In the aftermath of Clarion, the students went in a million different directions: writing, publishing, returning to their everyday lives. Chris Lynch went for a walk.
Okay, so it might have been just a tad more than ‘a walk’. It was, in fact, a walk from one end of Japan to the other, raising funds for the Fred Hollows Foundation. He described the journey in no less than 202 haiku on his blog, Hydrolith, and in fuller forms on Four Corners of Japan. And he’s now in the process of writing a book about his travels.
And let me tell you, this boy can write: The Australian called his story This Is My Blood (co-written with fellow Clarion alumni Ben Francisco, and appearing in Dreaming Again) “a powerful combination of human religion, alien culture and first contact”. Of all my Clarion students, Chris was perhaps the one who thought most about writing- not just the placing of words upon the page, but the way the page itself could be used, the shapes and spaces you could create with word placement and the white space between, the function beneath the form.
No surprise, then, that his look back is as much about lessons learned as it is about the experience itself. Here, then, is Chris Lynch:
Clarion Week Four
I’m enjoying the reminiscing about Clarion. I plunged into work straight after Clarion South 2007 finished, and have spent most of the last two years overseas. So it was only last month that I opened the box marked ‘Clarion’ and pulled out all the manuscripts scrawled with the feedback of my classmates and tutors. I revised my Week 1 story and sent it off to a magazine straight away, and in the process began to decipher what Clarion was all about for me.
The days were long, and the weeks were short. By Week 4, I had my routine:
* Wake up bleary-eyed at 8.45am, pull on some clothes (if I’d bothered to take them off), grab a banana and cup of tea, and run out the door.
* Arrive at the crit room around 9am. Nurse my mug of tea and finish writing a summary for one of the 3-4 stories of the day while the other latecomers trickled in.
* Finish the crit workshop at 1pm. Now starving, so would often join the post-critting crowd at Cafe Enternet for some potato wedges and ginger beer.
* Get back to my room around 2pm, and collapse on my bed. Sleep until 5.30pm or so, then get up and read through the stories for the next day, doing a line edit as I went.
* Make some dinner in the common room, wander around downstairs and upstairs, and see what other people were up to.
* Get started on my story around 9pm. Take breaks when it became too hard (frequently) and wander around again. There was always someone up.
* If my story wasn’t due that day, stop writing around 3am, then write crit summaries for the stories for that day.
* Fall into bed at 4.30-5am. If my story was due that day, write until 8.45am.
Week 4 was the week with the lowest combined weekly word-count of the six weeks: 61, 203 words. I was mostly responsible for the highest word-count (a 10,000 word monster during Kelly Link’s week brought us up to 75,000 words), and I was partly responsible for the reduced workload of Week 4: I didn’t actually submit a story.
My partner-in-crime was Ben Francisco, who I collaborated with. Partly because our Week 4 tutor was the inimitable Gardner Dozois and partly because we wanted to give it a go, we’d settled on an old-fashioned sci-fi story: first contact with aliens. My notes for our initial brainstorm read: “Missionary priest — female alien Jesus — bloodfarm — internal alien conflict. Questions: What happened to the first missionary? What is the central conflict? Does the priest have a friend? What is the conflict within the alien culture?”
Out of that brainstorm grew our story This is My Blood, which appeared in the Dreaming Again anthology. But, as the notes above might suggest, we weren’t really sure what we were doing, and we decided to pull our story at the last minute and submit it in Week 5 to give ourselves another day to work on it. I think I learnt as much from writing that story as I did my Week 1-3 stories combined, and I recommend every writer try collaborating with someone with complementary strengths at some point in their career.
It’s fair to say the group took a while to adjust to Gardner’s style– among other things, he led the class in singing “Undead Camels Ate Their Flesh” to the tune of the “Doo Dah, Doo Dah” song, immediately becoming Jasoni’s personal god. He was also brutally honest about stories that bored him. But as you’d expect from someone with 15 Hugos for Editing, he had a wealth of knowledge about story writing and the writing industry. Some of Gardner’s wisdom, again from my notebook:
- Don’t start stories with dreams or gun battles
- Story = A character in an interesting setting with an interesting problem
- Don’t have easy moral choices
- No flashbacks until you have a foothold in setting
- Personalise stories: the things that make you uncomfortable; local colour
- Dare to be flamboyant — give us “reader cookies” — drama, colour, characters
- Don’t be afraid to be sentimental
- Think about the ecology of the supernatural
- Stories need blackout lines
- Write what you want to read
- Most of you will never be heard of again; 2-3 will have steady presence in field; 2 will pop up occasionally
- Writing life is a series of kicks in the teeth
- Have confidence in your own work
- Success in the workshop means nothing
- Persistence is more important than talent
- Read a lot; read everything
- Write 5-6 excellent short stories set in same universe + Publish over a year in Analog, F&SF, etc = Hot new writer + Novel offer
- Maintain connections
A few people were quite depressed by the “most of you will fail” speech, but in the end most of us have taken the Han Solo approach to being told the odds. So far, I think we’re doing pretty well — who knows, maybe that’s what Gardner intended. For my part, I loved every minute of Clarion, my first and only chance to breathe writing for six weeks straight. And to feel like talking about the physics of unicorns and the sexual life of dwarfs was a completely normal thing to do at 2am on a Monday night…