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Rhetoretician -- Fiction etc.

Clarion Report, Weeks 5 & 6

Clarion Report, Weeks 5 & 6

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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.

 
  • I was excited by "basically publishable now," if I fix one or two minor things. " That is just tremendous! If that doesn't give you a boost of confidence, I don't know what does.

    I'd love to tread some of your stories. What an experience. It's going to affect what happens in your work from now on. That was a very positive decision on your part to do this.

    Edited at 2009-08-09 02:53 am (UTC)
    • Thanks, Rachel. I'll post them when they're in second-draft form. (The first drafts were written in only 3-4 days each, and have a lot of rough spots.)
  • I will second the motion for you to share some of these stories with us; I'd love to see the results of this awesome opportunity! I'd be really curious to see the things you wrote at the beginning and what folks had to say about them vs. the things you wrote at the end that showed such marked improvement. I'm still insanely jealous that you got to have this experience, that you were good enough to get to go to this.

    I have to write a paper for English class where I have to retell one of the short stories we've analyzed from the perspective of a different character, and I'm petrified because I know fiction writing is NOT my strong suit. I don't want to disappoint the instructor who has so far been terrifically impressed by my story analysis papers.
    • Hi, Val. I fel very lucky to have been able to do this, as you know. I will post the stories (locked) when they're in second-draft form.

      *Sigh* You already know that I think you are a fine fiction writer, so I am not going to get sucked into that argument again. But telling the same story from another POV is a fascinating and fun project; forget about being judged, just enjoy the game. It's even more fun if you pick a really unlikely character, like the busboy or Aunt Lucille or somebody like that.
  • One particular story they both identified as being "basically publishable now,"

    Hey, that's great, you must indeed be quite excited/hopeful about that one!

    I've been saying tearful goodbyes all day.

    I hate that "end of school" feeling. Tearful indeed.

    It's been really interesting peeking in on your 'wild ride'; this is yet one more thing that I would never have been interested in nor exposed to before I got into the HP fandom and found myself fascinated by the mechanics of those on the 'creative' side of things. Thanks for making your weekly posts!
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