On Neil Gaiman, Clarion and Writing Workshops

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So Neil Gaiman said this *points up*, the internet exploded and writers/authors came down in one of two camps: ‘I went to Clarion’ and ‘I didn’t but I did this so fuck yeah I’m a writer’.

Before we go any further, you should read Cat Rambo’s calm and very well deconstructive post on the whole kerfuffle. Need to read? Go on, I’ll wait. Then go and read this piece as well.

My personal favourite stream for this was Fran Wilde‘s comments (she’s the author of Updraft):

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Now, for those not in the know. Clarion (he’s specifically mentioning Clarion at UCSD/West here) is a six week writers’ workshop/bootcamp from hell which has literally started careers. People who are now winning Hugos and Nebulas (most recently Anne Leckie) went to Clarion. The instructors—typically six of them, each taking a week—are the greats of the sci fi and fantasy world.

And I want to go.

Now I don’t have to but I’m painfully aware what an opportunity Clarion is. Several of my friends/acquaintances are alumni and have spoken highly of everything (except for perhaps Clarion @ UCSD’s food), citing the experience as truly life changing.

I applied to Clarion @ UCSD two years ago and didn’t get in. This year I’ve applied to Clarion West. I chose it for two reasons: a) it’s the cheaper of the two and b) several friends of mine have been.

The trick is, while I have the privilege of time (few people have jobs/lives which allow them to take six weeks off), I certainly don’t have the money. But this, this, it would be something worth getting into debt over.

So I’ve applied and asked for financial assistance (at the level of ‘if you can’t give me financial help, I can’t go’) and am waiting. As this is my first time apply, I don’t expect to get in, in fact I might actually be relieved if this is the case.

I want to Clarion because of the awesome students, the relationships with other students that I’ll be able to forge and the things I’ll be able to learn. Yet, at the same time, I’m aware Clarion is definitely not a prerequisite for writing but it’s an opportunity which I believe, you should take if you can.

Now I’ve done several classes as part of my ‘let’s become an author’ transformation. I’ve sat in on lectures and even did a year long Creative Writing course (though this was more an overview).

I remember back when I first met my friend Shannon (Clarion West, Class of 2014), she was coming to the UK and asked me if I wanted to go to the MCM Expo. I’d gone several times while a journalist and agreed immediately and it was a lot of fun (as well as being Uni’s first time at a convention). One of the panels she wanted to see was Peter F. Hamilton and get her book signed.

We sat on the front row, chatting with the nice chap with a hat on the end of the row and his wife. Uni had decided they were deserving of her presence and demanding fuss; he was most obliging, being quite the dog fancier. It was only when the guy stood up and proceeded to walk on stage I realised this was Peter F. Hamilton.

Yeah, you can’t make this shit up.

But he was lovely, I was at this point beginning to toy with the idea of shifting into a more creative form of writing, Shannon was about a year ahead of me in the process but we got the chance to ask lots of questions and I stole one of Shannon’s paperbacks and read some of Peter’s short stories while we were at the hotel.

A couple of months after this, I did my first paid-for writing class. It was a six week thing taught by James Gunn and not particularly successful even if the story I wrote seeded the idea that I could actually do it. I then dived into novels and decided they were my thing, all but eschewing short stories.

Now I’ve realised I need to improve, ironically it was chatting with an editor who loved my worldbuilding (my undoubted stength when it comes to writing) but also made me realise that worldbuilding, well it’s not everything. That was when I realised stories need structure and I used the money from the story sale to pay for Cat Rambo’s awesome six week intensive on Writing Fantasy and Science Fiction.

(Asha’s tip of the day: if you can do one of Cat’s classes, you won’t regret it)

 The classes (I missed one due to being in Paris) were a massive kick up the arse; they left me scrabbling for my keyboard and needing to write like it was an addiction and I was craving a fix. On top of that Cat encouraged us to send out at least a story a week, indeed so successful was the format that a couple of us continued to get together after the class finished and now have a little crit group which remains immensely helpful. Cat taught me how to be a professional, how to write and rewrite and how to send stuff out in the correct manner (including the little mentions here and there which saw me getting personal rejections from editors as opposed to form ones from the slush bunnies).

Reviewing my notes, it was a practical class but also generalised, we were all short stories writers but that wasn’t our only thing. This was a class on the hows and whys, the nuts and bolts of science fiction, not how to plan a short story from scratch (which, oddly, I didn’t know how to do). That was where Mary Robinette Kowal comes in.

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Now I admit, Mary is one of my favourite narrators and I love her short fiction. In fact taking one of her classes was on my personal bingo card for 2016. She does intensives, which are great … if you’re in the States, and they tend to sell out fast. If I’m honest, the price is also a factor (hence my using earnings from sales to pay for classes I wouldn’t otherwise be able to afford; it’s almost ironic given I’m basically pouring back into being an author). I didn’t pay for Mary’s class, there was a sliding scale and it was a ‘beta’ so I hoped the feedback would be enough to cover my toll.

Holy crap, it was.

This was also the class I was looking for, the ‘short story planning for idiots’ course I’d been unconsciously seeking without knowing what it was. As I explained to Draft Zero, my crit group, my novels are organic, they write themselves. Narrators pop into my brain and refuse to bugger off until their tale is told, their story done. They sit behind my eyes, dictacting their adventures (which is why I write almost exclusively in first person) and I seldom need to plot anything as the tales open like flowers as we go. I’m pretty sure I’m basically channeling from another universe or a parallel dimension or something but anyway …

I had no idea how to actually structure a short story. I had ideas, I had snapshots in my brains sparked by ‘what if’ questions or dreams. But I got lost on the path and the stories wandered with me, leaving me to rush endings or not thing the protagonist through. This was a start with an idea class that saw the story grow, the plot stetched like noodles, then contracted and stetched out again. Scenes were planned, maths might have been involved, coding too. The point is, for the first time in my life, someone told me how a story should be written.

Not the seven basic plots but the best way to actual shape a lovely plaited loaf from ball of clay.

I’m still, a week late, in awe of that class and encourage everyone thinking about learning short form writing to take the class (Mary’s classes are usually advertised on Eventbrite; sign up for the notification ASAP which will tell you when a class is coming up/available).

The point of this post, winding as it is, is to say that if you can and the class is the right one, taught by a good teacher long in the tooth when it comes to the subject and skilled at communicating information, then it’s worth the financial cost. Think of it as an investment in your future, just like Clarion. Not everyone can go to America for six weeks, not everyone wants to, but if you want to get good then doing classes with people like Cat and Mary are a boon to your future career.

Neil Gaiman’s tweet, split the community, but I think his heart was in the right place. Clarion remains, at it’s heart, about connecting people and starting careers, about making people better writers and anything which does that is never a bad idea, in my humble opinion. Yes you might not have the time or the money, or the desire, but you’re still a writer and anything you do, free or paid, which helps you improve will only pay off later.

Remember: You win by making yourself a better writer.

And a writer is anyone who writes. Period.

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