Where Are We Now?: Henry Lien

The Clarion Workshops (Clarion in San Diego and Clarion West in Seattle) are by-audition workshops for writers of speculative fiction (SF/Fantasy/Horror). For six weeks during the summer, eighteen writers come together under the instruction of six seasoned masters of genre. The students churn out one story and seventeen critiques a week. It’s an intense experience, the sort that can break people down and break them through to becoming better writers. The intensity of the shared experience can help build lasting bonds between classmates that are as much family as friendship.

It isn’t the right experience for everyone. Some individuals shut down under that kind of pressure. Some classes run into interpersonal conflicts that muddy the potential for bonding. Some people can’t afford to go in terms of time or money. But for me (and for my seventeen littermates in the class of Clarion West 2012), it was a life-changing experience in the best possible way.

This week, the classes of Clarion and Clarion West 2016 are starting on an amazing journey. It’s a time when Clarion alums get nostalgic, and I’m no exception! For the next six weeks, I’ll be checking in with my cohort from CW2012 and asking them to talk about their CW experiences: where they were as writers before the workshop, how the workshop impacted their writing, what they’re working on now, etc.

Like dandelion seeds, we’ve dispersed along different courses, some of us hitting ‘measurable’ success markers earlier than others. For better or worse, that’s how this writing thing works. But that’s not the full measure of our potential. One of my classmates in her interview quotes our Week 4 instructor, Connie Willis: “Writing is not a career, it’s a holy vocation. You put in as much time as it takes.” Our vocation is subject to the whims of chance and opportunity. It’s never easy, it’s never over, and it’s different for every person.


Today we have Henry Lien (and his Menagerie of Joy), who made his mark before the workshop even started when he proposed writing the Clarion West anthem and then wrangled us into performing it – with choreography – for our instructors every week.

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What was your writing and publishing experience coming into Clarion West 2012?

I’d quietly written, but had never submitted to any magazines and never had anything published.

What sort of expectations did you have for the workshop?

I had dizzyingly high expectations. I expected it to be an utter jump to light speed. I expected it to level me up as a writer. I expected it to kick open every publishing door I cared about. I expected to find the best friends of my life at the workshop. I expected it to launch my career as a working writer. I expected it to make me a better person. I expected it to make me smarter, taller, and sexier, while whitening my teeth and deepening my voice. And I clamped my hands over my ears and said, “Blah, blah, blah, I can’t hear a word you’re saying,” to anyone who gently and lovingly tried to tell me to temper my expectations. And you know what? Four out of six of those expectations got met, more or less. Enthusiasm can be self-fulfilling, if you decide it’s going to be.

What was something indispensable or revelatory that you learned from an instructor or special guest? From one of your classmates?

George R.R. Martin quoting Faulkner’s advice that the only thing worth writing about is the heart in conflict with itself.

How was the workshop meaningful for you? How has it impacted your writing?

I can’t say that Clarion West made me a better writer. I think my skills coming out were more or less what they were going in. What it did teach me though is how to work psychotically hard and that I as a writer have the power to create anything I want through sheer force of will if I’m simply willing to work hard enough for it. That’s very liberating and democratic.

What’s something you’ve accomplished since the workshop that you’re really proud of (doesn’t have to be writing related!)

I was 42 when I started writing and applied to Clarion West, so I didn’t have any time to waste. I ignored advice that I shouldn’t worry about how well the stories I wrote at the workshop turned out and that I should just use them as learning exercises, which I think is generally sound advice. I wanted each of my six stories to be daring a experiment but I was also determined for them to be successful experiments. I poured my heart and guts and soul into my six Clarion West stories. I pushed myself harder than I’ve ever pushed myself for anything in my life. I love those stories intensely. I’m proud that they all were bought by top markets within two years and a couple got nominated for Nebulas. I’m also super proud of the anthems that I wrote: Ready to Launch for Clarion West and Radio SFWA for the Science Fiction & Fantasy Writers of America.image1 (1)

What are you working on now?

I am finishing up my first novel, Peasprout Chen, Future Legend of Skate and Sword (Fall 2017, Penguin Random House), and starting work on the sequel (Fall 2018, Penguin Random House). The first chapters of the novel were my application writing sample, and I got feedback on them from George R.R. Martin, Kelly Link, and Chuck Palahniuk while at Clarion West. It’s the best thing I’ve ever written, by a good stretch.

Pick one and answer: What do you say when people ask, “Where do you get your ideas from?” Do you have an unusual talent or skill? What keeps you awake at night? If you weren’t a writer what would you be? What are you going to do right now when you’ve finished this ordeal?

“Where do you get your ideas from?”

I’m very hard on my story concepts. I value originality in story concepts intensely. I throw up challenges to myself all the time in coming up with unique concepts. Write a fantasy story with rich and memorable worldbuilding that does not rely on magic at all (“Pearl Rehabilitative Colony for Ungrateful Daughters”). Write the most interesting story you can about the least interesting subject you can think of (gardening, “The Ladies’ Aquatic Gardening Society”). Write a story regarding a logical way to do something that you have always wanted to do (talk to dolphins) utilizing something that you are baffled and intimidated by (engineering, Twitter, “Bilingual”). I work hard to push myself outside of my comfort zone constantly in my concept-creation process. I only want to write things that I’ve never seen before but have been wanting to read my whole life. And I want everything I write to be radically different from everything else I’ve written (expect for obvious things like sequels). But the reward for front-loading the work in this way is that I’m confident that I’ve chosen the right story for me to write that will be worthy of my time and, I hope, of the reader’s time.

What question do you wish I’d asked? Answer it!

“What advice do you have for writers who wrestle with self-doubt or impostor syndrome?”

Cut it out. You’re being too hard on yourself in all the unproductive ways and too lenient on yourself in all the productive ways. You just need to work harder. That does NOT mean just sitting there and forcing words out regardless of their quality for the sake of saying you produced word count. It doesn’t mean willing yourself to become a better writer, which is ludicrous. One of the things it can mean though is making the effort to understand how your own creativity operates. How is your mind wired? Do your ideas blossom through exercise, exposure to good writing, interaction with the world, isolation, playing with animals, reading non-fiction, dressing up in cosplay as one of your characters, etc.? Does reading bad writing or critiquing other writers’ work truly help you learn how to become a better writer like everybody insists or does it in all honesty just infect your own writing with bad habits and cliché instincts? Does living healthier help you when you have to perform as a writer or do you need to indulge yourself and let yourself go to rot until the project is birthed? It takes work to understand these things about yourself. I think too many writers expect writing to be effortless and assume something’s wrong if it’s not effortless. I’m constantly hearing writers say, “That’s outside my skill set. That’s outside my comfort zone. I’ve got to be me.” I believe in expanding my skill set. I believe in expanding my comfort zone. I believe in expanding me. That’s the most honest response to self-doubt and impostor syndrome, in my opinion.


Henry can be found online at www.henrylien.com. You can sponsor him in the Clarion West 2016 Writeathon here.

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Amigurumi II: Amigurumi Boogaloo

My fingers are sore, but my mantle is full. With two days to go, I finished the amigurumi for the Robots and Goons reading at Borderlands Books tomorrow.

Did I mention there’s a reading at Borderlands Books tomorrow? Sunday, June 5 at 3pm. Peter Tieryas, Sunil Patel, Sarah Gailey, and me! Where I will be reading from The Conclave of Shadow and giving away amigurumi octopodes!

(In tangentially-related news, there’s also a Goodreads Giveaway going on right now for The Dragons of Heaven, which will be followed by a Goodreads Giveaway for The Conclave of Shadow starting on June 13!)

I cannot guarantee that the others will want to give away their amigurumi, because they all came out super cute, and I only had time to make one of each (well, there are two hippos, but see my last post for why that happened).

Peter’s robot had a lot of pieces, and I was not happy with the yarn (the same yarn I used for the hippo’s feet). It was too fuzzy and not tight enough, so the robot is a bit too fuzzy and loose. Still, he’s programmed to love?

 

Sunil’s ghostcow was my next big challenge/leveling-up opportunity. See, not a lot of ghostcow patterns floating around (heh. Get it?). I ended up taking a cow pattern and splicing a ghost pattern tail onto the end of it. He has some balance issues (he tends to fall on his face), but I’m really happy overall with how he turned out. I used a smaller hook and thinner yarn, so the stitches are really tight. They feel nice when you run your fingers over them. Petting the ghostcow is a tactile experience! Also, the white is so bright that taking pictures was a challenge because he reflected it too much. So he is a TRUE  ghostcow (with a smidge of Frankenstein’s monster thrown in!)

 

So here’s a pic of the whole family, plus another pic of the family with some primordial cousins. I’m hoping to do at least one more octopus before tomorrow.

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Next project to tackle: Foxes and Dragons! And maybe some shadow monsters.

 

 

Feeling Crochety

Back when I was doing RenFaire, I learned to sew, spin raw wool with a drop spindle, and even do a bit of weaving, but I never got into the knitting or crocheting areas of the textile arts. I bought my socks at Target and refused to wear a tam o’shanter, so there didn’t seem to be much point.

A few weeks ago, I decided to teach myself to crochet so I could make amigurumi octopodes – in part because I suddenly had all this free time after turning in the final draft of Conclave, and in part because… well… amigurumi octopodes!

I found a free pattern I liked and a few useful videos on YouTube (including one that explained how to decode and READ crochet patterns, which are only slightly more confusing than Greek), and a few hours later, I had half an octopus.

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The next night, I tackled the tentacles. All eight of them. And behold, an octopus!

Clearly, I was gifted among mortals, so I decided to take on a few more challenging projects. I have a reading at Borderlands Books on June 5 at 3pm with Peter Tieryas, Sunil Patel, and Sarah Gailey. Knowing that The Conclave of Shadow would not be out in time for me to do any kind of giveaway at the reading, I decided that I would make some more amigurumi octopodes and ‘shadow monsters’ to give out at the reading.

However, I’d feel bad if I had stuff to give out and my fellow authors didn’t, so I offered to make thematically appropriate amigurumi for the other authors at the reading. Sarah replied first, so my first project was a hippo for her.

This was where I discovered that I was not, perhaps, as much of a crochet savant as I first thought.

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I had some mis-starts and mis-steps and corrections on the fly, but I more or less managed the hippo. The problem was that it seemed much… larger… than the pattern said it would be. About three quarters of the way through, I realized that from the start I had not been doing a proper single crochet. I’d only been hooking half of the stitch instead of both threads. I kept on the way I’d gone rather than correcting mid-stream, and ended up with a hippo with gigantism.

20160510_111644Meanwhile, Thrace discovered my yarn bag and did what cats do when they discover yarn bags.

Doubling back, I made another octopus with the CORRECT single crochet, which ended up being about half the size of my first octopus. And then I made another hippo, also half-sized. As an unanticipated benefit, the practice and tighter stitches meant that my stuffing wasn’t showing. Check out the comparison pics. What a difference a stitch makes!

 

I still need to add eyes, but everything else is done.

Next up will be a robot for Peter and a ghost-cow for Sunil. I’m going to try to make two of each so that my fellow authors can give one away and keep one for themselves. I will not be making versions with gigantism, though. Instead, I imagine I’ll be making new and more interesting mistakes!

After that, gonna try some color mixing to make a fox, a dragon, and a tiger. Stay-tuned, because I will definitely be doing blog giveaways for these things before I end up with a menagerie.

You are not a thing

Warning – Spoilers for Mad Max: Fury Road

I saw Mad Max: Fury Road at WisCon and again when I got back. I think a lot of folks have given better commentary than I can about what works and why, so I’m not here to add to the noise.

But I’m getting a little weirded out by a trend I’ve seen over the past few days, which is the celebration of the War Boy rhetoric from Mad Max. I mean, wasn’t the whole point of Nux’s storyline that the War Boys were, in their own way, as much things to be used as the Brides? Sure, the War Boys are empowered in a way that Brides (and the milk women) are not, but they’re still entrapped in a system of oppression (and even encouraged to support it). Really, they’re an excellent hyperreal illustration of how men are also victims of the Patriarchy, encouraged to perpetuate it through self- and other-destructive behaviors. So when I see all the WITNESS! cries and the pro-chroming rhetoric, I’m like… is this supposed to be ironic? I don’t see people crying out “rape me, impregnate me, and put me in a creepy chastity belt and/or on a milking machine!” with the same fervor. Why? Because we KNOW that is a gross violation of our personhood. But so was being a War Boy.

Don’t make Furiosa throw you out of the truck, kk?

Social Dynamics and the Politics of Helping People

0r How to not be “Helpy.”

The other day I was at an outdoor cafe and witnessed a scene that bothered me. A woman was sitting at a nearby table with a small dog of the inveterately yappy variety. A family passed by trailing kids of various ages. The dog took exception to this, sprang up to the end of its leash, and leveled a barrage of barking at the kids, one of whom (a girl of about 5-6) was startled enough that she sprang away, hit the wall beside her, and fell.

She was physically fine, but scared and crying as a result. The family picked her up, soothed her, etc. It was all good.

Except… the woman with the dog clearly felt bad. She got up and loomed over the little girl, saying “aw, honey, it’s okay. He’s really friendly; he didn’t mean it. You startled him. He was just as scared as you were.”

The little girl, reasonably, cringed away from this stranger getting all up in her face. The family led her away, the dog-owner trailing after them, still trying to engage the girl, still trying to tell her it was okay.

I said nothing, because it wasn’t my business, but lady… it is not that little girl’s job to assuage your conscience because you weren’t taking proper public precautions with your dog. Instead of being concerned with that girl’s comfort in the face of a trauma (mild to us, but to a little kid, yeah, that’s a scary damned experience), the woman was concerned with her own comfort and need to apologize and remove her own culpability.

So today, different coffee shop, different situation. A woman pushed past my table and knocked my tea over onto my keyboard. She didn’t even notice, just sailed out of the coffee shop without an apology. That’s fine. It was an accident, and I was too busy making sure my keyboard didn’t fritz-out to do more than glare over my shoulder at her.

But the guy in the line running past my table (the reason the woman had to squeeze close enough to knock over my tea) did notice, and after a few moments, he leaned over to offer his advice – that I should get a hair dryer to dry the keyboard.

Bryn calls this sort of helpfulness “being helpy.” That is, help/advice that is impossible to follow or more damaging than the initial problem.

I told him I didn’t have a hair dryer just then, but thank you for his help, and turned back to do what mitigation I could (I have lost one laptop to a water-knocking-over issue — fucking cat — so I’ve actually done a bit of research into how to fix/prevent damage). I was probably a bit short with the guy because… y’know… I had bigger concerns.

He took great offense at my dismissal of him. I don’t recall what all was said. I know I ended up diverting my attention from my real problem (the tea-drenched laptop) to assuaging the hurt feelings of some stranger. I know he told me I had to chill out, calm down, I was over-reacting, and that he was only trying to help, yadda yadda.

When did my problem switch from being potentially damaged electronics to being the ruffled feathers of a stranger? And why did he feel the need to make my issue all about him? Why did the lady with the dog think that the little girl would be comforted by a stranger looming over her?

I can’t control the actions of other people, so I suppose the learning experience here is to keep aware of my own actions: when I hurt someone, when I see someone who has been hurt, I need to remember to foreground the injured person’s needs and comfort over my own need to be helpful and fix things. Asking “What can I do to help?” and then accepting “nothing” as an answer is hard, and there’s always the issue of people being unable to admit or articulate their needs, but I think it’s a more respectful approach than imposing yourself on someone because you think they need your help.

Or something. I dunno. Mostly, I needed to get that off my chest so I could get back to editing. That helpy guy annoyed me and threw me off my game more than the tea-knocking-over lady or the danger to my laptop did. Real helpful.

The Unheimliche Maneuver

New Crimson Peak trailer has me (and the rest of certain corners of fandom) swooning into a puddle of unf. I know I was overcome by a fit of hysteria and desirous of a visit to a physician to have my condition treated with one of those newfangled vibrating devices.

 

 

I was trying to come up with something intelligent to say about why the Crimson Peak permutation works for me when Fifty Shades of Gray doesn’t. They’re both playing with the same tropes of a woman trapped in situations of control, fear, abuse, and helplessness, all used to create a state of erotic tension. It’s NOT just the casting of Tom Hiddleston, or direction by Guillermo del Toro, or all the gorgeous costumes and sets that make the difference.

Also, I’m not usually susceptible to the ‘problematic tropes can be made tolerable if they’re pretty enough’ thing.

I think it might be because this film positions itself as horror rather than romance. And gothic horror in particular, which uses terror to evoke that sense of erotic tension, and then breaks into either horror (dead body) or romance (husband).* Gothic’s balancing act between horror and romance works because, at some level, it was women’s literature exploring the fear and powerlessness of being a woman in Victorian society, when women had few life choices, little agency within or outside of marriage, and scant education (and often active discouragement) to understand their own desires and sexuality.

I think that’s why the idea of Crimson Peak works for me. The terror/horror element adds a layer of critique against the paradigm the PoV character is trapped in, and the gothic genre agreement promises that she’s likely to find her way through to some sort of agency. Whereas in Fifty Shades, the abuse is presented as acceptable and desirable, and the HEA genre agreement of contemporary romance indicates that the main character will never escape and will even come to accept her subjugation as desirable and a product of her own agency.

Now that’s a horrifying end.

 

*deepest apologies to all my 19th century lit-crit friends for that egregious over-simplification of Gothic literature! Siobhan’s going to hunt me down and stab me with her hat pin.