Tuesday, February 1, 2005

Surviving the "Failed" Clarion

 Algis J BudrysThis is Algis J. Budrys, affectionately known as Ayjay. He taught the third week of Clarion '77.  He was the last (and pretty much the only) person there to really encourage me about the potential of The Tengrim Sword, the manuscript that decades later became Heirs of Mâvarin.  I liked him a lot, and learned from him. I especially admired the only book of his I'd read, The Falling Torch.  What I liked best about it was the way the space war in the book was treated. The protagonist spends two thirds of the book basically playing Hamlet, trying to decide whether to lead his people into battle to save his planet. Finally he decides to do it.  The next chapter disposes of the entire war in a couple of paragraphs.  The implication is clear: the important part is the decision, not the shoot-'em-up.  I mentioned my admiration of this to Ayjay, only to be told that this had not been the way he'd written the book.  The editor had cut a third of the book to meet length requirements!  Oh, well.  I still think it's brilliant.

Peter S BeagleWeek Four was Peter S. Beagle, author of two of my favorite books,The Last Unicorn and A Fine and Private Place. I had great hopes that as a fantasy novelist, he'd be able to help me solve the problems with The Tengrim Sword, or at least encourage me as Ayjay had.  No such luck!  He didn't like the three chapters I had by then, and couldn't really tell me why.  It turned out that he was largely an instinctive writer, as opposed to a planner and analyzer.  At least one other person learned a lot from him, but I sure didn't. The only bright spot was listening to him reading from his latest manuscript each evening.

Yes, I was getting discouraged by then.  People had questions about why my characters did this and that, why their religion required them to behave foolishly, why they didn't know a key bit of information, and why the creature had a name that sounded like a brand of shampoo (that was John's comment!). They wanted to know about the political system and the level of technology, and thought that Rani was acting younger than was appropriate for his age in a pre-technological society.  Some of it was picky stuff, and some was fundamental, and most of it was stuff I couldn't fix--not back then, anyway.  I shelved the novel for a while, and instead workshopped something I'd written in high school, about a disk jockey who doesn't kill himself.  The Clarionites thought that was a much more "mature" and developed piece of work!

Damon KnightKate Wilhelm and instructor R. Glenn WrightWeeks Five and Six were taught by Damon Knight and Kate Wilhelm, a married couple with many years of experience teaching at workshops.  Many years later, I bought a book of Damon's called Creating Short Fiction, and it was like a Clarion refresher course.  There was a difference, though.  The advice I found somewhat helpful in 2003 was clear as mud in 1977.  As a group, we started to feel that the various writers-in-residence all contradicted each other, and that Damon even contradicted himself!  A lot of us got so discouraged that we stopped writing by the end of Week Five. I don't think I was the only one to start referring to our year as "the failed Clarion."  Although D.M. Rowles sold some short shorts to Harlan Ellison's legendary unpublished anthology The Last Dangerous Visions, the only person from our year that I know to have published any sf or fantasy novels since 1977 is Gael Baudino, whose work I like a lot. 

But here's the thing.  Despite the fact that Clarion put me off writing fiction for over a decade, I don't at all regret going.  First of all, I met my husband there, which is an excellent reward all by itself!  But aside from that, I did learn a lot, even though it would be many years before I could assimilate and apply the information. For one thing, I learned that I really and truly wasn't ready to write that novel.  After Clarion I'd pull it out every four years or so, revise the first couple of chapters, get stuck, and put it away again, because I didn't know what came next. Then in 1989, when John was out of town on business for a month or more at a time (long story, and one I won't be telling you), I took to sitting in restaurants, writing scenes on scraps of paper.  I discovered that if I let the characters talk about what to do next, they'd start moving the plot along with little or no help from me.  Yay!  I finally got through a complete draft that year, after twelve years of getting stuck around page 50 to 70. I still had some problems to solve and a major rethinking of tengrem (sic) psychology ahead of me, but it took me another decade to find all that out.

And here's the other thing I should have learned from Clarion, something I didn't really understand until I started reading Patricia C. Wrede's postings on AOL message boards three or four years ago. The reason all those writers contradicted each other was that there was no one method that worked for all of them.  That can even be generalized: there IS no one method of writing, no "right" way to do it, no set of rules that must be adhered to or that guarantee success.  The only valid rules are that you have to write to be a writer, and that it's probably good to get the spelling, punctuation, and grammar right, and preferably the formatting as well. Once in a while, someone will teach the method that works for him or her, and try to promulgate it as the "right" way or as "rules."  Don't believe it. Maybe that method and those rules will work for you, but the chances are excellent that some or all of it will only mess you up.  The lesson of the Clarion experience is that you have to experiment to see what works best for you as a writer.  If writer X seems to have the same basic approach as yours, then maybe's X's tips will prove helpful.  Or if that method consistently leaves you stuck, then it may be time to give writer Y's approach a shot.  Take what you need, experiment, and find out what works for you.

What worked for me was not to write fiction for twelve years, and then to go sit in restaurants.



ryanagi said...

I hear writing in restaurants worked for JK Rowling too... Sounds like as good a method as any other. ;-)  Very interesting reading about your writing past, Karen.  These Clarion entries have been really fun to read.

deabvt said...

Great stuff, mav. I really enjoyed reading of your voyage.