Thursday, April 4, 2013

Hostile Waters: How to Defend a Genre Thesis in a “Literary” Program

I once had a disagreement with the (now former) head of my department. The crux of the matter was this: He didn’t think that a graduate level course on adolescent literature should count toward my degree. In his eyes, adolescent (ie: YA) literature didn’t count as “real literature.”
     The new head of my department has the following policy in her workshops: first year MFA students aren’t allowed to submit speculative fiction. Her argument is, “You have to learn the basics before you can experiment." And by "learn the basics" she means "write literary fiction" (ie: existential realism).
     Being a genre writer in my program was like being an unnamed orphan in Annie: it’s a hard knock life.
     Yesterday, I faced the last major obstacle of my MFA career: the dreaded thesis defense. For the purposes of my program, a thesis consists of a complete novel or a collection of short stories with no fewer than 100 pages. I went with the latter, submitting a work comprised of 4 shorts (136 pages).
     The purpose of a thesis defense is to make an author explain his or her choices (and thus demonstrate a conceptual mastery of the craft). If you’ve ever been in a workshop environment, it’s a little like that--only with a savage twist: you have to talk back. Three professors sat around a table and discussed every possible shortcoming of my stories, punctuating each observation with, “Why did you do it this way?”
     They honed in on my weaknesses with the seasoned ruthlessness of carnivorous pack animals.
     “Your protagonists need more distinctive voices.”
     “Your balance between characterization and plot is lopsided.”
     As a bonus, none of the members of my thesis committee are readers/fans of speculative fiction. I only write speculative fiction. As a result, I fielded questions like:
     “Most genre stories seem to be precautionary tales. What is this story telling us to avoid?”
     “Your story didn’t explain the world as fully as (insert full-length novel here).
     The latter was a particular sticking point for me. It didn’t seem fair to compare the depth of world building in a 26 page short to that in 400 page novels. Of course, to some extent, that’s the point of the exercise. Because speculative fiction was such an unfamiliar medium to my committee, I had to work that much harder to explain my choices.
     Q: Why didn’t I explain more of the world?
     A: There’s a balance between the details that a story needs and the details that are cool but unnecessary. How did Panem come to be? Suzanne Collins doesn't tell us because it isn’t germane to the story.
     Q: Is this supposed be to art or entertainment?
     A: Both, by necessity. If it isn’t art, it won’t be worth reading. If it doesn't entertain, it won’t be read.
     These are abbreviated examples, but you get the idea.
     I was interrogated for a full hour. Afterwards, I waited in an adjoining chamber while the committee deliberated my fate. A few minutes later, the head of the committee opened the door and congratulated me. My strategy had worked.
     So, what was my strategy?
     The thesis committee is made up of three professors. One acts as an adviser, providing feedback during the thesis revision process. The other two professors only come in at the end to help assess the final draft and its defense. The most important thing is that the student picks which three professors to invite.
     Since none of the professors in my program write (or particularly enjoy) speculative fiction, I sought out open-minded educators that looked past antiquated labels and literary prejudices. The members of my committee didn’t necessarily “get” genre fiction, but that didn’t matter. I’d picked people that would focus on universal craft elements and my ability to soundly articulate the reasoning behind my choices. As one member of my committee put it, “I don’t care about what genre a story falls under. I only care about how good it is.” Amen.
     So, I guess my thesis defense strategy is twofold. First, be deliberate in writing. If something is in your story, know why. If something isn’t, know why that is, too. Second, choose your audience wisely.

Saturday, March 23, 2013

On Being Accepted into Clarion West 2013

Sunday, March 17th. 1:43pm.
With my MFA thesis due on Tuesday, I’d spent my weekend in full-panic revision mode. I wrote until the letters became blurry, chugged energy drinks, and wrote some more. When the call came, I was dead asleep. I even tried to hit snooze to make the noise stop. That’s when I noticed that caller ID said: Seattle, Wa. 
    I woke up. 
    “Hello? Is this Liam?”
    “Do you still want to come to Clarion West this year?”
    The caller introduced herself as Leslie, and for the next several minutes, as Leslie very calmly explained things, I spoke exclusively in stupefied fragments. I remember saying “Yes” a lot. We hung up, and I focused on little things, like breathing.
    Thesis? What thesis?
    To be honest, I’m still in shock. It breaks down like this:
  • 50% Delight: “My writing was good enough?!”
  • 40% Delirium: “I get to work with those artists!”
  • 5% Panic: “But I’m an introvert…”
  • 5% Fretting: “Which organs can I sell on eBay…”
    Writing professionally is a dream I’ve only recently begun to pursue. I haven’t won any contests; I have nothing in print. I’ve heard it said that the largest obstacle a new writer faces is losing confidence. Mine was pretty fragile. Without my wife’s relentless encouragement, I wouldn’t have even applied to Clarion West.
    I didn’t believe in me. 
    The call from Clarion represents more than just an opportunity to work with my literary hero and other legendary writers. For me, it was validation, a little message from the universe saying, “You really can do this.” 

    I can’t post the story I used for my application, but I can share my introductory letter. So, here’s me:


Hi. I’m Liam.

    At the age of ten, I invented the moon. Later, inspired by Jimi Hendrix, I stood up next to a mountain and chopped it down with the edge of my hand. I’ve beaten the devil at cards (I cheated), hitchhiked my way across Atlantis, and chased the waves back into the sea. What I haven’t done, however, is publish any of those things. That’s what brings me to you. 
    As an adolescent, I knew that I wanted to write. I sat in the back row of my classes and scribbled epics. At recess, I ran role-playing games because they gave my stories an outlet and an audience. Don’t laugh. D&D taught me the importance of keeping your audience interested. Junior high gave way to high school. D&D gave way to Vampire: the Masquerade, which taught me to mix drama into my adventures. I stopped calling myself a “dungeon master” in favor of “storyteller.” 
    High school gave way to college. Then, life got in the way. Somehow, I forgot writing for a time. It got lost in machinery of clocking in, clocking out, and finding the time in between to make breakfast, lunch, and dinner. I’ve been a mobile DJ, which led to becoming a stagehand, which, in turn, led to becoming an AV lighting technician—only, I hate heights. Lights are always high up. A few odd jobs later, Hurricane Katrina gave me a new one: involuntary nomad. After that came academic specialist, AmeriCorps volunteer, and public school teacher. I’ve worn a lot of hats and walked many miles, but the shoes I wore were always ill-fitting. It took me years to puzzle out why: they were other people’s shoes. 
    They were a technician’s shoes, a salesman’s shoes, an educator’s shoes. I could walk in them all, but they weren’t mine. Not really. In 2011, the ghost of my childhood conspired with my wife. Together, they suggested that I go back to school. Come May, I’ll be the proud owner of a MFA in creative writing--only, I write “genre fiction”. My instructors don’t get genre fiction. Not really. They fed me a banquet of Henry James, Chekhov, Carver, and other brilliant illustrators of the existentially profound, but demigods or other worlds? Heavens, no. 
    Don’t get me wrong; I learned a lot during my MFA candidacy. The program honed my instincts into skills. It made me articulately aware of craft elements, things like causality, character arc, and voice. I also learned the value of technical polish. When I began the program, my manuscripts resembled the crime scenes in slasher flicks: red everywhere. The red taught me something invaluable: other writers can help me. They’re allowed. It doesn’t compromise the creative integrity of my work. I don’t have to be an island. For me, that was an epiphany.
    I was safe in my nest, and the ground was such a long way down. Without the constructive input from peer workshops, I might never have taken that leap of faith. I certainly wouldn’t have dusted myself off and tried again. And again. And again. So, maybe I can fly now. Maybe, not. I don’t think I’ll ever really know until I spread my wings among birds of a feather. My MFA peers encouraged me, but I was always the ugly duckling among them.
    I am not a duck.
    That’s why I’m applying to Clarion West. I want the opportunity to work with successful authors who write the kind of fiction that I want to write. I want to work with peers who share my interests, who can say “genre” without making it sound like a dirty word, who understand the sensibilities of my target audiences. To date, I have only submitted two works in the hopes of being published; both entries in the L. Ron Hubbard Writers of the Future contest. Both stories earned Honorable Mentions, which feels a bit like being friend-zoned by success. I genuinely believe that I can do better.  
    I have to do better. For me, there is no Plan B. This is my calling. These are my shoes. 
    Please help me fill them. 

Sunday, February 17, 2013

Killing Gandalf: How Role Playing Games Made Me a Better Writer

The rattle and clatter of dice being cast--this was the cadence of my adolescence. A salvaged dining room table took up most of the garage. I sat at the head. Depending on the night, four to a dozen others surrounded the table, too.
     The lights were always off. Candles and oil lamps provided better ambiance, and that was quite important. So was the background music. The score from Coppola’s “Dracula” was best for delving into cursed ruins. The droning discord of Joy Division and the Sisters of Mercy set the stage for Gothic cities plagued by the undead and seemingly endless rain.
     This was my proving ground.

Two years before my birth, a company named TSR released Dungeons and Dragons, ushering in a new genre of game: role-playing  Sixteen years later, I caught up. My initiation to D&D came as a matter of chance during my second year in middle school. I was in the school library, browsing through the newest additions to the Choose Your Own Adventure rack.
     “Some of those are based on a game,” a boy said. He was a lanky kid with hair like straw and a wide mouth. I didn’t know him. He introduced himself as James, and spent the next half hour trying to explain what a role-playing game was. When the bell for the next class rang, I still had no idea what he was talking about, but I was intrigued.
     “I’ll show you tomorrow,” he said.
I checked out the book his sales-pitch had prevented me from finishing, and spent the rest of day trying to wrap my head around the concept.

“The cave ends in a strange wall. It looks man-made. What do you do?” James asked.
It’s been over two decades and I still remember my confusion. “I guess I leave?” I said, uncertain.
James sighed. I apparently sucked at this game.
“What? It’s a dead end!”
“Maybe you should search for hidden doors?”
Hidden doors? Who hides doors? “Okay. I’ll do that, I guess.” The table was strewn with oddly shaped dice. A pyramid-shaped one generated numbers from one to four. Others had eight, ten, twelve, or even twenty sides. I was instructed to roll some of them.
James inspected the result, and declared that I’d found a hidden entrance. “It opens just enough to slip through. It’s dark and dank on the other side. Will you dare to pass through the narrow opening?”
     I dared.
     A few minutes later, a band of trolls ushered my very first character into the afterworld. It was a messy end for Simon, the level one human warrior. For me, it was a beginning.
The concept finally clicked.
James and I hadn’t just played a game. We’d told Simon’s (tragically short) story.

Role-playing games involve two kinds of participants. First, there are players. Think of them as actors, playing individual roles in a larger narrative. The second kind of participant has many titles. I prefer “storyteller”. If the players are actors, the storyteller is the director.
     After a few weeks of playing, I found where I fit in that paradigm.
     “How can all of these mindless, flesh-eating monsters live in the same dungeon without killing each other?” I asked. “Also, why does the tribe of Orcs live there, too? What do they eat? Why don’t they just move? Do they really want to kill everyone in the local village just because they’re evil? They have to have a better reason than that! Maybe they want better farmland? Wait. Did the humans force them into the caves? Hey! Are the seemingly innocent villagers really the villains here? Those bastards! Orcs are people, too…”
     James sighed and answered my barrage of questions with the suggestion that I try storytelling.
     At first, my gaming group consisted of James and his brother Jacob. By my sophomore year in high school, I had around a dozen regular players. We gathered during lunch, after school, and spent weekends in marathon sessions that often ran over twenty-four hours.
It was fun, but it was also instructive. This was how I learned to write--organically and intuitively. None of us knew terminology like “character arc” or “character depth”. Instead, we learned from experience that characters with flaws, quirks, and complex back stories were just more interesting.
 That lesson hit home after a several month campaign ended with the players defeating my story’s primary antagonist--a necromancer bent on destroying the barrier between life and death to restore the family he’d tragically lost. “I am going to miss that guy,” one of them said. “I really hated him!” The other players agreed and began talking among themselves about all the horrible things the villain had done--killed their friends, tortured love interests, tricked them into hurting innocents.
They had loved hating him.
A couple even felt sorry for him. “He just wanted his wife and daughter back…”
I sat back and listened, internalizing it. I wouldn’t have used the word “investment”, but that’s what it was. Twenty years later, those players still occasionally mention the necromancer when our paths happen to cross.
Other lessons were less easily digested.

Imagine this. You’ve toiled for weeks to write a brilliant story. The antagonists are complicated, the moral ambiguity is compelling, the danger is thrilling, and the plot is layered in Machiavellian twists. You begin to tell your masterpiece, and your protagonists do everything wrong. There’s a joke among gamers to depict this scenario*.
Storyteller (to Frodo’s player): You put on the ring, becoming invisible. What do you do next?
Frodo’s Player: I kill Gandalf and search his body for treasure.
     When you write fiction, you have complete control over the cast of your story. They do what you want, when you want, precisely the way you want. As the storyteller of a role-playing game, that never happens.
In the beginning, this meant a lot of thinking on my feet. As I became more experienced, I learned to look at story construction differently. Instead of linear story development, I started to consider the different directions every scene could take. In order to have plots that could survive the proverbial death of Gandalf, I effectively wrote a dozen stories for each one that my players experienced.
For example, a scene plan might look something like this:
The player’s characters are summoned before the king to be given a quest:
If the players accept the quest, the king is a benevolent man that just wants them to rescue his daughter from the evil cult that kidnapped her. If they refuse, he’s a cruel tyrant that will use hostages to compel them, and the daughter wasn’t kidnapped: she ran away. If they try to kill the king, then the king will really be a demon in disguise, and the woman isn’t really his daughter. She’s a priestess that knows his true name.
The important part is that they go after the “princess”.
It was a lot of work, but it forced me to consider things from different angles--to think in ways that I normally wouldn’t. Often, just trying to think ahead of my players resulted in better storylines than I’d started with.
What if the seemingly innocent villagers really were the villains?
I still think this way when I write.

By the time I started college, my group had shrunk to a core three or four. We played on weekends--or whenever our work and school schedules permitted. Even that became less frequent, but I still had the desire to tell stories. I had given up writing in favor of storytelling games. Without that outlet, I went back to the world where everyone, heroes and villains alike, did exactly what I wanted.
     Only, the world I came back to wasn’t the one I’d left behind. My heroes were no longer unblemished. My antagonists were no longer evil for the sake of giving the hero someone to fight.
     I was no longer just a writer.
     I really was a storyteller. 

The origin of the joke...

Tuesday, February 12, 2013

My Speculative Origin Story

For me, it all started with an invisible line.
    As a kid, I was acutely aware of invisible things. By day, I defended my backyard from them in pitched battles. By night, I trapped them inside my closet by blocking the door with a mushroom-shaped ottoman. I never noticed the line. It was a different kind of invisible.
   The line, which divided my street neatly down the middle, marked the extreme edge of the school district. All of my friends lived on the other side of it. When we graduated from our elementary school, they all went to one school. I went to a much different one.
    My elementary was nestled in the heart of middle class suburbia. The students there wore clothes from places like Dillard’s and Macy’s. Only two kids in my entire grade had qualified for reduced lunch. Everyone felt sorry for them.
    My new school was a different paradigm. One of the buildings, a two story concrete corpse in the middle of campus, was condemned and boarded up. Most of the students ate lunch for free. There were three carjackings within a four block radius during my first nine weeks. 
    I stood out like a bull’s eye. On my third day there, I got into my fist real fight. Years before, my father, a retired career military man, prepared me for this eventually with a bit of sage advice. “Swing first and put everything you’ve got behind that punch,” he said. “If the other guy’s still standing after that, you’re screwed*.” Turns out, he was right.
    I came home with two black eyes, a bloody nose, and a split lip. I also got suspended for fighting. Two days later, I went back to school and experienced another first. I’d never heard the phrase “being jumped” before. Turns out, it sucks. The four boys that jumped me were suspended and, in according with the school’s policy on fighting, so was I. Again.
    Upon returning from my second suspension in as many weeks, I found myself in something of a precarious situation. I had no friends, and the chest-thumping coalition had marked me as persona non grata, or as they called it, “get him!” With the constant threat of being jumped (and suspended) looming over me, I started looking for someplace to go--someplace where I wouldn’t be found.
    Ms. Care, the school librarian, was a perfect storm of apropos attributes--the kind of person you simply cannot use in fiction lest you face that most scathing pejorative “cliché”. She was mousey and ancient. She wore bifocals, of course, with a little chain that ran from one earpiece to the other so that she could wear her glasses as a necklace if she so chose. As a finishing touch, a medical condition physically prevented her from speaking in anything more than a raspy whisper.
    Her lunch break coincided with mine, which meant that the library was closed at that time every day. Ms. Care locked the doors, and passed the time behind her desk, reading new books and eating unidentifiable things from Tupperware containers. I knocked on her door, and to my surprise, she let me in with no questions asked. She did it again the next day. And the next.
    By the third or fourth day, with nothing better to do, I resorted to reading. The library had two floors. The first was dominated by nonfiction, so that’s where I began--with books that had titles like “Gunmen of the American West”, “Great Battles of the Civil War”, and “The Life of a Medieval Knight”. A week or so passed this way. Ms. Care would let me in, lock the door behind me, and then return to her lunch, never once inquiring about my purpose. For my part, I spent the time learning a lot about nothing in particular.
    One dreary afternoon, Ms. Care deviated from the script. “Would you mind putting these books where they go for me?” she asked, gesturing toward a small, perfectly stacked pile of books on the returns table. I was delighted. It was a chance to repay her kindness. “These go on the second floor,” she rasped. I collected the books, all small hardbacks, and set about my task.
     I thought I was doing a favor for Ms. Care. Ah, but she was a clever one. In her quiet, unassuming way, this was just another example of her helping me. You see, the second floor was where fiction lived, and every book she gave me belonged in the science fiction and fantasy section. I went up the stairs with about a dozen books. I came back down with three.
     One was by Isaac Asimov. The other two featured dragons prominently on their covers. Ms. Care smiled in her gentle way, and stamped them with their new due dates. I returned all three the next day and promptly checked out replacements. This became my habit, and every day Ms. Care would smile and give me few stacks of books, always science fiction and fantasy, to put back on the shelves.
     Eventually, the resident ruffians forgot about me. I can’t really say when it happened. I wasn’t paying attention. There were new worlds to discover, arcane beasts to confront, and the occasional damsel (or planet) to rescue. One again, I was immersed in a world of invisible things.
     Time went on, and Ms. Care began openly recommending books. I unfailingly read them. Rather than eating her lunch in peace and quiet, she would invite me to join her at her desk to discuss my impressions of her suggested readings. We spoke of things like magic and plotlines. She never once spoke down to me.
    When boxes of new books would arrive, there were always a couple of works that seemed almost deliberately chosen to pique my interest. In retrospect, I’m sure that they were. Ms. Care would let me open the boxes, watching me like a parent on Christmas morning. That was how I discovered Rose Estes. She wrote delightfully gimmicky books commonly known as “choose your own adventure”.
    For the uninitiated, these books allowed the reader to direct the story by choosing which page to read next. Will you fight the dragon? If so, turn to page 12. Want to run for your life, instead? Turn to page 45. Ms. Care had purchased three of Rose’s books--The Pillars of Pentegarn, Dragon of Doom, and Mountain of Mirrors. I spent the rest of that day exploring fallen empires, battling frost giants, and bargaining with a dragon to save the world. It was glorious.
     No, it was more than glorious.
     It was inspiring.
     The idea of participating in a story, of deciding what happens next, led me to a new frontier. The blank page. When I’d filled a dozen of them with the beginning of my first story--the tale of a knight commanded by a mad king to singlehandedly rid the realm of dragons--Ms. Care was the first person to read it. I sat nervously across the desk from her as she read, struggling to obey her single commandment--“Don’t say anything until I’m finished.”
    “Well?” I asked the moment she sat the last page down.
    My grasp of grammatical conventions was poor, and my spelling and penmanship were worse. In short, my writing was a red pen’s dream. Despite that, Ms. Care looked up thoughtfully and asked, “This is good, but how will you maintain the action in the next part?”
    “More dragons!” I replied. And that’s exactly how I did it, too.
    When I returned from the summer break, Ms. Care was gone. I would later be told that her throat condition had been some kind of cancer.  About a month before the semester started, Ms. Care had crossed another kind of invisible line.
    But thanks to her, I remain acutely aware of invisible things, so I can still see her. She’s on every page I fill with words.

* "Screwed" wasn't precisely the word he used, but I think I've conveyed the spirit of it.