Clarion Week 6: Chuck Palahniuk

Pritpaul and Shane share a moment

This is the first of what will probably several wrap up posts on Clarion West 2008. I’ve still got a lot to digest and I don’t know where to start so these are notes, probably disjointed, that I’ve kept since my last post.

Every Friday night we had a party which was partly farewell to the departing instructor and partly party-on for the local Clarion West/Sci-fi community and partly for us to network and get to know people in the field.

The week 5 party was in Bellevue. We followed Caren over there so we wouldn’t get lost. (She’s local and also one of the best people to follow when driving because she doesn’t drive too fast and she uses her turn indicator so you can figure out what’s going on.)

Caren in the CW 08 Viking hat and Owen

We left the party at 10:30p on our own and used Kira’s GPS to get home. He’s named Oliver and he has an Australian accent. He doesn’t know Washington so when we had to get on Washington 520 he told us to get on Western Australia 520. He was awesome.

When I first arrived in Seattle I was wigged about driving because I’m a nervous driver to begin with and I hate driving in a place I don’t know and then we added a carload of people who need a ride into the mix. The first weekend I was like a 99 year old neurotic cat lady who lost her medication trying to get where we had to be and park and be on time and keep everyone alive and in one piece. Several of the same people were in my car for the last party, 6 weeks later, and they noticed that I was way more relaxed. However, during the whole 6 weeks there was only one outing where I didn’t have to make a U-turn.

An in the CW 08 Viking hat with Christopher looking on.

It was an interesting emotional arc I went through over those 6 weeks. I had a really hard time the first week. It was tough to get settled in. I could not sleep as everyone who has been keeping up with these posts knows. I never did get the sleep thing going. I started to envy my computer for the ease with which it went to sleep. I took a 2.5 hour nap the day I got home and slept 10.5 hours that night. I did only 8 hours last night and I’m feeling droopy now and may go lay down as soon as I finish this post.

After the first week I settled in and then I felt panicked about leaving because I couldn’t imagine that I’d ever want to leave my new friends and have to go back and work and cook my own food and do chores and not think about writing all the time.

Then by the end of week 5 I was done. I wanted my own bed, my own bathroom and my normal toilet paper. Sysco has the sorriest excuse for paper products in the known Universe. The paper towels also = doodoo. I wanted to take a shower in stall big enough to turn around in. I’m not a big person I could barely shampoo my hair without poking myself in the eye with my elbow. I wanted to be in charge of my own food supply. Boy it’s amazing how quickly good eating habits can go to pot. By the end, potato chips and peanut butter pretzels with red wine as a dinner alternative seemed perfectly acceptable.

I told Kira to try to look cute and she did.

When I prepared for the workshop I brought a bunch of ideas and I brought two stories that already had first drafts just in case I got in a panic, I would have something to fall back on. I got in a panic in week #6. One of the things we were encouraged to do is take risks and try things we’d never tried before. My first 4 stories had the same tone, setting, narrative style, etc. I was perfectly happy with my style but I thought I should at least try something different. Plus I did this structural trick which is too hard to explain here but which basically served to tie one hand behind my back.

I didn’t think I was going to be able to pull it off in time so I thought back to the two stories I’d brought with me. And I didn’t think either of those was good enough. My point being that after 5 weeks of the workshop I already thought I’d improved beyond stories that were barely a few months old. I have a stack of stuff for revisions. I have hope for them all.

In fact, this was a major lesson of the workshop that every story I panicked in the middle and thought was an unfixable disaster and all of them I managed to pull something out to put in front of the class.

Waiting at Chuck’s reading. L to R Front row: Maggie, Kristin, Owen, Caren, Eden, Raj and Tracy. Back Row starting with blue shirt: Jim, Carol, Kira and Douglas (They’re working on stories for Wednesday.)

Chuck Palahnuik was our week 6 teacher and by the time he arrived, I’d lost my ability to be intimidated. A huge contrast to the first week when everything intimidated me.

“I love rules,” he said. Here are some Chuck rules as best as I can decipher from my notebook:

Don’t use “to be” or “to have” — depict with a physical action.

No abstract words (e.g. big, nice, tall, great).

No intangibles (e.g. love, remember, desire, think, consider). Make everything tangible.

No screaming the world through your characters. (e.g. “She heard a bell ring.” Instead: “The bell rang.”)

Submerge your “I’s” This is when you’re writing in the first person you want to use as few “I’s” as you can. Try to convert to Mine or My. This was the only week I did a first person story because I don’t like to write in the first person and it took me HOURS to submerge my I’s. But I got a shout out for doing a good job on that.

This is harder to explain but Chuck wants you to know your character’s area of expertise — a consistent way the character notices things, gestures, reacts to things. Watch what is dramatized through gesture.

Never forward your plot through dialogue. This is the least effective way. The best way is through action/discovery.

Wed the ordinary everyday stuff to the situation in the story. Also using the ordinary to give the drama/horror/whatever more punch. I realize out of context some of this is worthless but I don’t know how to explain better.

Use props and items over and over rather than introducing new items. If the characters shows up on the first page with a set of steak knives, then bring the steak knives back. You don’t have to waste energy explaining new objects. Said another way: “Let objects do a job and not disappear.” Be aware of every object you put in.

Be open to trashing your work at any point in the process. Be willing to take a great idea and trash it and know that better ideas will come.

This isn’t all. He had tons of great stuff and he reinforced it all week during class.

(L to R) Standing in back: Carol, Carlton and Pritpaul. Next row: Kristin, Owen, Christopher, Maggie, Douglas, Raj, Kira, Shane and An; Front Row: Chuckles, Caren, Eden, Tracy, Jim, Me and Theresa.

Quotes from Chuck:

“I wish I could teach you to be a beautiful writer but I can’t. I can teach you how to trick people.”

“Look, they catch the sperm back in their penises. It’s like Cirque du Soleil.”

Chuck’s biggest advice: “Don’t stop writing. Be stubborn and determined.”

Quotes Not From Chuck:

“So you can take that with a huge mountain planet of salt.”

“I don’t know the crustacean anatomy that well.”

“I don’t necessarily agree but I don’t necessarily disagree.”

“It’s not necessarily necessary.”

“I think your audience for this is people who like creepy baby stories.”

“I was waiting for the speculum to be busted out. I don’t necessarily know what that is.”

“Can you build in redundant systems in case of reader failure?”

“I’m unsure what Dr. Vito was doing. Why would he facilitate the unbirthing unless it was the world’s longest plan to get laid?”

“Once a again you have written a powerful story that feels like a kick in the balls. I like this one better, possibly because it was a bit more pleasant kick in the balls.”

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