Tag Archives: Connie Willis

Writing & The Process

I recently had what can only be classified as a brain fart. I’ve been working on several stories. Sometimes this involves a simple idea, or maybe a what-if. Sometimes it involves an image. In this case I have one to do with elephants and monkeys and a primate researcher. The other has to do with a physicist and cats (no not Schrodinger).  The first came as a combo of someone I know and of reading about a third type of elephant, after African and Asian.

So, okay, I started thinking about the elements of the story, what is the conflict and what each character brings to it. I always believe a story is better if it has an internal and an external conflict. The protagonist must battle something (the elements, a person, a culture, a creature) as well as something within themselves. They may win both conflicts. They might win only one, and they might lose both, as often happens in horror stories.

As I started to write my monkey/elephant story, I kept stopping and ruminating. This isn’t uncommon for me. Some stories fly through my fingers, unwinding in one long skein of imagery and action. Others are like an old car that putts along, then coughs and stops, then starts again. These stories take way more thinking time than writing time and I have too many that sit half finished because I ran into a conflict/resolution issue.

I recently had to write an erotic story for an anthology. Stuck for an idea, I asked my Facebook friends. It’s interesting to see that most people will interpret a request for an idea differently. I elaborated and said I needed  a story idea, meaning something that has a conflict and a resolution. What I often received was atmosphere and setting. A setting is not a story; it is merely background. So, if you say, what if you had a world where people floated upside down and ate by way of umbilical cords that they attached to plants? Okay, but what happens that brings out a story, that makes this world integral to the plot?

I was still grateful to my friends. After all, they’re not writers and it’s not their jobs really to give me my plots. And mostly they didn’t. They gave me ideas though; images, events, settings. From those I was able to pull out a plot that did involve some of the imagery offered. That’s also why some of my stories sit unfinished, because I had a cool idea about a world or maybe even a situation, but no idea what to do with it.

This brings me back to the brain fart. Many stories take months to write because of working out the idea. Some people can write them out in point form. I tend to often imagine the story unfoldng, write a bit, then unfold a bit more because characters and events change when I write them down. In this case my brain hit a wall. I forgot how to write. Suddenly I didn’t know how to write a story any more. How do you order the words? How do you progress a story? What is the structure of a story? It’s like I had forgotten how to talk. So finally I asked a writing friend, confessing my bewildering amnesia. What makes up a story? She said simply, “Beginning, middle and end.”

Okay, that is the most basic aspect, plus conflict or plot. But, I said, how do you get there? And I realized as I asked these questions that it wasn’t that I didn’t have a plot. I do. It wasn’t that I didn’t have conflict and resolution. I do. In fact, I pretty much have the skeleton of the story, the bones upon which I must lay the words. I realized what had stalled me somehow was that I couldn’t figure out which scenes were needed to progress the story forward. Which scenes are integral to making the story work, showing the character’s inner conflict, showing the world in which she lives? When I finally realized that, I felt I could move forward again. I had remembered how to write.

That doesn’t mean the story is done…yet. I’m still working out the scenes, still doing checks and balances to figure out the right emphasis, and will the story convey the emotion I want. If I do it well, I’ll sell it. If not, it will wander the lanes of the markets for a while or a long time. Of course I could also have done it right but may not be a big enough name to sell the story. That happens a lot (and more in these tough times) to many writers. But if it doesn’t sell in two to three submissions to markets, I’ll start to look at it again and again and again.

I remember Connie Willis once saying she’d rewritten a story forty-seven times (or some such number). There are others that say, move on to a new story. But I can identify with Connie. There are stories I have rewritten so often that I don’t actually know how many times. But I also have new stories to write and they’re like buds waiting to open. Right now I can count at least five stories in different stages of thought (and two of those partially written). Then I want to write a steampunk story but have no idea at all yet.

And hopefully I’ll remember how to write; the basics at least and have a beginning, middle and end to each of my stories.

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Writing: Clarion Daze

I’m soon to embark on the second major writing workshop of my career. I attended Clarion West in Seattle lo, these many years ago. Clarion was a six-week workshop with a different instructor per week: five authors, one editor. I still think it was a stellar cast of instructors that year: Ed Bryant, Octavia Butler, Connie Willis, Ursula Le Guin, Tappan King and Samuel Delaney.

There were 21 of us attending from all over the US and three from Vancouver, BC. You arrived with a story written, ready to critique. Each day we would critique three people, then go back to the dorms and write and read stories for the next day. We were supposed to produce a story a week for critiquing.

Ages ranged from fresh out of high school to a couple of people in their forties. People came with all levels of ability though all of us had made the selection process. I knew I had a lot to learn and if we were all standing on a ladder, I was beneath most of the other people. But in the process of that six-week course I climbed a long way up the ladder. There were those above me who climbed maybe only a few inches. There were those who didn’t move at all.

Connie Willis gave us humor, Ed Bryant gave us horror. Tappan gave the realities of publishing and Chip talked about the novel format. Octavia and Ursula were a wealth of insight and information. Of course they all taught the process of writing and story structure as well. I think I was the second most prolific person and did write a story a week, if not more. I also got by on four hours of sleep a night for six weeks and felt like I was close to having spontaneous out of body experiences. I can say that things became jittery and I was drinking Pepsi regularly and I don’t really drink pop.

We did let some of our stress out with a massive water fight that soaked the dorm, with a few people like Gordon Van Gelder being tossed in the shower. After that (or maybe it was the culmination) we had everything from water pistols and weenies to Uzis, and would skulk down the street with a water weapons, laying in wait for our unsuspecting classmates. We curtailed the street attacks when someone pointed out that the police might not take kindly to people lurking about with what looked like weapons.

The slug became our mascot, specifically the banana slug. Somehow it was mentioned in class the first week, and Seattle is prolific with them as is much of the West Coast. I believe we read that there was a slug race going on in one of the nearby cities. We bought some rubber slugs and would leave them outside people’s doors. Then Octavia Butler, in our second week, mentioned how she was phobic of slugs and once had one in her bathroom. By the third week Ursula, who lives in Portland, cemented the image though I can’t remember what she said. So we had Cyril the cyber slug and eventually when I did up T-shirts to commemorate our workshop, it was Cyril, with pierced antennae, mirrorshades, a mohawk and riveted body parts that graced the shirts. Somewhere, I still have one.

The reason some people didn’t write much was that they came to the workshop knowing they could write well. When twenty people critique your story it can be pretty deflating and sometimes ego crushing. There were times when the critique would consists of six or more people saying the same thing, which became irritating. We had meetings so that people would just say ditto if they had nothing new to say. There was one fellow who really only wrote one story the whole workshop and would name drop constantly. That was not his most annoying trait. He had the habit of not reading someone’s story and then sitting halfway around from who was being critiqued (we’d know the night before). Listening to everyone else’s critiques, he would then cobble his critique together. It soon became obvious to us and though we had a meeting where we didn’t address him directly we tried to make sure he knew that we could tell which people didn’t read the stories. He also decided to come to my room one night and give his personal opinion of my writing.

Each weekend there would be a party (coupled with the Clarion reading series) at a host’s house. Some hosts were authors like Greg and Elizabeth Bear and we got to probe their minds in an informal way. Many of us were so burned out after the workshop that I think some people never wrote again. I slept for about a month.

Our year seemed to birth more editors than anything else. Kij Johnson worked for Dark Horse comics and Tor at one point, Gordon Van Gelder worked for St. Martins before taking over F&SF. Michael Stearns still works for Harcourt I believe, in New York now. Kathleen Alcala edited for a publication in Seattle and wrote magic realism. I freelanced copy edited for years and still do, as well as currently editing for Aberrant Dreams (and soon to help with poetry editing for Chizine). I’m not sure where some of the others went or what they did but few published novels came out of our year. To date, I think Kij is the most successful there. Others sold poetry and short fiction. Kij and I recently googled Dean Shomshak, who we knew as the revenant guy (because of his one zombie story) and it seems he became quite successful in writing game books and articles. Kathryn Drennan wrote shows and series in Hollywood.

Did Clarion help my writing? Yes. Did it help it enough? I don’t know. Would I do it again? I don’t know but here I am getting ready for a shorter two-week workshop. There is something about being immersed in a group of your peeps and doing nothing but eating, drinking and spewing writing. If nothing else, you usually come out of it with more ideas and a better path through your story.

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