Freesteel Blog » Clarion 2002

dbomb

East Lansing, Michigan. Summer 2002

Science Fiction in particular

Who needs more fiction when there is the daily news to read? A great deal of the “factual” media publishes what, to an outside observer, would be genre Science Fiction. But the quality is poor. The characters are less than two-dimensional (good vs. evil). The bad ones are never allowed any dialogue to explain themselves. Frequently, when the plot gets into trouble, things disappear for no reason, as if someone lost the pages on which the change happened. And the science itself is wildly inconsistent to the extent that it won’t even stand up to a superficial explanation (see the “Missile Shield” saga for details).


jroom

Seeing my name on the door like this had the same effect on me as an actor seeing his name in lights on Broadway. I’m easily pleased. All 20 of us lived along a fifth floor corridor of Owen Hall in tiny rooms with shared lavatories, one between each pair. I had no problem, but since the toilet was on my side of the bathroom I kneecapped Trent a couple of times with the door when I forgot to knock before entering.

I have been writing my own science fiction stories for fifteen years. But rather than pass them off as literal truth, I have been sending them to Science Fiction magazines where they belong. However, every single one has been sent back or lost in the post over the years. Oops.

The text of this page is my own stream of consciousness on the theme of my Clarion experience. For a fairer overview, there are plenty of day-by-day blogged accounts on the web. This is about my feelings and thoughts. You are advised to stick to the pictures and captions if you need a more structured story.

Clarion is a world renown six week residential Science Fiction/Fantasy writing course held in East Lansing, Michigan, USA every summer. There is one author in residence for each week — six in total. The work is hard, the hours are long, and some people liken this course to a military “boot camp”. There is no room for pretention.

I’m not sure why I write Science Fiction. There’s a process whereby the world gets stranger and stranger the more I learn about it. Writing is my way to make sense. I remember things that don’t fit the pattern, as opposed to only noticing that which does. Lately, I discovered Anarchism. It’s an interesting system of thought because it questions a number of basic concepts, such as money and property, and shows them up for being kind of weird. They are entirely manmade ideas. The important question to ask of them is: “What is their purpose?” If the answer to this comes too easily, you are then required to answer: “Do they serve their purpose well?”



vanhoos

In the dark trophy cabinet of Van Hoosen Hall. this fine award stood beside a massive silver and wood prize for the “Water Carnival” in 1959 where the Hall came fourth place. Be proud of what you achieve.

Science Fiction is what I care about. Not Fantasy. There is a great distinction between the two, although the results might be so much the same that it’s hard to tell them apart. The difference is in the intention, not the written result.

Science Fiction is an attempt to find the truth, Fantasy is deliberate lying. They look the same because you don’t always get at the truth when you try, and a lie sometimes accidentally reveals the truth.

Fantasy literature is only interested in looking good. Two of the six instructors on the Clarion began their week by saying that Science Fiction is the most important genre in literature today. The others emphasised that the quality of the stories and writing was all that was critical. In order to achieve excellence, they asserted, you should avoid bringing to the page your convictions, your beliefs, or your message, because they will only get in the way of producing good pieces of work.

This is probably true. If you can’t produce a good story that sets out to say nothing in particular other than what sounds good, how much more restrictive is it going to be to write one that says something you want it to say?



chairs

This is the room where it happens. The fig trees are plastic and the assistants put out a big spread of coffee and more coffee (but no biscuits) on the table on the left. Trent sometimes contributed a huge pillow case pack of “Lays” crunchy shards, but I wasn’t sure if this stuff was supposed to be eaten or ground into hamster litter.

Here is a classic example of Science Fiction.

Back in 1899 or so, Albert Einstein wrote a story about a train travelling along a perfectly straight railroad very fast. People would walk up and down inside the speeding train shining beams of light forwards and backwards, and out the windows to other observers standing on the embankment. Everyone measured the speed of light in all these cases. The train passengers looked out the window to the side and saw the trees and buildings all squished up by something called the Fitzgerald contraction. The view from the front of the train was blue-shifted, behind them everything was red-shifted. When they arrived at their destination their pocket clocks were running slow.

Now, his story didn’t have a plot, nor did it have good characterization. It probably wasn’t written well. But it could have easily been expanded into a short detective story, say. There’s a murder on this express train where the body is thrown off along carrying a pocket watch. The detective, during his investigation, is given a ride by the conductor and witnesses all these weird manifestations of space-time special relativity. By using the precise equations of time dilation he calculates the time of the crime and uses this informationto crack the case.

High in the sky the sun E=mc^2s matter into photon energy.



alright

The blackboard announced the names of the manuscripts that were going to be reviewed the next day, as well as correcting common spelling mistakes the instructors did not think were alright.

In reality, trains can’t ever travel close enough to the speed of light for passengers to experience these relativistic effects. And anyway if they did the journey would be so short there wouldn’t be time for stuff to happen. In this fictional world we would have to assume that light was travelling at no more than 60 miles per hour. Total fantasy. Pure fictional science. But it’stelling us the truth by putting an important aspect of it within our intellectual reach. Not to say that a more honest story with straightforward equations and Helium atoms zinging out of Uranium isotopes and distant stars receding from the Big Bang is beyond our grasp, it’s simply less interesting and readable at first when you’ve not got the idea.

Meanwhile, Fantasy is just supposed to look true. When I was very young, the older kids in school told me about the scorpions in the woods, how they could kill you with their poisoned tail if you weren’t extra careful when you went outside. Sometimes they climbed into your shoes at night. I had nightmares.



sofar

This is the fifth week. The numbers don’t seem to add up.

But don’t worry, they added. Scorpions have a weakness. If you find a one on the ground all you need to do is tap its back quickly. The scorpion will try and stab your finger with its tail, but it will miss and stab its own back and kill itself.

That’s really clever, I thought, when I was six. I realize now that it’s ridiculous. How could I have believed it? The story exploits and promotes the delusion of superiority that people have, that we are better than bugs. No human can move faster than a bug that is doing its job. Have you ever swatted a fly with your hand? You think you can move your finger faster than a scorpion’s tail? You fool.

Even perceptually, the story makes no sense. Why is a scorpion going to feel something on its own back and then stab itself? If I touch the ground beside it, won’t it stab my finger there too, even though it has no direct sense of touch in the dirt which is not part of its body? Are you telling me that it will only stab things which touch its shell, so it knows where it is, and thus risk suicide every time it uses its tail? Or will it detect my finger with some other sense organ, such as its eyes, and whack it before I get anywhere near its back?

But in Fantasy, none of these interesting problems would arise if, due to our weakness of thought or cultural delusions, we bought the original story. That’s because it’s a fundamentally dishonest genre with no respect for truth of any kind. It’s the source material for salesmanship and populist politics.

trent


In an attempt to break us from the cycle of violence, I mean critting, Trent tried to summarize in five minutes the entire three hundred page textbook on how to construct plot he had read the night before. This could have been over-ambitious.

A Science Fiction story is about some essence of truth that you want to get out. As in Einstein’s train story, it might be necessary for all the rest of physical nature to go to hell as a means to access that truth in a readable form, but what’s important is the lying is done for the right reason. If a writer picked the same universe that had been developed explicitly for a Science Fiction story, used it as background for a far better tale in which there was some heart-wrenching love interest, say, I’d call it a work of Fantasy, even though the bogus science would be exactly the same.
The reason the story is written makes the distinction for me. Such reasons are hard to get at, even for the author, which is why the categories in each case are largely a matter for argument. Due to the limitation of actually setting out to try and say something, Science Fiction literature is normally going to be of inferior artistic quality, and therefore less popular. It’s like the difference between health food and junk food. Junk food is easier to make tasty because it doesn’t matter what the hell you put in it. You are free to add fake flavours of fruit that would do no harm were you to eat the real thing. But raspberries are not always available out of season, so the health-freak won’t get to taste them most of the time.
Since I don’t see a lot of point in writing without having something to express, I am doomed to share the fate of this minor genre, to my personal cost.

“Sounds like what you are proposing is Communism, my friend!”

bday

Every birthday was celebrated traditionally with a fluffy cake squashed almost flat by the weight of gooey icing, or a rectangle of weird ice-cream in Jamie’s case.

On the weekend I arrived in East Lansing, before work began, I quickly wrote a story called The Monoxide Age to avoid all that awkward going around the hallway trying to introduce myself to new people. The “science” in this story arises from an intuition I had about the “Division of Labour”, brought on by reading about 80% of the Anarchist FAQ in the previous four weeks. In capitalist terminology, going right back to Adam Smith, this economic effect is given the name “Added Value”.

[While I was composing this text I handed in my letter of resignation for a programming job I have held for the past nine years. I quit partly for ideological reasons, so I am inclined to analyse my motivations working in depth. Skip to the next section if it gets boring.]

At its heart, Anarchism questions the existence of property. “Property is theft” as Proudhon wrote in 1840. In particular, one of the primary roles of the state is to define the meaning of property and enforce it. According to Anarchism, wealth (whatever that means) belongs to those who create it. If you own an apple tree in a field, but you live hundreds of miles away, and someone else tends it for years, prunes it, picks its fruit; those apples belong to them not to you. You have done nothing. A state that enforces private property will claim that the apples instead belong you, the owner, until you sell them, no matter what. In other words, it enforces the right to live off other people’s work. The police will intervene — not at your expense — to make sure that you get what you are due.



manupile

Collecting the duplicated manuscripts at midday.

In Anarchy, the people who create the wealth own it in the first place. At least for the moment, they always own their own bodies since the leading capitalist states stopped directly intervening to enforce the right of people to own other people (a practice called slavery) less than two centuries ago. Somewhat later they stopped men owning women (in a system called marriage), and adults owning children and sending them up chimneys or down the mine.

Interestingly, this self-ownership of your body does not give you the right to sell parts of it to other people. You cannot sell your “spare” kidney or your blood (except in America), or hire out your womb. You can only give these things for free.

The utopian ideal is that the “wealth creators” — not to be confused, should you be misled, with the people who own the “wealth creators” — are better qualified to distribute their wealth more effectively than anyone else, and in particular the rich. The rich, however, definitely prefer that wealth be distrubuted according to the laws of money. Here is an example. Suppose a medically trained expert, a doctor, is provided with a fixed, liveable stipend based on the number of hours of work she chooses to do. She is not allowed to charge for her services. Faced with a choice of where to work, will she feel free to work in a clinic on the poor side of town treating children and adults against the horror of tuberculosis, or will she prefer to stay in Beverly Hills performing face lifts on sad rich women which she knows will not make them happy? Only if the income is the same for both can her choice be made freely.

Another example. Consider a piano teacher. Would he prefer to teach a talented kid from next door who’s poor, or would he rather work with the daughters of rich parents who aren’t ultimately very interested in music? Certainly the results would be a lot better on the ears if the teacher chose whom to teach rather than have his efforts directed by the tyranny of money. Money doesn’t do anything itself. It doesn’t build houses, you can’t eat it. But the rich will accept it as payment before they allow any workers under their command to do anything for you, such as build houses or grow food. So you need to have it. Of course, the rich will insist that there is no other way to distribute wealth other than by money. They would say that, wouldn’t they? The existence of nationalized health or public schools in countries where the rich think they have “won” the argument simply grates with their message. That’s why they must keep telling us that it would be better if these services were distributed according to money in spite of the clear evidence.



haircut

I had been pulling at my hair too much and it had gotten long. Brendan shaved it outside between sessions, creating the highlight of the week. In other Clarion years, men have shaved off all their hair, put on lipstick and a dress and danced in the rain. No such excitement here.

The Division of Labour is the most important facet of worker control. Suppose a man is hired by a rich company and given a spade to go dig gold. All the gold he finds belongs to the company because he signed a contract and is given a wage. Not that he had much room to negotiate anything different. If the man does not find enough gold to pay for his wages and the cost of the spade, he gets fired. This, apparently, is called “risk and reward”; the company risks a few months wages — for which the man works hard — for as long as it takes to discover whether he, in the economic sense, is good enough at producing the gold. If he isn’t, he’s wasted his valuable time and loses his job.

If he is good at finding the gold and paying his way (ie he digs up more gold than he gets paid, yielding a profit), the company keeps him in his job and takes the surplus for as long as he remains in employment. He is trained to be thankful to them; they are not thankful to him. Sometimes this arrangement lasts for the rest of his working life. (The fact that he might be exchanged for other equally qualified diggers from other companies does not intrinsically alter the picture.) The company has risked a couple of months pay (sometimes very low pay in a condition called “apprenticeship” or “on the job training”) for a lifetime of free profits.

Economists define something called a “market” to justify this somewhat uneven risk and the reward balance. Because there is a “market”, they say, the risks and rewards are balanced by definition, so we need not question what’s going on any further because that would bring up messy concepts such as “power”, and notable examples of companies operating on a great deal of profit, and hence not taking any risk, actually cutting their workers’ wages to maximize their own rewards. In these examples, economists explain, the risk for which this enormous reward is justified was taken twenty-five years ago when, say, the company’s founder set it up from his back bedroom and shortly afterwards made his first sale (thus ending his brief experience of “risk”). It’s absolutely laughable that people take this kind of reasoning seriously. In capitalism, it isn’t risk or productive work that commands reward, it’s power. Nothing else.



frisbe2

Evening frisbee in the grass in the courtyard of Van Hoosen Hall. The instructors (visiting authors) were given two room apartments in this area. They had kitchens and could cook their own food.

Our gold digger is free to spot the trend, if he has not been sufficiently well “educated” in the proper way that business functions, he’ll likely say “Hell with this”. He quits, gets his own spade (if he can afford it) and digs his own gold without the need of a boss to help themself to his wealth and freedom.

How do you avoid this problem (if you own the company) of people realizing that you aren’t doing anything useful for them apart from bossing them around and taking away as much as you can get away with? The trick is to divide the labour. Instead of having one man (or even two men) going out with their spades, deciding where to dig and finding the gold, separate the jobs. One guy sits in an office with a map, occasionally going to the field to inform himself. His job is to decide where to dig. This takes brains, it is said. He writes down his suggestions, passes them to the boss who then commands the second guy, the labourer, where to go digging. The labourer takes no part in the decision about where to dig (“you’re not paid to think, sunshine”), and is discouraged from having an opinion, except in his most humble voice to his boss. It’s not worth it, being a smart, so he becomes stupid.



<food

Leslie What (week three) took pity on us and arranged a big home-made pizza evening with fresh chopped ingredients. I did the pineapple.

Now, the two employees are still creating all the wealth between them with no sustained input from the owner, who is entitled to call all the profit her own until the end of time. Her working contribution (going to banks, setting up accounting practices, etc.) can never be paid off. In fact, the more profit she gets, the more she is owed, since she is in a position of power. She does do work, of a sort, but it is primarily directed towards maintaining her privileged position. Only coincidentally does this activity turn out to be generally productive. But it doesn’t have to be.

Divided as they are, the planners tend to be coddled and given an easy time as well as the benefits of promised ownership in the future. The labourers are mistreated and made to be stupid. Together, they, the workers as a whole, find it more difficult to realise that between them they are paying off an infinite debt to those who are called the owners. They are divided and ruled.



styro

This is Brendan enjoying Owen Hall cafeteria food. There are signs saying you can’t refill your styrofoam coffee cup from the pot once you’ve drunk from it for reasons of hygiene (and styrofoam sales). I ate soup from the reusable bowls at first until I experimented and proved that the styrofoam ones they gave had more volume. It takes real talent to make a salad bar as unappetising as they have managed. The cost was part of the problem, hard boiled eggs being particularly poor value when buying by weight. The solution is to hide several at the bottom of your soup bowl before covering them up with the cheaper soup.

The owners and their economic servants (who so favourably “balanced” the equation of risk and reward for them earlier in order to justify their permanent position of authority as owners of the company which they happened to found) do not see production or “wealth accumulation” as a result of work divided into compartments into which people are put. They see people as falling into these separate compartments, or job specifications, naturally, in the first place. They say, there are people who prefer to sit in an office and work with maps, planning what to do but never going out and doing anything about it. There are also people who are stupid and just want to dig, they don’t care where and they don’t care what they find, gold, worms, whatever.

Luckily, there are these geniuses called entrepreneurs who are able to go out in the world and organize this chaos. They find guys fiddling with maps but not getting anything done, they find other guys digging holes in the ground and not finding anything, and they organize the two to work together. Suddenly there’s gold and money being produced. Fancy that. This organization enabled the wealth to emerge. It is called the owner’s “Added Value”. It’s so valuable that it can never be paid off.

In time, the owner expands his company and brings more workers into her organization. In a mature business, most of his “Added Value” is provided by keeping wages low, hours long, sacking difficult people and busting all forms of union activity likely to question the system and its authority.



suck

The lack of sleep is not only due to overworking. Owen Hall arranges its garbage collection at six in the morning three times a week, and the drains get sucked out with the engine screaming at full throttle at 3:30 in the morning outside the bedroom windows.

The owner capitalists are pleased with their contribution to society because a divided labour (which in the extreme case gives us the manufacturing production line) is more productive, not just because working conditions can be made lower, but because in some real examples it is more efficient. They take credit for imposing systems of manufacture which people would never have thought of themselves, because we are too stupid. I mean, without these entrepreneurs to help us out, we wouldn’t have worked out that it’s quicker to have one guy in the apple tree passing apples down to someone on the ground than each of us climbing up and down the tree separately. Capitalists also arrogantly, contrary to the evidence, take complete credit for the development of high technology, all basic medicine and drug treatments, the establishment of transportation systems, and the very existence of popular music.

It’s easy to be deluded by the authority of people with power. In my own trade, computer programming, companies are habitually dividing the work into departments of Specification, Design, and Coding. The results have uniformly been disastrous. But unless the company divides the work like that, the programmers will quickly question the managers’ right to rule. Therefore they don’t want it to be organized efficiently. It might put them out of a “job”. They will do anything to wreck a system before it can demonstrate that is able to function without them.



toblue

You gotta get out of those rooms because they were too small to work in in social groups.

I put these insights into the story I wrote on the first weekend. There was a secondary plot exploring the conclusion of the capitalist system. Socialism is supposed to lead to everyone having equal wealth and opportunity (and capitalists would like you to believe this means equally poor, usually by citing the poorest countries who have adopted versions of it and comparing them unfairly to rich capitalist countries rather than to other poor countries that have adopted capitalism themselves and become even worse off). No one asks what capitalism is supposed to lead to. They try and tell you it’s a dynamic system, but power flows to those who are wealthy, and wealth is easy to come by for those who are powerful. The two feed from one another. So, assuming there are no blunders or rank stupidity, one person will eventually wind up owning the whole world. As in the game of Monopoly. That’s what must happen if the system works as it should.

In my fictional world, capitalism had been successfully extended to the global environment (a process in which the Kyoto Protocol with its privatization of the atmosphere is but the beginning) and there are six businessmen stock traders left in an underground bunker with steadily depleting resources of food and oxygen. The outside world is a dead, polluted wasteland. But the capitalists are continuing to play their futile trading game because that’s how the food and air are allocated in the bunker. Anyone who goes bankrupt is put outside to die.



“Why are we playing this game any longer?” Andrews asked. Berke and John Johnhead glanced at one another knowingly across the dinner table. Akiwande Livingston was in his room as usual, working to win. “It’s not doing us any good.”
“What do you suggest we do?”
“We could just quit and share out what little we have till we all die. You know, just live a little and enjoy each other’s company.”
Berke took his cigar out of his mouth and rubbed his moustache. “Sounds like what you are proposing is Communism, my friend.” He winked at Johnhead.


This final line was repeated at me loudly and often for the first two weeks at Clarion. I made an effort to tone down the politics in subsequent submissions.

My crits of other people’s stories, for which I got well known, often objected to plots, characters or conflicts hinging on emotional attachments to cats or babies. Babies in particular got on my nerves. In my opinion, in a crisis situation, a baby should be dumped first. They are easily replaceable, quick to grow, totally useless and carry no information useful to survival in the way that an eighty year old granny would. If you were landed behind enemy lines with a baby and a dog, it would be curtains for the baby straight away. You would not hold up an emergency convoy just because a baby fell overboard. Maybe if it was some sort of prince’s baby and you could get a lot of money for it, you’d keep it. But that’s the point, it’s value in a difficult situation is nothing more than social. When you are trapped behind a gate with a pack of wild dogs coming down the hill after you, a good set of bolt cutters has somewhat more than a social value. It’s useful.

My other common crit centred on the story of the flying cows. Space travel is a common event in many SF/Fantasy stories, and maybe my crit is that people won’t use candles to light their way on a space station. There’s sometimes a certain consistency of technology problem. You can’t say that a bunch of cows in one field invented machine technology and worked out aerodynamics enough to build an airplane to take them to the next field (or planet), where they promptly forgot everything and don’t even retain lawnmowers to cut the grass or the means of fixing painful and infected teeth. Many SF/Fantasy stories I have read are set on a different planet but make no apology for the necessary post-travel collapse of technology. Looking through the Turkey City Lexicon, this crit probably files under the “Second-order Idiot Plot”: the story functions only if everyone in the whole world is an idiot. But nearly everything can be put in that bin.


The Clarion Process

bluenote

Most of us would stoke up on some sickly sweet coffee-themed three dollar drink and do our work here in the Blue Note Cafe. Sadly, the computer I got given by the University had batteries that ran down after half an hour, so I scribbled on paper.

The process is quite simple. It’s repeated four times a day, five days a week for six weeks. Nothing else is structured. It’s a skill learning exercise, rather than a prescriptive course. A prescriptive course would be like learning how to fix a car. The first week the instructor would show you how to change the wheel and be nice to customers. The second week you’d go over the problems with the engine, and so on.

This skill, the skill of writing Science Fiction, was taught as if it was falling out of a tree. One at a time, each student would be hoisted by a crane on top of a tree of their choice. Everyone would gather round and watch the student fall out of it. They’d get badly hurt. It was obvious how that happened. For example, they’d catch their ankle in a branch and swing their skull against the trunk. Or they lunged for a branch to break their fall, but it was dead and their fall broke it. You’d point this out to the wrecked heap on the ground, how they could have fallen better, more gracefully, without risking injury. If, however, they managed to land on their feet in one piece, you’d say that was pathetic. They should have tried a bigger tree.



manu

And this is what you get back. A pile of 21 manuscripts that have all been scrawled on to sort through.

You’d learn from others. You’d learn by doing it yourself once a week. Over the course of the six weeks your tree falling performance would get worse and worse as you got battered around, arms broken, eyes gouged out. You’d learn more than you’d ever imagined about falling out of trees. You might not learn how to do it any better.

On average we’d manage to write one story per week each, so twenty sessions for twenty people made it pretty even. Twenty-one copies of each of four manuscripts were distributed at lunchtime (19 students, one for Lister, the course director, and one for the instructor/writer in residence). We took the afternoon and evening to mark them up with whatever we wanted to say. In the morning we sat in a circle. Each person in the circle (excluding the person who wrote the story) would have two minutes to say what they could without interruption (hopefully without repeating too much of what had already been said) before moving on to the next person. We used an electronic egg timer to keep time. The visiting author then got to have his or her say for as long as they liked. Finally, the person who wrote it was allowed to speak for the first time. Up till then they had to keep their mouth shut. By adhering to this strict procedure, the information is got across with minimal risk of degenerating into a slanging match.

Probably due to huge size of the crit group, you could get more personal about your comments. The word “personal” is refering to the reader, not the writer. In a crit group of four, say, you’re trying to guess what is publishable and make comments from such an assumed perspective in an attempt to filter out what you think are your quirky tastes. In a big group you can say exactly what you personally feel about the story because you are part of a representative sample and have a duty only to represent yourself and nobody else.



libra

All stories that have gone through the Clarion process are archived in the special collection of the library. In later years, when graduates get famous, you can go along and see how bad their earlier writings were.

Then we’d have a break for a few minutes, for coffee, pee and going outside. The day began at nine and finished at lunchtime. Hardly anyone missed a session in six weeks. We’d paid for this.

My second story was also a good one. The best part of the crit was Terry Bisson reading out the title as “Mahn the Prahms” with his wide southern accent. Otherwise, he said that the problem with it was it didn’t have a plot. So it goes.



Publish or be damned

whatread

East Lansing has two unbelievably good second hand book shops. That’s two more than in Cambridge, England. To show us what they can do, each visiting author did a reading in the “Archives” book shop during their week, except for Tim Powers and Karen Joy Fowler. I’m not sure what was their excuse. The author’s latest books are showcased (in rip-off hardback format) in the end case by the door. Suspiciously, none of their works are for sale on the second hand shelves, though I’m probably being paranoid.

By the third week I wasn’t writing enough. I padded it out by tossing one of my submission stories, Pig Mother into the manuscript box. The submission stories are what you send with the application form to get into Clarion. I had also applied in the year 2000, but got rejected. I’d also applied to Clarion West (a clone of the Clarion course that is based in Seattle) this year and failed. I’ve never understood why no one has published this particular excellent story.

I’ve been discouraged for a long time. During week three I decided to start talking to people about plots and ideas before writing the story. I should have been doing this all along. We all should. That’s what we’re there for. Out of an intense defence of a rather shoddy idea came Run Canyon Run, a tale about a form of life which carves genetic information on rocks for subsequent generations to read. This was the good one. Everybody loved it. Except for the writer in residence, Geoff Ryman, and the visiting editor, Patrick Nielson.

Hmm.

To get published the only thing that counts is making something which an editor likes. If everyone else who then reads it thinks it’s crap, it doesn’t matter. They’re fools. They bought the magazine and they wasted their time reading it. I often feel like one of those fools after paying to see yet another of those crap blockbuster movies. I don’t really think Science Fiction editors are anywhere near the category of Hollywood producers, but technically no one else has a say in what gets published.



racoon

Along the river behind Van Hoosen is a nature reserve. This year there was an undersupply of mosquitos and we hardly got bitten.

There is one other structured part in the Clarion course in addition to the 120 repetitions of the critique cycle. It was a forty minute to an hour one-to-one interview with each visiting author. That’s a twenty hour commitment by them during the week in addition to reading all the stories, thinking of something useful to say, eating and getting some sleep.

What’s to say in an interview? You can listen to personal praise or damnation for what they have read of your writing (but that should have already come out in public in the critique circle). You can have a general conversation on subjects like: What’s it like to be a writer? Oh, it’s a hard life. You’re telling me? For our next trick we’ll complain about the quality of Owen Hall food to a tramp on the street who hasn’t eaten in a week.

Or you can try to make something of it by taking along a specific question. For example, this submission story of mine, Pig Mother, which is short, tight, has a couple of ideas I’ve never seen before in the literature and uses modern, hard science; why can’t I get it published anywhere?

Naturally, I knew the answers I was going to get, and could counter-act them. But I was vainly hoping to shake something new up. Most people in the writing business think of the market as stretching from high paying top end publications, right down to low end useless webzines that don’t pay anything and nobody reads. They say, I don’t know, maybe you’re pitching it in too high a market. Why not aim it a little lower? Don’t go too low or you’ll get it somewhere you don’t want it. And that would be a waste. You’ve got to have standards.



barbe

Lister sets fire to the burgers at his house. It’s sunny nearly every day, so we brought our own rain.

I thought so too for the first ten years, but then I began challenging this hypothesis: that you can take any serviceable story and pitch it right down into the low end of the market as necessary, and get it published somewhere. I proved this idea is false. At least it is for an unknown writer. It might be true for a known writer because the self-appointed editors down at the bottom of the barrel feel so unloved by the people at the top that the magic of the name for them will overcome any stink that rises from a particular story that they have been sent by a famous person.

So what I was really asking was: Why can’t I get this story, which was good enough to get me accepted into Clarion, published in a magazine that is beneath your consideration? In other words, it was a question about something they couldn’t know. Like asking: Why does my mother not like this story?



waterf

Afterwards, people cooled off with a waterfight. Note: the two assistants are taking a break from putting out the coffee and photocopying manuscripts for us. They are making water balloons for us to throw at each other.

In truth there is no bottom end of the publishing market in the way that there is, say, a bottom end to the market for tomatoes. When tomatoes are rotten and squishy you can still feed them to cattle or the compost. The editors at the bottom of the market are aspiring to be like the editors at the top. They might in fact be better editors, but they are locked into circumstances. They are often even more strict in their opinions about what they want, making their magazines a tougher market to crack should you not happen to agree with those opinions. Story quality is multi-dimensional. If you set your story on a tangent that passes through that space occupied by Analog, and it falls short (or doesn’t, but gets tossed anyhow because the first word was wrong), it may not be that it passes through any other magazine’s sphere of demand at all, and you’re completely out of luck.



knight

A small selection of Lister’s knives. You’d think he’d do his display justice by hanging the Bayeux Tapestry behind it to cover the wallpaper.

Not that we took the conversations this far. We got onto other subjects. I talked about the prologues with Tim Powers. You find these in SF and Fantasy books more than in other genre. Many such novels begin in the normal world at the start of the narrative, and move into the fantastic halfway through. It’s natural to tell stories that way. The prologue is a little fragment of the fantastic episode brought forward to the front to warn or promise that this is what is going to happen.

Patrick, the editor in residence in the fifth week, gave me an interview too. I think it was a shock to discover that an editor is a human being, not some document shredding machine in the basement mailing out nasty letters in prepaid envelopes. At best I imagined editors to be snowed under mountains of slush pile having to skip-read so fast that they were unable to follow the intricate plots or experience the well-rounded characters in my stories. With my style, the skip-reading was self defeating, I speculated, because were I to spread out my plots and draw out the characters more plainly so that someone skipping every other paragraph could make sense of it and not throw it away on the first reading, they’d decide it was too simple on the second.



dome


Michigan state capital dome in downtown Lansing. You can get there by bike following the river that runs through the campus downstream to the zoo and then up along another river walk on which the relative distances from the sun of the nine planets, from Pluto to Mercury are marked by wooden posts.

(Actually, this dumb theory has some factual evidence. Some of my stupidest, most trivial and waste of time stories have received the most complimentary rejections — the editor had to read it a second time to check it out before tossing it. And one time an editor wrote back an email saying that the plot was full of holes and listed some of them. I wrote back and filled in the holes by taking excerpts from the story I’d sent him, whole paragraphs which he can’t have seen or he wouldn’t have asked those questions. He admitted that maybe he hadn’t read it too well, but still wouldn’t take it. You can lead a manuscript to water, but you can’t make it sink.)

We ran out of things to discuss, Patrick and I. He said, Maybe I ought to read one of your other stories, and I can come up with some ideas.

Right, I said to myself heading back to my room. I’ll get him one of my really good ones. That’ll teach him, since he’ll read it beyond the first five lines that most editors often say publically is all it takes to get your story flipped from the slush into the trash.

I went through my disk of unpublished work, and you know what? There were good ones there anymore. I was sure there were at least six top-quality potential Hugo winners there last time I looked. Where the hell did they disappear to? I was thrilled. It was my first evidence that Clarion was changing something that needed to be changed in me.




The tail end

mafia

Group hypnosis? No, a game of Mafia during the night. Jason, with his eyes open, is mafia.

My final two Clarion stories were disasters. But I was getting worn out, as were we all. Six weeks of awful food and little sleep or exercise was doing me no good. My attempt at interesting people in baked potato dinners (using the microwaves in the rooms and getting in lots of interesting toppings) did not take off. I bought a pair of rollerblades, which were good for getting around the campus and to the Blue Note Cafe. Central Michigan is flat farmland. There’s nothing in Lansing. East Lansing is essentially a strip development that sprawls for miles along the highway. There’s plenty of fast food and shopping malls. I did keep my vow not to set foot in a car for the duration of the course. Clarion owns three old bikes. The furthest you need to go is to Lister’s house for the barbeque, and that’s about six miles through suburbs.



settlers

The ever popular game of Settlers of Catan. This was played in preference to drinking beer. Give me a sheep!

By the end of the course I’d made twenty good friends, some less scary than others, but all surprisingly well-adjusted. I’d share an apartment with any of them. I don’t feel that if you picked twenty random Science Fictions fans from a convention you’d get quite such a standard of sociability.

I totally missed, until the fifth week, the existence of the virtual Clarion on Dierdre’s web page, where people were blogging and being read by some sort of outside community. One can be ignorant of many things one ought to have noticed. That parallel virtual world was an interesting phenomenon.

One idea that didn’t quite happen in the final week, but should have, was one of those group writing exercises. What are they called? The sort where you go round a room and each person adds a new paragraph? The result is often quite funny. Since Clarion West was happening at the same time, and online, we could have organized to run one of these, bouncing back and forth between the two groups by email until everyone had contributed to a 40 paragraph story.



push

Sunday afternoon underwater hockey. There were so few students around over the summer that they could have a game only when Lena and I turned up. Lena hadn’t even snorkelled before, but was outscoring me by the second game. Some people find everything easy to master.

Also, outside of the curriculum, Ron organized Saturday evening readings of our own past work. We’d sign up for a day on his door and then agonize over what to read. Standing up in front of an audience really concentrates your mind on finding something that isn’t crap. So the standards were pretty high. If they’re not, you can always have another drink and wait for it to finish.

It remains to be seen what I have learnt overall. I’ll wait for my wounds to heal before I see whether I’m any better at falling out of trees, or even writing.

Becka arrived on the train on the final Friday. We stuck around for the weekend party, which was the 35th Anniversary Clarion reunion, and we were invaded by a whole bunch of unfamiliar people. I’m not entirely sure what would make me want to go to a reunion like that, especially in East Lansing. I don’t believe in reunions. They remind me of the story of the man who said he couldn’t cross the same river twice, because it wouldn’t be the same river, and he wouldn’t be the same man. What I anticipate is that I will sometimes attend the same science fiction conventions as a group of my classmates, and we will form one of those annoying, impossible-to-break-into affinity groups within the community that make it so hard for outsiders to have as much fun as the people who are already there. I’ve done that and seen it before. These structures are important to recognize. There is no such thing as an individual.

Becka and I left by train on Sunday night for Salt Lake City, passing through Omaha, where Trent lives. He’d driven home alone the day before, but we hadn’t worked this out until I read the complete journey time table.



Links

Julian Todd 9/2002.


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