Clarion Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers WorkshopEvery year there’s a new Clarion class. Every year I’m a bit jealous of the new batch of students getting to study with the new batch of teachers.

There’s a little overlap this year—one of the anchor teachers, Kelly Link, was my instructor for week two. The others I haven’t studied with, but I’ve met some and read their work and would jump at the chance to study with them.

But you can’t go back to Clarion. (And, to be honest, you wouldn’t want to. Going to Clarion is a transformative experience, but that sort of transformation only happens once.)

I’ve written a good bit about my own experience at Clarion, besides keeping a daily journal while I was there. A year or two ago, I also wrote a series of posts on doing Clarion at home, if for one reason or another you couldn’t go.

But really, if you have a choice, it’d be much more fun to do Clarion at Clarion, if you possibly can. Head over to the Clarion site to apply.

One of my Clarion classmates, Nnedi Okorafor, tweeted today wondering why sometimes authors won’t just say what race a character is. I doubt if she was thinking about me, but I’m one of those writers who is sometimes coy about a character’s race. My answer won’t fit in 140 characters, so I thought I’d write a post.

The most common instance when I do this (just provide physical descriptions, rather than stating a racial identity) is when the viewpoint character doesn’t know the answer.

This is pretty common in real life. There are plenty of people I know whose ethnic heritage is not at all obvious just from their appearance. You’d have to ask.  And these days, I hesitate to ask—some people take offense at the question, and others are simply tired of answering. So, just like in the real world, my characters often don’t know the ethnic heritage of other characters. Sometimes they’ll speculate. Other times they won’t.

The other common instance when I do this is when the whole cultural background thing is complex enough to be a distraction from the story. A character of South Asian heritage might be one whose ancestors had immigrated to Uganda but whose grandparents had been expelled and moved to England. But for story purposes I might decide that all I want to say is that she has straight, dark hair and speaks with an English accent.

Finally, what I’m working on right now is a far-future story where humans have spread to a hundred worlds. Even when they know where on Earth people had a particular skin color, they know no more about the paths their various ancestors took than I know about mine. (I can point to some English, Irish, and Dutch—but there’s reason to believe that one of my male ancestors came from somewhere around the Mediterranean, or maybe Sarmatia.)

I do have one unfinished story where I play around a bit with ethnicity, because the viewpoint character was raised to be interested in it. Due to his background, he’s much better at it than I am, able to look at people and perceive that this one is Celtic, that one Igbo, another Chettiar. It was fun to write those bits, but it got to be a bit much to be just a quirk of the character, without managing to rise to the level of being a powerful driver of the story.

One cluster of particularly good bits of advice that I got at Clarion came from James Patrick Kelly. (That link goes to my Clarion journal entry for the day I wrote about it.) Among other things, he suggested that we should:

  1. Save all our rewrites until after Clarion (as a way of carrying some of the energy of Clarion forward),
  2. Do the rewrites in order of salability (and perhaps not bother rewriting any that didn’t seem salable), and
  3. Write a new story for every story that we rewrote. (Otherwise we could easily find ourselves at the end of the summer with five or six nicely polished stories, but totally out of the habit of writing.)

More recently, having gotten several stories critiqued by the Incognitos, I decided to put that advice into practice again. I made a plan to start revising and submitting those stories, in between writing new ones. But I decided that I’d write one more new story before getting going on to revisions.

I made that plan rather longer ago than I’d like to admit, because for quite some time now I’ve had real trouble getting a new story finished.

After two or three attempts at new stories stalled, I should have just gone ahead and gotten going on a rewrite. But, no. Without really thinking about it, I just pushed ahead on a plan A, even though it wasn’t working. That wasted a lot of time, I’m afraid. It was also really frustrating.

But, good news: I’ve finally finished a new story! I’ve sent it out to the Incognitos, and it’ll be critiqued at the next meeting.

And now, finally, it’s time to look at the stories they’ve already critiqued, pick the most salable, and get to work revising it.

Ten years ago today was the first day of class at the 2001 Clarion. Steve Barnes talked about plot. (The stuff he talked about that day, together with some some ideas I got a few weeks later from Geoff Landis and some earlier instruction from Bruce Holland Rogers at his Flatiron Fiction Workshop, served as the basis for the article on story structure that I sold later that year to Speculations.)

Those six weeks at Clarion were great—only a handful of times in my life have I had that much fun. Clarion also had a huge impact on my life—everything I’ve done since then has been colored by the things I learned there.

I wouldn’t want to do Clarion again—it only works that way one time—but I would like to do another intensive workshop. Probably one aimed at novels, if I can get a novel written.

That’s for the future, though. Right now I need to write one more short story for my local writers group, then start revising some of the stories that they’ve already critiqued.

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 #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.

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 #3 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.