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Clarion Report, Week Three

Clarion Report, Week Three

This is the halfway point. More fatigue, in all of us. People are staying up late to write, read and critique. Since arriving at Clarion I have written more than 17,000 words of fiction (2,100 of them today) and more than 23,000 words of critique.

I love La Jolla; hummingbirds feed outside my window when I’m writing. And although my fellow students are beginning, some of them, to bellyache about the food at the Canyon Vista cafeteria, I still think it’s fine.

Our Week Three instructor is the crime novelist Robert Crais, who has the build and energy level of an athlete, and his story comments are peppered with baseball imagery.

When Holly was here, she brought wry humor, affection and discipline. When Larissa was here, she brought sincerity, calm, intellect, a political conscience and a deeper sense of meaning. What Bob brings, more than anything else, is passion. Not to say that his critiques aren’t devastating and jaw-droppingly insightful, but his enthusiasm for this project, for Clarion in particular, radiates off him in waves. Unlike Holly and Larissa, he was a Clarion student himself, and also unlike them, he’s never taught here before. So he carries fond memories and a sense of gratitude about what Clarion did for him, and a burning desire to pass it on to us. He presented us with a Gene Wolfe’s "Things I Know For Sure About Writing" (my favorite: Never name a character Fred), which Wolfe presented to him 34 years ago, and gave advice that he said he first heard from Kate Wilhelm. He tells us stories of Stan Robinson and Greg Frost from days gone by. It’s like being part of the "unbroken chain."

I may have mentioned this before, but each week’s instructor gives a reading at the Mysterious Galaxy bookstore in San Diego, usually on Wednesday. Bob, because he’s so well-known, drew a huge crowd of enthusiastic fans; he made a point, before the reading, of talking all about Clarion, and introducing all of us. The fans applauded us, which was very nifty.

When I hear Bob crit a story, I want to kick myself in the butt and try harder on my own crits. He sees things I never saw, but which, when he points them out, are obvious. Also he goes through the stories moment-by-moment, commenting on the integrity of the characters and the responsibility of the author. "You didn’t do your job on this page," he might say. "You cheated because you didn’t want to deal with it."

As another new development, Bob actually assigns homework. We were asked to come up with 20 opening sentences for stories, then (later) decide which were the three best (and why), and to take those three and make an opening page out of each one. I did it for two of them, and for some reason, they both wound up sounding like Robert Sheckley. Go figure. He also asked us to come up with lists of 40 kitchen-related words (20 nouns and 20 verbs), and (separately) to compse a graphic sex scene between two characters who knew each other well. Then, in class, he told us to take a particularly graphic passage from the sex scene, replacing all the body parts (or other sexual nouns) with kitchen nouns from the list, and all the verbs with kitchen verbs from the list. We then read them aloud. The result was pretty hilarious. (And, yes, there was a writing lesson behind it.) My own favorite line from my substituted kitchen porn: "She waited before folding her tahini, because she knew he loved seeing the moment when it emulsified."

He’s also had oceans of experience in novel publishing, short story publishing, television writing, television production, screenwriting. He knows the business(es) inside and out, and has oodles of advice to give.

Today (Saturday) was Bob’s last day here. Last night he gave us a party, with yummy take-out food and all the drinks you could want. (Holly’s bottle of Laphroig was still here; lord, it’s enough to turn anyone into an alcoholic.) Kim Stanley Robinson arrived, but we’ve seen very little of him since this morning; he and Bob, old buddies who haven’t seen each other for five years, have been closeted away together all day, presumably discussing (inter alia) us.

Tomorrow eleven of us are going to see Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince; Bob says he can’t make it, but I haven’t had a chance to ask Stan yet. Two of our married students are off-site seeing their spouses, and will miss the movie — but I doubt they mind.

I had meant to post some of the best writing advice we’ve had from the instructors. Let me paraphrase some of it:

  • From Holly:

    • If there’s nothing (or nothing important) at stake for the character, then there’s no reason for the character to care about the outcome — and therefore no reason for the reader to care either.
    • In a science fiction or fantasy story, there must be a human plot (i.e., a plot in which something of personal importance to the character happens) in addition to whatever fantastical or "cool idea" plot is going on. The end of the world isn’t nearly as compelling as a threat to the protagonist’s child.
    • Names can’t stand in for characters; we need to know them
    • When multiple readers are able to arrive at wildly different readings about what a character is doing or thinking, it’s because the author has not put enough into the character for the reader to see. Take back control.
    • Self-awareness (emotional honesty, not rationalization) can make even bad guys sympathetic


  • From Larissa:

    • Every sentence should do work. If a sentence is only doing one thing for the story (i.e., only giving information or only describing action) then it’s not working hard enough. Nothing should be in there that doesn’t advance either the plot, the character, the theme, or preferably, all three.
    • Raising older, more caricatured versions of racism, sexism, homophobia, etc. allows the reader to imagine that he is somehow superior to, and immune from, the more subtle, insidious, modern forms of these phenomena.
    • Speculative fiction allows you to tell the truth with no pretense of transparency. This is an advantage when "transparency" creates a social demand that what you say be true for everyone of your race/sex/orientation, etc.
    • There is a fine line between classic and cliché.
    • The author has a responsibility to language: while intention is part of the equation, such things as unintended associations and connotations may ultimately be more important than the thing intended.


  • From Bob:

    • It is the writer’s responsibility to make choices. It is unfair to make the reader do it for you. Don’t leave the reader wondering what happened.
    • When there is a plot-hole or a problem, acknowledging the problem in the body of the text may allow you to use the problem as its own solution.
    • Detail is a killer of action.
    • The writer must touch the part of him/herself in each character, if the reader is to sympathize with that character at all. Be there in the moment with your characters; feel what they feel.
    • Research enriches everything you write.
    • The writer’s words are not precious; what’s precious is what the reader has when s/he’s finished reading. What you write does not even exist until someone reads it; then the two of you — writer and reader — collaborate to create something that is unique to the two of you.
    • Stories are arcs, instead of straight lines, because there are forces pushing the character away from his or her preferred direction.
    • Anytime a character says, "My memory is hazy," that’s the writer cheating because s/he doesn’t want to deal with the thing that’s being glossed over.
    • In either a novel or a short story, you have no more than 1,000 words in which to establish what the problem is.

I have not mentioned how often, or how hard, we laugh here. If, as they say, a good belly-laugh is good for your immune system, I’m not going to get sick for five years. Critique sessions are often filled with hilarity, because of weird and delightful things people say in their critiques. We’ve actually been taping construction paper with crayon-scrawled quotations from the crit sessions on our common room wall, but here are some samples:

  • "I was looking for the Heart of Darkness in this story, and I found maybe the Gallbladder of Darkness."
  • "What is the planet’s motivation?"
  • "I confirm that you have followed the established rules for crazy space zombies."
  • "There are a lot of self-absorbed pricks in literature."
  • "What’s up with these crazy cyborg monsters? Why do they keep coming into town and buying jam?"
  • "How do super-people break up? Do they take their stuff out of each other’s Fortresses of Solitude?"
  • "It feels like a ham sandwich talking to a duck."

See you all next week.

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