Saturday, February 06, 2016

I applied to Clarion West SIX TIMES

Applications for the Clarion West Summer Six-Week Writers Workshop in Seattle are now open. If you apply before February 10th, the fee is only $30; it goes up to $50 after that date. The last day to apply is March 1st. This year's instructors are Paul Park, Stephen Graham Jones, Elizabeth Bear, N. K. Jemisin, Sheila Williams, and Geoff Ryman.

As the title of this post says, I applied to CW six times (every year starting in 2008, only skipping 2012 because of WarTron) before I attended the workshop in 2014. My classmate Shannon Fay recently posted her CW personal essay—requested as part of the application; they want a "description of your background and your reasons for attending the workshop"—and I remember having the same experience she describes, of wondering what it was I should say about myself and how much weight the essay (vs. the writing sample) would carry with the decision-makers who selected each year's students.

So here's my own CW2014 personal essay, which was used "to introduce [me] to the workshop’s instructors" after my acceptance. Did the people reviewing the initial applications even read it? I don't know. On some level, I was really writing this essay for myself, to codify my own thinking about where I was with my fiction writing and what I wanted to work on next.

NOTE: hyperlinks below were not included in the original document, but have been added here for reference.

by Curtis C. Chen

Hello again! Here's what I've been up to (writing-wise) since my last Clarion West application in 2013:

I started querying my science fiction spy novel, WAYPOINT KANGAROO (the writing sample attached to this application), and the first place to which I sent it was literary agent Janet Reid's "Query Shark" blog. I'd never written a query letter before, and I figured it would be good to get some impartial feedback. Of course, there was no guarantee she'd even look at my e-mail, but it was a good way to set an external deadline--and those really help me get things done. (More on that later.)

So imagine my surprise when Janet Reid wrote back three days later to tell me she was posting my query on the blog. Not only that, but she wanted to read the novel! Now I really had a deadline to meet.

I cranked through the rewrites-in-progress, finished them in less than a week, and sent Janet Reid the full manuscript. Two months later, she replied--saying "it's not ready yet" but offering very detailed advice on how I might improve it. She also said she'd be glad to take a look at the next revision.

"Chuffed" doesn't begin to describe how I felt. I've done a lot more work on KANGAROO since then, and plan to get a new draft back to Janet Reid before the end of March--which would [be] one year since the Query Shark post. Deadlines are good.

Speaking of deadlines, I also wrapped up my "512 Words or Fewer" blog project last year. In October of 2008, I set myself the goal of posting an original piece of flash fiction every Friday. I wanted to force myself to write more and different stories, and this compact format seemed like the perfect way to experiment and actually finish things.

Why 512 words? Mainly because I used to be a professional software engineer, and thus have an affinity for powers of two. (2^9 = 512.) It also seemed like a manageable amount to produce on a weekly basis. In fact, that was one of the first things I learned: my first draft of any scene tends to come out around 1,000 words. Cutting that by half can be painful, but it was an invaluable exercise in critical thinking--I had to decide which words were absolutely essential, and which darlings I could murder. Learning to see the forest for the trees was one of the most important things I learned from the 512s, and it's something I've been able to apply to all my writing.

I concluded the 512s in August, 2013, after 256 consecutive weeks. Not all of the stories were great, but the process of creating them has made me a better writer. I'm aware of how much more clarity I now have when thinking about capital-S Story, even if it's simply heckling a sloppy plot contrivance on Downton Abbey. (Seriously, eight months later, he's still got the damn ticket? C'mon, guys.)

To commemorate the 512 Words project, my wife helped me select 117 of the most interesting stories to include in a collection which we published on January 31st of this year. That process taught me a lot about what it takes to design and produce both a printed paperback and an electronic version. The 512 book (which we titled THURSDAY'S CHILDREN, ha ha) was also a fun project, but I'm not sure I'd want to self-publish again--I would much rather have help navigating the business side of publishing.

In fact, I recently had a very good publishing experience with a novelette I sold to Leading Edge. They're a BYU publication, and as such have guidelines about explicit language and sexual content--which required me to revise my story featuring foulmouthed police detectives and cloned prostitutes. They were willing to copy-edit the swear words themselves, but also wanted me to consider rewriting one of the final scenes.

So I cleaned up the language, rewrote the scene in question, and did some minor touchups here and there--but otherwise was pleasantly surprised at the overall quality of the piece. (Good job, past me!) And the whole process, from contract to rewrites to final copyedits, was about all of us pulling for the same goal: getting the story in shape and into print.

I want to write fiction people want to read. That means developing my skill as a writer, and also understanding markets, editors, and audiences. I believe Clarion West will help me with all of those things.

Thanks for reading!

I don't know what factors, apart from me improving as a writer between 2008 and 2014, led to my finally getting into CW. To be honest, when I was working on this essay, I thought of it like Red's final parole board hearing in Shawshank Redemption: it was more important to speak honestly than to try to game the application process. Because, in the end, all you have is your own integrity.

And it doesn't matter how many times you fail, as long as you always fail better. Getting a result means you're making the attempt. You can't succeed if you don't try.


Wednesday, January 27, 2016

I Will Be at Some Conventions This Year

(Wow, has it really been a whole month since my last blog post here? I'm a terrible person.)

If you're a SF/F convention-goer, here are some 2016 events I'm definitely attending and which I would recommend to any fan:

A few others are undecided, but watch my author Twitter stream for announcements.

Plus my friend Claire Humphrey and I are working on a mini-book tour for our debut novels this June (Spells of Blood and Kin and Waypoint Kangaroo, respectively). More details on that as we figure it out.

I'm also like 90% sure I'm going to the Star Trek 50th anniversary thing in Las Vegas this August. Don't even act surprised.


Friday, December 25, 2015


This year, D and I switched from hand-writing all our holiday cards to drop-shipping pre-printed postcards. It forced us to write more concisely about the past year, but we're very happy with the results:

If you wanted a card from us but didn't get one, we apologize! Please send us your current mailing address and we'll make sure you're on the list for next year.


Thursday, December 24, 2015

Tonight is #DieHardEve

ETA (1:00 PM): MOAR commentators, and embedded Twitter search results :)

Tonight, starting at 9:30 PM Pacific Time, you're invited to our first ever...

Christmas Eve DIE HARD livetweet extravaganza!

Search for #DieHardEve on Twitter to see commentary from various Portlandians, including:
...and you, dear viewer, are also invited to contribute! Feel free to jump in using the hashtag #DieHardEve if you get inspired at any point.

IMPORTANT: you're responsible for synchronizing your own viewing! If you don't own the movie, here's where you can rent it online—looks like the going price is $3 (make sure to verify rental terms and whether it's HD, if you care about that):

Watch for an official movie sign tweet at 9:30 PM Pacific Time tonight, but don't worry too much about precision. I'm not saying there will be large amounts of alcohol involved, but I'm not saying there won't be, either. (ObPSA: DON'T DRINK AND DRIVE.)

Meanwhile, please enjoy this artifact from the 1980s:


Wednesday, December 09, 2015

I Am Eligible for Some Awards or Something

Hello, readers! I know, it's been a while since I actually wrote one of these Wednesday blog posts. I've been working on other writing projects lately (like my first novel) and have also started an author newsletter which will eventually be archived on my other, theoretically more professional web site. (Stop laughing.) But for now, I'm still pushing some content into this space.

So we're coming to the end of 2015, and writers are starting to post lists of their award-eligible works. Nominations for the Nebulas are open, the battle for next year's Hugos looms on the horizon, and I'm sure there are other honors to be won by works more worthy than mine.

Please note, this isn't me projecting some false modesty in an attempt to reverse-psychology you into nominating me; I have personally read more interesting, more groundbreaking, and more well-wrought tales than the ones I got published this year. I've worked pretty hard and I'm happy that my stories are finding homes. But my stuff isn't award-worthy when compared to the whole wide world. I wouldn't vote for me, and neither should you.

So, for your consideration, here's a short list of genre fiction writers who had eligible works published in 2015. Even if you don't plan to nominate, please go read their stuff, because it's good:

For my own bookkeeping purposes, here are my publications from calendar year 2015. Online stories are linked directly; print stories link to the anthologies in which they appear:

For the record, most of those stories started out as 512 Words or Fewer flash pieces, and one of them was originally part of my application for Clarion UCSD (I didn't get in). But this is one of the most important things I've learned in the last decade or so: not everything I write is for publication. In fact, probably most of it isn't. But it all counts.

A lot of the words in my early drafts get revised out of the final manuscripts. Sometimes I write things for exercises or workshops or classes, and some of those could be turned into full stories, but the majority of them are just for practice or demonstration. It's okay that they'll never make it "into print." That wasn't their purpose. It's like going to the gym, or practicing a musical instrument, or rehearsing a live performance: you don't always do it for an audience; you do it to prepare and to improve.

There are countless people—professional authors included—who spend innumerable hours writing fan fiction which can never be published. They're doing it for love, and whether intentionally or not, they're also sharpening their skills at storytelling. And that is a great way to develop those muscles (so-called): thinking about characters you love, whether or not you created them and the world they inhabit, and doing your best to give them the tribulations and triumphs they deserve.


Tuesday, November 17, 2015

My OryCon 37 Schedule

Hey science fiction and fantasy lovers in or near Portland, Oregon! It's that time of year again: time for OryCon!

This Friday through Sunday, hundreds (if not thousands) of fans will gather at the Portland Marriott Downtown Waterfront for a variety of fannish activities and events. Come find out who wins the Endeavour Award this year, check out the Costume Contest, or catch a reading by your favorite author. There's plenty to see and do!

Here's where you can find me this weekend (when I'm not at the bar):

Friday, November 20

ORC Open Read and Critiques (Session A)
Same as it ever was: bring the first ~3 pages of your work to read aloud and get instant feedback from fellow writers. Sign-up sheets will be available outside the Salmon room (3rd floor) by Friday morning. See detailed ORC Rules and FAQs.
ETA (19 Nov 2015): to get to Salmon, take the hotel elevator to the 3rd floor. You'll see the fitness center in front of you when you come out of the elevator. Turn left, then turn left again immediately at the next corner (don't go outside), and Salmon will be the first room on your right. Look for the ORC sign-up sheets on a chair just outside the doors!

ORC Open Read and Critiques (Session B)
Let's do the time warp again. See note above on how to find Salmon room!

DC vs Marvel
Someone thought it was a good idea to put me on this panel, which will be moderated by my pal Claude Lalumière. They may regret their choices. I REGRET NOTHING.

Sci-Fi Ask Me Another! (Quiz Show)
Contestants wanted! My fellow VP alum Jeff Soesbe and I need audience volunteers to compete in our grand experiment, a live game show modeled after the NPR program but themed for genre fans. All are welcome! (We'll sneak you in even if you don't have a con badge. Don't tell Registration.) It'll be great! You'll love it! DID I MENTION WE ARE GIVING AWAY BOOKS AND OTHER FABULOUS PRIZES?

Saturday, November 21

Extra, Extra!
I'm moderating this panel with two other local actors. Come hear about Leverage, Grimm, and how you too can sign up to maybe get directed by this guy.

ORC Open Read and Critiques (Session C)
This again? See note above on how to find Salmon room!

ORC Open Read and Critiques (Session D)
THE NEXT GENERATION. See note above on how to find Salmon room!

Intro to Computer Science Jargon for Authors and Editors
And then there's Maude.

Sunday, November 22

Nothing scheduled, but I'll be wandering around the con until I head over to Powell's Authorfest and then wrap up the weekend with some Sunday night karaoke. If you're reading this, you're invited!

Follow @curtiscchen on Twitter for further updates.