Five lessons learnt at Clarion

The Clarion Writers workshops and 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.

Published by Damien Walter

Writer and storyteller. Contributor to The Guardian, Independent, BBC, Wired, Buzzfeed and Aeon magazine. Special forces librarian (retired). Teaches the Rhetoric of Story to over 35,000 students worldwide.

18 thoughts on “Five lessons learnt at Clarion

  1. You make some good points, but I’m not so keen on your assumption that anyone who writes a fantasy series has somehow sold out, let alone somehow become filthy rich. The Britannia Hotel is a pretty good indicator of how opulent the genre isn’t.


    1. That’s a complex issue Sam, but I’m going to stand by my point. If a fantasy series is really a writer’s way of expressing themself, then more power to them. But truthfully, I think a lot of fantasy sagas are written by writers who, if they had allowed themselves more time to grow and develop before taking on a novel, might have written very different and better stories.


      1. Ah, well when you put it like that, I’d tend to agree :).

        I often have strong opinions on how the fantasy I read could be improved, but as someone still learning the craft myself (I’ve never so much as got a short story published), I wonder how much I should really be saying. On the one hand the SF/fantasy community seems to be very close knit and made up of nice folks who don’t deserve to hear me running my mouth, but on the other hand some books really need to come with a warning attached…


      2. My writing tends to veer wildly depending on what I’m reading and watching around the time. The stories I focus on tend to be near-future SF or folklore-ish fantasy horror (shying away from the graphic). I’ve sent a couple of things to Interzone, Black Static and Futurismic, but I’m never really sure who accepts the kind of thing I’m writing (although Duotrope is very useful).

        My biggest problem tends to be finishing projects. I often panic when I realise that the situation I’m writing about has been ploughed through a hundred times before. I know I can write fairly decent prose and think I have a good grasp on drawing characters and making things interesting, but I want to be original. When I realise that I’m not, my motivation to write just drains away.


      3. If you can make it over form Nottingham, come to the Speculators writing group, every Wednesday evening, friends meeting house on Queens Rd in Leicester. very supportive and a good place to meet other writers.


      4. On the subject of Fantasy sagas I am currently reading [name witheld] and I find myself gnashing my teeth every other page. The story elements are fine but the language.. sheesh. And it is quite highly regarded. I’ve heard the author in question speak and I find it hard to relate what he’s said with what he’s written. It’s a page turner so I’ll finish it and then never read another of his novels again.

        All of which is disappointing because his clear aim was to write something different – unfortunately he’s weighed down by the baggage of that genre leaving mel forced to chuck him style under point 3 of your blog post and be done with it. I remember reading the Strange and Norrell books a while back and thinking “This is really good – more of the same please.” but it seems that book hasn’t had the impact I thought it would back then.


      5. The difference between Strange and Norrell and the your unnamed fantasy saga is probably time spent writing it. Susanna Clarke spent a decade working on that book. The fantasy saga was probably written in less than a year. Add to that, Clarke understood what she was writing. By that I mean, she knew what her magic was a metaphor for. She knew she was adopting the mannered voice of a Jane Austen novel. On the whole fantasy novelists don’t really understand what they are doing beyond the nuts and bolts of the plot, which is a great shame.


  2. Argh. Apologies for the couple of typos I missed there. Hope my meaning is clear.

    I wanted to make a specific seperate comment thanking you for the blog post. What you’ve written largely chimes with everything I’ve learned. It’s everything other authors consistently say and it’s gratifing to see these poinsts set down clearly.

    Even if I detest the word “meme”. ;-)


    1. On the whole fantasy novelists don’t really understand what they are doing beyond the nuts and bolts of the plot, which is a great shame.

      Yeah, I agree. You’d think that someone had read S&N and thought “I’d like to write that” then at least attempt something along those lines. And it doesn’t have to be a door stop either…

      Fantasy authors take note!


      1. I don’t think it helps that authors seeking publication/representation are repeatedly told that in order to have a career as a writer (and in some cases get published at all) you need to be churning out a book a year (preferably two or more). With that kind of pressure, it’s little surprise that series/sequels tend to disappoint.


      2. Yes, I think that might be the major problem in genre publishing at the moment. It works for simpler pulp writing, but for authors dealing with more complex work its a bit ridiculous to think they can put out a novel a year and really achieve great writing. In literary fiction the cycle is more like a novel every three years, then each of those novels is marketed as event. I’d love to see that established as the norm for genre writers working at the literary end of the field.


  3. Your point five is worth the whole preceding shebang; I might phrase it more strongly as “Find a way to get paid to become the actual writer you should be. That path may be hard or easy or nonexistent and you might not get very far on it, but it’s the only real path. Everything else is a pretty, easy path through a cheery garden that ends in the death of the writer.” Having walked the deadening path several times, as they say in church, I’ll testify till they call me home.

    Also, an extract from your point 4, amplified: “Always, to the limits of your cognition, perception, and ability, 100% mean your platitudes.”

    And finally, for those of us who are mostly-solitary writers: If you are a reclusive writer, know that you are and why you are and how it works to your good as a writer, and bear in mind that for your social/professional life, other writers are a spice, not a main ingredient. Can’t begin to tell you how much saner my writer-life got once I began to consciously confine other-writer contact to casual chat online, sporadic correspondence with a couple dozen friends, and face to face meetings with a very small number of trusted old friends (and not many of those). I have an abundant social life with many readers, via half a dozen venues; as for writers, well, there’s hardly anything more comforting than looking at all those convention photos in Locus and knowing I wasn’t there.



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