5 Things I Learned From Clarion West

Clarion West co-administrator Leslie Howle challenged Clarion and Clarion West alums to share 5 things they learned from their time at the Clarion workshop. As part of my efforts to transition this blog into a more general “Mike talks about stuff” blog, I’m putting my entry here.

Clarion and Clarion West are intensive writing workshops primarily focused on science fiction and fantasy writing. Students eat, drink, breathe and sleep writing for six weeks, critiquing peers’ stories, writing their own new shorts, learning from industry veteran writers and editors, and participating in a supportive community of other writers, professionals, and professional fans.

I attended the workshop in 2007, following a friend’s fantastic experience at the workshop in 2004. Among my classmates were mathematicians, historians, fashion bloggers, science teachers, lawyers, bakers, truckers, and more. I wrote five stories at the workshop, two of which have now been published. And here, in five short examples, is what I learned, one lesson for each story I wrote.

1) What you try hardest to do well, may be the thing you fail at the most. Don’t worry, it will also be the thing you learn most from.

My first week, I wrote a story called “In His Image.” The premise is that in the near-future, a social movement creates a technology which allows people to become pure hermaphrodites — possessing both sets of genitals and being functionally both male and female. The main character, Maria, a widow and mother of one, discovers that her only son, the last living reminder of her dead husband, wishes to join this group, caught up in their idealism that if everyone undergoes this procedure, it will end all gender and sex-based discrimination. Maria struggles with trying to convince her son not to pursue the procedure, then shows her confused reactions when her son goes through with the procedure and returns half a stranger.

I challenged myself to tell the story from a more difficult perspective — the mother’s, rather than the son’s, as well as making the mother a devout Christian who interpreted things through her religious paradigm. I wanted to tackle gender issues, and familial issues, using the SFinal technology partially to investigate familial reactions to transsexuals who pursue Hormone Replacement Therapy and Sexual Reassignment Surgery.

The result was a colossal failure. I managed to deeply offend several classmates, and had gone over-the-top in my efforts such that the issues I was so intently trying to get right were all spectacular flops. But from the story and the feedback, I learned that when you push yourself on something, failing can be tremendously instructive, and help you do better the next time. I saw the ways that in my effort to spotlight an issue, I’d been too overt, too clumsy, and in failure saw the ways I could go back and do it better. A first draft is a place where you should allow yourself to fail, almost expect to fail.

2) Fun is a very powerful aesthetic, and buys you a lot of trust from an audience.

My second week, I dove into writing a New Weird Superhero short story “Shield & Crocus,” which would become my novel, keeping the original title. The original short story was a piece far too large for its britches. I tried to introduce and develop a novel’s worth of material, but along with that doomed effort, I provided colorful characters, action, and enough Bombasticity that the absolute most common comment of the story was “fun.” We tell stories to challenge, to provoke, to educate, but we cannot forget the entertainment aesthetic. Fun is not the only way to be entertained — being lead to think deeply and contemplate serious issues is a form of successful entertainment, but as Donald O’Conner said,

Now you could study Shakespeare and be quite elite
And you can charm the critics and have nothin’ to eat
Just slip on a banana peel
The world’s at your feet

After all of the deconstruction of the excessive world detail or plotting issues, I was left with the confidence that this setting was fun. It was fun for me to write, and had proven that it was fun for readers, even readers who were not particularly fans of superheroes, the New Weird, or action-adventure stories. Therefore, when I left Clarion West, that sense of fun compelled me to take Shield & Crocus and give it a full life as a novel.

3) Get into a scene, do what you have to do, then get out.

Just as in conversation, I am sometimes prone to verbosity in writing. In week 3 of Clarion West, I tried to focus on scene structure. I wanted to pay attention to the beginnings and endings of scenes. I wanted to make my scenes as sharp as possible, cut out all the flab. In “Kachikachi Yama,” which later sold to Escape Pod, I pushed myself to write short scenes that were as efficient as possible, getting through setup to the meat of the scene, then getting out with momentum pushing forward to the next scene. By making most of the scenes closer to bite-sized, I gave myself permission to not have to do all the setup possible for the scene. Instead, I tried to be a narrative guerrilla — performing hit-and-run attacks with my story, keeping things punchy, so that the very structure of the story conveyed information about my heroine — that she was efficient, sharp, and did not deign to dally.

I was also very happy with what I pulled off in my main character (Usagiko)’s voice, but one lesson per week is the name of the game, so we move on to…

4) For a truly strong relationship-based story, you have to pay specific attention to every single relationship in the story — one-on-one relationships, but also group relationships and relationships in context.

A number of RPGs these days, especially “indie” RPGs, have been using the idea of Relationship Maps. In doing a relationship map, you can visually organize the dynamics between a set of characters in one or more groups. During week 4, I wrote a story called “Three Loves for Horue,” a character-focused drama where in addition to other things, I challenged myself again to write a story without external violent conflict, just internal conflict and interpersonal social conflict.

The main character, Horue, is part of a society where triadic marriage is the norm. For the people of Aehen, a normal marriage is a Husband (male), a Wife (female), and a Mediator (either). Horue is a mediator. When an invading force siezed Aehen, they forced its people into dyadic marriages, just Husbands and Wives. The Mediators were pulled out of their marriages and paired off with one another. And two years later, the invaders leave, stretched too thin to maintain an occupying force in Aehen. Most people go back to their triadic marriages, as could Horue — except that in the two years of occupation, he’d fallen in love with the female mediator assigned as his new life. So Horue finds himself torn between three loves. In the story, I had to establish and develop a great deal of relationships. I had to show Horue’s relationship with each of his spouses (Husband, Wife, and Mediator-Wife), as well as those spouses’ relationships with one another. In order to get to the ending I wanted, I had to show changes in eight dynamics (Horue-Husband, Horue-Wife, Horue-MediatorWife, Husband-Wife, Husband-MediatorWife, Wife-MediatorWife, as well as Wife-Husband-MediatorWife and Horue-Husband-Wife-MediatorWife).

Applying that way of thinking, that I had to show the change in eight distinct but inter-reliant relationships, cast light on the complicated social fabric that underlies every story. Even in stories where the central conflicts were not merely interpersonal, the Relationship Map was as crucial to good storytelling as anything else. If only one or two relationship in any story’s Relationship Map has changed by the end of the story, that story might need another look, or some more focus on character relationships.

5) When Re-decorating the house of a genre, don’t do it like a guest trying to be unobtrusive. Do it like a new owner claiming your own space.

In week 5 of the workshop, I was excited and terrified to write my last story of the workshop, a story that would be critiqued by Science Fiction Legend Samuel R. Delaney. All of the CW07 instructors were awesome, but Chip Delaney is a living legend.

Therefore, I wanted to bust out all the stops. The story I wrote for the last week was “Dancing at the Edge of the Black,” which would eventually become “Last Tango in Gamma Sector,” which appeared in Crossed Genres. I applied my love of Argentine Tango to the genre of Space Opera, and in feedback, I was urged to go all-out in that re-decoration of the house of Space Opera. And so, in re-writes and revison, I made the story as Tango-riffic as I could, from clothing to food to textures and colors. And in doing more and more to re-work the execution of the story as a Tango Space Opera, the story become more distinct, more notably mine, not a Battlestar Galactica ripoff with bad math and a touch of tango.

So there you go: 5 things I learned from Clarion West. The workshop was and remains the single most important game-changer in my writing career thus far, in craft lessons learned as well as connections made with fellow writers who continue to inspire and challenge me, colleagues who are also becoming life-long friends.

So here’s the commercial part — If you’re an aspiring SF/F writer looking for a way to kick-start your career, develop your skills, and make incredible connections, consider applying to Clarion or Clarion West this year.

5 thoughts on “5 Things I Learned From Clarion West

  1. […] This post was mentioned on Twitter by Michael Underwood, Michael Underwood. Michael Underwood said: 5 Things I Learned From Clarion West: http://geektheory.wordpress.com/2011/01/25/5-things-i-learned-from-clarion-west/ […]

  2. Matt Duhamel

    How long had you been writing before you got into Clarion West? The reason I ask is I am going to be attempting to apply, but I am relatively new to fiction writing and I don’t want to set my hopes higher than they should be.

    • Dear Matt,

      I really set my sights on writing about six years before getting in to Clarion West, designing and pursuing my own major of Creative Mythology in college and then writing through grad school (largely in the summer). I applied to Clarion and Clarion West for the 2006 year and didn’t get in, then got in to CW for 2007.

      A site you might consider to help you in your writing journey is Book Country, which is where Geekomancy was discovered by my editor. There are many aspirant and professional authors there reading one another’s work and giving critiques, along with talking about the business and craft of writing.

      I think the best time to attend Clarion or Clarion West is when you’ve spent a few years working on your craft, and are getting close to being ready for publication or are just now getting some sales. However, I’d encourage you to apply if you think you’re in a place to be able to make use of the intense six-week experience. The worst that can happen is that you won’t get in, and you’d be out the application fee (which isn’t substantial).

      Best of luck in your writing, whatever you decide to do!

      Cheers,
      Mike

      • Matt Duhamel

        Thanks for your sound idea. It sounds like I should probably spend a bit more time writing before I attempting applying. I’ve been thinking about attending Grad school, but I am not sure I can get in anywhere worthwhile.

        Do you mind if I send you an email picking your brain about grad school? I have several questions along that line but don’t want to clutter the comments section.

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