Tag Archives: Clarion

Five lessons learnt at Clarion

The Clarion Writers workshops http://clarion.ucsd.edu/ and http://www.clarionwest.org/ are now taking applications. At the suggestion of Jim Kelly, former Clarionauts are sharing five things we learned at Clarion as a Facebook meme. Here are my five for non FB people.

  1. I want to be a great writer. Which is a real bummer, because being a great writer takes real work and dedication and sacrifice. I was hoping at some point I would sell out and write a fifteen volume fantasy saga and get filthy rich. But it’s looking less and less likely. This is the problem with having great teachers…you have to live up to the standard they set.
  2. Your writing has as much depth as you do. It’s not possible to reach beyond the emotional range of your own experience. You have to live fully and explore your humanity before you stand a chance of writing stories that help others do the same. That doesn’t mean exploring unknown continents necessarily, it does mean exploring the unknown hidden in your everyday experience.
  3. Stop wasting time. Clarion is bootcamp for writers, because life afterwards is like going to war. The intensity of the experience is designed to show you the kind of intensity great writing requires. So much of life is wasted on things which, in the final analysis, have no meaning or value. Decide what is really important to you and focus on it to the selfish exclusion of all else. Throw away your TV and game console. These things have no place in your life anymore.
  4. Be with other writers. If you want to be great at anything, surround yourself with other people who are better than you. The real value of Clarion is being in the community of your peers. Join a good critique group or build your own. Go where other writers are. Make them your friends. And take joy in their success. Only bad writers hold on to jealousy over other writers achievements, because the only real person you are up against in this game is yourself (if that sounds like a platitude please know that I 100% mean it)
  5. Find your voice. There are many opportunities, especially in genre fiction, to imitate other writers. Don’t take them. If Star Trek franchise novels are truly how you express yourself then go ahead and write them, otherwise ignore anyone offering to pay you to write unless you can be sure you can find your own voice in that work. finding your voice isn’t a step on the path, it is the destination. If you accept anything less you are missing the whole point of the journey.
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A Little Something for Us Clarionauts

Today is the two year anniversary of the start of Clarion 2008. This time two years ago I was being collected by Dan Pinney and Megan Kurashige from a random street corner in San Diego, for the drive up to La Jolla and UCSD where I and seventeen others were going to spend six weeks of our lives writing and workshopping SF stories. And as I write eighteen new Clarion students are heading out on the same journey.

I haven’t written up my Clarion experience. I have often tried to but in the final reckoning I don’t think I can and I don’t think I’m going to now. There was too much, and attempting to express it has always seemed to limit it somehow. I’ve expressed parts of the experience in different contexts, but as the two year anniversary has approached and I’ve been flooded with memories of that six weeks, I want to try and say something about what it meant to me, in the hope that will mean something to the other people who have been and are going there.

Clarion was a very intense experience for me. It was my first trip to America, and to California, which in itself was a wonderfully rich and powerful journey. I find California overwhelming and intoxicating, and have returned twice and will again.

(I would love to live and work there for a time, so if anyone reading this happens to want to offer me a year of work, please do.)

And it marked a separation from the life I had been living up to that point. I went to Clarion with a job to come back to, but knowing I was not going to come back to it. What I did not know was that the very close relationship I was leaving behind was also going to end with Clarion. If you had asked me why I wanted to go to Clarion while I was sitting in the departure lounge at Heathrow airport, I could not have told you. But looking back, I can see that I had for some time had a growing yearning for adventure, and for a space to grow and develop as a person. Clarion became a catalyst that brought those things into my life, and for that reason it will always have tremendous personal significance for me.

But Clarion was and is an intense experience for everyone who attends, whether they bring along the kind of personal drives that I did (many do I think) or whether they are just attending a six week writers workshop. I’m going to try and explain where that universal intensity stems from, and I’d be interested to know if other people who have been there agree.

Speculative Fiction writer is, and I mean this respectfully, a weird career ambition to hold. Like a lot of people, my relationship with SF started with a parent. My mum LOVED science fiction. Arthur C Clarke and C.S. Lewis particularly, and also Lord of the Rings which was almost a bible in our home. And she also wanted to write. So in one way or another, I have been on a journey into the world of SF pretty much since birth.

But the SF world can be difficult to find. It is almost a secret world, invisible even to some of its biggest fans. Millions of people read Hugo and Nebula award winning novels, but only a fraction of them even know about WorldCon or the Science Fiction Writers of America. There are new bestselling SF novels every week, but the short story markets where SF was born and around which much of the community turns are barely known. It took me, and it takes most writers, years of work and effort to find my way into the SF world.

And then, at Clarion, you are not just in SF world, you are at its heart. A world that until then had been built out of books, and internet forums, and weekend conventions and maybe a few real life friendships or a writing group, is suddenly made of eighteen passionate, committed, ambitious, aspiring SF writers who all share much the same vision. A world that had been subjective, ghostly and intangible is now solid and real, and you are in it twenty-four hours a day with no work or other distractions.

The feeling of being at the heart of the SF world at Clarion is incredibly strong. I have had heart-to-heart conversations with Clarion graduates from different years that I had never met before but felt instant friendship with, simply because we had the shared experience of being at the centre of a place that few people get to enter. In contrast, I’ve met professional, published SF novelists who feel much less a part of that world than completely unpublished Clarion graduates.

More than anything else, it is that sense of belonging and community in the SF world that is Clarion’s real gift. Leaving Clarion is very difficult because of it (and because you are leaving behind very real and very true friendships). After those six weeks end you are back in the big bad world, and that can be very hard. But that feeling of belonging never really goes away. In fact it can get stronger. As Kelly Link said to our Clarion group in week one, some of us would go away from Clarion and start reshaping our lives so we could be part of the SF world permanently, whether as writers or editors or committed fans. Its been a pleasure to watch all of my friends from Clarion do that in their own ways, as I’ve been doing it in mine.

I titled this blog post after a short story by Philip K Dick, A Little Something for Us Tempunauts. It’s a story about time travel, but also about leaving home and coming back, and about belonging. Clarion graduates are commonly called Clarionites, like citizens of the state of Clarion. But I think of us as Clarionauts, travellers into the strange and weird and ever so slightly odd world of SF. If we come back from our travels a little strange and weird and ever so slightly odd please forgive us, it’s the nature of the journey itself.

(I want to know all about Clarion 2010! If you are there now and reading this or know someone who is please give me blog / Twitter / Facebook links below or at http://twitter.com/damiengwalter )

(And look, I’ve done a whole Clarion post without mentioning Neil Gaiman once! Oh…darn-it…)

Being Good and Being Great

I tend to become a night-owl in the run up to exciting events. We are x-minus 4 days to the Writing Industries Conference. A few i’s need dotting but (touchwood) everything is going to plan, and we are very close to sold out. But none the less it’s 1:26am and I am very far from sleepy. So I’m going to write a blog post to settle my mind.

Perhaps because of the writers conference, my mind has been filled with meta-debates about writing in recent weeks. Are we facing the end of the Print Age? Does publishing still need its gatekeepers? Is serial fiction due a serious revival? Has podcast fiction died on the vine? These are useful debates to have, but ultimately I always arrive back at the same answer.

One of the issues that came up again and again at Clarion was the difference between being good, and being great. Kelly Link, in her week one introduction, told us the challenge we all (the 18 of us attending Clarion) faced was taking the step up from writing a good story to writing a great story. In week three Mary Anne Mohanraj broke down the Strange Horizons slush pile into 70% bad or average, 29% good and 1% great. And in truth I think 1% is being generous. I’d guess that about 0.01% of all the stories written are great.

Thats 1 in 10,000. Seems about right.

I’m not going to try and define great. Or even give examples. You all know what I mean. These are the stories (of any length and in any medium) that make us love stories, and that make us want to tell stories.

The one and only goal of any writer is to tell one of those 1 in 10,000 stories. (Preferably more than one, but one is a good starting point) Nobody knows what makes a great story or what makes a writer of great stories, and anybody who says they do is lying. Some writers struggle through an entire career and never tell a great story. A rare and gifted few tell only great stories. The rest of us sit on the spectrum between, searching for the great story we dream of telling. Just one great story can make a writer beloved for generations, whereas a thousand good ones are forgotten every day.

So every meta-debate about writing always comes down to the same answer. Write something great. Great is the rarest commodity in fiction. People fight for the right to publish great stories. Readers go crazy for them and literally beg the authors for more. As long as there are great stories to be read, people will find a way to read them whether it’s from a printed page or an iPad screen. The world needs more great stories, the reason why the bookshops are filled with so many good, average or even bad stories is because there are so few great ones. Write a great story, and the rest will fall in to place around it.

Elsewhere…

StarShipSofa needs to win a Hugo this year, because it is great.

Paul M. Berger bring some Clarion greatness to the digital pages of Strange Horizons. Go forth and read.

A WorldCon of our own

The World Science Fiction convention is well underway in Montreal by now. Up until a few weeks ago I was sure I would be attending, but when it came down to it I just could not justify it for this year. I’m doubly sad as many Clarion friends are there and I would love to see each and every one of them again, and our Clarion instructor Neil Gaiman is the guest of honour (I still find it hard to parse the reality that I spent six weeks being taught by Neil, Kelly, Jim, Geoff, Nalo and Mary-Ann just a year ago) and really wanted to see him take the Hugo (which I am certain he will).

But I refuse to be sad. Instead this weekend I am having a WorldCon of my own. My own micro-convention, to which I am inviting all my favourite authors (in their paper and print incarnations) and you. If you to are missing the party, then feel free to join me on Twitter @damiengwalter or #notworldcon and we can form our very own virtual con.

A few random links:

I say a bit about the Hugo’s for SF Signal

I argue for Neuromancer as the book that should have won the 1984 Booker prize. Others disagree. (perhaps more on this subject to come)

Wainscot Tarot and approaching goodbyes

Amidst my hectic Clarion schedule I’ve been working on a flash fiction piece for Behind the Wainscot, who are publishing a linked series of stories inspired by tarot cards a little later this month. I was pretty excited to be invited to take part, especialy when I saw the list of other contributors which includes many of favourite short fiction writers. I chose to take a stab at interpreting The Sun, and after a few versions and rewrites I submitted my story today. I’ll link to it when the tarot stories all go live.

Clarion is now in its last week. It feels slightly unreal, as the differential between Clarion and real world time means I feel like I’ve been here for about eighteen months. As happy as I am to be seeing home again, I’m very, very sad about leaving my Clarion friends behind. I can’t imagine getting to know such a brilliant group of people in such an intense way again any time soon. I’ve made friends here that I know I will see again, but more than likely there are a few faces I will miss. Now at least I have additional motivation to be a bestselling author, so I can come back to the US on book tour and catch up with everyone! And in the unlikely circumstance that doesn’t happen this year I’m resolved to attend at least one major con in the states so I can see other Clarionites in person.

But Clarion isn’t over yet. I still have one more story to finish, and a dozen or more to read and critique. So…back to the word mines!

Clarion, or a six week course in sleep deprivation.

So, I’m now settled into the routine at Clarion, which goes a little something like this – get up, eat breakfast, 3 -4 hours group critique of stories submitted the day before. Have lunch. Afternoon lecture, followed by tech session / other essential life maintenance chores, write, dinner, read stories for next morning, write critique notes for next morning, write more. Choose between 4 hours sleep or more writing. Choose between 2 hours sleep or more writing. Wake-up / leave bed. Repeat. Repeat. Repeat.

This is a barely manageable schedule on a good day. Add in any of the following variables (jet-lag, desire to talk / socialise with fellow Clarionites, critique rage, collapse of internet connection to girlfriend, symptons of cold and flu, laziness or general lack of self-discipline (all of which I have been afflicted with)) and the Clarion schedule becomes a punishing one. Today is the first day I have managed to write anything meaning ful…and I have so much more ahead of me!

But the there is reason behind this madness. Clarion is all about challenging your assumptions about writing and about genre, and expanding your experiece of writing short fiction. If there are fundamental problems with a story – as there were with my first critiqued story – the workshop process will nail them. Reading in detail 3-4 stories an evening makes you really examine the approaches other writers in your peer group are using. Discussions in crit group and elsewhere dig down into some of the issues that animate fiction writing. Most of all going through this experience with other writers who are all absolutely committed takes the act of writing, which can seem mad and obscure amongst the hurly burly of everyday life, and puts it at the absolute centre of your experience. Two days in I’ve already found it inspiring, infuriating, intimidating and intellectualy challenging beyond my expectations. What the hell happens in the next six weeks I have no idea, but I am determined to find out.

Aber Reads

The locals call Aberystwyth, the almost capital of Wales, simply Aber. It makes sense, its a mouthfull of constanants.

Its an odd almost capital. Twelve thousands residents, seven thousands students. Some tourists and caravan parks. More than a few hippies and a sprinkling of writers, if you can seperate the two. I like it. I want to move.

My second trip to Aber and I wanted to get some reading done. Its a town that suits fantasy. High cliffs. Long grey beaches. Sea gulls the size of labradors. I took some books with me but was also lured in by the Waterstones 3 for 2. A mistake.

The Merlin Codex is one of those sophisticated fantasy novels I’ve been meaning to read. I keep picking it up off the book shelf the putting it back. I’ve read the prologue six or seven times so this week I read the rest. Its very evocative. Intense prose. Packed with dark imigiary. But where are the characters? Merlin, Jason, Medea and other figures from the Greek / Celtic mythic melange author Robert Holdstock mixes are there, but in name only. Perhaps its the fantasy iotself that overweighs the chracters, but facinating as the book was I couldn’t really get absorbed into it. Maybe it was just me.

The Name of the Wind by Patrick Rothfuss wasn’t me. This book seems to fulfill all the worst accusations levelled at fantasy blockbusters. Perhaps that isn’t entirely fair. Rothfuss is trying to write the kid of gritty, low fantasy that George R R Martin has popularised. Writers like Steven Erikson, Joe Abercrombie, Scott Lynch and many more have followed down this path, none very successfully IMHO. These books are very, very ambitious. Dozens of lead characters with hundreds more in support. Numerous intertwining plotlines. Massive themes unfolding accross a vast imagined world. It takes a massive amounts of skill and craft to write this kind of books, and with the exception of Martin, few of the writers attempting it are good enough. The Name of the Wind typifies this for me. It has grand ambition but the basics of good storytelling and character bulding are’t there.Thats a great disappointment because I really want a book to get lost in, but The Name of the Winde surely is not it.

My Clarion reading continued with Fragile Things by Neil Gaiman and Stranger Things Happen by Kelly Link. Interesting to read these two short story collections intertwined with each other. there are a lot of commonalities. Gaiman’s writing is more diverse, whilst links has the edge in intensity. I could sit and read the Gaiman collection straight through, but Link’s is more a thing to read over time.  I also read through some more James Patrick Kelly, which reminded me that I wat to catch up with some more hard-SF. Its two weeks to Clarion now. I’m excited in ways I can’t express.

Invitation to Clarion

Earlier this week I received an invitation to attend the Clarion writers workshop in San Diego this summer. I haven’t been able to post until now because they were still informing people about places, but I’m seeing rejections posted up on the blogosphere so guess I can go public. I’m yet to see any acceptances though so if thats you and your reading this then say hello.

Because of the few days delay I’m a bit calmer than I was so here is a recreation of what I would have posted…

I GOT IN! I GOT IN! I GOT IN! EEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEE!!!!!!!!!!!!!!…

I’m pretty damn excited about the whole thing.  I’m going to spend six weeks this summer with only the writing to think about, workshopping with some of the worlds best authors and in the company of people who share the same passion for the craft. I’m still so excited that the standard rejection slip from Fantasy & Science Fiction magazine for ‘The Great Western Pile’ which turned up in my mailbox yesterday barely even registered.

I’m going to be blogging my Clarion preparation and keeping a journal of the workshop itself here. My first task is to track down books by all the tutors and get them read.

Ironically all the nervousness waiting for the result and then the excitement of getting a place mean I haven’t used my writing time productively this week, so I’ll be redoubling my efforts as of today. I have a Guardian article to finish today, a review for the Fix tommorow and then I want to get the second draft of The Black Bull done this week. Back to the word mines!

One in Ten…

…is the approximate chance of getting a place at Clarion. I found out yesterday that the Top Gun of science fiction and fantasy writing workshops received about 200 applications this year. They take 18 students, so working out the math…(scratches head and sticks tongue out corner of mouth)…it comes to about 1/10.  On the positive side, it could be 2000. On the negative side, anyone serious enough to take six weeks out of their life to take the course will be making a serious application. And 200 serious applications is a LOT of competition. I’m just going to try not to think about any of this until I hear one way or the other.