Clarion Week 1: Grandmapunk, Roof Brews and Porky Pig

This is a Clarion blog.

I slept maybe four hours, and dragged my ass out of bed before the sun was even thinking of rising for the day. Showered the sleep away, woke up with a razor to my throat as I shaved, threw myself together as best as I could, and just as the sun was over the horizon, we were off to JFK. There, I was lucky enough to meet up with my classmate, Ellie, and together we navigated TSA and within the hour, were in the sky. Wedged between two oddball passengers, I dozed and read while the plane whisked us across the US. We traveled back three hours, and were in San Diego proper around 11:30. Classmate Zach picked us up and before we knew it, Clarion had begun.

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Forms to fill out, keys to receive, hands to shake, folks to meet, we came together all of us, various waves crashing in on the same shore, the same new and alien landscape of cloudless blue skies, and a consistent low seventies temperature. Director Laura Martin walked us through the campus, introduced us to the dining hall, and by the time the sun was setting over the Pacific, we were all gathered around Gregory Frost, Man of the Written Word Extraordinaire, and we sat in rapt attention.

“This isn’t Viable Paradise,” he said, bedecked in his hawaiian shirt, grinning. “This isn’t Taos or Odyssey or like any other workshop out there. This paved the way for a lot of those, but this is it, this is Clarion.” He spoke to us for a little while, his biggest lesson being: now is the time to fuck up, fuck around, experiment, “drive your story into the wall at 90mph and see what happens.” We all left that room, and I swear I could hear our minds and gears spinning and whirring and coming to life in a way they hadn’t before.

Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday were a storm of prompts, exercises, and lectures, as we weren’t going to be discussing our submission stories. (We were too far away from them, Greg said, and I agreed). Those first few days were learning the campus, learning the format, the google drive, and preparing ourselves. Folks were already writing their stories by Tuesday. Things move awfully quick at Clarion.

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But it wasn’t all work. Monday nights have become Roof Brews, where we sit around on the roof on sunset and drink, play ukelele, get to know each other in a way only imbibing and music can allow. Tuesday night, we reversed it, as we hit up Karaoke Night at the local pub, and sang our heart out, the beers lowering our Social Shields. Highlights include Meatloaf, TLC, Kiss From A Rose, Rihanna, and Johnny Cash in the style of Porky Pig.

Wednesday was our first time at Mysterious Galaxy Bookshop for Greg’s reading and signing, and it was fantastic. Such a beautiful home of science fiction and fantasy and mystery books, and a great cadre of people working and shopping there. Got to meet a few Clarion grads, (HI SARAH MACK), and got to talk with Greg Van Eekhout, whose novel, CALIFORNIA BONES I just read and loved. Afterwards we grabbed some In’N’Out Burger, and got ready for our first day of critiques the next morning. I also finished the first draft of my first story, “The Sleeping Stone,” (being critiqued Monday!).

Clarion 1And if the way things went yesterday and today is any indication of the weeks to come, I’m looking forward to it even more. Everyone had very intelligent things to say, being supportive without being appeasing, and being direct without being cruel. I’m nervous for Monday, but I’m ready for it.

Kat Howard, my mentor and friend, told me that Clarion is basically a Time Warp, and it really is: Sunday feels a year ago, and August feels as though it is breathing down my neck. I’ve already begun work on my second story, “The Composer’s Betrayal,” should have some movement on that in the next day or two.

I’ll most likely do a massive blog at the end of it all, with lines and quotes and lessons, so you can look forward to this weekly missives as a detailing of our adventures out here. And from the feel of this group, the beauty of the campus and the area, the excitement we all have whenever we walk in the room, there are adventures more to come.

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So What Is All This Clarion Jazz?

I’ll do a big catch up post soon, along with a slew of reviews I’ve had taking up space in my brain. But I wanted to talk today about the Big News:

I’m going to be attending the Clarion Writers’ Workshop this summer in San Diego!

::insert gif of flailing muppet arms set on fire, elephants swinging from the chandeliers, while a raucous party, complete with hats, balloons, streamers, and several garage bands erupts below and there is SO MUCH CAKE::

So, for those who don’t know, here’s what Clarion is all about: Six weeks out in San Diego on the UCSD Campus, only a few minutes from the ocean, living and working and writing along with seventeen other talented-as-hell writers, under the tutelage of six working, super-talented-as-hell industry professionals, one a week, with a focus in genre writing. The goal is to write a story I believe, and workshop and critique in a positive, honest setting with a different industry professional writer guiding and teaching for the week.

Those professional writers are: Gregory Frost, Geoff Ryman, Cathrynne Valente, Nora Jemisin, and Ann and Jeff Vandermeer, each and every one of them giants in the field. I really lucked out this year. I know the work of many of them with the exception of one or two, but I look forward to familiarizing myself before June.

What I do know is that they are all immensely talented and will each bring something completely different to the table. (Be warned: I will do my best not to fanboy out each time they enter the room, but I promise nothing, you hear? NOTHING.)

I sometimes still can’t believe I got in. I’ve been applying for years, dreaming of spending every summer with like-minded writers, and just . . . working, typing, having the time to focus on my craft with folks who will be just as crazy and passionate as I am. I’ve already started meeting some of the other students and I can tell it’s going to be a great group.

It’s going to be intense as all get out, but I can’t wait. I’ve been pushing myself so hard lately, working three jobs while still trying to write while still trying to sleep, that six weeks just workshopping and writing is going to seem like a vacation. Of course, I say that now. I’ll get back to you after day one.

A huge thank you to my mentor, Kat Howard and all the other writers and readers and friends who have helped me polish and rework my writing to the point it is.

The next few months can’t fly fast enough. Until then, just going to be saving money, sleeping when I can, and writing as best I can until June. (And maybe install an IV drip of coffee . . . yeah, that’ll be a good project to work on . . .)

Alright, back later tonight for more Life Stuff Updates.

Until then, write on.

Flight Reviews

Thought I’d get the ball rolling with some quick reviews of the books I read while going to, staying there, and coming back from Ukraine. You’d think four books would be more than enough. I underestimated myself and finished before I came back. That was one long ass flight with no new reading material.

Anyway . . .

among others

Among Others by Jo Walton – (Finished on the plane ride there, next to a guy who I don’t think liked me):

There was so much excitement and buzz for this book, which only grew as it claimed such awards as the Nebula and Hugo. I had picked it up a while back, and figured it was time to see what the hype was about. I was not disappointed at all. A story about a young girl, trying to pick up the pieces of her life after the death of her twin sister by their twisted witch of a mother, Mor has to get used to a life with a father she never knew, in a city she doesn’t want to live in, at a school where she doesn’t really like anyone and not many people like her. But, as with us readers, she finds comfort in her books, in trying to parse out the magic of the world around us, and works to find a medium between the world she has to live in and the worlds she’d rather live in. Deftly written in a diary fashion, with deep insights into sf/fantasy literature of the times, it is a book filled with magical realism, bildungsromanish questing, and literary criticism all at the same time. Hell, I could and will write a whole post on this book. Regardless, if you’re a reader who takes joy in their books, know that Among Others will reach you to your core and speak to you in a language you’ve known all your life but didn’t know you spoke.

The cormorantThe Cormorant by Chuck Wendig – (Finished middle of the week, read on buses, trains and more forms of transportation):

For those of you have read this blog before, you should know that I love Chuck Wendig with a fiery and totally normal passion. (SHUT UP IT IS NORMAL). His Miriam Black books have always been a pulse-pounding, dark romp through an urban fantasy nightmare with everyone’s favorite swearing, smoking, shattered mirror of a heroine, Miriam Black, and The Cormorant is no exception. It is as thrilling, as breath taking, as vicious and violent and compelling as the others in the series. For two books now, Miriam has been fighting against fate, has found ways of giving destiny the bird and going for its throat. In The Cormorant, Destiny starts pushing back. Not only does Chuck give us his signature gut wrenching, laugh out loud, black humor prose, and moments of horror that would make Stephen King blush, he starts to pull back the curtain on the world he’s made, and starts to show us the guts, the inner workings. The Cormorant is another homerun for Chuck, and I can’t wait to see where he takes us in the next installment, Thunderbird.

King of Thorns by Mark Lawrence – (finished while traveling through the inner workings of Ukraine, across field and stone and stream and then a hostel):

Have you read Prince of Thorns? No? The hell is wrong with you? Go do that.

King of Thorns

Done? Good. See, wasn’t it great?

Mark Lawrence brings us back to the world of Prince Jorg and his iron clad dedication in becoming Emperor, but not before bringing a very slow and delicious vengeance upon those who deserve it. Set up with his own kingdom at the end of Prince, King of Thorns burrows deeper into Jorg’s brilliant but fractured psyche, as he plots, kills, and pushes back against the forces arrayed against him, and continues to walk the bloody road to the throne. Weaving back and forth, between reality and dream and memory, past and present and just a touch of future, Lawrence brings all his talent to the sharp prose and dangerous world of Prince Jorg and his merry, malicious men. Most fascinating to me, again, a whole other blog post in itself, is how Lawrence straddles the line between science fiction and fantasy just so, giving us a world that is so broken, it doesn’t remember itself anymore. I can’t spoil too much, but suffice to say, it is one of the strongest and most clever bits of worldbuilding I’ve seen. Going to dive into the final installment soon and I’m standing on literal pins and needles to find out how it all ends.

Probably in blood. Maybe fire. Most likely both.

deathlessDeathless by Cat Valente – (started the morning of the last day, finished on the first hour of the last flight of the last day):

Ah, Cat Valente. If you mixed a quill with King Midas, you’d have Cat Valente, a writer whose very touch turns a story to gold. Deathless has been lauded by the sff community and after devouring it in one sitting, I can see why. It follows the story of a young girl, Marya, who is brought into the world of Koschei the Deathless, Tsar of Life, first as a lover, then a general, and then a traitor. She becomes involved in not just the struggle of Life against Death, but also the Communist regime, that seeps into her town and devours everything it touches. Deftly mixing worlds of story and reality, (or are they the same?), Deathless is a triumph of writing: story, plot, character, magic, history and more. It especially spoke to me, as I had just immersed myself in Eastern Europe for the better part of a week. Seeing mentions of varenyky and vodka and Kyiv, only made me sigh deeper, made me remember my time in Ukraine. A wonderful book by a wonderful writer, Deathless is an experience every reader should have.

New In Writer Land

The holidays were here in a flash and just as soon, were gone. Christmas, gone in a day, 2013 was gone all in a night, and now we’re here, blinking our eyes in the light of the new year.

I mean, it’s February, and I know I’m terribly late to this kind of post, but I’ve been busy, so cut a guy some slack.

From there, my brother Mike and I were whisked away into the dark of the air, and sent across the ocean, to visit my twin in Ukraine as he does Peace Corps work: teaching English, sports, being a generally helpful and compassionate human being.

That’s a whole other post, my experience there, but trust me when I say it was nothing like I’ve ever experienced before. So, y’know . . . good times.

And since I’ve come back, well . . . just the usual, I suppose.

Work. Work. Work. Sleep? No, work, just kidding.

I’ve got some work that’s floating around out there, trapped in the breeze, hoping that someone likes it enough to pluck it from the air and bring it home. So we’ll see how that works out. I’m also working on a new project, a novel-y thing. So fingers crossed I can keep up with that with my work schedule. Keep an eye peeled on the blog, as I’m hoping to have something cool involving you guys and this novel thing.

Aside from that, just trying to keep my head above water and find time to write. Working every day of the week ain’t too conducive to the writing life. But you find time as you can. I’ve started dragging my sleep addled mind to bear, and writing on my morning commutes to the city. I force myself to stay up, and get some work at night. Force myself to get up early so I can write before the afternoon shift.

It sucks, but you gotta make the time. Writers gotta write. It’s kind of, y’know . . . their thing.

Let’s see, what else . . .

Oh! Nightmare Magazine will be publishing my story in their April issue, only a few months away, with my story for Fireside coming up right after that in May. Look for an interview with Nightmare too, should be fun.

I’m also hoping to get back into the reviewing habit for this blog. Much as I love talking bout myself, I want to offer more than just my own “wah, writing is hard,” monologues. So keep an eye peeled for those.

And that’s it for now. More as it develops, later at the news at 5.


NaNoWriMo is Here

Life has a nasty habit of getting in the way of my blogging. A recent promotion, the holiday season, terrible 16 hour work days and a potential third freelance gig have conspired to take me away from the sweet, sweet love of WordPress.

But, I am back my friends, and all for one very important reason: National Novel Writing Month.

Yes, it is that time of year again, friends, that time when friends, family and fun are left behind so that we can begin climbing that mountain of 50,000 steps, that peak that seems so far away at the beginning, but soon is found to be conquerable.

I will be doing my fourth Nano this year and I encourage you all to join me. Now, disclaimer, I AM cheating a bit. I will not be starting a fresh project tomorrow at 12:01 AM. Rather, I am using Nano to add 50,000 words onto the novel project I have already begun work on.

Is this cheating? Am I a bad person? Maybe. If you wish to banish me outside the circle around the fire, I will understand.

However, if you can forgive me for this, then come along with me, on this most NaNo of journeys. Whether you’re an established writer who needs a boost in motivation, to get work done, or a new writer, ready to take the plunge into Novel Land, come along.

I will be posting an essay every day here at the blog, all about writing, with tips and tricks for NaNoWriMo, as well as writing in general. I’ll also post some beer love up here as well, since it seems like it’s been forever since I’ve done that.

As always, this disclaimer: There are no absolute truths to writing, nor especially to writing advice. I am terribly underqualified to shill out what I believe to be advice, especially to new authors. I am not the Be All/End All of writing advice.

But I do know some things, and maybe some of those are true. If anything, maybe you will find them helpful.

It starts tomorrow.

If you’ve always wanted to write, if you’ve never had the motivation or support or confidence, well, you have it here. Take up thy pen and start writing.

1,667 words a day. 30 Days. One story.

Let’s do this.

“Make It Work, Writer.”

What makes stories work?

I’ve started slush reading for Lightspeed Magazine recently, helping to wade through the many stories they receive each day, and offer my thoughts and opinions, in order to help the editor (our lord and savior John Joseph Adams), figure out which would be best for the magazine.

It’s been enlightening more often than not. It’s been teaching me a lot about story structure, narration, dialogue, character, narrative logic, and more. But more importantly, it’s been making me ask a very important question:

What is it that makes a story work?

I thought I knew, but that answer might be changing.

So I guess the question for you all this week is, what makes a story work for you? Can you forgive some things if what’s working works well? What has to be there for a story to be a major success?

Stay cool, cowboys.

What The Hell Is Originality, Anyway?

There’s nothing original in this world anymore. Everything’s been done to death, all the stories have been told a thousand and a thousand ways, all of them done better by the next guy or the first gal or the second to last kid, or that guy with the weird hat who won’t stop staring at the sun outside your store so you have to call the cops but then he vanishes like some Stephen King novel and don’t even get me started on him . . .

I talk to a lot of readers and a lot of writers, many of whom are, if not obsessed, at least very anxiously interested in this idea of originality. How do you distinguish yourself as a new writer these days?

Hell, even if you’re an older writer aka a professional one, how the hell do you stay that way? Even being older, wiser, and better looking than new writers, are they still worried about originality, about bringing something new to the table?

Personally, I think story is king and one’s voice is original in and of itself. I think that everyone is a different writer (thank god, because otherwise it’d be a very boring world), and half the fun is in seeing that craft/voice develop. I think if you judge a story based off how original it is against how good of a story it is, you’re going to be shooting yourself in the goddamn foot.

Strong writing. Strong voice. Strong characters. These are the things that matter.

Neil writing

I don’t make or break a story I’m writing based on how original it is in the world of Story. Yes, I’m very excited about my Sons of Anarchy meets The Princess Bride by way of Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure Mash-Up, but I could just as excited about a story where a young person has to prove themselves in the face of adversity . . . in space . . . riding a star manatee . . . with a robot cowboy hat? (Hold on, gotta write that down. NO ONE TOUCH IT, IT’S MINE).

But if originality is one of those writing spices you love to throw on your word-food, here’s my two cents: what’s the hook of your story? What’s that trope or stereotype that you’ve seen done a thousand times before? It can be a character or a setting or magic or monsters. Look at that from every angle, every perspective and see if you can’t find the one corner we haven’t seen from yet. What thin slice of light can you shed on this story? Let that mystery drive you, but hell, don’t become obsessed with it. The world would rather see a good, solid story that may be a little old fashioned then something completely bizarre and original, but ultimately fails to be a good story.

So tell me, how do you deal with this question of originality? Do you consider it when you start writing? Do you have any tips/tricks for approaching it? Do you actively work for or against it? What’s the most important thing you’re looking for in a new writer or story?