My report from the Clarion Writers Workshop, Weeks Five and Six
It’s appropriate to put the Week 5 & 6 together, because they are always taught by a team of two. Back in the day, the "anchor team" was Damon Knight and Kate Wilhelm, the original power couple of science fiction, who taught the final fortnight every year until Knight retired. Last year’s anchor team was Ellen Kushner and Delia Sherman, and the year before it was Holly Black and Kelly Link. Our anchor team was Elizabeth Hand and Paul Park.
During Week Five we critiqued short stories as usual, but for some of the stories Paul introduced a new, "directed" crit method, where he would stand in the center of the room and ask pointed questions about each story. He had a pre-existing sense of the particular strengths and weaknesses of each, so his questions led to nuanced discussions about specific issues — character, setting, theme, language. After four weeks of free-for-all, it was instructive, a real master-class discussion.
Week Five also saw a quantum-leap in the overall quality of stories. Remember these are all first drafts, but student after student turned in bold, clever, moving pieces written with style and imagination. The improvement was visible to everyone
My Week Five submission was a rewrite of my Week Two story. People had made some brilliant suggestions during Week Two,
Also during that week, Paul and Liz took turns giving lectures and having us do in-class exercises on particular fiction techniques, based on some consistent weaknesses they’d seen in our stories in Weeks 1-4. The exercises involved:
- Showing character through the use of omniscient narrator or detached ("camera eye") point of view.
- Putting the details of your job into a fantastical setting.
- Describing the same setting from different characters’ points of view, as a way of illustrating the characters themselves.
- Imagining an SFF setting thoroughly by extrapolating multiple layers of consequences from individual specific changes.
Week Six, however, was all about novels. This is a departure, since Clarion bills itself as short-fiction workshop. Liz and Paul observed, though, that every Clarion or Clarion West class they’d ever taught has had many students who wanted to write novels. So the class as a whole submitted, in quick succession, a proposal for a novel, an outline for same, and a sample chapter. This added significantly to the reading load (in terms of diversity and concentration, not absolute length), and it meant a lot of furious, hard work during that time. It was a big shift, as we’d been working short-form for over a month, but nearly the students were enthusiastic, taking out their latest novel ideas and running with them. Also it was instructive to see the different approaches people took to both the proposal and the outline.
Your humble narrator, however, had a problem. I hadn’t actually ever thought of a novel idea, and couldn’t come up with one I liked in the time allotted. I did a sort of half-assed version, made a proposal based on it, and then, when I tried the outline, I caved. I had no real characters; I had nothing more than the most vague plot — I got two chapters into the outline and gave up. It was all fake. (Not the fault of the instructors; everybody else did a fine job. I’m sure I will come up with a good novel idea someday, and then these techniques will be like gold.)
Instead I wrote another short story, using a wacky narrative technique. I was surprised (and touched) by how positive the reviews were, from the class and from both instructors.
In my conferences, both Paul and Liz were supportive and, in the case of two stories, downright enthusiastic. One particular story they both identified as being "basically publishable now," if I fix one or two minor things. So I’m pretty excited about it.
There have been parties. Night before last, we went to a restaurant; actually three restaurants — three groups. Our group went to a fantastic Abyssinian restaurant at University Heights. Last night Liz Hand made dinner for all of us, a huge pot of great pasta with cheese, tomatoes and fresh basil. There was a lot of hilarity, including a group chant-along of Fall On Your Sword’s "Shatner of the Mount". Younger, fresher souls than I were up into the wee hours, imbibing better-unnamed substances and annoying the campus police.
I’m typing this in our Common Room, because we’ve "checked out" of our own rooms now. Most of my classmates have left, and three of us are waiting to have dinner and then get to our late planes. I’ve been saying tearful goodbyes all day. These are seventeen friends-for-life.
What a wild ride this has been; life-changing, I think. I’m full of anticipation about the future.