James Patrick Kelly
challenged Clarion alumni to come up with five lessons learned when attending the Clarion SF/F writing workshop. The first couple of posts collecting these lists are up at the Clarion Foundation Blog (1
I went to Clarion with two goals: to see if I could write fast enough to consider a writing career, and to see if I liked
writing. Like many, I've written stories ever since I can remember, but I am a horrible procrastinator. I did succeed in writing a story a week during the workshop, which came as a surprise to me. Moreover, I did enjoy the process of writing, critiquing, and editing. Since then I've allowed real life to get in the way, but still manage to write every week if not every day.
Clarion is best when everybody's fully present. To attend, you're going to spend thousands of dollars and six weeks of your life. Arrange your life so you can be fully there. My wife, Amy Thomson, went to Clarion West, and gave me one of the best pieces of advice going in, which was that I should not attend West, which is in Seattle where I live. She regretted not giving her all to the workshop. To save money, she commuted, and felt that kept her from bonding completely with the class and from being able to concentrate on writing & critiquing. When you're there, you need to be as fully present as you can be to take advantage of the lessons you'll learn.
1. Short fiction is a great way to experiment. Some people want to write only magic realism, some only hard SF, some only urban fantasy. Some want to churn out four stories a week, some want to spend a month on a novella. Some want to use a common background for all their stories; some want to write only humorous stories; some want to contribute only consciousness-expanding fiction; some want to use only heroic characters. Resist pigeon-holing.
Being exposed to a half-million words that aren't yours during the workshop will change you and your work for the better. By the end of the six weeks what I was writing was different from the type of story I'd written going in, both in theme and style. This is a good reason not to take unfinished stories to Clarion with plans to work on them there.
2. Finish what you start. You may be great at starting a story. Your hook may be excellent; you may get who, what, when, and where down on the first page, but it's not a story until you write 'The End'. If you abandon stories halfway through, you won't get as good at writing endings as you are at beginnings.
3. You don't attend to learn how to write; you attend to learn how to edit. Over and over, our instructors would tell us that the story is not found in the first draft. You write the first draft as a guide to finding out what the shape of the story should be.
I think there are two kinds of writers: ones who write a lot and pare down until they have a tight story, and those like me whose stories start almost as outlines and who have to add enough to make the story complete. I was continually told that characteristics or plot twists I thought self-evident were not at all clear. You will quickly be told in the critique sessions if you have an annoying stylistic quirk or consistent theme. Try to appreciate those who tell you this.
4. Don't create a shared world. Our class spent tons of hours working out an interesting world with a great backstory and potential for many great stories, only to be told by Patrick Nielsen Hayden that it would be an impossible book to sell. You will be tempted to work with some of the other students. This can be good or bad, but be aware that ideas held in common often aren't usable once the association is over.
5. I'm magic. Most years, somebody takes on the job of collecting all the weird comments that arise in the critiques, often so that some of the best or most memorable can be printed on the back of the shirt commemorating that year's class. I went knowing I wanted to be that guy. Because, you see, I had a plan.
There is a bakery in Seattle that specializes in fortune cookies. At the end of the fifth week I typed up all the comments I had, cut them into fortune-sized clips, and mailed them to Amy, who had them baked and mailed back to me in time for the end-of-semester party. Tim Powers called me 'magic' for doing that.
Others in my class were magic as well. Ron suggested a reading series, Deirdre helped get several of us online, Dan shared his legal expertise, Trent his medical knowledge, somebody brought Settlers of Catan. You will have a unique way to be magic for your class, too.
- Edd Vick