Five Things We Learned At Clarion, Part 1

It all started on Facebook, when Clarion alumnus and teacher Jim Kelly posted this:

The Clarion Writers workshops and are now taking applications. How about sharing five things you learned at Clarion?

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!)

Megan Kurashige
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

Ken Schneyer

  1. Skip the boring parts.
  2. Titles should relate to endings.
  3. If there’s no reason for the character to care about the outcome, then there’s no reason for the reader to do so.
  4. If a sentence is doing only one thing for the story, it isn’t working hard enough.
  5. When I character says “I can’t remember,” that’s just the writer being lazy.

Paul M. Berger

  1. 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.
  2. If you’re excited about exploring an idea, you’re not blocked. (It’s probably just sleep deprivation.)
  3. 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.
  4. When in doubt, go out of your way to write about things you have the most trouble facing.
  5. 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.

Grá Linnaea

  1. There’s a fine line between pushing yourself out of your comfort zone and pushing yourself to write stuff that doesn’t excite you.
  2. Great writing has energy. Sure, get the mechanics down, but in the end it’s theme and emotion that drive the most powerful stories.
  3. 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.
  4. 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.
  5. 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.

13 thoughts on “Five Things We Learned At Clarion, Part 1

  1. This post is so good I”ve now read it three times to make sure I”ve absorbed all that the authors are saying. Really good advice here.

  2. 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.

    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.

  3. 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.

  4. 1. 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.

    2. Only one miracle per story, and the first sentence should point to it.

    3. The person (or thing) that hurts the most is usually the best perspective for a story.

    4. Landscape reflects character, and different characters will experience the same setting differently.

    5. 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.

    — Sue Burke, Clarion ’96

  5. In 2008 I completed Clarion West, and I’ve slowly been posting a 10-part series on the experience (including what I learned from it) on my blog: . Hopefully this comment falls within the spirit of this post such that my self-linking is appropriate. That said, I’d also like to point out that Clarion West was one of the most fundamental times in my life. I encourage everyone interested in the Workshop to apply.

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