Five Things We Learned at Clarion, Part 2
Yesterday, I posted some of the lists generated when Jim Kelly asked former students about the five things we learned at Clarion. There was some fantastic writing advice in there – so we got some more of the lists!
As always, if you’ve written your own list and wouldn’t mind having it reposted here, leave a comment!
- Press the real
- Be present for your characters
- Sometimes a story falls flat at the moment the author stops loving their characters
- Get more exercise! The nimbleness of Clarion instructors during the waterfight made me want to take care of my body more so that if I ever get the honour of being an instructor I can kick butt as much as the others.
- Sometimes when I’m stuck it’s because some other issue is blocking my mind. Writing a brain dumpy poem about that issue is a good way to clear it out of the way and get the clarity and motivation to write the words that need writing.
- Your plot should never hinge on Stupid. (I.e., your plot should never depend on a character doing something the reader can plainly see is dumb and is only being done for the sake of the plot.)
- No, your first draft isn’t good enough. (Continuing to believe that you ‘think it out enough in advance’ and that you don’t need to revise is both egotistical and the mark of a rank amateur.)
- “All anybody cares about is caring” (If there’s no emotional core to your story, no reason for the reader to care, all the awesome premise/worldbuilding/plot-twist stuff in the world is wasted.)
- Do The Work, whether you ‘feel like it’ or not.
- Put the Gun in the Drawer in Act One, or you have no business pulling it out in Act Three.
- You can produce much more than you thought you could.
- When in doubt, write more stuff.
- Clarion is only the beginning. Be patient.
- The writers and editors you admire? They are actually really supportive of new writers. They want you to be one of them. It’s a scary thought, I know.
- There’s nothing to be afraid of.
- It doesn’t matter how cool and awesome your ideas are if you can’t present them in a clear and comprehensible fashion.
- Being clever for the sake of being clever isn’t a good idea if the clever bits interfere with the story you’re trying to tell.
- Trying to think about “plot” and “character” (and even setting!) in isolation isn’t much good. They rely on complex interactions and are inextricably entwined, and you can’t change one without affecting the other(s). For example, once you really know a character, and understand what they’d do in a given situation, the working-out of the plot largely takes care of itself.
- One man’s brilliance is another man’s bullcrap. That is: what one reader finds sweet another might find saccharine; what one finds wonderfully transgressive another might find merely disgusting; what one finds charming another might find twee. Even a technically accomplished story won’t please everyone.
- Try to write about stuff that matters to you, and embrace your weirdness, your idiosyncracies, and your obsessions. That’s where your individual voice comes from.
(I could have written a list with a lot more “Don’t drink that much tequila,” and “During watergun fights, avoid hiding in patches of poison ivy,” and “Fred means you no harm — probably,” but I figured I’d focus on the writing stuff.)
If I had to come up with this list in August of 2008, right after Clarion was finished, it would have been different than it is today. Ask me again in a year, three, five, and my guess is the list will have changed once more. I learned a lot when I was there, but the things that are most important to me (both in terms of writing and in life) have changed, and will again.
- Write ten endings. Since the meme is at Jim’s request, we’ll start with one I learned from him as part of “Jim Kelly’s 10 Stupid Plot Tricks.” I use this all the time, not just – and not usually – for the ends of stories, but for the what happens next. A useful corollary to this, a 1a., if you will, is Neil Gaiman’s suggestion that, when you don’t know what happens next, ask your character what she wants.
- Eventually, you have to walk down the street naked. Neil again. Terri Windling and Ellen Kushner (another Clarion instructor, though not one of mine) have written about this recently as well. In other words, be brave enough to write your story. Stop worrying that your mother, or your priest, or your lover will read it and decide you are a pervert or a freak. Pick up your pen, and write your story.
- There’s very little that can’t be fixed by a watergun battle, an all-night dance party, or a Buffy singalong. Some days, being a writer sucks. You mix your metaphors, dangle your participles, and split your infinitives. The first thing you see in your inbox is a rejection letter. The critique session makes you cry. Remember that there is life outside of writing, and live it.
- You can be a good writer without putting yourself on the page. You can’t be a great one.
- Writing is a job. Show up for work. When I taught this fall, three of my writer friends came in an guest-lectured for me. Every one of them was asked how they deal with writer’s block. Every one of them answered: “Writing is my job. I don’t get to have writer’s block.” If you’re going to be a writer, in the words of John Scalzi (teaching at Clarion this year), “find the time or don’t.” Don’t wait until your life is awesome, or the muse visits, all smiles and seductions, or until you know what happens next. Put your butt in the chair, and write.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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)
- 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.
- I write stories about the human condition. It’s the people that interest me, their struggles that move me, and their pain that moves my pen. So, I guess that explains my fascination with people-watching.
- Find what works for and stick with it. I’m a slow writer and writing my first drafts (and sometimes second) longhand doesn’t help, but it’s how I get things done. It’s hard, sometimes, seeing my peers whip out short stories in an evening, but everyone is unique and I’d like to think that it shows in the end product.
- Trusting myself. That’s an ongoing process, but Clarion was a milestone in my self-confidence. Consider the odds when you apply: the competition is fierce (I think my class had 170+ applications) and only 17 are chosen. To be accepted means you beat out some very tough competition (and if you didn’t get in, apply again!).
- Sleep. At times, Clarion is paced like a convention, only six weeks long. Writers, when clustered together, like to talk and drink, and tend to repeat themselves. You find ways to squeeze in extra shut eye, like skipping breakfast in the cafeteria and eating a quick bite in your kitchenette.
- Read quickly, read critically. There are more stories to critique and you have a story due this week. I still think I suck at time management, but I’m way better now.
- You have to shoot high. There are a thousand stories that are pretty good. That’s not good enough. The kind of story you’re looking to write is the story the reader is still musing upon in the bathtub three days later. That kind of tale is hard to create indeed, which is why selling a pro story is a real challenge.
- Characters need to make interesting choices. Serial killers are popular because even though their choices are misguided, evil, and wrong, they’re making very active choices. Characters who don’t do much are boring. Characters who do uninteresting things are placeholders. Characters who make logical choices that nobody else in the world would make are compelling.
- Every writer has their own process, and the trick is to find yours. Some writers churn out 4,000 words a day, and they’re good words; others are lucky to get 250 in the same time. Some writers are good to go when the first draft’s done, and serious revision makes them second-guess all the good things out of their work; others need to seriously revise ten or twenty times to polish the best stuff until it shines. Some need to plot it all out in advance before they write the first word; others start with a weird concept and amaze themselves as they discover the ending. None of these writers are better than the others. Your heroes’ writing processes are not magical gestures – in fact, what works for them might well kill your stories dead. Discover what creates your best fiction, and start figuring out how to make that process work even better for you.
- Write from the body, not the head. You need to think where the character is standing at all times – they’re going to talk differently if it’s cold outside, or if they’re standing on a high ledge, or if they’re in a deep woods. There’s a lot of talk about being inside a character’s head, but quite often being in their body will sort the details out (if you’re really asking yourself, “So what’s it like to stand on the prow of a speeding boat as I consider my future?” it’s gonna come), and your scenes will take on a much-needed flavor from the environment.
- The more you read, the better you write. It sounds obvious, but reading new stories is almost as vital as writing them. Part of it is that you learn new techniques, of course – but a larger part is that a lot of good stories are written as reactions to other stories. Two authors with the same central idea can still come up with wildly different tales, just because a hardcore Ayn Rand libertarian and a left-wing commune-living hippie are going to have vastly different takes on how the world will react to the first free energy generator. Reading constantly will prime your pump, it will humble you, and if you’re doing it right it will inspire you.