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Actually I’ve been home since late Sunday night. However, I caught the cold going around among the Clarionites just before I left, and have been coping with that on top of jet lag on top of coming down from one of the coolest experiences of my life.

So I might be quiet for a while.

I will say that I’ve decided to become a writer, no matter the probable poverty and general shittiness that brings. I just have to figure out how to make it happen.

Clarion, Day Whatever, beyond my wildest dreams edition

We’re staring down the end of Week Three, and I last reported only four days into the workshop. Shit was still getting settled. We were still learning our functions and our duties. We read our thousand-word stories (no more, no less) aloud to each other in workshop and tried to critique them, though all of us are much better trained readers than listeners. Jeff Ford gave us assignments – expand this story, don’t expand that one, work on something else if you have an idea, come talk to me if you don’t. We’ll think of something.

That first weekend, we got brunch at a place called Crest Cafe in San Diego proper and went to the beach. My knee was still messed up from my overexertion at the beginning, so L drove me part of the way. I had no choice but to get out and hobble down a steep hill, though, as this was a mostly-locals beach separate from the tourist stretch farther south, and cars couldn’t approach closely. Once I got down there, alternately baking in the sun and going up to my neck in the freezing ocean actually seemed to help the injury. I had to take it easy for another several days before I could cautiously move faster than a slow walk. After realizing how much energy I’d spent on a single beach trip, I knew I wouldn’t be able to do it often. I promised myself I’d go every weekend, but there just aren’t enough spoons to go around! If I lived here I would go all the time, though – it’s beautiful.

On Friday night we bid adieu to Jeff Ford, who did an excellent job as Week One Instructor and Everybody’s Genial Workshop Dad, and welcomed Delia Sherman into Week Two. Delia imposed some order on the workshopping bit that Jeff hadn’t bothered with, making sure every single person spoke about every single story. I resented it at first, but I saw quickly how it encouraged more discussion and made sure everyone’s ideas got out. We still picked the order in which we would speak.

I’m being deliberately vague about the writing. By now we’ve all workshopped at least one thing that could easily be published with a little more polishing. This is a smart (and smartass) group and we all have different strengths, but we’re all good writers already, which helps a lot. Much of the groundwork of (I hear) the old Clarions can be dispensed with, and I’m not sure how anyone could level the hoary accusation that everyone comes out of workshops like this sounding the same when we’re all so different.

A lot of our thoughts have begun to center on food. The cafeteria is not terrible, certainly serviceable, but the food is bland and recipes heavily recycled and there is very little variety. We try to get at least one “real” meal each weekend. I gave up on not spending any money on extra food (after all, the cafeteria’s already a sunk cost) and picked up some fresh figs and orange juice and wine the same day a big care package full of snacks arrived from my parents. Whoops/thanks.

L made a stealth trip to In-N-Out once and brought me a burger. I discovered the cafeteria pizza does not trigger my dairy allergy, but later ate some “real” pizza and had a very real, if mild, allergic reaction. I don’t think there’s any possible way for me to remain in denial about this anymore. I’m just going to have to avoid dairy wherever I can, though doesn’t seem so bad that I have to go through ingredient lists for whey powder or casein.

Each week, our instructor gives a reading at a local independent bookstore called Mysterious Galaxy. These outings have been so much fun that I think I should reset my new pie-in-the-sky Writing Goal – now that the old one’s been fulfilled, as I am in fact at Clarion – to have my very own reading there someday. They let us sit in the front row, right up by the podium. We take pictures. I can’t take any more books home in my suitcase, but I’ve bought two cheapo paperbacks to read and abandon and a shirt to express my love.

Eventually we said goodbye to Delia and spent the rest of last weekend instructorless until Ted Chiang arrived. But first: We managed to briefly kidnap John Scalzi, president of the Science Fiction Writers of America, from his hotel in downtown San Diego and drag him back for Mandatory Super Fun Hangouts and Pizza. This is where I learned that I very definitely am allergic to real pizza with real cheese on it, so it may be the last good pizza I ever eat. John went above and beyond the call of duty, extending his “I’ll come and talk for an hour or two” to more like 3.5 hours. He was really funny and animated and awesome and gave us amazing inspiring advice about being a writer and I just think he’s the coolest. <3<3<3

Except for Ted, of course. I say this in as offhand a manner as possible, but longtime readers of my LJ may know that I have an enormous literary crush on Ted’s ability to craft perfect amazing jewel-like short stories, and it’s taken almost an entire week of workshopping and hanging out for me to get over my huge-eyed fangirlishness. Ted imposed the most traditional of workshop critiquing methods, in which we all go around in a circle. I like the way we’ve been changing it up every week, but I’m not sure we have any more methods to use! Ted’s coming to Comic-Con with us tomorrow for a little while and then flying home. This week has been grueling but far too short.

And somehow we’re halfway through Clarion. This is just the most bare-bones accounting of our adventures – if I had the energy and time to lovingly describe the highs and lows, the late-night bonding and already-obscure in-jokes and the way that I know that these seventeen people are going to be my friends for life, it would stretch over half a novel’s worth of posts and I wouldn’t get any more stories done. I love this crew. Continue reading

Day Four, coming up for air

Guys, Clarion is AWESOME. I wanted to sit down for a minute and reflect on the past few days and give you an idea of what life at the beginning of the workshop is like (other than OBVIOUSLY GREAT).

It’s day four of the workshop, day three of us sitting around the table all morning and critiquing each other’s stuff. We all know each other’s names now, and life is settling into a certain rhythm, our paths between breakfast and classroom and lunch and home and dinner and home defined enough that people are making plans for wider excursions – the beach, for starters.

If I’d had enough energy to write this yesterday I would have complained that my main issue so far is getting around Clarion rather than any of its contents. Our dorms are on a big ridge, and our breakfast/dinner cafeteria is down the hill on one side, and our classroom is down the hill on the other and considerably farther away. This makes the walk from breakfast to class every morning a mad rush. I’ve been either last or second to last person into the classroom every single day.

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The Adventure Begins

I’m chilling in my hotel room in sunny San Diego, looking out on the pool and thinking about how grateful I am to be here.

Usually the past few years, Present Me has been very jealous of Past Me. Past Me was pretty much never in pain; Past Me was a karate master with so much energy she would jump around and dance for the hell of it. Past Me didn’t feel so ground down by life all the time, and her bright future seemed so certain.

However, right now, Past Me is super jealous of Present Me. Past Me has wanted to go to Clarion since I was a tween. Past Me didn’t have the resources or wherewithal to up and fly across the country for weeks and weeks of writing. Past Me was too socially anxious to dive into a crowd of strangers and start making friends.

In less than an hour, I’m going to meet three other Clarionauts face to face. I already had a sandwich with R a few weeks ago, but that felt like a feeling-out, trying to prove I wasn’t going to die of fear. Now I feel ready to jump with both feet into this adventure and meet all my fellow travelers at once. We four are going to eat lunch together and get to know each other a little before we voyage en masse to Clarion’s check-in at 2 pm, where we will meet still more new friends.

I follow a lot of minor nerd celebrities on Twitter and blogs. People like Wil Wheaton or Kyle Cassidy or John Scalzi or Paul & Storm. People who do acting and writing and photography and music full-time, who have committed to the art they love with all their souls, and the common thread among them, I think, is gratefulness.

All of them know they couldn’t have gotten where they are without the support of their loved ones and fans and a whole society that, to some degree, values what they do. And they are so happy to be doing it, and so aware how lucky they are. And so I follow their example. I may not have legions of adoring fans (YET), but I do have a loving family and a supportive husband and a long-suffering boss who authorized my leave of absence. I have the whole of modern civilization to thank for this amazing chance to live my dreams, to lay down the blueprint for how my life might someday look when I am a writer full-time. And I know how lucky I am. I am so grateful.

Clarion Prep

We’re just a couple weeks out from Clarion now, and I haven’t posted anything about my preparations. Some of this is due to unavoidable distractions – getting married, a weeklong honeymoon, followed by three weeks of allergic-reaction-related illness, followed by slow recovery marred by periods of severe pain and exhaustion. A lot of my life right now is stumbling out of various craters as the universe drops little bombs on my plans, over and over.

WHAT ARE YOU DOING FOR CLARION, ELIZA? (tl;dr in bold)

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That Clarion Call

My science fiction education was entirely self-directed. Nobody else in my family read it. None of my friends read it. I spent a lot of time completely alone in worlds of what-if.

But I wasn’t completely alone, was I? I read books of essays. I picked up decades-old reviews written by other science fiction writers about their contemporaries’ works. I read old copies of Asimov’s and Analog and F&SF and Galaxy and Orbit and on and on and on.

And, very slowly, I built a picture in my mind of the science-fiction world. It was small. Close-knit. Everyone knew each other and it seemed like everyone was friends. And I thought about someday joining that world, bathing in camaraderie and acceptance and common interests, the way some people think about being rock stars or supermodels or actors or billionaires.

This was about when the internet was really taking off, but everything was dial-up and the search engines that existed were crap. It was conceivably possible to find SF fan sites, I just didn’t even know how to look – and, for a while, it didn’t even occur to me. I loved my genre from afar. Cleveland’s days of hosting huge SF cons were long over, though I did get my parents to take me to some kind of Star Trek meetup for a few hours once. (I spent my whole time in the dealer room, pawing through merchandise, too terrified to talk to anyone.) I never wrote a fan letter until college. I never even wrote a letter to the editor.

But I did write science fiction. (And a little fantasy. And a lot that blurred the line between them.) I wrote stories and poems and abortive novels because I was an isolated teenager, because I was bullied and stalked at school, because I was, somehow, already extremely precocious at it from an early age and it felt so good to be good at this one thing. And all that time, I thought often of how I was going to meet my idols someday as an equal. If I could just write enough. If I could just get good enough.

Success did come, in bits and pieces. College gave me a mentor in the form of awesomesauce writer Gregory Frost and validation in the form of the Dell Award for Undergraduate Excellence in Science Fiction and Fantasy Writing. In Florida I got to live the dream, shaking hands with so many of the people I’d read growing up. It seemed like everyone wanted to pat me on the back and encourage me to ever greater heights. I got to be that rock star I’d always imagined, if only for a weekend or two, even if I hadn’t published anything just quite yet.

But it fell apart again almost as soon as it started. I got sick. I stopped writing. I thought it was gone forever and I mourned it like a friend. I thought of the old me as dead, or unrecognizably transformed. I thought I had to just move on with the cards I was dealt and try not to grow too bitter.

I started again, eventually, answering some need that inconveniently refused to curl up and die. The stories that resulted were lifeless. I applied to Clarion once, last year, when I could finally afford the application fee, and was rightly rejected. But I said at the time that I wasn’t going to give up. This was something I knew I needed so badly I would do anything. Neglect home and hearth and boyfriend. Go off my pain meds. Burn precious energy I needed to properly perform my job.

This whole past year I’ve been winnowing. I no longer involve myself in other people’s business. Not enough energy. I’ve cut all my extracurriculars but the cat adoption fairs. My life is quiet and pale, work-sleep-work-sleep-work-cook. Read. Read read read read read. Write. It’s very depressing, if I think about it too hard, but it’s necessary when I’m so weak.

I got into Clarion this year with two stories I wrote in, I think, August and November of 2011. I’ve known for a little while but I wasn’t supposed to say anything until they announced it last night. I burned so much energy this past week just being happy about it that it’s hard to feel anything but exhaustion right now. There’s so much logistics to deal with – wedding, and honeymoon, and now a long leave of absence at the height of summer – and I’m so tired. Given the choice I would have spaced out all these major life events a little, if only for breathing room.

But I did it. I got in. The thing I’ve wanted for literally half my life – ever since, in my wide-ranging reading, I started picking up references to this mysterious workshop and the late great Damon Knight. I’m going this summer, sick and all, weak and all, and praying that I’ll be able to keep up just enough to not embarrass myself. I’m so worried that I’ll be socially awkward as always, anxious and strange and unapproachable. That I won’t bond with my fellow supplicants at the Altar of Nerd. That I will disappoint the instructors with my output, or that I’ll miss all sorts of awesome quintessential-Clarion activities because I’m too sick to crawl out of bed.

I’ve never been the fastest writer. I’ve never been the slickest. But I want to learn. I want so desperately to go in only myself and come out a better artist and a better person, someone with a plan, someone worthy of those childhood ambitions. Someone stronger.

I’ve finally been called, and I can only answer with what I have. Let’s hope that’s enough.

“Bread”, Nature, live

Have a link.

I was going to fix up the website a little more today, you know, make it pretty, but instead I woke up in horrible pain and did nothing useful all day! So it is what it is. I am very excited about this story and can’t wait to get my hands on a physical copy of Nature to show around my office. I always hoped I’d have my name in these hallowed pages someday, though I always assumed it would be a scientific article.

I work with people with Real Science Degrees(TM). I don’t think any of them have ever been in Nature. I’m gonna gloat SO HARD. (We all know each other and are friends. It is all in good fun. Still. SO HARD.)

Don’t call it a comeback

If only because there wasn’t much to come back to in the first place.

I sold a story.

I sold a story TO NATURE. It’s called “Bread”, and I posted an early draft to what passes for my crit filter on Livejournal back in November. (That post has now been made private, since I don’t know whether “early draft available to a few first readers” breaks the exclusive web rights bit of my contract.)

This is my second story sale ever, and my first since I got sick five years ago. I’ve been sitting on this for something like a month, because

1) I couldn’t be sure I hadn’t dreamed it or something without pulling up the email seven or eight times a day;

2) I didn’t want to somehow jump the gun in case they changed their minds later. Thus I signed the contract and mailed it off to London in near-complete silence (I told my parents and a few friends on IM when I couldn’t contain myself any longer), and bugged them about once a week about getting a countersigned copy in either physical or electronic form until a subeditor told me she’d popped a copy in the mail. I have no idea if this is bad etiquette or not, but I could not believe this was really happening until I held the contract in my hands, which didn’t happen until today.

Although the page proof (with AMAZING illustration, you guys are going to die of its amazingness if they keep it for the final version) arrived via email yesterday, so I’m not sure what I was waiting for at this point. Probably just a few minutes where I wasn’t exhausted out of my mind.

For my first story sale, I wanted to buy something awesome that I wouldn’t have gotten otherwise, so I bought a Roomba, which we still own but haven’t used in ages because the combination of uneven slate floor tiles, crappy ancient rugs and mountains of cat hair make it next to useless in this apartment. (When we move someday it will come back into use.)

What did I buy for my second story, you ask? I got a cat. I wrote that whole long post on Livejournal explaining my various reasons, and Arthur’s blessing, but now I can finally note that his adoption fee was exactly as much as I’m being paid. I’d dearly love to support myself with writing one day, but for now it’s just a little extra money on the side that I give myself free license to go crazy with. Mycroft Holmes (formerly Lucky) has, in less than a week, already inserted himself into pretty much every facet of our life, and I adore him.

So what’s next? Well, I have no idea when the story’s going to publish, and I probably won’t know for a while. It could be months and months. I will certainly let you, my loyal 3 readers, know the instant it goes up. In the meantime, join me in celebrating the beginning of my triumphant return to the writing world. I’ve got big plans.

Added a story all official-like to the authorsite

Put up a copy of “Friends in Need” under the FICTION tab, with the qualification that I wrote it when I was 18 and it hasn’t been revised since 2006 (and never will be again, thanks to publication!). This story won me money in three different competitions and has been published twice, once in print and once online.

Might post some other flash pieces later, in which case I’ll have to redo the page with links, but for the quick’n’dirty now, it works, and has its own link, even:

clickenzee to feast your eyes

God, this site is fugly. I need a theme. Any suggestions? I like blue. And space/sky motifs. Maybe I’ll stick with white for the moment.

We break because we love (an actual post about writing (which is also a review (and possibly a manifesto)))

From this delightful interview with Lev Grossman over on Tor:

I think our project, collectively, as fantasy writers, is to question fantasy’s basic assumptions. We need to find its blind spots and attack everything that’s sacred to it. The coming of age story. The fatherly mentor. The faithful comic sidekick. The easy moral choices. The more we chip away at the foundations the genre rests on, the stronger it will become. There’s no end to where we can take it. Fantasy may have limitations as a genre, but whenever I’ve thought I’ve found them in the past, somebody has always come along and blown right past them.

The world of Grossman’s The Magicians and its sequel, The Magician King, has been described as a deconstruction of Harry Potter, which it certainly is. But it’s not just that. It’s “literary fantasy”, which just means fantasy written in the voice of the “literary” genre, which is to say, generally, it sounds like a conversation with someone who has studied a lot of Deep Themes and knows a lot of words and wants to make sure you aware of this fact.

This can be done well or badly. Here in SF we often make fun of “literary” writers who wander into the genre and act like they’re the first ones to come up with, I don’t know, aliens who are also vampires. They’re not genre-savvy. They don’t know how to throw in the secret signals that say “I am a member of the club”. And, quite often, they become critical darlings and/or bomb and/or are optioned for blockbuster chick flicks. (I mean, I thought The Time Traveler’s Wife was *okay*, but not exactly blockbuster chick flick material. This goes to show how much my opinion is worth.)

Grossman does it well. It never feels like he’s trying to show you how smart he is; none of the narrative feels forced or contrived (except the parts that are obviously contrived, everyone in the book knows they are contrived, look at everyone rolling their eyes at the ridiculous contrived-ness of this thing!). It’s a self-aware fantasy, which plays with the conventions of the genre even as it rejects them. Grossman is attacking Fantasy at its root and making off with all the best bits to consume, messily, in the library. And the second book is better than the first, so it wasn’t some damn fluke.

Breaking genre has to be done carefully. One way is to write one genre from another’s perspective, with another’s voice, like The Magicians, or like this story that Arthur read and described to me the other day that is basically epic fantasy except the characters are semisentient rats on a generation ship. Maybe I’m getting it wrong, having heard the plot secondhand, but that sounds like a cool idea so let’s pretend that exists.

Another way is to subvert a trope, with or without jumping up and down and pointing out how clever you are for doing so. Maybe the aliens show up to kill us all and it turns out they have the wrong address. (AWK-WARRRD.) Maybe the raygun shoots bubbles. These are relatively small ideas to build a cute story around but not really breaking, per se. Chipping, maybe. Denting slightly. That’ll buff out.

The biggest break you can do, I think, is to troll hardcore. Get your reader into a comfortable rut and then piss them off so hard they throw the book at the wall. (Hopefully you can entice them back again and do this multiple times. Fool me once…) The covenants of genre are sacred, and you shouldn’t go for the nuclear option unless you’re okay with obscurity or you have some serious career cred to burn. I think one of the greatest genre trolls I’ve ever seen was Douglas Adams, and I’m still not even convinced he was doing it on purpose. The master of humor plunged suddenly into existential darkness a few times so hard I just about lost my lunch. (Maybe it’s a British thing?)

So, as my first post on my fancy-pantsy author website, I’m going to make a promise that might take decades to pan out: I’m going to write something that makes you really, really, really mad. And you’re going to like it, and maybe you’ll even forgive me someday and keep buying my books.

Art is discomfort. It’s seeing something at the corners of the world, something your audience might have never noticed – or tried to forget – and pointing it out. Art is speaking when others would rather you shut up. Art is taking the most terrible things about being a living person and turning them into the best things, and vice versa. I like the idea of Art being a promise that someone can make, a kind of declaration of intent to live the kind of life that would make a good story, in order to gain the perspective necessary to write great stories. The garret is only a small facet of that promise. So are the numerous personality flaws that seem to crop up in such promise-makers and which I certainly do not lack. So are the promised heartbreaks, the inevitable failures, the close scrapes, the scars, the tears, the wild joy of being human and reveling in all the shit and shiny that brings.

Tear it down, smash it up, log most interesting failure modes. Our grandest duty to that which we love is to learn how to destroy it utterly and then rebuild it harder, better, faster, stronger. Comfort is the enemy (she says, her most recent work dripping with sentimentality – hey, I like junk food as much as the next person). I will live this life, and you will be my audience, o readers few in number. May you and I grow together like trees with tangled roots and jostling branches, may we fight under the sun and love under the stars and write under Heaven and be fruitful and multiply.

The Magicians and sequel The Magician King.