Five Things We Learned At Clarion, Part 3
The writer-advice that Jim Kelly created keeps on comin’! What did our writers learn at the Clarion Workshop? Amazingly, there’s very little overlap with what others have said, proving that Clarion is a deeply personal experience:
- No one is going to give you permission to be a writer. Don’t wait for some magical time when you think you’re old enough or have “earned it” or something. Write, send stories out, fix stories, repeat, repeat, repeat. Um…until you die, I guess. I went to Clarion and I looked at myself and thought “why the hell am I not sending stories?” Because I thought someone else was going to tell me when I was ready. No one can do that, nor should they.
- Similarly, there is no amount of talent that can do more for you than simply refusing to quit. Clarion taught me that I was not a special snowflake, a lot of people have a facility for words and the best thing you can concretely do to give yourself an edge is to simply keep trying.
- Gonna echo a few other people here, but…quit it with the damn adverbs.
- It doesn’t matter if you know what’s happening if none of your readers do. Clarity is more useful than pretty obfuscation (learned at Clarion, still struggling to implement)
- Don’t go to grad school to become a better writer. Go to the library instead.
Here are some more suggestions, culled from a foggy mind on this early morning in Bangkok:
1. Ignorance can be a real virtue. Don’t collect too much in the way of information and ideas before you begin writing. With academic theses, feature stories and science fiction alike, it’s often best to spin as much of the story as you can before you do most of your research. Ignorance simplifies things enormously, since you have fewer elements to synthesize from the outset. Wait till you’ve got the story up and staggering about before worrying too much about incorporating all the ideas in the world. It’s easier to be selective, at that point, and much easier to organize all the ideas now that you have a basic framework. The storyline can always be revised in light of new information.
I still have problems following my own advice, mind you. It can be far easier to “research” than it is to spin fiction. Just as it’s easy to convince yourself you’re really working on the novel when in fact you aren’t.
2. Hit the ground running. Write first thing in the morning, when the stuff your subconscious has been working on all night is still fresh. (I have a hard time not thinking of this product as “night soil,” which in Chinese refers to something rather different.) A character in a Graham Greene novel describes this as a process of remembering and recording, more than of creating something out of whole cloth.
3. In light of (2), try to fix your life such that each morning the first thing that arises in your mind is the writing project. Making a living at things other than fiction interferes mightily with this, of course, where instead you awaken niggled to creative death by all the chores and commitments of a freelance feature writer or editor (or instructor or gun runner or whatever). This refers us to Tip #3 in your lead list: “Pick a life partner with money.”
4. Every journey of 1,000 miles… The mere thought of all that remains to be done on a novel may induce paralysis and despair. You have to remind yourself how fast the days and weeks and months go by, and how fast a regular daily increment of writing amounts to a book. A whole life can slip away just as fast while you tell yourself that today (and the next day, and the next) would, for example, be better devoted to background reading; you can always get down to the actual writing mañana. An equivalent warning from the Buddhist Dhammapada:
Think not lightly of evil, saying, “It will not come to me.” Drop by drop is the water pot filled. Likewise, the fool, gathering it little by little, fills himself with evil. Think not lightly of good, saying, “It will not come to me.” Drop by drop is the water pot filled. Likewise, the wise man, gathering it little by little, fills himself with good.
5. Conciseness is a cardinal virtue. This advice is old hat, I suppose, but I’m always amazed at how—even after I know I’ve already honed something down to the bones—it seems I can always find more fat on my prose.
Here’s something I’d meant to post on my own blog:
Exercise in conciseness: Revise a ms. as best you can, paying, as you always should, special attention to conciseness. Then do the book design yourself. (Anyone preparing a book for Amazon’s Createspace or Apple’s iStore will need to do this.) In MS Word, e.g., activate Justify and Auto-hyphenation. Fix hyphens, widows, orphans. Then reset the line leading, and repeat the previous step.
You’ll find that much of the hypenation is inappropriate. If you’re anything like me, you’ll then do your darnedest to eliminate all the hyphens manually, mostly by finding words you can trim away. And these words will be there, despite the fact you would have bet big money no fat whatsoever remained on that draft.
Repeat all the above steps, and be amazed all over again at how perfect conciseness has once more eluded you.
- How to critique. I’m still using Maureen F. McHugh’s format in my local critique group. As a corollary, why to critique: Because seeing how to strengthen someone else’s work is a fast way to learn how to strengthen your own work.
- Only one miracle per story, and the first sentence should point to it.
- The person (or thing) that hurts the most is usually the best perspective for a story.
- Landscape reflects character, and different characters will experience the same setting differently.
- The first draft may have everything you need, but you might need to change it all. A good time to outline of your story might be after the first draft to identify these changes.
- Vivid description is all about finding the right one or two striking details.
- A story needs to be about something.
- Stories are not about being clever. Stories are about emotional resolution.
- Meaning comes out when the hero makes a choice and you see what happens.
- Every character should be a source of complication.
I went to Clarion with two goals: to see if I could write fast enough to consider a writing career, and to see if I liked writing. Like many, I’ve written stories ever since I can remember, but I am a horrible procrastinator. I did succeed in writing a story a week during the workshop, which came as a surprise to me. Moreover, I did enjoy the process of writing, critiquing, and editing. Since then I’ve allowed real life to get in the way, but still manage to write every week if not every day.
Clarion is best when everybody’s fully present. To attend, you’re going to spend thousands of dollars and six weeks of your life. Arrange your life so you can be fully there. My wife, Amy Thomson, went to Clarion West, and gave me one of the best pieces of advice going in, which was that I should not attend West, which is in Seattle where I live. She regretted not giving her all to the workshop. To save money, she commuted, and felt that kept her from bonding completely with the class and from being able to concentrate on writing & critiquing. When you’re there, you need to be as fully present as you can be to take advantage of the lessons you’ll learn.
1. Short fiction is a great way to experiment. Some people want to write only magic realism, some only hard SF, some only urban fantasy. Some want to churn out four stories a week, some want to spend a month on a novella. Some want to use a common background for all their stories; some want to write only humorous stories; some want to contribute only consciousness-expanding fiction; some want to use only heroic characters. Resist pigeon-holing.
Being exposed to a half-million words that aren’t yours during the workshop will change you and your work for the better. By the end of the six weeks what I was writing was different from the type of story I’d written going in, both in theme and style. This is a good reason not to take unfinished stories to Clarion with plans to work on them there.
2. Finish what you start. You may be great at starting a story. Your hook may be excellent; you may get who, what, when, and where down on the first page, but it’s not a story until you write ‘The End’. If you abandon stories halfway through, you won’t get as good at writing endings as you are at beginnings.
3. You don’t attend to learn how to write; you attend to learn how to edit. Over and over, our instructors would tell us that the story is not found in the first draft. You write the first draft as a guide to finding out what the shape of the story should be.
I think there are two kinds of writers: ones who write a lot and pare down until they have a tight story, and those like me whose stories start almost as outlines and who have to add enough to make the story complete. I was continually told that characteristics or plot twists I thought self-evident were not at all clear. You will quickly be told in the critique sessions if you have an annoying stylistic quirk or consistent theme. Try to appreciate those who tell you this.
4. Don’t create a shared world. Our class spent tons of hours working out an interesting world with a great backstory and potential for many great stories, only to be told by Patrick Nielsen Hayden that it would be an impossible book to sell. You will be tempted to work with some of the other students. This can be good or bad, but be aware that ideas held in common often aren’t usable once the association is over.
5. I’m magic. Most years, somebody takes on the job of collecting all the weird comments that arise in the critiques, often so that some of the best or most memorable can be printed on the back of the shirt commemorating that year’s class. I went knowing I wanted to be that guy. Because, you see, I had a plan.
There is a bakery in Seattle that specializes in fortune cookies. At the end of the fifth week I typed up all the comments I had, cut them into fortune-sized clips, and mailed them to Amy, who had them baked and mailed back to me in time for the end-of-semester party. Tim Powers called me ‘magic’ for doing that.
Others in my class were magic as well. Ron suggested a reading series, Deirdre helped get several of us online, Dan shared his legal expertise, Trent his medical knowledge, somebody brought Settlers of Catan. You will have a unique way to be magic for your class, too.
This one is just for fun, as I attended Clarion West way way back in 1973, and I wouldn’t be able to separate the practical lessons I learned back then with what comes second nature now. But as I was sitting here reminiscing the following came to me:
First, don’t write crappy stories for Harlan Ellison. I did, and I have regretted it ever since. (So did I, and so have I – Ferrett)
Second, Terry Carr was very upset when “The Beast That Shouted Love at the Heart of the World” won the Hugo instead of “The Dance of the Changer and the Three”.
Third, Peter Beagle (at least back then) didn’t plan his stories but just wrote page to page.
Fourth, don’t drink too much when you go out in the evenings or your mind will be foggy the next day.
Fifth, don’t lose touch with your fellow Clarionites. That’s another thing I regret.