This is part 3 of a series on what to do if you can’t go to Clarion, which provides my thoughts on how you can capture part of the magic of Clarion—even if you can’t attend. This post is on reading, and in particular, on picking what to read.

Read many mediocre and a few great stories

A story is rather like a magic trick: a carefully executed series of moves designed to produce a specific effect in the reader.

Watching a magic trick performed perfectly teaches you very little about how the trick is done. The only people who are likely to learn anything are people who not only know how the trick is done, they can already do it themselves—except that their own performance is not perfect.

Learning how to write great stories by reading great stories is much the same. When the story is perfectly crafted, it’s hard to get past the surface to see how the story is put together.

It’s much easier to learn from mediocre stories. It’s especially easy when a story falls down in several areas but does one thing well. Because then you can see that one thing in relative isolation.

Clarion is great for this. Many of your classmates are really good writers, but even they are producing work under a certain amount of time pressure, so they don’t usually have time to craft seamless work. The result is a lot of seamy work, and seamy work is work you can learn from.

Happily, you don’t have to go to Clarion to find mediocre fiction. The internet is full of it. Check a market list that includes some on-line publications, and take a look at the markets that pay less than pro rates. The correlation between payment rate and quality isn’t perfect, but it’s usually pretty good.

Don’t limit yourself to just mediocre fiction; you can learn a lot from a great story too. It’s just more work.

One advantage of Clarion at home is that you can calibrate the quality of fiction you’re reading to match your own needs (rather than the skills of your classmates). Look for stories where the quality of “finish” challenges your ability to take the story apart and understand how it works, but doesn’t thwart it. As your skills improve, step up to stories that are more challenging.

Of course, the stories with critiques that you identified during the planning should be a key source of stories to read.

Part 4 of this series will be on critiquing.

See the Clarion at home page for links to all the posts in this series.

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