I have written a lot about Clarion, the science fiction and fantasy writing workshop I took back in 2001—in particular my Clarion journal and my six-post series on what to do if you can’t go to Clarion.

If you want to go to Clarion—and if you’re an aspiring sf&f writer, I highly recommend it—you’ll be glad to hear that the application period has just opened.

It was one of the most useful things I’ve done to improve my craft. It was also a lot of fun.

It is only modestly expensive in terms of cost, and there are scholarships to help those who in need. It is mostly expensive in terms of time: six weeks. That’s a long time to absent yourself from your job or your family, but Clarion makes very good use of all that time—every minute is well spent.

If you apply, or if you go, I’d be pleased to hear from you.

This is part 6—the final post—of a series on what to do if you can’t go to Clarion. I’ve talked about my thoughts on how you can capture part of the magic of Clarion—even if you can’t attend. This post is on my big misconception of Clarion, on some of the things that you can’t get from blog posts, and on applying these lessons.

What about getting critiques?

Before I went to Clarion, I assumed that the most important thing would be the critiques of my stories. I was wrong.

It’s actually a good thing that I was wrong. After all, the goal of Clarion isn’t to send you home with six critiqued stories that you can polish up and get published. The goal is to make you a better writer. You can only get so much better in six weeks, but six weeks is enough time to give you the tools you need to continue improving your own writing through practice.

A critique (better, several critiques) can help you improve a story. A good critique can help you find the good stuff in your story (so you don’t accidentally lose it when revising). A good critique can tell you that a story has problems.

It’s pretty rare for even a great critique to tell you how to fix a story that’s broken. But when several critiques all have complaints, there’s probably a problem somewhere, and the details of the complaints will often provide a clue as to where that is.

More important—and probably the biggest thing you’re missing out on by doing Clarion at home (aside from some of the fun) is that getting critiques can help you develop your skills in critiquing your own work.

Critiquing your own work is much harder than critiquing other people’s. If there’s some trick to doing it well, I haven’t learned it yet. In particular, getting critiques helps you learn about your blind spots. When critiquers point out flaws in your own work that you should have seen—and especially when they point out the same kinds of flaws in the next story, and the one after that—it can begin to sink in. That may be a quicker way to learn not to make the same mistakes, but the important part is to learn to see the mistakes. Then you can fix them, even if you can’t avoid making them.

Other stuff

Of course, there was a lot of other stuff at Clarion:

  1. A little dorm room with a little bed and a little desk.
  2. A weekly BBQ with that week’s departing teacher.
  3. A session with an editor on the difference between a perfectly good story and a story that sells.
  4. Several different perspectives on the career arc of a speculative fiction writer.
  5. Learning to play Mafia—and being there when John Gonzales invented his varient The Thing.
  6. Practice for doing public readings of our work in front of a small, friendly audience. (I’m still grateful to Rick Polney for organizing these.)
  7. Late evenings on the Owen balcony drinking beer and doing impersonations of the teachers. (You should have been there. It was hilarious.)
  8. Some very specific advice on what to do after Clarion. (That page also has a look at the life cycle of a story.)

All those things (and many others) were great fun; some have been really helpful in various ways. But what helped my writing was the stuff I’ve talked about here.

Once you develop enough skill at critiquing that you can evaluate your own work, you’re in a position to improve it through practice. Then it’s just a matter of putting in the time writing—and monitoring, evaluating, and trying to do it better.

Clarion is great fun, but you can improve your writing even if you can’t go.

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

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 ), 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 (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 (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 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.

This is part 4 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 critiquing.

Critique what you read

Read stories. Figure out how they’re flawed. Then, look at the bits that are less flawed, and figure out how they work. (Then apply that understanding to your own work—but that’s the topic of the next post.)

It’s tough to do this with great stories, but it is possible. Once you’ve had some practice with mediocre stories, try your improving skills on some really good stories. They’re not really different; it’s just that the bits are put together a bit more smoothly (and they don’t have any missing bits).

Here’s just a few ideas of things to look at:

  1. Think about why the author chose this viewpoint character. Is it the person who changes? The person in a position to watch someone else change?
  2. Think about why the author chose this sequence of scenes. Is it chronological? Is there a flashback? Does the story begin at the beginning, or in the middle of things?
  3. Think about the purpose of each scene. Find the scenes that show you that the hero cares about something. Find the scenes that show that there’s something important at stake. Find the scene where the hero is forced to make a choice. Find the scene where the consequences of that choice are shown.
  4. Look at the dialog. Does each character have a unique voice? Is each bit of dialog motivated—does the character have a reason to speak?
  5. Identify each descriptive phrase. Have you ever seen the same bit of description in another story (dark cave, tall tree, pretty girl)? When you find a bit of description that’s new to you, make note of it. Think about whether it’s more effective than the more generic descriptions.

The book on writing that you picked will have many more ideas. For every suggestion that your fiction-writing book makes, some stories out there will be doing something different. Sometimes, those differences will be what makes the story brilliant. More often, those differences will be flaws that make the story less than it could have been. Find those flaws (and occasional bits of brilliance).

Once you’ve done the thinking, go ahead and write out a critique, just as if you were going to deliver it to the author.

Read other critiques

As I mentioned in the part on planning, though, the way to get maximum benefit from this activity is to read the story, prepare your critique, and then examine several other critiques of the same story. (Don’t do it in any other order. You’d get vastly less benefit if you read the critique and then read the story, or if you read the story and then read a review of it without first preparing your own critique.)

What you’re looking for are any insights that anyone else had that you missed—and especially any tools that they used that you weren’t aware of.

At my Clarion, Pat Murphy demonstrated a technique of analyzing a story that I included as point in the brief list above—identifying the story purpose behind each scene. This is a very powerful technique, especially for stories where there’s a lot of good stuff—good prose, good characterization, good science-fictional idea—and yet the story isn’t quite working. If you dismantle the story at the scene level, you can spot all sorts of flaws that are otherwise hard to see. There may be scenes that don’t even serve a story purpose—cut these. There may be scenes that occur at the wrong point—move them to where they belong. There may be scenes missing—write them.

But there are many, many tools of this sort—far more than I can list here. That’s why Clarion lasts for six weeks and why students critique over 100 stories (and listen to over 2000 critiques): so they are exposed to worked examples of using many such techniques. (Importantly, they are not just exposed in the abstract. They see the techniques applied to stories that they themselves have already tackled as best they can with the techniques they already have.)

To make Clarion-at-home a success, you’ll have to do something similar. You don’t need to do it all in your six weeks, but the more stories you critique, and the more other critiques of those stories you explore, the more you’ll improve your own understanding of how stories work—and how they fail.

Part 5 of this series will be on using these efforts to develop expertise.

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

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.

This is part 2 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 the writing.

Write a story a week

Writing is what a writer does. If you write, you’re a writer. If you don’t write, you’re not a writer. It’s as simple as that.

Having said that, I was surprised to find that the writing wasn’t really emphasized at Clarion. We were kept terribly busy with other stuff—reading, preparing critiques, delivering critiques, listening to everyone else’s critiques, classroom instruction, hanging out with classmates, hanging out with the instructors. It was just as much of a struggle to get our writing in during Clarion as it is at home.

Surprised as I was, I came to appreciate a certain evil genius in the lack of support for getting the writing done. That a writer should write every day is standard wisdom, but what good would it do to have Clarion impose that habit? In just six short weeks we’d all be returning to the real world, where we’d have to be able to generate that habit ourselves. Having it be hard to find time for our writing even at Clarion turned out to be much more effective. We all managed—and all thereby learned the lesson that finding time for writing is simply a matter of making the writing a priority.

There’s nothing magical about a story a week. It’s just typical—if you wrote less than that, you missed out on getting a critique from one of the instructors because you didn’t have anything to turn in that week. But writing a story a week—that is, producing a complete draft of a story, ready for critique—is a challenging but achievable goal.

The writing is not the most important part of going to Clarion, but it is the most important part of being a writer. Squeezing the writing into the interstices of your six weeks is a reasonable, realistic thing to do. But it’s the next bits that make Clarion so effective at making writers better.

Part 3 of this series will be on selecting and reading stories for critique.

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

This is part 1 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 planning for your Clarion at home.

Pick your six weeks

Unlike the folks attending Clarion, you can choose any six weeks you want. You could go with the same six weeks as Clarion; one advantage of that is that you could read their blogs and maybe borrow some of their energy. But you don’t have to wait if you don’t want to (or if the reason you can’t go to Clarion is a schedule conflict).

Along with picking the six weeks, commit to a significant degree of focus on your writing during those six weeks. You won’t be able to focus like someone at Clarion—you’ll probably have to go to work or to class, you’ll no doubt have obligations at home—but negotiate to have these minimized during the period you’ve picked, and decide in advance that you’ll let some of your minor obligations slip for six weeks.

Pick a book on writing

At my Clarion, much of week one was spent in classroom instruction, and there was further classroom instruction in varying amounts through the later weeks. To substitue for that, pick a book on fiction writing that you can use to learn (or review) the basics of writing fiction.

Because of his historical connection with Clarion, Damon Knight’s Creating Short Fiction: The Classic Guide to Writing Short Fiction is an obvious choice, but any fiction-writing book that you happen to have or can get from the library would be fine.

Make a study plan

Make a plan for how you’ll work through most of the book you’ve selected over during the first two weeks.

When I went, week one was spent studying plot and character with Steve Barnes (who is quite brilliant about plot in particular—the stuff I learned from him forms a large part of the article I sold to Speculations: Story Structure in Short Stories).

Week two was spent with Kelly Link. She taught us all kinds of stuff, but especially about the importance of telling detail for making description compelling. She also provided a masterclass in point-of-view.

So, to make your Clarion-at-home like my Clarion, read through the chapters of your book on those topics (plot, character, description, POV) during the first two weeks.

Consider joining an on-line critique group

I say “consider,” because your goal would actually not be to get critiques of your work, so it might not be appropriate.

Everyone assumes that getting some thoughtful critiques of your work by people skilled in the field is the most important part of Clarion, but that turns out not to be true. The most important part of Clarion is preparing critiques, and then hearing your classmates’ critiques on the same stories. That’s what teaches you the most—whenever someone else offers a critique that’s different from yours, you learn something.

To get that benefit, you need to find some stories that have been critiqued. An on-line critique group is one possible source. If you can’t find one or don’t want to participate in one, there are other sources. (In fact, there’s a whole field of study devoted to it: literary criticism.)

If you don’t want to join an on-line critique group, you can make do with other kinds of critiques—scholarly papers, book reviews, etc. For speculative fiction in particular, Locus Magazine reviews a lot of published stories, and puts a lot of those reviews on-line. Any source of critiqued stories (with critiques) will serve your purpose.

Once your planning is done, you’re ready to begin. Part 2 of this series will be on writing a story a week.

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

Acceptances and rejections for Clarion are going out about now, so the writer blogs and twitter feeds are full of excitement and dismay.  Those who get to go to Clarion are in for a wonderful, magical experience. But what if you can’t go? What if you got rejected—or didn’t even apply, because of a lack of time or money or confidence? You can capture pieces of the Clarion experience, without going to Clarion—pieces that will let you step up your writing game, perhaps as much as going to Clarion would.

Of course, you can’t really recreate Clarion at home. You can’t duplicate the community of fellow writers working together on the common goal of improving everyone’s skills. You can’t recreate the network of pro writers who’ll take an interest in your career because they’ve gotten to know you as a person. And you probably can’t recreate the time and space—six weeks with no obligations but to write and critique. Given all that, you can still do a lot.

So, with the proviso that I’m just a writer who attended Clarion ten years ago and has continued writing since then, I’m putting up a series of posts on “Clarion at home.” (Be aware that I tend to over-think and over-plan this sort of thing. A minimalist version of this would probably be just as good, and might be better.)

Here’s what I’m expecting to post over the next few days. (I’ll links here as I get the posts up. I may also edit the list if I make changes.)

  1. Planning: Pick your six weeks—and a book on writing
  2. Writing: Write a story a week
  3. Reading: Read many mediocre and a few great stories
  4. Critiquing: Compare your critiques to others
  5. Expertise: How to become an expert fiction writer
  6. Summation: What about getting critiques?

I’d be particularly interested in hearing from other folks who’ve attended Clarion and have some thoughts on how you can capture a bit of the Clarion experience for home use. I’ll approve pingbacks and trackbacks for this post, so if you write something about recreating Clarion at home, I’ll link back to your post.

[Update 2011-03-28: I’ve gathered the links above together on a “Clarion at Home” page.]