Five Things We Learned At Clarion, Part 1
It all started on Facebook, when Clarion alumnus and teacher Jim Kelly posted this:
1) It’s never too soon to start foreshadowing.
2) Adverbs are the enemy.
3) If possible, pick a life partner with money.
4) Rejectomancy is a waste of writing time.
5) You have less than a page to grab your reader — and your editor.
What followed was a spate of really interesting writing advice. And since so much of it was spread across Facebook, we thought we’d collect as many of the responses as we could into one post, for your reading enjoyment! (And if you’ve done a post and wouldn’t mind having it reposted here, give us a link to it in the comments!)
In the summer of 2008, I spent six weeks being someone who, up until that particular chunk of sunny, strange time began, I didn’t know existed.
Clarion and Clarion West are workshops for writers whose brains inhabit that slippery territory of “speculative fiction.” Science fiction, fantasy, surreal this and magical that. They are hot houses, sparring rings, and summer camps. They let you go careening round the theater of story-telling, wielding real swords and shooting real guns (in a figurative sort of way, if you know what I mean), and then they pull up the work lights to point out where you made a mess. They are currently accepting applications and Jim Kelly, one of my Clarion instructors, asked that we talk about five things we learned there.
I went to Clarion because I tore a ligament in my knee. I applied because, while slouching on the sofa in a groggy, post-surgery haze of impatience and self-pity, I read Neil Gaiman’s blog. American Gods was one of the books that made the hours of impersonating a sloth under the influence of vicodin and weirdly humming ice machines more bearable, and now its author, one of my literary heroes, said that he was teaching at this thing called Clarion.
I almost didn’t go. I was scared that six weeks away from the studio and my brilliant physical therapist would derail me from the dancing life. My mom pointed out that I was being ridiculous. When else would I have the freedom to go off and explore? When else would I get to learn from someone who wrote stories that permanently haunt my head? My mom is very smart.
I’m telling you all of this because it’s part of the most important thing I learned there, which is:
1. I love writing stories. Before Clarion, I didn’t take writing seriously. I dabbled in it. I was completely ignorant of what a joy it is to craft a story, what an exhilarating and infuriating process goes into condensing the wild explosions in your head down to something that fits on the printed page. I can approach writing with the same level of seriousness and devotion that I give to dance. Life-changing revelation right there.
2. You have to walk the fine line between giving them everything and leaving them space to make art, and, at the same time, you can’t be afraid of saying what you mean.
You have to care about the people in your stories. You are God. You have to believe in them and they have to matter. They better be worth caring for, worth crying for. Otherwise, they’re just words on the page.
3. Stories can be about anything at all, as long as they’re true. We had stories about crazy things. Zombie pregnancies, Oz mash-ups, advertising robots that crush an old lady’s flowers. And something about these, admittedly unrealistic and wildly imaginative, stories felt absolutely honest. They were true, which is sometimes completely separate from being real.
4. Don’t run away from conflict. Placidity is not your friend.
5. If you smash apart the dull, chronological line of cause and effect and replace it with story, you can start stringing together the tiny, pinprick lights of theme into a narrative of meaning. You can also more effectively lure the reader into the character’s skin.
BONUS (smaller, yet maybe no less important?):
6. Proper manuscript format
- Skip the boring parts.
- Titles should relate to endings.
- If there’s no reason for the character to care about the outcome, then there’s no reason for the reader to do so.
- If a sentence is doing only one thing for the story, it isn’t working hard enough.
- When I character says “I can’t remember,” that’s just the writer being lazy.
- Writing takes conditioning. Starting a project without writing every day is like running a race without training. And being in an environment where everyone’s priority is writing can unlock some of your best work.
- If you’re excited about exploring an idea, you’re not blocked. (It’s probably just sleep deprivation.)
- Whose story is it? What do they want? Do you want to give it to them? — Keep those things in mind when you’re shaping the ending.
- When in doubt, go out of your way to write about things you have the most trouble facing.
- Sometimes a nice complex sentence structure can feel so wrong it pulls the reader out of the story, even if it’s grammatically correct.
And a special bonus lesson:
6. Just because it’s breaded and fried doesn’t mean it’s food.
- There’s a fine line between pushing yourself out of your comfort zone and pushing yourself to write stuff that doesn’t excite you.
- Great writing has energy. Sure, get the mechanics down, but in the end it’s theme and emotion that drive the most powerful stories.
- Always be innovating. Every story start is sexy and fun and full of new relationship energy, full of riffing and whatever clever thing comes out of the id, but then the plotting and rewriting can feel like a drudge. That’s the time to bring the innovative mindset to finding connections and problem-solving. We can choose to be clever in every part of the writing process.
- Put as much work into your life as your writing. Yes, most of us need to lock ourselves away to learn the craft and find our voice, but it’s equally important to learn how to present and interact with each other. Skillful social awareness can help our career just as much as excellent prose.
- Writing is not a competition. Someone else’s genius doesn’t make you less genius. We analyze each other’s fiction so we see what works and doesn’t, both to point out to others and for ourselves. When this turns into a wash of negativity, we’re not helping anyone. The more we support each other as writers the stronger we all become.