Secrets of Clarion

Welcome to the official blog of the Clarion Foundation.  I’m Mishell, Clarion’s Communications Director, and over the coming months I’ll be coordinating this exciting new resource for writers who seek careers in fantasy, horror, and science fiction.

This month we will be featuring an entry from Clarion Foundation President and bestselling author Karen Joy Fowler, as well as advice from agent Matt Bialer of Sanford J Greenburger Associates.  In the meantime, I’d like to start out by introducing the Clarion Science Fiction & Fantasy Writers’ Workshop, this blog’s raison d’etre (and my raison de travailler).

What is Clarion?

There is something pleasing about the sense of glamour and mystery that Clarion has always carried with it, but if the workshop is to survive – by no means a sure thing in troubled times – the veil needs to be lifted, at least a little.  It’s shocking how uninformed even most of our applicants seem to be about how Clarion works and why it’s important.  I of course intend to keep some of Clarion’s secrets close – where’s the fun if there’s nothing to be initiated into? – but before this blog launches into its broad-ranging discussions of craft and business, I’d like to make sure that all of our readers understand why this workshop, and therefore this blog, exists in the first place.

Clarion Secret #1 – Clarion instructors do not lecture.  (Much.)

Every year, six working authors take a week or two out of their busy schedules to live on a college campus and teach hopeful writers how to craft and sell speculative fiction.  They do not do this by lecturing for hours to a classroom full of eager notetakers.  They do this by burying themselves elbow-deep in the students’ work.  Oh, they’ll make time here and there to discuss the craft or the market, but often this is a stolen hour after dinner in the common room or over lunch.  The morning classroom sessions are devoted almost entirely to the discussion of the students’ work.  Though I was dubious at first, I found that for someone who has already learned the basics, this excruciatingly personalized analysis is far more helpful than any lecture on theory could ever be.

The teachers vary in their levels of fame and fortune, but they all have one thing in common: they know the ins and outs of speculative fiction, and care about it passionately.  Passionately enough to grab a stack of stories by procrastinating amateurs off of the printer at nine or ten p.m., then stay up downing coffee and/or scotch until every last one has been read through with a fine-toothed comb for discussion at eight or nine the next morning.  Some Clarion instructors are gentle, some brutal, but every one of them has a keen mind and a heart firmly in the right place.  Many of them graduated from Clarion themselves, which is how I learned secret #2:

Clarion Secret # 2 – This is not your mother’s Clarion.

Clarion has changed a great deal since its founding in 1968.  I won’t attempt to summarize or duplicate the beautiful job that Kate Wilhelm has done capturing the spirit of early Clarion in her book Storyteller, but I will say that over the forty-two years since, Clarion has refined its methods to adapt to drastic changes in the industry and in the technology that supports it.  Laptops are now mandatory, and stories often distributed via email.  Since no one makes a living writing short fiction anymore, there is less emphasis on quantity of output (in the past, people often had to write a short story a day!), and more emphasis on quality.  Clarion has also begun to consider devoting at least a portion of its six weeks to the art of novel writing, a change whose time, I think, has come.

The important things, however, have remained the same.  The sleep deprivation, the terrible food, the water gun battles.  The nervous breakdowns, the social drama, the drunken revelry… and the staggering success rate.

Clarion Secret # 3 – We Cheat.

What is it about Clarion that results in such a high success rate from its graduates?  Technically, there is nothing taught at Clarion that couldn’t be learned through other means.  The real advantage of the Clarion experience – aside from the genuine relationships with working writers, a crucial element in any writer’s future success –  is that Clarion only admits those who have already brought themselves most of the way there.  The sacrifice of time and money involved assures the attendees’ devotion, and the experienced eye of the selection committee assures the attendees’ talent.  Devotion plus talent is not a bad formula for success.

The only element missing is persistence, and that is the one element that can’t be controlled by the Clarion process.  I maintain that it’s the reason Clarion’s success rate in producing professional SF&F authors is only about 30% and not 100%.  Having attended the workshop myself in 2009, I know that with the tools and lessons I was given – and the lifelong connections I made – all that stands between me and a solid writing career is my personal quota of stubborn, unglamorous work.

Because this blog is being launched less than a year after my own Clarion experience, and just a month after my first sale, I hope that among other things I can serve as an example of the “Clarion Effect” and continue to demonstrate the benefits that this workshop can provide.

With that introduction out of the way, welcome to Clarion’s new blog.  In addition to our twice-monthly guest stars and my own posts on the writing life, we’ll be featuring  weekly writing prompts from Justin Whitney and world-building tidbits from Kater Cheek.  Please bookmark us and check back in a few days to see what we’ve cooked up for you!


5 thoughts on “Secrets of Clarion

  1. Speaking of the ignorance that surrounds the workings of Clarion, are you the smae guys who run Clarion South (I’m an Aussie) and will I be hearing about that too in this blog?

    1. That’s a good question, actually! Clarion West and Clarion South are both run independently of Clarion “Classic,” but they are based on the same model. Many of the instructors have taught at more than one of the Clarions, but obviously there is more sharing between Clarion and Clarion West than between those two and Clarion South, just for geographical reasons.

      I expect this blog will be useful to alums and hopefuls of all three workshops, as well as any prospective spec fic authors out there. For example, who doesn’t want to hear a few words about the business from Matt Bialer, agent to Tad Williams, Tracy Hickman, and Patrick Rothfuss? (Coming mid-May.) Much of our content will be about speculative fiction writing in general, in addition to snippets of Clarion news now and then. So do come back!

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