Out of Context: My Clarion West Notes

Having recently finished a story I started at Clarion West, all sorts of strange emotions are toying with me. It’s been nearly a year since we had to say goodbye to one another and return to the mundane realities of post-workshop life. This makes me want to work harder, write more stories, and share them with friends. There’s nothing so devastating as writing six stories in six weeks and then finding you’ve written almost nothing substantial in the year since. But ideas are nice, and I do have those. Since I’ve got about a million commitments to fulfill, I also started reading A Song of Ice and Fire, so I imagine I’ll probably talk a bit about those books in the coming weeks.

Anyhow, here are some of my notes from the 2013 Clarion West Writers Workshop, uncensored and completely out-of-context:


  • money → church → belief?
  • confession → catharsis → belief

Delany: “Death to ‘waft’!” (“Kill it!”)

- “fantastika”: John Clute’s term for the literature of the fantastic
- most endings suck/are problematic
- write everything; experiment; “fail better”

“ishq” – love so much you become the object of your affection.

“Every author needs all the help they can get.”

“What we are doing is making narrative sense out of these stilts we walk upon.”
– Clute

In America, suburbs are the default setting.

“We treat the past as nonexistent.”

“Any piece of fiction, in a sense, is a cover.”

A book does not equal an author’s intention.

“Faith in the book”

Obsession with endgame

- what one thing/shift/tech changes everything?

“Tragedy is the revelation of the tragic flaw.”

gold-plated skeleton?

pressing on your bruises

(“The abyss opens . . .”)

moving forward a moment — of stillness

Reflections in the water as metamorphosis


Dragonball Z: “If one shapeshifting demon could bring about the end of the world, what might the whole of the human race be capable of?”

Kurosawa: Camera pulls away while subject falls into focus . . .

“In Iceland the gateway into Hell is a tourist attraction.”

* Next Thursday Evening: Neil Gaiman has a surprise

Google the physics and understand it first

- “A fictional architechture that only manages not to mention Harlan Ellison . . .”

“70 percent of a story’s impact comes from its last line.”

If you write a literal sentence within a fantastic frame, you may lose control — language is a dangerous creature.



* 17 Copies *

“Fantastika” can use pop culture or SF lit as a jumping-off point for enriching theme.

“Always leave a party just before you want to.”


  1. tech speak
  2. narrative drive
  3. pacing
  4. action


  1. setting
  2. sensory description
  3. Why go to Cairo?
  4. redundancies
  5. lack of authority/sense of place

- strange places

- but don’t rush!


- do not offer “exclusive submission” — “it’s bullshit”

  • Don’t burn bridges
  • 15% local, 20% foreign, 15% film
  • have an “out”; be able to fire

- Keep your day job
- Tie your ambitions to what you can control
- Persistence; fiction as religion
- Danger of amition
- (Happens by accident) — “lottery”
- scaffold your literary life w/ some other work
- it’s SLOW
- took a couple years to assimilate & understand the Clarion experience
- blogging is a genre; you put out second-rate work
- Process: begin with 5 pages of notes & ideas (handwritten); first draft; first bit of research; then polish to a final draft
- one thing at a time *
- Career trajectory has “been set” for literary SF;
- be part of a “team” (publisher), but try and get with a good team.

write down good ideas

- Don’t be a premadonna; just write
- Don’t outline a novel; just collect scenes, ideas, and research notes
- Cap off the revision process when it feels like 95% of perfection

the “Reality Effect” — details . . .

Despite a burnout, despite fears or bumps, keep working. Period.

and “find” the story – free yourself from the shackles of perfection!

Viewpoint of the villain! *

“One thing happens.”

- “completes the story” (Lily)

oddly memorable

- Kill your darlings
- Listen to people!
- “What makes a Stranger a Stranger?”
- Tri – Lo – gy (beginning/middle/end)

  • education?
  • put together a life that lets you do the writing
  • “different” work
  • ideally, be a writer, but also be a:

* “the monsters you conjured . . . ?”

Let it be alien the first time.


- “Plotty ones, I find, are hardest.”
- “What I mostly do is try to imagine them.”
- “I doodle little pictures of them.”
- “I like to know what they talk like.”

“I try to give people funny hats.”


(All the information that is in your head. We are looking at a room. 18 students are seated around a table. . . .)

How long do I have to put up with this shit?


And then, next panel.

- Forces you to go back.

Adam West/Shatner Voice: In TV you learn your lines, but nobody else’s. It was a strategy to upstage the secondary actors. “I do believe in talent, but I believe in hard work more.”

Roger Zelazny — “A master of the craft.”

  • feel the weight of glorious backstory
  • write the last chapter of a novel I haven’t written.

“Do that thing that you’re doing, but do it better.”

YouTube as dialogue coach?

* Write The End

  • What’s gonna happen next?
  • Nick’s neologism: “Starchild-Positive”
  • genre/aesthetic + premise or existing story/myth + plot of shitty old film = idea?

Never lose sight of the theme, the larger narrative journey or arc

“As writers, because we’re very clever, one of the things we tend to do is use stories as clever ways to hide what we believe.”

All of the big steps forward . . .

Stop simply “spewing”

(Two lines of development that intertwine and affect each other.)

Get to the weird stuff; you lay any bullshit on the reader in the first sentence, and they’ll buy it. . . .

“It’s harder, now, to imagine the past than it is to imagine the future.” (via Joe)

- Alex James Kane?
- Write a folktale or fable set in 1970s IL or earlier
- trying to get home, deep dark wood?
- the devil?
- road trip across Illinois

GVGelder: wants to publish more good science fiction!

* “I love you.” — needs to die.

Ted: . . . You were made and set here to give voice to your own astonishment.

There aren’t really any new ideas; your take on that topic will be different than anyone else who has written on that topic before.

  1. I think [formulas] are often deadly.
  2. I’m not advocating being weird for the sake of being weird . . .
  3. Genre means being in dialogue with other works.
  4. Over time you will probably gain more confidence in yourself,

“intuitive navigation”

. . . it probably behooves you to find out about it.

Google maps(?). historical details. all this stuff is available now on the internet. [sic]

“It’s got to hold a reader . . .”

“A successful piece of science fiction is one that I like.”

Thinking about what you’re doing a little bit doesn’t usually hurt the story.

How much rent does a character pay?

“Why is it that when you condense a sentence enough, you end up with a line of poetry?”

  • fir(?) [sic]
  • “fairy-crazy” old lady line
  • fragment sentences
  • Undersea Search
  • * imagine famous, gifted writers reading your manuscript

9. Don’t be a jackass.

Be fast. Be good. Be friendly.

Watch what people like Myke Cole, Toby Buckell, Chuck Wendig, and Ken Liu are doing. . . .

- Django uses Word; Cat uses Scrivener

“Nootropic” – does it come together?

My Dream Anthology

Maybe this is an unpopular opinion, but I’ve always felt that the literature of science fiction and fantasy — or fantastika, to employ John Clute’s simpler, far more inclusive-sounding term — ought to make us feel uncomfortable in some way. Unsettled. At the very least, a reader of fiction should be left with an experience worth remembering; and an idea presented in a way that’s strange or inobvious is going to stay in the mind much longer than a story told via the path of least resistance. Certainly a work of fantasy should get us thinking about the world in fresh, unfamiliar ways — even, I’d argue, if it makes us feel slightly disturbed.

Consider Le Guin’s “The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas.” Is there any greater conversation-starter for the topic of social responsibility, or the ethics of suffering, in literature? And I’ve always felt a profound sympathy toward Bradbury’s tragic Leonard Mead, who went out for a peaceful walk in the nighttime air and found himself declared a criminal. The short-story form is a graveyard packed full of these kinds of dystopian injustices.

I once caught an episode of the Outer Limits reboot, circa 2000, about a scientist who uses the preserved consciousness of his dead son to build an android replacement. The acting and writing were pedestrian, at best, but the quietly horrific nature of the grieving man’s ambition, coupled with the dissatisfying end result of his efforts at resurrecting his lost child, is ultimately an unforgettable piece of storytelling. Not that I wouldn’t prefer to forget it; I simply won’t.

This technique made Shirley Jackson’s “The Lottery” a canonical piece of writing. Call it “shock value,” if you like. But it so often defines whatever genre makes proper use of it. Flirting with human deviance and taboos; exposing the faults in all our technocultural hive-making; not to mention the use of nightmarish imagery to evoke a more visceral reaction in the reader . . .

Science fiction often becomes a study in contrasts, painting for us a clearer picture of what it means to be human by filling the negative space with a reality we’d rather not experience ourselves. There is a perceived dichotomy among critics — between fiction that holds scientific progress in a high regard, and that which shows it to be inherently dangerous or wrongheaded. But I sincerely doubt that any writer working in the field of SF believes that science or invention is a thing to be feared; instead, it seems that the literature concerns itself first and foremost with maintaining the humanity in our global society.

Whether holding to light the frightening metaphysical implications of idealism, as with Dick’s “The Electric Ant,” or showing us just how utterly different we may one day become in our unending quest for immortality through advancing biotech, as with “Married,” “Jenny’s Sick,” or “The People of Sand and Slag,” fantastika is becoming increasingly more imaginative and diverse. More dreamlike. And I think that notions of genre will prove just as elastic in the years to come, whether the intent is to elevate scientific progress, to terrify the reader, or both.

A Study in Contrasts: Fantastika in All Its Forms

“The Electric Ant,” Philip K. Dick, F&SF (Oct. 1969)
“Jenny’s Sick,” David Tallerman, Lightspeed (Dec. 2010)
“Liking What You See: A Documentary,” Ted Chiang, Stories of Your Life and Others
“Married,” Helena Bell, Upgraded, ed. Clarke (forthcoming from Wyrm Publishing)
“A Touch of Strange,” Theodore Sturgeon, F&SF (Jan. 1958)
“The People of Sand and Slag,” Paolo Bacigalupi, F&SF (Feb. 2004)
“Real Artists,” Ken Liu, TRSF (Oct. 2011)
“Significant Dust,” Margo Lanagan, Cracklescape
“The Pedestrian,” Ray Bradbury, F&SF (Feb. 1952)
“Anuta Fragment’s Private Eyes,” Ben Godby, Shimmer no. 18 (Feb. 2014)
“The Brave Little Toaster,” Cory Doctorow, TRSF (Oct. 2011)
“She Unnames Them,” Ursula K. Le Guin, The New Yorker (Jan. 1985)
“Pol Pot’s Beautiful Daughter (Fantasy),” Geoff Ryman, F&SF (Oct. 2006)
“Of Time and Third Avenue,” Alfred Bester, F&SF (Oct. 1951)
“Red Sonja and Lessingham in Dreamland,” Gwyneth Jones, Off Limits, ed. Datlow (1997)
“A Jar of Goodwill,” Tobias S. Buckell, Clarkesworld (May 2010)
“Fragments of a Hologram Rose,” William Gibson, Unearth 3 (1977)
“You Will Hear the Locust Sing,” Joe Hill, The Third Alternative no. 37 (2004)
“Six Months, Three Days,” Charlie Jane Anders, Tor.com (Jun. 2011)

The Speculative Engine

Screen Shot 2014-06-30 at 6.20.52 PM

My friend and Clarion West ’13 classmate, Liam Meilleur, built the impressive “Speculative Engine”—an interactive, illustrated guide to creating imaginative fiction through the necessity of worldbuilding.

Liam further explains that:

The Speculative Engine is the web component of a workshop designed to provide undergraduate creative writing students with a conceptual awareness of worldbuilding ascraft element in speculative fiction.

[. . .]

I took a class on instructional design this summer. For the final, I had to create a standalone class on the topic of my choice. I went with “An Introduction to Worldbuilding in Speculative Fiction.” The project had a multimedia requirement, so I made The Speculative Engine—essentially a website version of the class. I wanted to create something that could introduce the concept of Worldbuilding, along with some methodology, to writers who are interested in trying it but don’t know where to start.

Based on Bloom’s Taxonomy, The Speculative Engine is sorted into six parts, and browsing over the whole thing takes about that many minutes.

It functions as an awesome visual aid (and, for the uninitiated, a tremendously useful-looking guide) that I think is worth trying out.

Liam Meilleur earned his MFA from the University of New Orleans. In 2013, he attended Clarion West, where he studied under the likes of Neil Gaiman, Samuel Delany, and Ellen Datlow. He currently works as an instructor at Binghamton University while pursuing a PhD in creative writing.

When he’s not writing or procrastinating, Liam participates in the world’s largest LARP. You can see his character sheet here: LinkedIn.

Omni: ‘Vines of Cvancara’


My short story, “The Vines of Cvancara,” is up to read for free over at Omni Reboot. This one was read aloud as an icebreaker during the first week of Clarion West, when we were all still getting to know one another. Elizabeth Hand and John Clute had a lot of kind words for everyone, and as such it’s a week I’ll always remember fondly.

An ad space in the concourse reads, THESE ARE THE FACES OF PLANETWIDE TERRORISM, the words strobing across a dozen mugshots of every earthen shade. The monastery situated along the aqueducts hears the implicit threat but pays it no mind. Below, the sprawling overworld of buckytubing and hydroponic jungle is packed with Gallu and humanity alike: a fragile coexistence born of decades and lives spent scrambling for resources that no longer matter.

The war has ended. Demonberries wither and rot on the vine.

Since this is my first contribution to Omni, a publication that has a lot of personal significance for me given its venerable history, I wrote a new, slightly longer author bio that I’ll likely be using more and more:

Alex Kane lives in west-central Illinois, where he works as a freelancer, plays too many first-person shooters, and blogs about culture and technology in his spare time. A graduate of the 2013 Clarion West Writers Workshop, his stories have appeared in Omni, Spark, Digital Science Fiction, and the YA anthology Futuredaze, among other places. He is currently writing his first novel.

‘Flavorful Brews’: Minotaurs in Standard?


(UPDATED: July 19, 2014.)

Here’s a rough Standard-legal deck list I put together over coffee this morning, based on the undeniably awesome synergies at play when you build tribal minotaurs in Limited. Journey into Nyx and Born of the Gods have given us a slew of incredible new removal spells, minotaur-type creatures, and even a Rakdos god: Mogis, God of Slaughter.

Because I’m limiting this first “Flavorful Brew” to cards I actually own at the moment, I’ve made some painfully obvious omissions, like the obligatory four-of Temple of Malice — and, of course, Mogis himself. But I’m gonna start playing around with this early draft of the list anyway, because I desperately wanna see this deck happen. There’s even a new one-drop zombie minotaur in Journey into Nyx, Gnarled Scarhide, so I think it’s getting closer to the realm of competitive possibility.

What immediate suggestions would you guys make? Sound off in the comments section below, and help a relatively new player build his first tribal-themed deck for Standard:

Lands: 24
4 Blood Crypt
4 Temple of Malice
2 Nykthos, Shrine to Nyx
8 Mountain
6 Swamp

Creatures: 27
4 Gnarled Scarhide
4 Deathbellow Raider
4 Ragemonger
4 Rageblood Shaman
3 Felhide Petrifier
4 Fanatic of Mogis
4 Kragma Warcaller

Other Spells: 9
2 Whip of Erebos
3 Hero’s Downfall
4 Magma Jet

2 Mogis, God of Slaughter
2 Hammer of Purphoros
4 Searing Blood
1 Whip of Erebos
4 Thoughtseize
2 Erebos, God of the Dead

Xbox One: Strike Suit Zero


Xbox One owners ought to be able to use their hardware for more than just its Blu-ray capabilities and video streaming apps like Twitch and Netflix. It’s been more than seven months since the system’s launch, yet outside of titles like Titanfall and Battlefield 4—arguably two of the best current-gen multiplayer experiences available, granted—and the near-faultless remake Tomb Raider: Definitive Edition, the console seems to lack the considerable games catalog that made its predecessor such a success.

Part of that void, made ever larger given the 360’s continued claim to what Microsoft calls its Xbox Live Arcade, can be chalked up to the lack of small, independent games available for the Xbox One (unless you’re a big fan of Peggle—then rejoice in the coming of Peggle 2!).

There is one shining ray of light in all that wasted potential, however, and that is the crowd-funded Kickstarter success Strike Suit Zero: Director’s Cut. Having raised over $170,000.00, the developers at Born Ready Games brought aboard a team of artists, designers, musicians, and a composer—most of them from acclaimed projects like Homeworld, Appleseed: Ex Machina, and Gunslinger Girl: Il Teatrino—to bring their vision to life. The marketing folks behind the game inform us, “This Is Space Combat Reborn,” and for the most part they don’t disappoint. Strike Suit gets off to a slow start with a tutorial mission that features a non-mecha player object, but once the story and transformation game mechanics kick in at the start of the second level everything comes together quite nicely.

The game’s physics feel real even as the graphics and other production values are highly stylized; it takes its inspiration from properties like Robotech: The Macross Saga and Gundam Wing unabashedly, and the result is pretty incredible, far as this mecha fanatic is concerned. Most importantly, the game manages to be quite graceful about spaceflight. Because up and down are relative in zero-g, you never feel the need to worry about what direction you should be facing, or whether you have to come toward an objective from a particular angle.

Strike Suit lets you focus on what matters: taking out enemy ships. And enemies pose a real threat—they’re not the slow-moving slouches common among so many classic arcade shooters and modern FPS titles. If you don’t reach nav points in a timely manner and take out oncoming bogeys, your allies will perish and so will you.

Occasionally, the sound mix makes voiceovers difficult to hear and therefore objectives become unclear, or the story feels a touch rudimentary—but the voiceover performances, the design work, and soundtrack are endlessly compelling. If the game’s imperfect or lacks innovation, this does nothing to diminish the sheer replayability and “cool factor” that pervade it once you advance past the opening tutorial. In truth, I find it to be nearly as fun as Titanfall. Something both games have in common is a passion for the familiar: Neither game strives to unveil some grandiose piece of worldbuilding that its audience has never seen before—they just try to give the player a fun experience, some interesting if forgettable characters, and the nostalgia that one can’t help but feel in the presence of classic-style “mobile suits.”

A new indie-publishing platform for Xbox One, billed as ID@Xbox, has been announced, but at the moment pickings appear rather slim. This particular game is a nice change of pace, for one—and Max: The Curse of Brotherhood appears to be worth checking out in the near future—but I can’t help but lament the lack of selection. Meantime, it seems we’ll just have to make do with fun but mindless games like Titanfall and Strike Suit Zero until Bungie’s MMO role-playing shooter Destiny rolls out in September.

NOVLR: Scrivener’s Heir?


The developers of a new browser-based software called Novlr are prepping to roll out their beta in “only a few weeks,” with over 500 signups at the time of this writing. Unlike traditional word processors, most concerned with issues of formatting and more esoteric features than any single person could ever have use for, Novlr promises to streamline the process of drafting book-length fiction in ways that rival even the mighty Scrivener.

Now, there’s nothing particularly wrong with Literature & Latte’s ubiquitous composition tool. Indeed, I’ve been using Scrivener 2.5 to draft and edit my fiction for most of the past year (outside of a brief affair with iA Writer). But there are some who might argue that Scrivener’s got as many distractions—and therefore excuses for procrastination—as it has benefits.

Novlr, by contrast, promises a word processor without all the bells and whistles that plague so many of its competitors, in this writer’s opinion. A screencap of the software’s interface reveals a sparse, unassuming text area with only a single sidebar, allowing for easy drag-and-drop organization of chapters and scenes, along with a barely-noticeable dropdown menu—presumably for easy login and access to a handful of basic options.

To play the role of devil’s advocate for a moment, I should note that a browser-based app runs the risk of being overly dependent on Internet connectivity—something that may prove problematic for writers who travel frequently or prefer to work at their favorite coffeehouse. That said, an ongoing multiple-choice poll conducted by Novlr’s developers indicates that “Offline Editing” is the function most desired among beta testers and potential users; it wouldn’t surprise me to see this capability become an integral part of the final, post-beta version.

Furthermore, the obvious upside to having the software run while online is that work gets saved in real time. As with Google Docs, there’s no need to constantly tap Command-S between each paragraph or sentence—Novlr will remember to do the uncreative work for you. Which is fantastic news for novelists with obsessive-compulsive tendencies or ADHD symptoms that may already hinder focus or productivity.

Other nifty features original to Novlr appear to be such things as setting and character tags, an easy way for the author to manually indicate which scenes occur where, and which characters are involved. These kinds of reminders have the potential to make that shaky first draft into something a touch closer to a proper second draft. With novel-writing, avoiding a needless mistake like forgetting who’s where can mean the difference between finishing rewrites on your novel today or finishing them several months from now.

Most exciting is the developers’ openminded philosophy: “Tell us what you need and we’ll build it.” Having not yet experienced the beta in action, I still fully believe that Novlr has the potential to shake up the world of dedicated word-processing apps. Whether or not it’s the Scrivener-killer its target market wants remains to be seen, and there are any number of things that might harm the project’s rollout, but I admit to having high hopes.

Alex Kane lives and writes in west-central Illinois. He is a 2013 graduate of the noted Clarion West Writers Workshop, where he studied the craft of fiction under Joe Hill and Neil Gaiman. Follow him on Twitter @alexjkane.

Clarion West ’13 Biblio


All the kudos in the world to my friend and classmate Helena Bell, for compiling this list of publication sales made during and after the 2013 Clarion West Writers Workshop. Proof of our sheer awesomesauce, verily:

helena bell

  • “Partial Inventory of Items Removed from Garden District Home, New Orleans, December 2005,” Drabblecast #294.
  • “Entropy,” Surreal South ’13.
  • “The Aliens Made of Glass,” Indiana Review 35.2.
  • “Bones,” Electric Velocipede 27.
  • “Burial,” The Dark (February 2014).
  • “The Things They Were Not Allowed to Carry,” Daily Science Fiction (forthcoming).
  • “Married,” UPGRADED (forthcoming).
  • “Lovecraft,” Clarkesworld Magazine (forthcoming).

john costello

geetanjali dighe

david edison

fabio fernandes

jennifer giesbrecht

vince haig (writing as malcolm devlin)

  • “Passion Play,” Black Static (January 2014).

nicole idar

alex kane

  • “Liquid State,” Dark Expanse (September 2013).
  • “Nootropic Software Blues,” Spark: A Creative Anthology, Vol. IV (January 2014).
  • “Loud, for All the Stars to Hear,” Dark Expanse: Surviving the Collapse (March 2014).
  • “Fragile Magic,” Exigencies (forthcoming).

nick lancaster

usman t. malik

liam meilleur

shannon peavey

  • “Scavengers,” Writers of the Future XXIX (June 2013).
  • “Saltcedars,” Daily Science Fiction (February 2014).
  • “Dogs from Other Places,” Intergalactic Medicine Show (March 2014).
  • “Good Kids,” Daily Science Fiction (forthcoming).
  • [Redacted], [Temporarily Secret] (forthcoming).

kelly m. sandoval

allison solano

hugo xiong

jy yang

  • “Tiger Baby,” In The Belly Of The Cat (October 2013).
  • “Storytelling For The Night Clerk,” Strange Horizons (forthcoming).
  • “Harvestfruit,” Crossed Genres (forthcoming).
  • “Mothers Day,” LONTAR (forthcoming).

e. lily yu


Yesterday’s WIP


This is first-draft material, but I welcome constructive feedback on the opening section of my novel, Waypoints:

Eliana Ford leaned back in the womblike cockpit and squinted through the flames of reentry, miles of vast Martian desert rising at the edges of her vision. The fighter’s haptic interface chirped a warning: two bogeys inbound on her six. With seconds to react, she summoned a command dialogue and thumbed the preset for close-quarters combat, marked CQB. Her Baphomet transformed into its humanoid configuration with an alarming shudder.

“Blow ’em out of the sky,” said a voice in her headset. Declan?

Nav points winked into place across her heads-up display, marking the positions of her teammates—Harper, who was accelerating past off her starboard, and Declan, who’d spawned planetside at the start of the mission.

Another, shriller warning sounded.

One of the NPCs on her tail had locked on to her heat signature and loosed a full rocket salvo. The augmented-reality display that served as her forward viewport painted a swarm of red indicators along its periphery. They warbled and danced as the tone in her ears intensified.