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David D. Levine At Writers Of The Future 2002

This journal has some paragraphs in common with the essay I wrote on WotF for Bento 13 (distributed at ConJose), but they are not the same.

Click here for a whole page of photos.

8/11/02 - Sunday

As our plane descended into Los Angeles, a vast plain of houses glittering with swimming pools and overlaid with a thin brownish haze, the first thing I saw that I recognized was the Big Donut. The Big Donut is a classic example of what architects call the "big duck" school of architecture, in which the form of a building is a straightforward, literal, and large representation of its purpose -- in this case, a donut stand. From the air it looked like a Cheerio, a lumpy light-brown toroid standing on the edge, twice as tall as any of the gas stations and strip malls around it. A huge empty shell of concrete and chicken wire, a form without function, which does nothing more than take up space and serve as a gigantic, perpetual advertisement for itself.

A perfect symbol of L.A.

I had come here to collect my prize for winning second place in the Writers of the Future contest: a one-week writers' workshop with the other winners, culminating in a gala awards ceremony and the official release of the annual anthology. Fancy hotel. Catered dinners. Swimming pools. Movie stars. All on L. Ron Hubbard's dime. (I had to pay for Kate's airfare and her half of the hotel room, which seems only fair.)

We were met at the airport by Markus, an accountant for Bridge Publications. The WotF event (they pronounce it "woof") is the biggest event the Hubbard publishing empire throws each year, and everyone in the company pitches in to make it happen. Markus was Swiss, one of a large number of foreign-born Hubbard employees I would meet this week. Markus was also representative in that he was upbeat, cheerful, and unflappable. I've been behind the scenes at a lot of SF conventions and suchlike, and I am amazed how well the organizers of this very complex event managed to keep their cool. There was nothing weird or disquieting about it, either -- it's something I only noticed in retrospect. I have no idea which of them were Scientologists (I assume they all were, but I didn't ask and they didn't tell), but Markus did mention that his favorite SF novels were Fear and Typewriter in the Sky by Guess Who. To his credit, he apologized for the Battlefield Earth movie.

Kate and I, along with several other winners who arrived at the same time, were whisked by van to the Sofitel in West Hollywood, passing the Big Donut on the way. There we met Rachel -- the contest administrator and our "hotel Mom" for the week -- and workshop instructor Tim Powers. Rachel presented each of us with a nicely gift-wrapped package, which proved to contain a WotF T-shirt, and checked us into our rooms (with mini-bar, two TVs, three phones, and thick, fluffy towels). After settling in, we caught a cab to the one L.A. attraction I hadn't managed to see on any of my previous trips: the Museum of Jurassic Technology.

The MJT is not exactly a museum, it has nothing to do with the Jurassic, and it's only peripherally technological. It's more like a large permanent art installation on the theme of an old-fashioned museum. We had a tough time getting into the concept of the museum at first, with its exhibits of nonexistent failed construction projects and the reconstructed office of someone you've never heard of, but it started to come into focus when we spotted an "exhibit out of order" so surreal (the instructions meaningless, the knobs long gone, the apparatus self-destructed) that it just had to be a deliberate artwork. Kate said, "this place has the same relationship to an ordinary museum that a Tim Powers novel has to the real world."

Next to the "exhibit out of order" was a detailed exhibit on South American bats that use ultraviolet light rather than high-frequency sound to navigate, explaining how the Doppler effect can cause these fast-flying bats to emit X-rays and thus fly right through walls, trees, and people. As a recorded lecture droned on about the bats, various parts of the exhibit were dramatically illuminated at points in the lecture that had nothing to do with them. There was also a series of dioramas on the history of the mobile home (Noah's Ark, of course, was the first, as well as being the first natural history museum -- and the most comprehensive) and a display of homunculi. But, disturbingly, some of the exhibits seemed to be entirely for real: a collection of microminiature sculptures (each far smaller than the eye of a needle) and a room full of displays on folk beliefs (ducks' breath as a cure for thrush, mouse pie for a stammer, lithium for depression) of which some were known to me and none were completely implausible.

As we returned to the hotel, we heard... bagpipes?! Yes, it was bagpipes: Carl Fredrick, one of the WotF winners, was skirling up and down in front of the hotel. "It calms me," he said, though he also explained he was "fighting the reeds" until they acclimatized themselves to the humidity.

After that, we really needed a nap.

8/12/02 - Monday

At 9 am we were taken in two vans to the Hollywood offices of Author Services, the organization that manages the literary resources of the Hubbard estate (not to be confused with Bridge Publications, which publishes his non-fiction, or Galaxy Press, which publishes his fiction). There, in a large well-appointed library paneled in the finest woods and equipped with a complete collection of all Hubbard's works in every known language, we had our first class.

Tim explained that an SF story has to do everything a normal story does, plus give you a feeling of dislocation or vertigo, a sudden glimpse of something at a ninety-degree angle to reality. In Tim's opinion, what is glimpsed is not as important as the experience of glimpsing. The goal of the SF writer is to deliver that experience: to make the reader forget the book, forget the writer, forget even himself, and simply be in the experience of wonder.

Each of us was assigned a "twin" -- someone to discuss with, work through exercises with, bounce ideas off of. My twin, chosen simply by the fact that we happened to sit next to each other, was Carl -- the one with the bagpipes. It turned out that Carl is a theoretical physicist, now working as a software engineer, and one of the few winners older than me (most of them were in their twenties or thirties, as you might expect). Sheer random chance, it seems, had selected the one person most like me as my twin.

We read and discussed some essays by Algys Budrys (long-time head of the contest, sadly too ill to attend this year's event) and by L. Ron Hubbard on the craft of writing. The Hubbard essays, though written in a breathless, sexist, purple prose that made them hard to take seriously, were still valuable, because the basics of fiction writing haven't changed in centuries: character development, story structure, suspense, time management, and research. And while Tim obviously had not selected the text for the class, he used the essays mostly as a jumping-off point and managed to bring out the truths in them, leaving the rip-roaring adventure focus and formulaic plots quietly on the table.

Tim gave us a lot of specific writing techniques he uses. He likes to "laminate" ideas, characters, and settings together ("hey, what if the dope fiend and the hero's girlfriend were the same people?") and recommends establishing character, setting, and situation firmly and quickly rather than relying on action or an artificial "hook" to grab the reader's interest.

"Suspense," says Tim, "is the reader preferring that things happen one way rather than another," and if the reader cares about the character it is not difficult to achieve -- if the character cares about the situation, this can create engagement in the reader. This can be kind of mechanical, but it works. Suspense should arise from the situation, not be imposed from without (as in The Out-Of-Towners, which Tim calls "frustration fiction") -- it needs to be something the characters have some control over.

We had an hour for lunch. A bunch of us walked down Hollywood Boulevard, past the perpetual crowd at Grauman's Chinese Theatre, to a mall where we ate Mexican food in a courtyard designed to look like a leftover set from some silent Biblical epic. We debated whether the gigantic elephants at the tops of the columns were Ganesh or just elephants. I shared a table with Nnedi, a Ph.D. candidate from Chicago whose parents are from Nigeria, and we talked about how expensive everything in L.A. is.

After lunch, we were each shown an "inspirational object" which we were to use as a jumping-off point for a story that we would write one day later in the week. They were all pretty mundane -- a pack of cigarettes, a twenty-dollar bill, a magnifying glass, and other objects just lying around the library -- but I had just read "Natural Order" by Michael Jasper in the July Asimov's, the first draft of which was written at this very workshop two years ago about a cheap red cigarette lighter, and I knew some interesting stories could grow from these objects. My own object was a folding leather writing desk, which upon inspection proved to contain a few sheets of paper and a couple of silver pens. I had no clue what to do with it.

In the afternoon we discussed characters. Rounded characters should have more than a single hobby or concern, should not just be a collection of quirks. Tim recommended writing down a series of questions and answers about each major character ("think at the keyboard, not in your head -- the conclusion you reach may be stupid, but one of the ideas you had on the way to it might not be, and if you don't write down those intermediate steps you'll forget them"), and repeatedly asking "why?" or "why not?" to get beyond the obvious "default" characteristics. "OK, let's say he hates snakes -- why? -- maybe he was bitten by one -- why did it bite him? -- because he was poking it with a stick -- why did he do that? -- " etc. You should know what the character would be doing if the events of the story had not interrupted when they last ate when they last changed their shirt. You should know what your hero is like when she is in a bad temper or surprised; you should know what your villain is like when he is being genuinely generous. Most of these details will never appear in the story, but when you really understand the characters you'll find they react and behave naturally almost by themselves.

Once you have built 2-4 major characters and some minor characters, and you know what they want more than anything in the world and would do anything to avoid, put them in a situation where those big wants/avoids are in conflict. Tim likes to write down situations, events, snippets of dialog, and character moments on 3x5 cards, then lay the cards out on the floor, arranging and rearranging and tossing and writing new cards until the story begins to take shape. He spends a lot of time learning about the characters and researching interesting bits of trivia before he even begins thinking about the plot. "Outlining isn't fun, but don't use spontaneity as an excuse just to avoid it."

Another technique Tim uses, especially to get started, is to make "imaginary bets." You just start writing any old garbage, knowing that it doesn't count. "What if he's blind and covered with tattoos? What if his dog is tattooed?" Throw out a dozen opening lines (I won't use any of these, I'm just limbering up my fingers). Pick the best ones and write a paragraph from each (this is just an exercise). Develop the best paragraph into a couple of pages (it's not real, you know). Before you know it you're actually writing a story or a novel, and that's when you turn around and tell yourself "Surprise! This is for real!" If part of it isn't working, try throwing some things out, or laminating things together, or switching things around (what if this scene takes place in a car instead of a living room?). Ultimately you come up with a constellation of ideas, characters, and situations that seem to work. Avoid situations where the characters might say "well, here's a stroke of luck."

The last step in the Powers system of outlining is to make a big paper calendar and write on it all the events of each day in the story. Not all these events will be shown in the book, but at this point, you have no excuse for writer's block -- just write what happens next.

About dialog: it tells us things about the person speaking as well as conveying information. People don't always understand each other, they interrupt, they don't hear what's being said. A Marxist will order a cheeseburger differently from a Republican, a person will tell the time difference to their mother than to a cop. First-draft dialog is often too straightforward, too helpful. If you actually heard people saying things like "Yes, Peter, and after that, we will break into the bank" you would think "my God, they know I'm listening!" -- be aware of this, and avoid it. Also, avoid forced jocularity, and don't end a scene with a quip. If you find yourself doing that, cut the scene just before the quip and it'll be better. Also, try replacing bits of dialog with body language and incoherent utterances. Your BS detector is not as good as you think it is, but maybe by the fourth draft, the dialog will be OK.

Class ended at 5:00 and my brain was pretty full. The vans took us back to the hotel, where I met up with Kate -- she'd spent the day in Pasadena. We had dinner at a keen little Malaysian place in the Farmer's Market at Third and Fairfax, where I had a really wonderful tuna sambala, then went off to do some square dancing with the Tinseltown Squares. Then I fell over.

8/13/02 - Tuesday

In the morning we read and discussed a Hubbard essay on getting ideas by talking with people you don't know. Carl, my twin, found the idea a bit unsettling -- it felt like just using the other person -- but I thought it doesn't have to be that way. You can be genuinely interested in them as a person, and only after you have really absorbed and understood who they are do you incorporate those ideas in your stories ("write what you know" amplified by "know more" -- a concept we would encounter over and over this week).

Talking with people can give you concrete details about their jobs and lives that you will never get from any amount of reading. These concrete details can be used to build up a "bank of plausibility" that can then be used to sell a completely implausible idea. Ian Fleming does this a lot.

We were given a two-hour lunch break with instructions to put this into practice. I walked out the door and across the street, where I saw a black man with salt-and-pepper hair sitting on a bus bench with a golf club across his knees. His T-shirt said on the back "DOWN WITH B.D." I asked him who or what B.D. was.

"It's me," he said.

Apparently, the shirt referred to getting down with B.D., rather than being an expression of opposition.

I sat on that bench and talked with B.D. for an hour and a half. His fiftieth birthday was tomorrow, he'd come to L.A. from Virginia Beach in 1978 (and encountered two very interesting women on that bus trip), and he had no front teeth. I asked him what was the bravest thing he'd ever done. "I'm not brave... one time I did stop a guy from beating up his wife... he looked at me and he thought I was this mean guy." He'd been homeless for a time, making money taking Polaroid photos of people in clubs and restaurants. "You've got to make your own job in this town." He praised the matzo ball soup at Canter's Deli. "Once I thanked Gary, the owner's son, for not hassling me when I was sleeping on the curved bench there. Tears ran down his face... he said no one had ever thanked him." We talked about palm trees and coconuts, and I found myself telling him things about myself, things I hadn't shared with anyone else, things I hadn't thought about in years. "It's just so great to be sitting here in the sun," he said. "The blue sky, the palm trees... most people never look up."

B.D., wherever you are... thank you.

In the afternoon we had a lecture from Bill Widder, a publicist for Bridge Publications, on the necessity for self-promotion and how to do it. "You must abandon modesty, for a time." Mostly he talked about how to write a press release and explained that you should have a website. "The more visibility you have, the more meaning, substance, and direction your career will take on." Each of us received a publicity kit with cards, bookmarks, flyers, and sample press releases.

After that Tim took the floor again, to talk about research. He told us how he once got interested in playing cards, and from that began to read about tarot cards. His research on tarot cards led him to read "The Waste Land," which includes a line about someone walking with his shadow in front of him at sunset, i.e. heading east. East from Tim's house in Las Vegas. Research on Las Vegas came up with a whole bunch of creepy coincidences, like Bugsy Siegel's birth and death dates being close to the solstices. "At this point, I'd come up with a whole novel's worth of weird stuff with no creation at all!" From research springs characters, plots, settings. Be sure to read lots and lots of nonfiction. "It is essential to waste most of your life on pointless reading." Read books from other eras so your stories don't appear dated ten years from now. "Every period has its own blind spots, its own spin... don't just be a creature of your own time period."

About theme and allegory: "The value of SF is not what it 'has to say, its main purpose is to give that sense of vertigo. Dracula is not "about" the collapse of the middle class, it's "about" an undead guy who drinks blood. If you look at it as metaphor, the fiction collapses." The theme should be an issue you are undecided about, an incomplete sentence, a question. If you think you have an answer, the story will just come out didactic and preachy. "Write stories you care about, and your convictions will be as clear as the shape of a VW beetle under a tarp -- it will happen very smoothly and subliminally if you let it happen on its own." The theme may become visible before the story is finished; if this happens, don't try to bring it out or answer the question, it should remain subconscious.

Establishing setting and detail is an important part of the writer's job. You must not give the reader a chance to think, because they will realize the story is impossible, and you must not leave the details up to the reader's imagination, because those details will eventually collide with other details in the story. You have the responsibility to provide enough detail to keep the reader in your universe. "Readers are like sheep," said C.S. Lewis, "they will escape through an open gate." Be specific; be aware of such details as what the character can and can't see (for example, if they fall down they will be able to see the undersides of things).

The details you provide must be plausible at all times. The real world, of course, is not always plausible (for example, fencing was not invented until after guns), so you may have to "sell" some details even if they are real. Planets should have more than one climate, topography, language; religions should not be something that only an idiot would believe. Think out the consequences of the changes you make to the real world. Don't include physical impossibilities that would throw the work into the realm of fable or allegory, but don't provide too much technical explanation either ("that loses the goosebumps").

A movie director can establish a setting with a long pan; a writer has to make it up and describe it all -- not every detail, but enough to trick the reader into seeing the whole landscape as the writer envisions it. Give foreground, background, and middle distance; invoke at least three of the five senses; know where the light is coming from. You may not put all these details into the story, but you must be able to picture the scene in your own mind. Readers don't always remember all the details, you may have to remind them in different ways of the important ones (for example, if a scene takes place at night in the rain you could mention headlights, windshield wipers, the sound of tires rushing through puddles).

The description must seem accidental, must convey information without registering conveyance. "There is no such thing as 'a car,' 'a man,' 'a gun.' Be specific." The things that a character notices and does not notice tell you things about the character as well as the setting; the details you choose when describing a scene are the things that will appear important. Tim suggests that you picture the scene and describe three details, two descriptive and one quirky or idiosyncratic.

Finally: When you have a character who has up to now been living in the real world who suddenly encounters the fantastic, consider what you would do/think if this really happened to you. Picture the scene in every detail and your real response will come to you. Treat this moment with respect. This is not the work of a moment, but it is vital. Consider the physical symptoms of emotions; go beyond the normal, default description of the event.

After class, I talked with Carl for a while about our 24-hour stories. He explained that he'd come up with his story outline, all in a rush, the previous evening; I admitted I still had no idea what would happen in mine. I had a vague idea, though, which I bounced off of him.

Starting with the antique writing desk, and my vague idea that it could be used to send letters back and forward in time, we considered and rejected having the contemporary character be based on B.D. (why would someone from 1863 even write back to someone who has, by her standards, appalling grammar and handwriting?). I immediately thought that the contemporary character could be a graphic designer, and would print out his letters in an elegant script font on a Mac. But maybe he's a drug addict -- maybe the letters from 1863 somehow help him to kick his habit. I think it was Carl who suggested that the past character is also a drug addict -- laudanum -- and they help each other.

Fifteen minutes of talking with Carl was enough to crystallize a vague idea into characters, situations, and plots. It was an amazing thing.

I also helped Carl with his story, mostly by suggesting that the outline he'd come up with was more complicated than it needed to be, that he could fold some related incidents together to bring it from novella length down to a short story.

Class ended a little ahead of schedule, so I met Kate at the hotel, to her surprise. She was going to a taping of the new The $100,000 Pyramid with host Donny Osmond, but knowing she had to leave before I was due back at the hotel she'd gotten only one ticket. So we had a quick dinner at a very nice Japanese restaurant across the street from the hotel, then I was left alone for the evening. I wound up hanging with the other writers (and some of the Illustrators of the Future, who'd just arrived for their workshop) on the pool deck. We drank Pat's homemade mead and had the kind of silly, pointless conversations one has at SF convention parties. We got to talking about our favorite TV shows, and after I praised Babylon 5 Jae said she had a whole list of "stupid things I will never, ever do in my stories" that she'd written down after watching it -- then got very apologetic about dissing my favorite show. "Hey," I said, "it's only a TV show," and I meant it.

It was a great time.

8/14/02 - Wednesday

Research day. We were scheduled to spend the morning at the Glendale library, doing research for our 24-hour stories, which we were to begin writing at 5:00 today to hand in at 5:00 tomorrow.

A bunch of us were sitting around in the hotel lobby, waiting for the vans. Carl was type-type-typing away on his laptop, protesting that he wasn't actually writing yet, just outlining. And me, I went up to someone in the lobby who I overheard mentioning that he had once narrowly avoided going to jail. I asked him if he knew any drug addicts because I had a drug addict in my story and I knew nothing about it.

Turns out he used to be one. (Whoa.) He told me all kinds of mean nasty ugly things about crank, how it feels like lye running down your throat after you snort it, how you can concentrate for 18 hours straight before you start getting "strung over" and then you can't sleep, can't do anything useful, and don't want to eat. He told me a lot of things that were just perfect for my story, though I think I was happier not knowing them.

At the library, it was a lot of fun looking at what people were researching. Nnedi had a lot of books on African masks. Pat had Beowulf and a lot of other myths and legends. Me, I had two piles: addictive drugs, and nineteenth-century letters. I wanted data from one, and style from the other.

It's frustrating to visit a library where you can't check anything out. We all put a lot of dimes in the copiers.

On the way back from the library, one of the two vans (not the one I was in) was involved in a minor accident. It was a glancing, low-speed collision, and nobody was hurt, but the left rear quarter panel was torn off, along with half the bumper, and the van wasn't driveable. So we pulled into the nearby Taco Whatever to wait for another van to be sent for us. Some folks went in for lunch, but I wasn't hungry enough for that (I hope I'm never hungry enough for that), so I sat on the curb and worried about Kate, all alone in L.A. traffic. But I knew she'd done that whole road trip solo while I was at Clarion, so I wasn't too worried about her.

Eventually, we got tired of waiting and all squeezed into the one remaining van.

After lunch, we had a presentation by guest instructors Kevin J. Anderson and Rebecca Moesta on the topic "No Excuses: Finding Time to Write." Kevin has published as many as 15 books in a year, and writes almost half a million published words a year; before making it big, he collected 800 rejection slips and a "Writer With No Future" award. "Nobody gives you the time to write," he says, "you have to make it." You must be prolific to make a living as a writer, it's the only way to even out the income stream when publishers so often pay months late. He gave us 11 techniques that work for him:

1. Shut up and write. Don't just wait for your muse; writing needs to be your focus and your priority. If this means a schedule for you, then use a schedule. Don't do the fun stuff until you've written your quota for the day, and don't allow non-writing tasks such as answering the phone to interfere.

2. Defy the empty page. Don't get hung up on how to begin, just write something. "Skip the brilliant first sentence and write the second sentence first."

3. Dare to be bad. The shitty first draft accumulates energy as it moves, don't interrupt it to look up a word. You can get into a fugue state and turn out large amounts of text, then go back and fix it later. "It doesn't have to be perfect, but it does have to be finished."

4. Turn off your internal editor. Create now, edit later; maintain your writing momentum.

5. Work on many different projects at once. You can be doing interesting stuff on one project (research, drafting) during the dull bits of another (proofreading, accounting).

6. Use every minute. Even if you only have ten minutes, write anyway. Don't wait for uninterrupted blocks to time to be handed to you. Every little bit helps.

7. Set goals or challenges. Promise yourself a treat if you make a deadline; use contest deadlines as a spur to complete work. Get together with other writers and make it a game, e.g. "whoever has the most stories in the mail gets a fancy dinner."

8. Try different writing methods. Pen and paper still do work. Kevin outlines in longhand, with circles and arrows, and drafts on a tape recorder, while hiking. His assistant types it up, then he edits it on a computer. Try every way you can think of, then stick with the ones that work best for you..

9. Create a good writing environment. Find your ideal writing space and time. Do you prefer silence or music? A coffee shop, or solitude? Are you a morning person, or a night owl? Kevin and Rebecca have opposite preferences, so have offices at the far ends of their house.

10. Get inspired. The more stuff you know, the more "ingredients" you have to in your mental pantry. Read lots, travel to different places, take courses. Find out what you don't know.

11. Know when to stop. When it's done, it's done/ Don't just write in circles, send it off when it's as good as you can make it, and go on to the next one.

After the formal presentation, Kevin and Rebecca riffed on "advice we wish we'd gotten when we were starting out." Always be professional; never alienate anyone, no matter how dumb they are -- that idiot critic may later be an editor in a position to buy or reject your novel. Socialize with editors at conventions, but remember that your presence is like cayenne, a little goes a long way -- just be friendly and open to opportunities, don't push yourself. Be aware that editors are looking for any reason to reject your manuscript; simply following the forms (using the proper manuscript format, including a SASE, writing a non-threatening cover letter) puts you in the top half of the slush pile. Know that any kind of personal note on a rejection letter is a very encouraging sign. Think of a query letter for a novel as though it were a trailer for a movie; write a letter describing what the novel is and your credentials, and attach a 3-page summary (or as requested). Mind your own business -- even if you have an agent, you have to read your contracts and statements, know when to expect money, etc. If you sign a contract and the publisher does something awful that's permitted by the contract, don't whine about it. Meet your contracted deadlines and other commitments. Keep in mind that advertising is expensive, but publicity is cheap; an interview costs you nothing, an ad in the same magazine costs a lot. Short stories make great publicity for an upcoming novel.

And then, promptly at 5 pm Wednesday, they sent us back to the hotel. We had until 5 pm Thursday to write a complete short story draft. We didn't have to incorporate the object, the random stranger, and the research, but most of us did (or started with them, anyway). Kate and I had dinner together at Jerry's Deli, then I booted up my laptop and started typing.

I started with a series of questions I got from Pat Murphy at Clarion, which I have found useful as a way of focusing my attention on the characters and their relationships. By 9 pm I had 3600 words of character sketches, research notes, an outline, and I started in on the story itself, starting at the beginning and just chugging along through my outline (though the developing story doesn't follow the outline exactly -- it never does -- it still goes about where I originally thought it would go). By 1 is, with a couple of thousand words written, I decided I was doing well enough that I could get some shut-eye.

8/15/02 - Thursday

Woke up at 7 am with a head buzzing with ideas. I typed and typed all day, pausing only to go across the street to Ralph's grocery for a quick sandwich (which turned out to be not so quick). By 2 pm I had about 4000 words and it felt like the story was about half-done. I know how fast I can draft, and I knew I couldn't write 4000 more words in 3 hours, so I decided to fold the last two exchanges of letters into one. I finished the first draft at 3:30 pm. The ending felt rushed, and I knew the beginning was slow, but I decided to head downstairs and try to get the story printed out then rather than wait until the last minute. Oh well, I told myself, it's only a first draft.

There was some confusion about the printers. Months earlier I had established with Rachel that every writer needed to bring their own computer, but printers would be provided. Well, it turned out that "printers will be provided" meant "there's a business center in the hotel." But we had learned earlier in the week that the business center charged a couple of bucks a page after the first ten, so Rachel had promised to borrow a printer from Author Services and set it up in the "tux room" (where the guys who were renting tuxes would be fitted). But nobody knew where the tux room was.

Eventually, I established that the tux fitting would be in the Champagne Room. It looked like a lovely place to have a wedding reception or other function, but at 4:00 it was completely devoid of both tuxes and printers. I wandered down to the business center, where first Tom and then Jae and then increasing numbers of other writers were also showing up with floppy in hand. But though the business center was open, there was nobody there from the hotel. It was just a room with a couple of computers and a price list (three dollars for a highlighter?).

People wandered around. No Rachel, no printer, no hotel staff. Finally, someone noticed that the password for the business center computers was printed neatly at the bottom of the monitor (don't tell anyone, but it was "password"). Jae put her disk in and printed out her story, which was less than ten pages. Success!

Then we realized that there was nobody and nothing checking our room numbers or counting pages.

So we all stuck in our disks and printed our stories. Wah hah! Most of us reformatted them from Courier to Times New Roman to save paper. Eventually, someone from the hotel did appear, but he recognized that we were not drastically exceeding the "ten pages free" limit and we all agreed to keep the arrangement quiet.

By 5:00 all of the manuscripts were printed out and handed into Rachel. Congratulations all around. Then the guys went off to have their tuxes fitted. I went along for the sake of camaraderie, though I had brought my own (the tails I got married in, with a new shirt and vest, and cufflinks made of old typewriter keys that my dad sent me). I was glad I went because Hal Clement and Fred Pohl were also there.

After the frenzy of measuring, Tim gathered us all together in the tux room for one last lecture. He talked about openings, how it is better to firmly establish character, setting, and situation than to attempt to "hook" the reader's attention with action or violence. "Don't run over little Johnny till I know him." Specific techniques include starting with a broad overview of the city or country and "zooming in" through narrower and narrower details to a particular character taking a particular action, and beginning in the middle of a conversation.

(Aside: The sample conversation he came up with as an example, just tossing it off ad hoc, was:

"French toast."

"French toast? A town called 'French Toast'?"

"It's not really called 'French toast,' it just sounds like 'French toast.'"

A lot of us would love to read the novel that starts with that conversation. This is typical Powers, to dash off something so intriguing without even thinking hard.)

Tim talked until 7:00 or so when Rachel came back with the copies of our stories. We distributed them out, and then it was so time for dinner. After a number of false starts, Kate and I wound up at the California Pizza Kitchen. Then we went to the meeting of the Los Angeles Science Fantasy Society, where we had a number of fine conversations about fanzines and conventions and where the line between brain and mind might lie. But boy, they were a scruffy-looking bunch by comparison with the folks we'd been hanging out with all week.

8/16/02 - Friday

This morning we critiqued three of the seventeen stories, randomly selected. Mine was not one of them, but that's OK. Of the three stories, I loved one, enjoyed another (though it was a straight mystery, not a type of story I usually read), and had some issues with the third... though even the third had a great climax, a scene of great tension in which the decisive action is: smoking a cigarette.

Rather than describe the critiques in detail, I will just provide a few quotes. (These would be candidates for the T-shirt if this were Clarion.)

"Your setting grinder was set a little too coarse."

"I like characters that I hate."

"Very alive, interesting, and offensive."

"He was attracted to women... why women? Why not horses?"

"He's a guy, he was born in Pittsburgh... he's alienated, not an alien."


"Our protagonist is, roughly, an admirable guy... if you're grading on a curve."

"Reflexes of morality like twitches in a dead frog's leg."

After lunch (I went to the Armenian place with Woody, and we talked about politics), we had the official presentation of the illustrations to our stories. The Illustrators of the Future, with whom we had had only limited contact so far, waited for us in a conference room, and we were ushered in (not without some trepidation) to find seventeen framed illustrations sitting on tables and chairs. None of us had any problem recognizing our own stories, and most of us were very pleased with the results. My own illustration is not at all the way I had pictured the characters, but at the same time, they look exactly like themselves. And we got to keep the framed, signed prints. Way cool.

Next, we had a surprise guest lecturer: Hal Clement. His is one of the names I was most pleased to see on the list of luminaries since he wrote some of my favorite stories and I'd never met him in person (unlike many of the other big-name writers here). (When I did, I did not mention that my father had told me how much he'd enjoyed Mission of Gravity when he was a kid.) Hal was a remarkably cheery, modest, and personable speaker. "Superior intellects, who can actually visualize an entire plot, may use outlines, but I don't." Does "soft" SF bother him? "Not anymore, I've read Terry Pratchett's Feet of Clay 21 times, and I still enjoy Edgar Rice Burroughs, though Doc Smith called him 'scientifically, a total loss with no insurance.'" "I started writing because of teenage arrogance. I thought 'I can write better science than this!' But I've never succeeded in writing a story with no scientific errors. Never managed to write a quiz where every student understood every question as I meant it, either." He also gave us a bunch of advice on how to achieve a sufficient level of scientific accuracy. "Looking ignorant is the worst sin."

After his talk, Hal and Carl found a shared interest in Welsh folk songs and regaled us with several, including one about the joys of woad.

Kevin Anderson returned for a Q&A. What to pitch for a first novel? The idea you find most entertaining; if you have several good ideas, laminate them together or collide them (Jurassic Park is a collision between "cloning dinosaurs" and "amusement park gone amok"). Don't worry about making it "commercial", though if it takes more than 20 minutes to explain the basic concept to your friends it might be too complex. It is still true that you have to write your whole first novel before you submit it, and that you don't need an agent until the first novel is accepted -- editors believe that the vast majority of new authors are flakes who will take the advance check and never be seen again, and you don't want an agent who is willing to represent an unpublished novelist.

Once you are established, you can get a contract on the basis of an outline (Tim, being Tim, then forgets all about the outline, but when Kevin is writing a media tie-in book he can't do this). When you finish your first novel you should write a 2-3 paragraph outline and a 3-4 page outline, either may be needed on short notice. It is more important than the outline sell the concept of the book than that it be an accurate description of the plot.

How long should a first novel be? 90,000 words are reasonable for a new writer, a standard novel these days is 100,000-120,000 words. 60k is too short, 150k is probably too big. Don't bother writing a sequel unless and until the first book sells reasonably well. If you are prolific, don't be afraid to use pen names; there's an impression in some quarters that if you write more than one book a year they can't be any good.

Finally, Tim returned to the podium to talk about an experience he'd had teaching Clarion, where some of the women wrote stories about characters called Wolf Woman and some of the men wrote about characters called Pissant. These stories tended to fail in very consistent ways. The Pissant stories were ironic, flip, coy ("it's supposed to be funny" but it never is), constantly "winking" at the reader. The Wolf Woman stories took place in the Default Medieval World, with prose reminiscent of Mallory and King James (but really based on movies and games) -- worlds dominated by formality and custom, with lots of Capitalized Words and no contractions. "Prince Godknowswhat and the Search for the Wheelbarrow of Fate." Why do people write in these ways?

Both of these techniques are intended to avoid embarrassment. Every good writer constantly takes the risk of being made fun of. Creating characters who deserve attention -- characters the author really cares about -- is a risk. To avoid this risk, authors hide behind the arch, hip prose ("I don't really mean this, so it doesn't bother me if you don't like it") or overly formal prose (clouds of archaism hide any real emotion -- nobody ever says "I love you" in these stories, they just spout poetry).

Don't worry about what your mother would think. Don't worry about being made fun of. Present emotion as honestly as you know how don't hide behind anything. Don't settle for "competent," do your best. In two words: Picture It.

Back to the hotel for a Welcoming Buffet with the judges, including Nina Kiriki Hoffman, Kelly Freas, Larry Niven, Jerry Pournelle, Ron Lindahn and Val Lakey Lindahn, and Fred Pohl, among others. I've met most of these people before, but many of my fellow writers -- especially Lee, from Australia -- were reduced to a state of homina-homina-homina by the presence of so many big names. "My God! That's Larry Niven!" I got a contact high from the neo-pro's sensawunda. I told Lee the embarrassing story of my first meeting with Larry Niven (at a Chambanacon in 1978 -- crikey, that's almost 25 years ago!).

8/17/02 - Saturday

After a brunch with the judges and other guests, we were taken on a two-hour tour of the L. Ron Hubbard Life Exhibition, the one aspect of the week that I found disquieting. This was a museum of Hubbard's life and work, dramatized with slide shows, videos, movies, maps, life-size dioramas, artifacts (L. Ron's actual Boy Scout merit badge sash, gosh wow!), paintings, hundreds of pulp magazines, and a hands-on demonstration of the E-Meter, "the first device to accurately measure human thought." The truly amazing thing about Hubbard, as presented in this museum, is that he did it all single-handed -- he had no family, no co-inventors, and no assistants, and nobody is continuing his researches (nor was his death ever mentioned). He was the first, the youngest, the most, the only. It's Hubbard all the way down.

Idolization I can understand. But the one thing that makes no sense at all to me is that, as presented in the museum, Scientology is focused on self-empowerment: the idea that if you truly understand yourself, you can break free of the forces within you that hold you back from what you wish to become. That's an admirable concept, really, but how can it be reconciled with the slavish adulation of the Almighty LRH? It is a puzzlement.

In the afternoon we had rehearsals for the awards ceremony. And more rehearsals. And still more rehearsals. It's actually harder than you might think to get up from your seat (in tux or frock, with unfamiliar shoes), walk to the appropriate side of the stage, pose with the presenter (and the award certificate) while pictures are taken, go to the podium (without the certificate), make your acceptance speech, and return to your seat. But I think most of the rehearsing was for the benefit of the lights, sound, and other backstage people who needed to coordinate their actions around us. The one good thing about the rehearsals was the fake acceptance speeches ("I'd like to thank the King of Sweden"; "I'd like to thank my children, who have furthered my writing career by remaining unborn"; etc.).

The last thing before we went back to the hotel was a brief one-on-one meeting in which we were asked what we were planning on staying in our acceptance speech. They explained that it was just to make sure we had considered it, so as not to freak out at the last minute (one year one of the illustrators ran off and got drunk, missing the ceremony, out of public-speaking anxiety). They also asked us, politely, to thank L. Ron Hubbard for founding the contest. Some folks had trouble thanking a dead guy ("they so rarely say you're welcome") but, to be honest, I didn't mind it. It was just about the only thing the contest asked of us, at the end of a week in which we'd been treated like royalty.

Back to the hotel with just enough time to get dolled up in our gender-appropriate formalwear before the make-up call at 4 pm. "Make-up? Even the blokes?" Yes, even the blokes. Didn't want to look all pasty in the photographs, did we? I got off easy -- she just powdered my nose, and my forehead, and my bald spot (sigh). Then we had a delicious catered dinner and were shuttled by stretch limo to the awards ceremony on Hollywood Boulevard. Kate and I shared a limo with Hal Clement, and we had a nice conversation on the way about rocket propulsion and whether the guidance system on the V-2 was any good. As to the other folks in the limo -- why is it when you dress a perfectly normal guy in a tux and put him in a limo, he turns into a frat boy?

I am told that there were crowds when the limo pulled up to Author Services and we stepped out onto the red carpet to the dazzle of flashbulbs. I didn't notice them -- I was too busy trying to keep from falling full-length on the sidewalk. Stretch limos are not easy to get out of. But we got inside with no problems and mingled with the other guests, who included actors, producers, and (surprisingly) two of the nominees for this year's Best Fan Writer Hugo. Then we took our seats for the big awards show.

Was it long? Not so long as the Oscars, nor as wide as the Emmys, but 'twill serve, 'twill serve. There was an opening "space opera", sung with great emotion in some unknown language, and speeches by Hubbard people about the wonderfulness of the awards, and a presentation by Starlog magazine to commend the contests for all the good they'd done for science fiction. And then came the awards themselves, presented by the judges with a smattering of actors and actresses. My own award was presented by to me by Jerry Pournelle and one Julie Michaels, a stunt woman, and actress who has "graced several Batman pictures" and who was half spilling out of a white dress with an astonishing feathered hat that really reminded me of Bjork at the Oscars. At least she pronounced my name right.

They tell me I gave a very nice acceptance speech.

At the end of the ceremony came the formal unveiling of the cover to this year's anthology. It's by Frank Frazetta, and when I saw it I commented to Kate "tits and lizards... without the lizards." I liked last year's cover, by Kelly Freas, much better. Oh well, can't have everything.

After the awards, we went upstairs for a big reception. Each of the writers and illustrators was presented with a dozen copies of the anthology and a substantial check -- payment for our story's appearance in the anthology, in addition to the prize money we'd gotten earlier for winning the contest. All the other guests also got a copy of the anthology, and we all spent the next several hours madly signing autographs for them and for each other. I even had Sean Astin -- who played Samwise Gamgee in this summer's Lord of the Rings movie -- ask for my autograph. Kate had a brief chat with him as well; she's terribly chuffed about this.

We dragged ourselves back to the hotel sometime after midnight, and most of us sat around on the pool deck, decompressing, after that. I think I got to sleep around 3am.

The next day Kate and I spent the morning packing -- it wasn't easy, with a dozen paperbacks, the framed illustration and even larger framed certificate, and a large box containing publicity materials to promote ourselves in the coming year, in addition to the formalwear and laptop we'd brought with us -- then went to Grauman's Chinese Theatre for an afternoon show of Signs. Which was not the strangest thing we'd seen all week by any means. And then to the airport, and home, and to sleep at last.

Closing Thoughts

As I write this it is one week later, and I find myself still in shock (also still sleep-deprived). Was that really me, in the tux, receiving a framed certificate from the bimbo in the nine-inch high heels and the feathered hat the size of a laundry basket? Did I really talk with a near-homeless man, a complete stranger, for an hour and a half? Was I really one of that gang -- that group of keen people who could also, in all modesty, be called some of this year's hottest new writers?

Yes, I think maybe that was me.


The Writers of the Future week felt to me like the first five days of the first week of Clarion, plus the last two days of the last week of Clarion, plus the senior prom I didn't go to. It was, frankly, more fun than Clarion, and came much closer to my expectations. Both of which were large because it was only one week instead of six (I don't want to think what the 17 of us would have been like after six weeks cooped up in a fancy hotel with each other and a bunch of Scientologists), but I also approached the event with more humility, more concern for others, and -- most significantly, I think -- not after having just left a job I wasn't suited for.

It's been a hell of a ride. But the next step is up to me. I don't want this to be the high point of my career; I mean to keep writing, keep submitting, and keep winning awards. The persistent rat is still the one that gets published.


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Image of David D. Levine At Writers Of The Future 2002