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Clarion Report, Week One

This is long, so it’s under the cut for those who aren’t interested.

These are seventeen wonderful people. I learned their names & faces within an hour of meeting them. We’ve been here only six days, but it already feels like we’ve been working hard together for a month; a sense of loyalty and camaraderie developed almost overnight. It’s a waste of time trying to work in the Common Room, because there’s so much fun conversation and loud laughter going on that it’s impossible to concentrate. So I treat myself to a half-hour with my pals every night before I buckle down to the night’s crit work.

We are split evenly among men and women, ranging in age from 19 to 52 (median about 33); the plurality are from California, but we are from all over the country, as well as students from Ireland, Australia and British Columbia. We include an ER doctor, a medical writer with a Ph.D in anthropology, a textbook writer, a freelance entertainment writer, several graduate students in literature, a middle school English teacher, a writer of public service comic strips, computer techies, film critics, etc. We are mostly married or otherwise partnered, although I think a few are single. I’m the only one with kids, but one of my classmates is four months pregnant.

It’s also a new experience for me to be in the constant company of more than a dozen people who (1) care passionately about writing; (2) write amazingly well; and (3) know as much (or more) fan and SFF trivia than I myself. You can’t get a Star Trek line past these people; if you make an obscure reference to Alfred Bester (either the author or the character) or Robert Sheckley, several of them will nod and respond; they all have opinions about the current Doctor Who.

We live in six three-bedroom apartments in the same building on the UCSD campus. Two additional apartments are designated for the weekly instructors, and a ninth is in use as our Common Room. The Common Room contains various kitchen supplies and snacks, our two laser printers, 100 reams of paper (no exaggeration). My two roommates are laid-back, pleasant people, and fascinating writers.

My seventeen friends are creative, passionate, talented, highly intelligent people, and when they dissect your story in workshop you’re going to learn a ton. They’re also enthusiastic cheerleaders of one another’s work, and find what is best in each story before ripping it to shreds.

The way it works is this: five days a week, sometime in the afternoon, I pick up three or four stories fresh off the printer (usually 3,000 – 6,000 words each), written by three or four of my classmates. That night, I read those stories and prepare critiques of them (I actually type out my critiques, at least so far, but most people handwrite them on the document itself). Then, the next day, we all assemble around a table at 8:00 a.m. and critique the stories. Every person is required to speak and there are four hours total, which means we get about three minutes each (we’re timed). We all try to find what pleases us about each story, but also the things that need fixing. We’re a varied enough group that our opinions often clash, and what three reviewers loved, three others will think was a tragic mistake. When there is consensus, though, the writer nods his/her head over and over, saying, "Yep, that’s what I have to work on." At the end, the instructor (this week, ) gives her take on it. Then the writer speaks, either in response or in explanation (always in gratitude) and the rest of us applaud. (Note: We were not told to applaud; it started spontaneously with the first story we critted together. I’m told that we are the first Clarion class to do that; a good sign.) Then we all hand our marked-up drafts to the writer.

Then we all go to lunch, then we have the early afternoon to write or take care of personal business (I always phone my family) before the stories for the next day show up.

Critting the stories always takes me past midnight; on Thursday I was up until 2:00. A few nights I have gone to bed without finishing, then got up at 5am to finish critting before my shower. This means there’s precious little time to write, and write we must, for our stories for next week will be due very soon. I’m next being critted next Wednesday, which means it has to be printed out and ready to go on Tuesday afternoon. I’ve written 4,200 words of a first draft, and there may be another thousand to go. But it’s a mess, and I need to do a second draft before I show it to the gang. (I wrote more than half of those 4,200 words today, Saturday. Most of our writing is going to take place on weekends, it’s clear.)

The stories so far have included fairy tales, urban fantasies, time travel/historical, "hard" SF, cyberpunk, steampunk, alternate history, and everything in between. It’s like being at a banquet; there’s a surfeit of really good fiction to read here.

Everything we absolutely need is within walking distance, but I’m trying to get a bike to use temporarily for exercise, and also to go further places like stores in town, or the beach — not that there’s much time for that!
The weather has been very steady, lows about 63, highs about 74, every day. There are hummingbirds and tons of rabbits on this campus, and flowring trees I don’t recognize. It does my heart good.

Despite loud, anguished reports to the contrary in previous years, the food at the Canyon Vista dining facility at UCSD is fine. I mean, it’s college food, not restaurant food or home-made food, but I’ve eaten much worse college cafeteria food than this. My classmates say the pizza is terrible (I haven’t tried it), and the coffee is definitely too strong, but the fresh fruit is great, and typically one or more entrées are good. I was going to keep a food-log, so as to have a more disciplined report of the meals, but after a week I’m not going to bother. I’m in danger of over-eating, especially at breakfast. We’ve mostly been eating together in the cafeteria, one huge, raucous table with nineteen people at it.

But we’re going to have some potlucks anyway, probably on Saturday nights. Two of the women who live in California brought a ton of cooking utensils with them in their cars, and we went out in a caravan today to pick up stuff for a feast. I made Tabouli, and there was also lasagna, stir fry, guacamole and a great salad. Holly made two blueberry pies and two strawberry-rhubarb pies.

Today at noon Larissa Lai, our Week Two instructor, showed up, and she joined us at the potluck. She was chipper and gracious, and I think we’re all looking forward to our first meeting with her, but we’re going to miss Holly terribly. The Week One instructor traditionally sets the tone for the whole workshop, because Week One is the "bonding week" when the students become a Tribe. And are we ever.

Holly’s crits this week have tended to focus on consistency of character and plot. Her overarching concern has been about the "stakes" in the story, and what the characters care about. There’s no reason for the reader to care about the story if the character doesn’t, and there’s no reason for the character to care if the stakes are low. A good thing to remember.

I don’t know which of us will become successful or well-known writers, but I am 100% sure that at least some of us will. There is too much talent and determination, too much will to learn and improve, for anything else to happen. And we all have each other’s backs, whatever happens.

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