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Five Things We Learned At Clarion, Part 4

February 2, 2011

How useful is Clarion?  Well, after three days of people telling us what they’ve learned at Clarion, there are still more people chiming in with their hard-earned wisdom!

Emily Jiang

Week 1:

Embrace your weirdness.
Transform your poems
into arias, and sing.

If you’ve always lived in mainstream communities where you’ve been constantly told that you’re a little weird, and suddenly you are surrounded by people who will actively debate with you on which is the better Star Trek series, quote Star Wars lines at you, and/or will totally sing Disney songs with you at the drop of a hat, it is an amazing feeling. The weirder the better.

Week 2:

If your story has
five beginnings, try writing
five endings. Or ten.

Some people have the ability to write beautiful first drafts. I am not one of those people. I spin and hammer and hammer and spin, walk in circles to ambush my characters, and still the first draft ends up as this tangled mess of ideas meshed between snippets of dialogue and airy, broad-stroked descriptions. Not a lot of it makes sense, even to me. While at Clarion, it was extremely difficult for me to share such rawness, when often I didn’t even know what I was trying to do, but in the end, I was glad I shared. My stories start to become readable in the third, fourth, or fifth drafts. And ultimately, that’s okay.

Week 3:

Create characters
who differ from you at least
in three major ways.

I always try to create characters that are obviously different from me. Your characters are like your children, as they are born from you, but they are not you. They will have their individual voices and opinions and will do whatever they want to do with or without your permission. Find compassion for them, even the villains, especially the villains, and give yourself leeway to make them squirm.

Week 4:

Write more visceral,
which is different from concrete.
Twist your reader’s gut.

One of my constant challenges as a writer is translating my abstract ideas into concrete images, but I was introduced to the idea of writing visceral, which is something I fear I still do not successfully achieve. But it is something that is required of truly memorable stories, those that will latch into the psyche of your readers, who are forever changed afterward, who cannot unsee what they have seen.

Week 5:

So fairy-human
interactions can stand in
for race relations?

The only non-Asian-inspired story that I wrote at Clarion portrayed fairies in high school. Not the twee Tinkerbell Disney-inspired fairies. These were The Fae, who bullied the humans, and all humans were supposed to be of the same race, so there were not supposed to be any racial relations whatsoever. But sometimes the multicultural lens can still be easily superimposed into my narrative. It’s a magical moment, when a reader tells you something about your story that works, especially if you never consciously planned it.

Week 6:

Come on, Emily,
you can come up with better
sentences. Make sense!

By week 6, you will be burnt. You will probably not want to write a sixth story, or a fifth, or a fourth, or a third. But I gave myself this ambitious goal of attempting six new stories in six week. So I wrote a story that was an absolute mess, messier than most of my first drafts. Yet I came away with something raw that has a glimmer of hope, and I am revising it now to see if it can truly be a story.

These were some lessons learned I gleaned from feedback on my Clarion stories. If you ask my other Clarion classmates, they will probably give you five (or six) different and completely valid points. This is the nature of Clarion, as it is a communal experience layered on top of a uniquely personal, creative journey.

So if you want to be more serious about your writing, going to Clarion will give you time and space to focus on reading, critiquing and writing speculative fiction. What you get out of it will completely depend on you.

Clarion will help
accelerate your writing
journey. Go for it!

Matt London

1. There is a difference between mystery and ambiguity. Mystery is when you don’t know what is going to happen next. Ambiguity is when you don’t know what just happened. Mystery is good; ambiguity is almost always bad. People often confuse the two. If someone (you don’t know who) does something (you don’t know what) the reader will never connect to the story.

2. If people can’t agree on how to fix your story, they are all wrong. A story is rarely perfect. In a workshop, your brilliant classmates will often offer advice on how to fix your story. Sometimes you get lucky. If everyone agrees on how to fix the problem, they are probably right. However, if there are two camps (as is often the case) you can’t pick one of the two offered solutions. Usually, these opinions will throw the story too far in one direction or another. You have to find your own middle ground.

3. Don’t choreograph. Luke raised his lightsaber and brought it downward. Then Darth Vader raised his sword horizontally to deflect the attack, swung his blade around, clashed with Luke’s lightsaber a second time, and then kicked, hitting Luke in the chest. Luke tumbled down the stairs and OH MY GOD ENOUGH! If you give us a blow by blow of a fight scene, or a driving scene, or heaven forbid a sex scene, you’re going to bore your readers to tears. People simply can’t follow that much action.

4. Character, Character, Character. Speculative Fiction writers are very good at plots. Also, Ideas. Somehow, characters often fall flat. They rarely exist outside the plot. What does the knight want? To save the princess. But what else does he want? If a character is only doing one thing, the writer isn’t working hard enough.

5. Write the query letter before the novel. Anyone who has tried to get an agent has had this experience. You pour your heart out into your book, hone it, perfect it. You know the characters. You love the story. Then, when it comes time to write a query letter, to brag about how awesome your awesome book is, you freeze up. How can I sum up the subplot and the main plot in just four lines? How do I convey the nuances of my fantastic protagonist? How do I squeeze a description of my amazing world into this tiny letter? If you can’t do those things, chances are there is something wrong with your novel. Overly complex stories are hard to follow. They are also hard to sell. Keep is Simple. If you write a query letter before you begin writing, you will have created a one-page document that contains the basics of your plot, a description of your protagonist, and a description of the world of the story. Agents love to read queries that drip with style. Every sentence should have a strong voice, because every sentence in the novel should have a strong voice. If you can’t write that one page, then you can’t write a novel.

Monica Byrne

  1. Take excellent care of yourself. That means enough sleep, enough fluids, and good food.
  2. Show up for work every day. Sometimes the work is morning pages. Sometimes the work is ten brilliant pages of a novel. Sometimes the work is ten pages of excreta. This happens to the best writers. Put it away and show up for work again the next day.
  3. Trust yourself. Actually, #1 and #2 go a very long way towards building a loving, trusting relationship with yourself. And when you have gained your own trust, write what you would want to read. Trust your own tastes in art and literature. Which leads me to #4….
  4. Read all the time. Read omnivorously. Read The New York Times and graphic novels and Tolstoy and chick lit. Everything that does its thing well will have something precious to teach you.
  5. Anger is useful. At last count, I’ve gotten about 240 rejections in the time since I left Clarion…along with six story sales, a grant, a full-scale play production, two residencies and a major travel fellowship. Those artists you admire who seem to collect sales and prizes without effort? They work their asses off, and they get rejected all the time; or did, once. I still do, and every time I get a rejection I think, “Really? Really!?” and send it out again on a fresh wave of righteous anger :)
3 Comments leave one →
  1. February 2, 2011 8:49 am

    I love these posts!! So inspiring and intriguing to hear what people have taken away from Clarion. I was also enormously encouraged at Emily Jiang’s note from Week 2: my first drafts are like that too, and sometimes I have despaired over that fact. Nevermore! Thank you, Emily!

  2. February 2, 2011 6:24 pm

    Thanks for collating all of these. Reading them helps me remember other things I learned that sort of blurred into day to day existence.

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