Monday, December 23, 2013

The Sturdy Bookshelves of Pawel Olizewski, by Ferrett Steinmetz

The Sturdy Bookshelves Of Pawel Olizewski is a unique story in my pantheon, mainly because I live-wrote every single draft of it live, to raise funds for the Clarion Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers’ Workshop.

Now, let me explain what Clarion is to me; at age 38, I’d been writing for twenty years, and despite four novels, at least a hundred short stories, and some poetry that’s just as soon well forgotten, I had only published three stories in very small venues. My total writing revenue was just over $15 – which, at less than a dollar a year, not promising.

Then I got accepted into the Clarion Writers’ Workshop, a six-week intensive where the best writers in sci-fi train you to be better. And I learned exactly how terrible I was. Which was traumatic but a good thing. And since graduating in 2008, I’ve sold twenty-five short stories, many to markets where (like this one) I’d read for years and am now proud to be a part of.

(In 2012, I even got nominated for the Nebula, which still feels like a weird dream I’m going to wake up from any day now.)

So every spring, I live-write stories to raise funds for my alma mater in a closed community called “The Clarion Echo,” which you can only get access to by donating $5. I write, post what I wrote - and then more importantly I explain what I liked and what I didn’t like about my work. Basically, I’m critiquing my own prose, explaining all the shortfalls I’m going to have to fix on the next draft.

Except that the Sturdy Bookshelves story was written entirely for Clarion Echo. I didn’t plan it that way, but over the three years, every spring I went back to that story and said, “Well, time to rewrite it,” and so I did. So if you feel like donating $5 and emailing me at, you can get access to the archives and literally see this whole story come together, with about 4,000 additional words of commentary.

Which isn’t a pitch. I’m just saying, is all.

The hardest thing to get about this story was, weirdly enough, the voice. Because the initial draft was 2,800 words, very tight, and almost character-free – more like a news report than a story, focusing on Pawel. I soon realized a tale with no character arc is really hard to do unless you’re Ted Chiang, and so I wrote a 5,000-word version of this which focused on the Nameless Narrator (or, as I took to calling him, the NN) but lost a lot of the oddball details that people found compelling. It felt bloated, and the NN really isn’t interesting enough to carry the tale.

Yet I loved the internal arc of this – and why wouldn’t I? If you think about it, the tale is really about me spending twenty pre-Clarion years writing and making the same old mistakes over and over again, hoping like heck that I’d somehow ignite my inner spark. Yet I struggled to find a narrative tone that matched. People loved this one, asking about it more than any other Clarion Echo story that I’ve written – “Did you finish it? Did that one sell?” – but I didn’t feel I’d really nailed it.

And it’s a hard balance to get. Because the NN is boring, but the story cannot be. And so in writing this you have to walk this high-wire act where the prose is snappy enough to pull you along and get you invested, but not so snappy that you could never believe that the NN was once a nebbish. Eventually, I realized that I had to err more on the side of “quirky prose and weird characters,” pulling Agnes out as a major character to counterbalance the NN, and making her oddball enough that she could tug us past a little dullness, and making the dullness not part of the prose but part of the way other people react to the NN.

For me, the secret of Clarion is revising. Like Pawel, I was making the same bookcase over and over again with each story I wrote, never learning, just sort of doubling down. What Clarion taught me was to dismantle my bookshelves, break them up and make new things out of them. If you could see all the revisions, you’d see how radically this story changed, rotating around the central heart of it.

And I hope, if you’re wandering around like Pawel, like me, some day you’ll realize how to rearrange that workshop to produce an entirely different kind of magic.

--Ferrett Steinmetz

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