuff which, I think, ultimately backfires psychologically.]
  • Externalize humanity via symbols. We’ll like a horrible character if they have a pet.
  • Goal of a first novel: not so much quality as it is to write something people can’t forget. [I believe for art you should not care what other people think while you are creating. But it’s hard to ignore the context you are in.]
  • Sell chapters as standalones. Doing so impresses potential publishers.
  • Show the reader your (and/or the character’s) authority. Establish credibility via facts, factoids, research, etc., particularly those about the subject of the story.
  • You can characterize by making a character habitually notice one thing: e.g., someone’s clothes or money status or whatever.
  • Never (!) forward plot through dialogue. Action is always stronger.
  • Don’t start a story with thesis/topic sentences that give everything away. One workshop story opened by telling us the character scratched through to his brain. Just show the scratching and make the reader wonder if the character’s going to get to the brain or not.
  • A good book: Another Day in the Cerebral Cortex.
  • If you bring an object in (a “prop”), use it over and over as many ways as possible. Make story elements do multiple jobs! [Poo. Fiction is not a factory.]
  • Setting can’t (!) be stationary and it should influence the character. A fan blows smoke on the character’s face, peanut shells on the bar floor add height to the character…etc.
  • Scenes shouldn’t all be the same length. That’s poor pacing.
  • Physical action = the strongest way to characterize.
  • Putting a lie or an unfulfilled social obligation early in the plot can be useful.
  • Check out Victor Turner on limnoid experiences. These are experiences where you go to be a different person, e.g., a cruise ship, a rock concert, Burning Man, etc., where you experience a lot of affection for others, there are social rules in place, etc. People like reading about limnoid experiences, especially invented ones.
  • As to research, ask interview subjects to tell you stories. Share your stories so a touchy-feely atmosphere is established. Tape record. Show you’re listening by saying stuff such as: “You’re kidding, they really said _____?” Kind of manipulative but it works.
  • It’s okay to write a thousand books and stories with dead fathers in them. [This was in response to a question of mine in the one-on-one conference.]
  • Low subject matter in high diction can be comical.
  • Check out Cold Comfort Farm and A Confederacy of Dunces.

The class gave the instructors gifts, and for Chuck Palahniuk we created something — I can’t quite remember what — that he had to dissect, a fit for his shock jock style. See picture below; here is the complete set.

Dissection

For some reason during Week 6 it was important to me to question Chuckles about his insistence on rules. Not sure why I cared about doing that so much. He did tell me at one point that writers tend to come from one of two backgrounds: journalism or academia. The former are more amenable to rules, he suggested (the miniaturist, Amy Hempel style he prefers). This makes a bit more sense to me now since I’ve sold some journalism pieces and other freelance material; editors want stuff that’s easy-to-read and efficient. But the business mindset shouldn’t overtake art.

Shane Hoversten wrote an amazing story for this final week. It was a farewell story for our class. He included each of us as characters. He imagined me getting drunk at the workshop (I rarely drink), saying stuff about lyrical prose and olfactory sensory details, and passing out. :)

Since the workshop some people have asked me what Chuckles was like as a person. He was reserved compared to our other instructors, who mingled with us more. Probably that was partly because it was his first time to teach at a Clarion; he’s taught at Clarions more since 2008, so I wonder if he socializes more now. He really cared about helping us, and enjoyed teaching. I learned a lot from him.

I’ll write up concluding thoughts about the workshop in Part 9, if I ever get around to it!

Creative Commons License

Clarion West 2008 – Part 8 of 10 by Douglas Lucas is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License. Based on a work at www.douglaslucas.com. Seeking permissions beyond the scope of this license? Email me: dal@riseup.net.

Clarion West 2008 – Part 7 of 10

This post is the seventh in a series of ten about my experiences at Clarion West Writers Workshop (Wikipedia) as a member of the 2008 class. I’ll talk about Week 5 of the workshop, when Sheree R. Thomas (New Book: Shotgun Lullabies; Wikipedia; Blog; NYT piece; NPR talk; Strange Horizons interview) instructed. Here are Parts 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, and 6 of the series. In Part 6 I discussed Connie Willis‘s week (Week 4) and ended by noting my hopes for seeing my Clarionites soon. Indeed, in this post I’ll talk some about the #CW08beach reunion my class held in October 2011!

Sheree attended Clarion West in 1999, a year when, someone said (someone — my notes are unclear), the workshop got intense with pregnancies, people not showing up, manuscripts thrown angrily across the room at their authors, divorces, etc. Clarion’s not really for the faint-hearted; yet, deep-down, writers are faint-hearted folks. So the space station (Clarion West takes place on a secret orbital above Seattle) gets very pressurized.

Happens right here

During her 1999 year, for whatever reason, some students begged Chip Delaney to tell them if they “were” any “good.” Apparently Delaney didn’t want to do that, but eventually acquiesced because his experience as an MFA teacher (if I recall Sheree’s comments correctly) led him to believe it was bullshit to take people’s money for years and just feed them hot air the whole time. Delaney gave students the option of not hearing his opinion. (I’d flip a coin. Because you have to learn not to care.)

Sheree R. Thomas (via)

Early on, Sheree said she wasn’t going to “redline” anybody, because just one person’s opinion doesn’t mean jack, and because there’s no necessary connection between how well someone writes at Clarion and how well they do after Clarion.

How did I do at Clarion West? I wrote two great short stories there (here’s the finished Glenn of Green Gables), one kinda bad story, and grew up a lot, learned stuff. How have I done after? I’ve written 50-something lifestyle/infotainment pieces for CBS News, completed 3 really good new short stories and drafted 5+ more, sold zero of them (though they’ve earned a few Euros through Flattr), and blogged about 100 posts here (also earning a very few Flattr tips). I’m usefully obnoxious on Twitter, where manuscripts don’t fly across the room but subpoenas do; I haven’t earned one yet. It’s all a bit frustrating, though fun. In the time it’s taken me to write these seven posts, I’ve gotten married and am getting divorced; the main payoff of the marriage was growing a spine. Especially now as I live with roommates in a cheap, freezing-cold place that resembles some sort of heavy metal dungeon, and forage for necessary medications like a hunter-gatherer going after berries, I have become downright mean in a way I never anticipated.

Once I wrote this!

Back to Sheree. With the possible exception of Paul Park, she was the most blunt of our instructors, which I thought was great. At “infamous Week 5,” most Clarion classes descend into mayhem. Week 5 took our class and amalgamated it into a giant pile of snuggle. Which mostly was great (see below, our reunion, after all), but the quality of the critiquing by classmates went downhill. Sheree, who’s also a freelance editor, gave me a great tip in our one-on-one conference for getting critiques from people while bypassing the need for them to be any good at giving them. You simply hand them your manuscript and watch their faces as they read it. You see what emotions your story strikes, rather than hear their report about what emotions your story allegedly struck. (Obviously written critiques are useful too, yadda yadda yadda.) We didn’t get to watch Sheree’s face as she read our stories, but we didn’t need to. She was blunt, and appropriately so; one of my favorite instructors there, for sure.

Sheree listed a ton of resources for our class:

Sheree R. Thomas and young person (via)

In response to someone’s story — I forget whose — she suggested the True Porn anthology and the What the Fuck? anthology . She suggested to me Maryse Conde’s novel Crossing the Mangrove and Toni Morrison’s novel Love. When I asked in the one-on-one conference about making secondary characters more autonomous (so to speak), she suggested writing compellingly from the point of view of people who disagree with me would help me create more individuated secondary characters. (Shades of Lacan?)

Week 5 found people guessing about Chuck Palahniuk, the Week 6 instructor, who was the biggest name and biggest wildcard. All the other instructors had either taught a Clarion before or once went to a Clarion themselves — and often, both. But Palahniuk hadn’t done either (though he’s returning to teach in 2012).

Fast forward three years and shift to a sandy orbital above San Diego, where 14 of our 18 classmates showed up for a week-long reunion at a house on (the celestial version of) Mission Beach. That’s more than 75% of the class after three years; that shows some serious bonding. (And our email list is still active.) Our venerable classmate Pam Rentz organized the whole thing — a herculean effort for which we rewarded her with a gift that included a signed picture frame. We all got along really well at the reunion, though the trippy reunion vibe was slightly present, as at all reunions. Same people, but different, but same, so who am I? That kind of thing. We all had dinner together most nights at this huge dinner table. Small groups of us also did some in-person crit sessions, which was really cool.

This place rocked!

What happened there stays there

(Yours truly in black)

Silly as ever!

View from beachhouse! (via Carol Ryles)

You can find more CW08beach reunion pics at Pam’s dropbox.

I’m not sure what to conclude about my writing progress since Clarion West 2008. Though I haven’t finished much fiction, I feel good about my writing overall, but then again, I’m intrinsically an optimist. It’s reassuring to remember Cory Doctorow talking during Week 3 about it taking him several years after his Clarion West student year to finish a lot of fiction. But I don’t have to conclude yet; I still have 3 more posts in this series to go!

Creative Commons License

Clarion West 2008 – Part 7 of 10 by Douglas Lucas is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License. Based on a work at www.douglaslucas.com. Seeking permissions beyond the scope of this license? Email me: dal@douglaslucas.com.

Clarion West 2008 – Part 6 of 10

This post is the sixth in a series of ten about my experiences at Clarion West Writers Workshop (Wikipedia) as a member of the 2008 class. I’ll talk about Week 4 of the workshop, when Connie Willis (Wikipedia) instructed. Here are Parts 1, 2, 3, 4, and 5 of the series. In Part 5 I discussed Cory Doctorow‘s week and ended with a somewhat bizarre dismantling of my psyche. This post is quite the opposite: I brag. Bear with!

“Total exhaustion is the goal,” Mary Rosenblum said, teaching Clarion West during our Week 2, and by Connie’s Week 4 I was totally exhausted; that’s clear to me now as I read over the emails I sent friends and family during that middle of July ’08. In those emails I also now detect a down-on-myself attitude about my fiction-writing, one that I don’t particularly experience anymore (knock on wood). These days I get dejected or grumpy about my fiction-writing at times, of course, but I don’t feel such negativity, pessimism, or bewilderment about the whole process. I have strong confidence in my abilities, and faith that new stories will turn out right eventually, that I’ll be able to revise them into artworks I’m proud of. That confidence is due in part to Wifely Kate, additional and diverse employment experiences, and other factors; but, a huge chunk of it has definitely come from Clarion West. This benefit from Clarion West took a long time to set in; I’ve had to incorporate what all I learned into my writing and my life, and that took me quite a while.

Outside the Clarion West spaceship: replica of Seattle

The additional confidence from Clarion West hasn’t derived so much from the grab-bag of tips I picked up from the instructors or my fellow students (though these have helped!), nor was it any sort of confirming validation that other Clarionites sometimes mention. I gained so much, I think, from the way a Clarion workshop primarily focuses on the process of revision, not creating an ultimate and spotless draft; and, second, making weird friends who accept me for my weirdness-es was an invaluable gift. As Kate puts it, I found my people, my tribe.

About Clarion’s focus on revision — writing and life are pretty much driven by storytelling, or at least by motifs that recur and recur, carrying with them their old meanings and acquiring new ones as they go. I’ll have more to say about how this works when I get to my Week 6 post (the forthcoming Part 8), but for now, the emphasis on revision, the way instructors and fellow students took specific elements of stories and suggested specific changes (with reasons!), gave a real sense that one’s own fiction can work, after all, that the poor draft you wrote does indeed have potential in it. There’s a real feeling of hope there.

Which is why I shouldn’t have been so down on myself. My Week 4 short story was an unfortunately convoluted mystery. I came up with the story from absolute scratch — not even a vague idea of the story before the workshop — which was a specific challenge I’d set myself before arriving at the space station (the Workshop mysteriously floats in orbit over Seattle). In the emails, instead of feeling glad I about actually succeeding at this task I’d set myself, I was all down on how the story didn’t “work.” Well, pretty much no first draft ever works. And, no matter how bungled, the first draft had cool ideas. Why be so negative?

Connie told us it took her eight years of writing before she sold a story; she also asked each of us to tell the group how we started writing. The answers varied; some knew since birth, it seemed, and others were late bloomers. Me? I wanted to be a writer as a kindergartner, but soon switched my hoped-for career to astronaut; in middle school I made up stories often, but then switched to music. When for various reasons I determined a music career was not for me, I tried writing again, and after a few months, maybe even only after a full year, I began to enjoy it. I hope people reading this who are searching for their own directions, whether as a writer or otherwise, come to feel patient with their search. Often — and the psychologist Csíkszentmihályi (gloriously pronounced “Chick-sent-me-high”) makes this point — it can take learning time before you enjoy a career path. For many, beginning to play, for example, tennis (maybe at the behest of a friend) isn’t very fun: all those frustrating, misguided racket swings and terrible serves. But once you can get to where you can actually play not too shabbily, the fun and satisfaction finally starts setting in. If you give up on a career path without giving yourself time to get some basic proficiency, you probably haven’t really tried at all.

Picture stolen from Connie’s website

More about Connie. She’s a frequent master of ceremonies at science fiction & fantasy events, a respected dame in the field. She was one of the instructors who hung around our quarters of the space station in her spare time, answering questions and just visiting. Before I went to the Workshop, I read one book by each instructor; for her I selected Passage. The book was fast-paced and straightforwardly written — and also very moving. Highly recommended. She’s a real expert at plot.

Her advice mostly centered on plot, too. Here are some of her tips I collected; she gave the caveat that her advice was only her advice, that we should feel, like Agatha Christie, free to break any rules.

But I should note first that during Week 4 an anonymous friend sent me a replacement copy of Peter Straub‘s If You Could See Me Now; the copy I brought with me, oddly, was missing a page. I found it helpful to have a book with me that was totally unrelated to Clarion West. Really reading it was impossible, due to the total exhaustion, but being able to dip into a page here or there and disappear from the Workshop was refreshing.

Anyhow: tips from Connie Willis:

  • Connie’s definition of plot: “A constantly surprising chain of events with each new scene turning the story to a new point where the logical occurs, unforeseen by the reader.”

  • Unremitting horror exhausts readers. Use contrast!

  • The perfect title means one thing when you start the story, and by the end of the story, it means another. It should be evocative, it should add something to the story, and it should have both literal and figurative meaning(s).

  • PG Wodehouse claimed a 7500 word story needs two big reversals: one at 1500 words, one at 6000 words.

  • If some things in the story are complicated, make other things simple.

  • Develop a good filing system (for research and ideas, e.g.)!

  • Fix one aspect at a time when you revise.

  • When you read fiction or watch film, look for reversals, raising the stakes (“things get worse”), foreshadowing, climax, dénouement, interior conflict, exterior conflict. Study extensively the books you know well and admire.

Connie also gave us each a critique coupon to snail-mail her along with a short story or novel opening, if we wanted. Finally, a tidbit: in interviews she’s mentioned that when she was very young, she read the fiction section at her local library in alphabetical order. At the space station I asked her how far she made it through the alphabet. I believe her answer was H, that reading Heinlein made her switch to reading all the library’s science fiction.

As I’ve said throughout this series, writing these Clarion West posts induces in me a unique sort of stress that I don’t fully understand; I feel, maybe, as if I’m just not describing the time well enough, not at all portraying just how transformative and wonderful the Workshop was — that these posts are somehow doing violence to a great gestalt from a time that’s gradually starting to feel like long ago. Maybe that’s why I delay these posts: to hang on to my Clarion West experience.

One thing that continues on, however, are my classmates, our relationships. They’re all people I treasure; mostly we keep in touch, sometimes through our email list, sometimes with individual phone calls, even trips here and there.

One way or another, see y’all special Clarionites soon. ;-)

Clarion West Donation Drive 2010: Sponsor Me!

Clarion West, the six-week writer’s workshop I attended in 2008 on a space station in geosynchronous orbit above Seattle, hosts an online donation drive called the Write-a-thon each summer concurrent with the in-person workshop (June 20 – July 30). This year I’m participating in the drive along with many other former students and instructors. Here’s the deal: participating writers pledge to complete a certain amount of work individually; their friends, family, and fans donate whatever amount they choose to Clarion West as a show of support for both the writers and the organization. My goal: “Each of the six weeks I’ll either write a complete, good first draft of a new short story, or finish revising an older, in-progress one.”

I describe my feelings for Clarion West and my background in terms of the Write-a-thon further on my personal Write-a-thon profile page.

The donation drive works on an honor system — but, if you want proof I actually meet my Write-a-thon goals, I’m happy to accommodate you privately pretty much however you see fit. And, no promises, but if you do donate and want a character named after you in one of the stories, let me know that, too, as long as your name isn’t Forrest Gump or Darth Vader; if your name is euphonious I’ll ask the Muse to see if It can work anything out.

Clarion West is a nonprofit organization, and in the United States donations there are tax-deductible, as described on the main Write-a-thon webpage. Remember the organization has to fly the space station, pay the instructors, and so on — a lot goes into making this wonderful workshop happen. Rest assured that it is totally, totally, totally acceptable to donate a mere $5 if you want; $5 times a lot of donors times a lot of writers equals a whole lot of money.

To donate, you can either 1) click the PayPal “Donate” button on my personal Write-a-thon profile page, or 2) send with a note mentioning my name a snail-mail check to:

Clarion West
P.O. Box 31264
Seattle, WA 98103-1264

Thanks everyone, and I really appreciate even a single $5 donation to Clarion West. Let me know if you donate: it’ll make me work harder! Feel free to badger me about my progress towards my Write-a-thon goals, too!