Clarion at home: Expertise

This is part 5 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 developing expertise.

Acquisition of expert performance

The process of developing expertise has been studied. Expertise is developed through practice. It has to be good practice, though. One of the researchers into the acquisition of expert performance uses the term “deliberate practice” to distinguish it from other (bad) kinds of practice.

Deliberate practice is:

  1. Performing your skill
  2. Monitoring your performance
  3. Evaluating your success
  4. Figuring out how to do it better

Obviously your medium-term goal is to improve your performance of your skill (point #1), but a teacher can’t really help much there—only practice will improve your skill. Where a teacher can help is with points #2–4. And that is what Clarion is all about.

Everything at Clarion is focused on improving those skills:

  1. The time spent reading is to help you with point #2 (monitoring).
  2. The time spent preparing critiques, together with—especially—the time spent in class listening to your classmates’ critiques of the same stories, is to help you with point #3 (evaluating).
  3. The classroom instruction—the part that Clarion-at-home replaces with a book on fiction writing—is to help you with point #4 (figuring out how to do it better).

Developing expertise in fiction writing is exactly like developing expertise in anything else—like playing the violin or playing tennis. An instructor will spend some time early showing you how to hold your bow or racket, but most instructional time is not spent on how to do your skill better. Most instructional time is spent on points #2 and #3—because once you can monitor and evaluate your own performance, you’re in a position to develop expertise through practice on your own.

In tennis, for example, beginners often evaluate their performance based on whether the ball makes it over the net and lands in the court. With instruction, however, they learn to evaluate their performance at a finer level: Did they anticipate where the ball was going? Did they move there? Did they turn sideways to the net? Did they prepare their racket correctly? Did they swing correctly? Did they follow-through?

The Clarion process is the equivalent for fiction writing. There are a thousand little questions like that to ask yourself about each scene (potentially each line): Does every character in the scene want something? Is every action in the scene motivated by those wants? Are changes in the characters reflected in changes in how they try to achieve their wants—and in what they want?

That’s really the core of what Clarion offers. Read stories, critique them, and then compare your critique to other critiques of the same story. From that process, learn how to monitor and evaluate your own work. Once you can do that, you’re in a position to improve your work through practice on your own.

Part 6 of this series is about my big Clarion misconception, about applying these lessons to your own work, and talks a little more about the cool stuff that you miss out on if you have to do Clarion at home.

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

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