Thursday, January 31, 2008

Applying Myself

Tomorrow is the early application deadline for Clarion West. I don't need the $100 tuition discount, but it was a good way to get myself to write for the last two weeks, and I'm all done--I just hit "send" on my application email. Wish me luck!

At D's suggestion, I revised and submitted the first 27 pages of Spaceship Castle, my latest NaNoWriMo novel. That was the easy part. Writing a 3-page synopsis of the novel, something I'd never done before, took a lot longer. And the personal essay--a "description of your background and your reasons for attending the workshop"--was the toughest part by far. I don't like to talk about myself, as you may have guessed, and I'm a horrible salesman.

D deserves all the credit for helping me get those 800 words out. I searched the web for guidance on how to write the essay, hoping to find some samples from previous workshop attendees, but there was nothing out there. So, in the interest of making information accessible and useful, below is the complete personal essay from my 2008 Clarion West Application. And no, I'm not worried about anyone plagiarizing it. If you really want to be a writer, you have your own stories to tell. This is my story.
I am an orphan of the Space Age. The first thing I ever wanted to be was an astronaut, and it took me a long time to accept that it wasn’t going to happen. I was born after the last man walked on the Moon. I was thirteen years old when Challenger exploded. And there’s a good chance I’ll die before humans land on Mars.

The good news is, I’ve also been able to watch science fiction take over the mainstream media. The first television show I ever saw was Space: 1999. My first movie was Star Wars. But the real good stuff was in books.

For as long as I can remember, I’ve been reading speculative fiction. My first love was hard science fiction--Asimov’s Foundation novels, Niven’s Ringworld series--but I’ve also enjoyed a lot of fantasy, horror, and other weird tales. I like to think I’ve expanded my horizons from merely the known universe to places that could never exist outside their authors’ imaginations.

I started writing my own stories in grade school, copying plots from Tom Swift adventures and hard-boiled prose from spy thrillers. I knew I wasn’t very good, but I kept at it, and I got better. I was first published in my high school literary journal. In college, I started my own web site, and people from as far away as Australia sent me email saying how much they enjoyed my short stories.

In the last quarter of my senior year, I took a writing class with Ursula K. LeGuin and Pat Murphy. I had to pinch myself when I first saw the listing in the course catalog. It was a great experience, and really got me excited about writing.

After graduation, I took a software engineering job at a Silicon Valley startup. The next few years were a whirlwind, and my writing fell by the wayside. I still dabbled, but I never found the time to finish anything. It was easy to listen to managers and coworkers telling me what to do with my career instead.

Seven years later, at Worldcon in San Jose, I ran into Pat Murphy again, and she asked if I was still writing. I’ll never forget the look on her face when I told her I hadn't been submitting stories anywhere. Sadness, and disappointment, but not surprise.

The startup had folded by then, and I had moved on to less rewarding jobs at larger companies. During a bad stretch of unhappiness with work, I started taking acting lessons. The first class was on February 1, 2003, the same day that the Space Shuttle Columbia and her crew of seven died during re-entry. I cried. I was thirteen years old again, listening to the radio, not wanting to believe it, not knowing what to do.

In class, I found that I was always picking apart scripts and wishing that the characters were less one-dimensional. I realized that I was more interested in writing my own dialogue than speaking someone else’s.

So I looked for other ways to scratch my storytelling itch. I started running treasure hunts with my friends, and my favorite part was making up narratives to glue the events together. I finished writing my first complete novel in 2005, thanks to NaNoWriMo, and am now working on my third. I’ve had several 500-word vignettes published online. But I’m still missing something.

I know I can write. I write emails every day, I take great meeting notes, and I have a blog that nobody reads. But I also know that I can improve. So far, I’ve just been fumbling around and getting lucky with my stories. I still have trouble with structure and character and probably a raft of other things I don’t even know about. I believe that Clarion can help me identify those problems and figure out some solutions.

Writing fiction is the most challenging and most rewarding thing I’ve ever done. I’ll never be an astronaut, but ever since I started reading about aliens and spaceships, I’ve also dreamed of being a writer. (After all, what good is visiting another planet if you can’t tell the story?) And that is still possible.

I’ve been an engineer for almost thirteen years. After spinning the stock option wheel of fortune several times, I finally hit the jackpot. I didn’t make enough to retire, but I have saved up enough to take some time off and chase this dream. I’m hoping that Clarion will be another great experience that helps me kick-start the next part of my life.

I'll let you know whether I get accepted--either way, it'll be a signal.

Meanwhile, I'm now working on my application for the original Clarion in San Diego. I can't submit a novel excerpt for this one, so I've got four weeks to write the two best short stories I've ever written. No pressure.

~CKL
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