The Clarion Workshops (Clarion in San Diego and Clarion West in Seattle) are by-audition workshops for writers of speculative fiction (SF/Fantasy/Horror). For six weeks during the summer, eighteen writers come together under the instruction of six seasoned masters of genre. The students churn out one story and seventeen critiques a week. It’s an intense experience, the sort that can break people down and break them through to becoming better writers. The intensity of the shared experience can help build lasting bonds between classmates that are as much family as friendship.
It isn’t the right experience for everyone. Some individuals shut down under that kind of pressure. Some classes run into interpersonal conflicts that muddy the potential for bonding. Some people can’t afford to go in terms of time or money. But for me (and for my seventeen littermates in the class of Clarion West 2012), it was a life-changing experience in the best possible way.
This week, the classes of Clarion and Clarion West 2016 are starting on an amazing journey. It’s a time when Clarion alums get nostalgic, and I’m no exception! For the next six weeks, I’ll be checking in with my cohort from CW2012 and asking them to talk about their CW experiences: where they were as writers before the workshop, how the workshop impacted their writing, what they’re working on now, etc.
Like dandelion seeds, we’ve dispersed along different courses, some of us hitting ‘measurable’ success markers earlier than others. For better or worse, that’s how this writing thing works. But that’s not the full measure of our potential. One of my classmates in her interview quotes our Week 4 instructor, Connie Willis: “Writing is not a career, it’s a holy vocation. You put in as much time as it takes.” Our vocation is subject to the whims of chance and opportunity. It’s never easy, it’s never over, and it’s different for every person.
Next up we have Gordon Harper. He proved he had the more ephemeral qualities necessary to be a writer when he matched our entire class to our spiritual alcohol types.
What was your writing and publishing experience coming into Clarion West 2012?
When I came to Clarion West, I hadn’t been published anywhere. This isn’t surprising because at that time I’d only submitted one story to two magazines, and it’d been justly rejected both times. I simply didn’t feel like my writing was good enough for publication yet. I was writing a lot—I’d been inspired by Gene Wolfe’s writing regimen of two hours before breakfast, though I could only manage one hour—and my prose was gradually getting better, but it still wasn’t particularly good and I couldn’t diagnose why.
What sort of expectations did you have for the workshop?
I’d been in a few writing groups before, but they’d been mostly comprised of people who didn’t read speculative fiction, and it didn’t help that I was writing genre-heavy material. A lot of the critiques I got back started with, “I don’t normally read this stuff,” and without reference points it was difficult for them to say how I could improve it. One of the big virtues of Clarion West was that everyone was familiar with genre already, so the advice they’d give would be a lot more appropriate.
What was something indispensable or revelatory that you learned from an instructor or special guest? From one of your classmates?
Mary Rosenblum, our first week instructor, gave me one of my favorite critiques I’d ever received. Since it was week one and we didn’t have time to write more than quick exercises, she used our one-on-one sessions to critique our submission stories that had gotten us into the workshop. My submission piece was a somewhat lurid Lovecraftian-horror-fantasy piece that I’d run through two writing groups already, and while it had problems I was fairly happy about it. Mary was able to show me where I was going wrong. As she put it, my plot was adequate and my world-building was excellent, but my characterization “is non-existent in the first half and dire in the second.”
So that gave me something to focus on for the rest of the course.
This was reinforced by a memorable piece of advice from George R.R. Martin, who quoted a line from William Faulkner’s Nobel Prize acceptance speech: “The problems of the human heart in conflict with itself which alone can make good writing because only that is worth writing about.” (‘The Heart in Conflict’ is the name of the final section of GRRM’s short story collection Dreamscapes.) And while I ultimately don’t agree with the sentiment—there are surely vast multitudes of things worth writing about that have nothing to do with fleeting human experience—it’s something that echoes in my brain every time I sit down to write.
How was the workshop meaningful for you? How has it impacted your writing?
As you might imagine, Clarion West changed my writing in ways I’m still processing today. What I didn’t expect was how much it changed my critiquing skills. Reading seventeen stories a week and critiquing them (often in a sleep-deprived state), then listening to sixteen other crits of each of those stories (finished off by the practically Word-of-God crit from the instructor) gives you immense practice at critical reading skills and how to take apart stories. And, naturally enough, the better a critiquer you are, the better you’re set up to identify the weaknesses in your own stories.
I also can’t undersell the community Clarion West establishes. Our class may be unusual, but it’s been four years and we’re still regularly emailing each other with news, drafts to crit, and long-running discussions on the latest Star Wars film (250 emails so far!). Even at its most basic, there’s something surprisingly motivating about getting daily emails from fellow writers in the same boat as you are.
What’s something you’ve accomplished since the workshop that you’re really proud of (doesn’t have to be writing related!)
I’m pleased to tell you that my first published short story will be coming out in the next few months from Amazing Stories (“A Clean Start”). It was one of the runners-up in the Gernsback Competition last year, so if you’re interested in a cynically optimistic look at the solar system 250 years from now, check it out.
I’m also somewhat happy with my website, Ten to Infinity, which wouldn’t exist if it wasn’t for Clarion West. Someone, I forget who, advised having a personal website with regular new content to encourage viewers to keep coming back. Now, for the past eight years I’ve kept a spreadsheet of all the short stories I read with ratings, so it seemed like a simple scheme to cull the highest rated stories and write about why I liked them. Over time I’ve built up 180 reviews, though the first 60-odd are quick two-paragraph pieces. While it’s on hiatus at the moment, I’m currently preparing material for two review series focusing on old anthology comics.
What are you working on now?
My Federal Taxes course, part of a long road towards getting my CPA license. Writing-wise, I’m trying to finish off some short stories before classes start up again in earnest.
Pick one and answer: What do you say when people ask, “Where do you get your ideas from?” Do you have an unusual talent or skill? What keeps you awake at night? If you weren’t a writer what would you be? What are you going to do right now when you’ve finished this ordeal?
What do you say when people ask, “Where do you get your ideas from?”
Ideas are ten a penny. I’ve filled piles of scrap paper, pages upon pages of notes in minute, barely legible writing, of ideas I stumble across. Everything you learn, everything you experience, is fodder for ideas. Trinitite is the name for glass formed by an atomic explosion; what windows might it make? The Order of the Blackened Dawn, founded in the Year Without a Summer, was both inspiration for and antagonist to Aleister Crowley’s efforts. The horror of accumulated paperwork and the joy of byzantine accounting systems.
No, the real trick is figuring out how to take your ideas and turn them into the form of a story; otherwise you might as well just publish a book of miscellany. Oh, and make sure there’s characterization in there somewhere. Never forget the characterization.
Share your bio, website, social media.
Ten to Infinity is found, quite understandably, at tentoinfinity.com. I occasionally remember that Twitter exists, where I’m @tentoinfinity.