At Wiscon, I was on a panel about workshops that was utterly remarkable in that the audience primarily consisted of people who hadn’t been to major SF workshops yet. This was a pleasant surprise, since usually when I’m on a Clarion and/or workshop panel at a con, I show up to discover that almost all of the audience has already gone to Clarion. I mean, at that point, we might as well just have a pan-Clarion bar meet-up. One person was an incoming Clarion West student, though, and she told me that one of the things I’d said on the panel was helpful. So, I’m fighting down my natural urge to go, “ADVICE BLOG POST? BLEEEEECH” and writing this.
When you’re at Clarion for six weeks, you’re supposed to write six short stories, one for each week. These stories will then be critiqued by your classmates and instructor.
You should write stories that require you to use techniques you’re unfamiliar with, in genres that you don’t typically touch, with themes and characters you’ve never considered writing about before. Stretch yourself. Challenge yourself. Learn some shit. Blah, blah blah.
Everyone says that.
Okay, so here’s the important part: Do not write these stories with the intent to publish them later. They should still be complete stories, obviously. It needs to be enough of a draft that it can be critiqued. But your goal for these six weeks is to learn how to write better stories, not to sell these six. I mean, if all you want is six weeks off of work to write short stories for publication and send those off? Shit, you can do that at home.
I’m not saying you can’t or won’t be able to sell those stories, just that you have every other moment outside of these six weeks to sit down thinking, “AND NOW I WILL WRITE AN AWESOME STORY FOR BLAH MAGAZINE.”
So… when I was at Clarion, I had not written very many stories. In fact, I had only written three short stories at that point (one of which was The Ghost of a Girl Who Never Lived, one of my application stories). Writing a whole SIX short stories in a six week period was going to be a huge stretch for me. I thought, well, at least I’ll have six more stories to sell later!
So. I did end up selling my first three stories. Two of them went out the door with fairly minor rewrites, one of them is completely unrecognizable from its original form. Which is good! Because the original draft sucked.
But weeks four, five, and six were pretty much unmitigated disasters. These aren’t even in the category of “Oh, I’ll just rewrite them,” because the shit goes all the way down to the premise. I got super stressed out while writing them which is why they were all written between noon and 3pm of the day that I needed to turn in my drafts (by 3!). I hated writing them. I hated that I knew they weren’t going to sell while I wrote them. I wasn’t quite sure why I was doing it anyway. I mean, I could have just gone downstairs and taken pot-shots at Hugo Award Winning Authors with a water pistol. Or pick through the giant wad of glued-together action figures that Grá found in a dumpster. Or go to the beach and wonder if it was the nude beach, and if it’s a horrible faux pas to be at a nude beach with pants on.
I turned the stories in, and I did learn some stuff from the critiques… but mostly I shot myself in the foot. I felt like crap because I knew that they weren’t going to sell, so no matter what the crits said, I couldn’t turn them around. So why bother. (Eeyore moment.)
I knew that other people, better people, amazing people, had written award winning stories at Clarion! Because those stories were in the archives! And someone from my class had looked them up! So I knew that it was possible! But my stories weren’t that good yet. So, obviously, I had failed at some imaginary Clarion … measure. And by imaginary, I mean really super imaginary, as in, probably only in my head.
You’d think that I’d have figured out that this was an unhealthy way to look at my Clarion experience as of, oh, August 2008. But no. It kind of dragged along behind me for a few years like a string out of a cat’s butthole. That part probably won’t apply to you unless you’re similarly neurotic (or a cat). But I felt for a long time like those unmitigated disasters from weeks 4-6 were proof that I’d wasted at least half of my Clarion experience, and someone else would have been a better choice for my spot.
Phf. I learned plenty from those stories. Like, how to not write something that sucks the same way again.
But, my point isn’t that you can’t write salable stories at Clarion, or that you should write crap on purpose. I’m just saying, if you get stressed out, remember that you’re ONLY writing for the workshop and to learn some shit. It’s okay. Just write some stories, try some things. Worry about your Duotrope stats when you get home.
At least that way if your Clarion stories suck, they’ll suck in new and interesting ways.
(This is one of the blog posts I’m writing as part of my participation in the Clarion UCSD Write-A-Thon.)