Thursday, July 12, 2001
Well, I'm in a last-minute story sprint tonight. My next story, currently entitled "A Wind Passes Over Him," is due tomorrow at 9 am. It's midnight now. I have some of it done, in longhand mostly, but frankly I don't really have the plot worked out yet. So, naturally, I'm writing a journal entry.
To bring you up to date... "Embracing-The-New" got a generally good reaction. I put the climax scene off-stage, and employed a deus ex machina to save the hero, and there were some infodumps and unclear bits, but mostly people liked it. Octavia said basically "don't screw with it too much." In conference, she told me "Baby Love" is a little implausible, "The Death Trap of Dr. Freezo" is publishable as is, and that I should try a novel soon, set in a world I've dwelt in and played around with in my mind for a while. (I have several of those). Octavia was wonderful, of course: a star of the SF firmament descended to walk among us, with an absolutely clear literary compass, and a sweet person to boot.
Bradley Denton was the second week. He was great: incisive, compassionate, and really hard working (he covered our stories in detailed, scribbled critiques -- not only his week's stories, but Octavia's week's stories and the submission stories as well, which was way above and beyond the call of duty). He said the story in "Baby Love" should really start at the end, when they leave the station, and that in "The Death Trap of Dr. Freezo" the two plots don't hang together and there's no arc. I'm afraid he's right. He also read "The Ant King" in F&SF and he really liked it. The class had lots of intense, open discussions Brad's week during critiques, which I learned a lot from. He had interesting things to say about beginnings, and he presented a fascinating taxonomy of stories (Boy Meets Girl, The Little Tailor, and The Man Who Learned (or Didn't Learn) Better).
My story Brad's week was "Nematode Wiggle", an odd fantasy told in a kaleidoscopic, jivey invented dialect of English and set in a city full of ghosts and superheroes. Some people really liked it, some people found it just plain confusing, and some people thought it was a lot of sound and fury over top of a weak plotline. Brad's excellent advice was to try rewriting it in plain and simple English to get the plot nailed down, then twiddle. I also got very useful practical feedback about portraying controversial issues of race and class and culture from my fellow students.
Nalo Hopkinson was third week. She was witty, wise, generous, and provocative. She gave more lectures than Brad & Octavia had, on things like writing sex scenes, portraying race and culture in fiction, and the business of writing (like how to find and work with an agent). She prizes ambiguity and literary wiggle room more, perhaps, than Brad and Octavia (Brad says "the reader's MINE and I want him to read in the story what I put there!"), which added a useful perspective. We got very into character arc over these first three weeks. That week I wrote "Utopia on Jellyfish", a very ambitious hard-sf story tackling future anarchist-socialist dissidents, First Contact with semi-incomprehensible aliens, a love triangle, a revolt against a totalitarian state, a panoply of future cultures in star system settled by humans, infoterrorism and information as an interstellar commodity in an Einsteinian (no FTL communication) universe, betrayal and espionage, etc., etc. It didn't really work. People liked parts of it, but I was cramming a neat novel-sized backstory that I was just working out into a few thousand words without a clear idea of the plot. The class found much of it incomprehensible, silly, or implausible.
I learned three big things out of this. One is that a story must be built around an emotional core. The first two stories were. This one was a lot of cool ideas with some story stuck in to stitch it together, and it showed. Secondly, people do not start reading with a blank slate. They come heavily influenced by the thousand stories they've read before. If you have people meet aliens, and the people die, the assumption is that the aliens wanted to kill them. If you want it to be an accident, you've got to say so, because that's not the default. If you have revolutionaries using consensus decision-making, people assume they're Marxists. If you want them to be Kropotkinites, you have to say so. Thirdly, any cool window-dressing lying around in the story that people have to figure out, and that doesn't actually serve the story by advancing the plot and illustrating the relevant aspects of the characters' situations or emotional selves, distracts and distances the reader and weakens the story. You can't just make sure stuff is explained, or not mention it. You actually have to throw things out that don't belong to the story, even if that changes your original idea of the events that transpire.
Now we are in the fourth week, with Connie Willis. Connie is a true master, as a writer and as a teacher. Class goes on a longer time because she has so many lectures to give and so much to say about each story, but we love it. She is also a screamingly funny person. She has a tremendous wit and sense of comic delivery. She is lecturing on plot in a much more concrete and practically applicable way than I have ever seen, teaching us about Reversals, Obstacles, Raising the Stakes, and important literary tropes such as the "delayed fuck" (the central plot of romantic comedies). She illustrates these with snippets of movies shown on the classroom VCR. My story tomorrow, God willing, will be a somber existentialist fairy tale with lots of plot (plenty of Reversals). We'll see if it works.
For further details on the lectures, I refer you to Allan's journal, as he is much better about recording these things.
Another thing I learned: colloquial and informal speech are different, and for a lot of readers, colloquial speech in a story evokes a very specific time and place and jars if the story is not set then and there. The notion that the story is translated from some far future or fantastic language into colloquial speech -- which is what I tend to assume automatically -- is not palatable to a lot of readers, including many of my fellow Clarionites.
We are in the fourth week, where we are all supposed to hate each other, but it hasn't happened yet. So I think we are the Nice Clarion.
Lots of rejections came in, and some fan mail and free publicity.
First the good news. Two excellent speculative fiction writers, Campbell Award winner Cory Doctorow and Nebula nominee Pat York, have decided they like "The Ant King". They posted nice things about me on boingboing (search for "ant king" on the page) and sent me fan email. Wow!
I also apparently got some other fan mail through Gordon Van Gelder, which was forwarded to Switzerland.
Now the rejections. Mary Anne Mohanraj says "Droplet" is too hard sf for her erotica collection. No big surprise there. Gordon says "A Siege of Cranes" didn't establish the fantasy world well enough. This is disappointing, as I think it's probably my best work so far, including what I've done here. However, I do understand the objection -- it's critical to set up the rules of a fantasy world, so that the reader can understand the characters' choices in context. I'm not sure "A Siege" does this. On the other hand, I'm not sure I want it to do more explicitly in this direction, since too explicit rule-showing takes the story towards traditional high fantasy and away from fairy tale. I dunno. Should I submit it to Realms of Fantasy as is, while I'm here? Or should I wait and try to revise it yet another time, after Clarion? I feel like maybe I've fiddled with it enough. Email me if you have an opinion.
I also got a rejection for something from The Pedestal. But what the hell was it that I sent? I wish I knew. Why did I leave my submission tracking notebook in Switzerland? So I wouldn't be distracted, I guess. That strategy doesn't seem to be working.
Esther and Aviva are here! Yay! Yay! We have an extra room where we all sleep (so that they can be sleeping now while I am writing journal entries, uh, I mean working on my story). Aviva is a big hit and loves everyone, particularly the class members who have anything dangly or shiny hanging off of them, but everyone really. (Note that off of is a colloquial American expression that you should use in your stories if you enjoy infuriating English speakers from other continents.) She spends a lot of time in people's arms, grinning wildly and mauling their faces and drooling on them. Oddly, they seem to like this.
Pull-ups are not going to happen, but I am playing some basketball.