Certain workshops, like the Clarions, and Internet-based workshops, like the Online Writing Workshop and Critters, seem to be hotbeds for science fiction and fantasy's up-and-coming authors. What is it about these workshops that make a writer successful? Are they the nebula birthplace of these new stars or are they the refiner's fire for those who are already destined to succeed?
I asked several writers about their experiences with the Clarion workshops and the online workshops.
CHARLES COLEMAN FINLAY was recently a Writer-in-Residence at the 2005 Clarion Workshop. He helps administer the Online Writing Workshop (OWW). Nebula and Hugo finalist Finlay is a rising star in his own right with many publishing credits in such magazines as the Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction and Strange Horizons, and the recent release of his novel The Prodigal Troll, published by Pyr.
SIMON HAYNES has participated in the Critters online workshop, where a short story workshopped there later became part of his first novel, Hal Spacejock, coming out in August from Fremantle Arts Centre Press.
BREN MACDIBBLE is a Clarion South 2004 alumnus who has published several childrens' science fiction books through Blake Education, and adult SF in various Australian magazines, such as Visions and Andromeda Spaceways Inflight Magazine. She also participates in the Other Worlds Writers Workshop.
What are Workshops?
Workshops are gatherings of writers for the purpose of critiquing each others' work. Workshops can range from the informal gathering of a handful of local writers to six-week intensive "boot camp" programs to continual online workshops boasting thousands of members.
Most science fiction and fantasy workshops use variations of the Milford method of critique, where everyone sits in a circle and offers critique of one writer's piece.
This peer review is what makes these workshops so valuable to so many writers. A workshop is not where a writer learns what a preposition is, but whether or not its use in a piece was effective. Did the writer translate what was in their brain to the page effectively enough for another reader to "get it"?
Robert Hoge says, "Learning to critique and having your own work critiqued is one of the smartest things a newer writer can do to improve their skills...."
Charles Coleman Finlay: "I think it's very important for writers participating in their first workshop experiences. A structure keeps focus on the writing, not the other writer, and, for the critiquer, it helps develop critical faculties by organizing their reactions into different categories—things that work, things that don't, things that could be better, plot, dialogue, character, sentence-level writing. I often suggest that writers trying to improve in a specific area, like plotting, focus their critiques on that specific area so they can develop those skills."
Bren MacDibble finds a critique structure an invaluable tool. "For me, it's everything. I am the hardest critic of my work and it never seems right to me. If I didn't have people saying yes, that bit stinks, but that bit is cool, I'd be lost. I can do the grammar and structural stuff standing on my head, but without feedback I wouldn't know whether what I was trying to say worked at all.
"There's a lot of writers bashing on publishers' doors, thinking they're good enough when they've never really had any feedback on their work. They should all go join a critique group and face the ugly...or not so ugly truth."
The Secret of Success?
The Clarions turn out a high percentage of successful writers. This is their secret alchemical formula: unity of genre, balance of peer level, a high demand on their writers and a window into the professional world.
The first thing they did right was keeping to one genre. If you have ever attended a critique group where one person writes mysteries, one writes literary short stories, one writes creative nonfiction, and so on, you know what a disaster that can be. Sure, fellow writers can offer line edits and help with basic grammar, but unless the writers are also readers of science fiction, they're not going to be able to offer useful insights into world-building, supertext, and other elements of speculative fiction that simply don't exist in any other genre. The uniqueness of the science fiction and fantasy requires utter devotion.
The next thing done right was a balance in the skill level of peers. Clarion is a workshop, not a "class." Too often unbalanced workshops end up as classes with the more experienced members teaching the newbies the basics about the craft. What do the experienced members get? Very little; ergo, not much growth as a writer. As the Clarions require a certain level of promise for successful application, this balance of writers at similar professional levels is achieved.
"It's that personal feedback as it relates to your writing that makes the difference," MacDibble says of her Clarion South peer review experience. "Fellow writers are wrestling with the same writing demons so they uncover yours instantly. You're forced to change, to grow. You can't hand in stories with the same fault week after week and not expect your all-seeing peers to come down on you like a ton of something smelly."
Hoge explains further, "The Clarion model works by taking people who have mastered the basics and show some talent and tries to help them direct that talent towards a professional career. Entry to Clarion South is competitive, it’s not simply ‘first come, first served.’ So in many ways, the workshop is designed to shape the skills that are already there rather than build them from the ground up."
For six weeks they eschew Life As They Knew It to enter a world where writing is all. "At Clarion South people live and breathe writing for six full weeks," says Hoge. "Even in a supportive home environment, with the distractions of work and family and fixing the leaking tap it’s not the same. Many participants find the energy of being surround[ed] by fifteen to twenty of their peers very invigorating....When you come to the workshop, you move into an alien environment —often in a new city —with new people. It’s a very Spartan experience designed to allow people to focus on their writing."
MacDibble: "At Clarion you have a new professional perspective thrown at you every week as each tutor beats out a new tune on a new drum and yells, 'Dance, you feral beasts! Dance or be damned!' (or something like that)."
The Clarion model demands much of its students. They must create a new story every week. It's a grueling pace that strips sundry and all of any pretenses. Such a high demand will force a writer to grow or die. This is the refiner's fire. "For some people," states Hoge, "doing a Clarion workshop will be the most significant thing they do to develop their career. And the impact may be very obvious straightaway. For others, the impact may be slower or even negligible. And some people may even decide that after six weeks that a professional career isn’t for them."
The final ingredient in their formula for success is professional contact. Each week Clarion is taught by a different professional in the field—writers or editors. These networking opportunities can be invaluable. It's not often that up-and-coming writers get the chance to rub elbows with and talk one-on-one with a professional writer or editor about writing. (That sort of behavior at a convention is generally considered gauche.)
Hoge: "One of the reasons we formed Clarion South was that a lot of Australian writers felt they were missing out because they weren’t getting easy access to major US editors. They weren’t getting to meet them, hear them speak at conventions, etc. So one of the things we’re doing in Australia is bringing a top international author and major international editor to the workshop. So far we’ve had Nalo Hopkinson, Michael Swanwick, and Jack Dann as our international authors (though Jack is a de facto Aussie) and David G. Hartwell and Ellen Datlow as our editors.
"Being able to talk professionally and socially with major authors and editors is a big plus for a face-to-face workshop."
"Definitely," agrees MacDibble. "Especially the workshops that put you in touch with editors and fellow writers who are making things happen."
While many in the field may be reluctant to admit it, networking is an important part of the publishing world. Name recognition can help sell stories.
Can Clarion increase a writer's chance of getting published and staying published? Hoge says, " Absolutely.
"A few writers who have come out of Clarion South have had substantial and immediate success they’ve sold to major US markets like SciFiction and have appeared in various Year's Best anthologies. We also had a Nebula winner from the 2005 class!"
MacDibble agrees. "Australian writers are sometimes forgotten, mostly due to geographical isolation. This is a shame, as there are many good speculative fiction writers Down Under. " [Clarion South] was designed to push good writers through the publication barrier and there were a lot of good writers in Australia needing attention when it came along. It was nice to hear that the Clarion tutors went back to the US impressed with the quality of the forgotten continent's writers and a little overwhelmed by our colorful personalities (they won't forget us in a hurry)."
Can Clarion guarantee a professional career? No. Hoge explains, "[A Clarion workshop] can’t make careers out of nothing—and it’s not designed to. The Clarion model works by taking people who have mastered the basics and show some talent and tries to help them direct that talent towards a professional career."
Finlay adds, "It's very important for the writer to know what they want from the workshop... If a writer goes in with a specific goal like "this will help me solve my pacing issues" or "I want to learn everything I can from this teacher," we'll probably do well. If we go in with a goal like, "I want this workshop to validate me as a writer" or "I want to connect with somebody who will buy my work," we're likely to be disappointed. We have to want something that a workshop or a class can give us."
Stepping Stones in Career Development
The Clarions' reputation seems to state that once you've made it to Clarion, you've "made it." As Clarion says on its website, "Over one third of graduates have published since leaving Clarion."
Not everybody is ready, able or willing to attend a Clarion workshop. For those with careers or families, other workshops exist that cater to those who cannot put their lives on hold for six weeks. The Viable Paradise workshop functions very much like Clarion, but puts writers through the wringer for only a week. As for the rest of us who aren't quite ready to dedicate more than a few hours here or there to our writing careers there are the online workshops.
One of the more successful online workshops is the Online Writing Workshop (OWW). The OWW started as the Del Rey Online Writing Workshop in the fall of 1998, later becoming the Online Writing Workshop in 2000 after the end of the Del Rey sponsorship. Five years later, the OWW continues to attract speculative fiction writers.
The OWW and Clarion share the same elements for success: one genre, balance of peers, demands on the writer, and professional contacts.
Does it work? Yes. Finlay reports, "....[A] quick glance over the Hall of Fame page makes it look like roughly ten percent of our members have sold something in the past six months or so, but that includes everything from multi-book contracts to major publishers to semi-pro 'zines." That's just recent sales. "Over 100 members have reported pro sales in the last five years..." That doesn't include semi-pros and 4-the-luvs. Since the OWW tends to have about 650 members at any given time, these numbers are impressive. Compare this to the average slush pile: on a good day, a slush pile yields upwards of one percent sales.
These OWW member sales aren't little back-water e-zine successes either. According to Finlay, "OWWers (and workshopped stories) have won the Warner Aspect First Novel Contest, the Writers of the Future Grand Prize (as well as several finalists), and the Campbell Award. And other OWWers and OWWorkshopped stories have been finalists for the Hugo, Nebula, Sidewise, Sturgeon, Tiptree, and other awards, though we're still waiting for our first win there. And there have been one or more OWWers on the Campbell ballot every year for the past three years."
The Online Writing Workshop hosts several different workshops, of which Science Fiction and Fantasy is but one. There have been demands for horror workshops and romance workshops, all separate from each other.
The peer balance is surprisingly even. One of the reasons for this is that the OWW is a workshop that requires paid membership; only the more dedicated writers will pay US$49 a year after their free one-month membership for others to read and comment on their work. They see it as an investment in their careers. Dedicated writers make for a dedicated workshop. Since moving to a paid membership structure, the number and quality of critiques on any given piece has increased.
The OWW boasts a stable of professional writers and editors who regularly read the submissions of the members and offer substantial critiques.
Finlay is one of the administrators of the OWW, and understands the power of this workshop. "OWW provides exposure to some of the same instructors—the Resident Editors include Jeanne Cavelos, who runs the Odyssey workshop, and Kelly Link, who's taught at several Clarions—but at a fraction of the cost. Members are exposed to a much larger group of peers from all over the world. And they can shape the workshop experience to fit their own schedules. It works really well for parents and professionals, for example.
"Online workshops like OWW don't provide the intensity of Clarion. OWW doesn't have a highly structured environment, so writers need to come in with a clear sense of their own goals and their own structure. And written critiques lack the nonverbal tone that helps writers take comments in the positive spirit in which they're usually given.
"But I should point out that many writers do both kinds of workshops at different points in their development. Six of the students at Clarion this year were members of OWW. Sometimes Clarion grads join OWW afterwards. Every successful writer finds the tools they need to help them improve, and those tools change over time."
Critters, another successful workshop, applies the same formula for success. While the financial cost is nowhere near what the OWW charges (Critters is free), their demand is that writers must pay in critiques and maintain a required minimum each month. As a result, it's not uncommon for a single story to receive fifteen to twenty critiques.
Critters also boasts its share of professionals. Dr. Andrew Burt, currently vice president of Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America (SFWA), runs the workshop. Their membership list hosts a whole range of professional writers.
Simon Haynes found Critters to be a valuable tool. " It's like writing for an audience, or getting published. You put your best work out there and sweat on the response. If you pretend these groups are actually publications you'll approach the task with the right mentality. [The workshops] motivate a writer to finish and polish pieces of work, and the feedback can be invaluable. If you keep at it long enough you hope to see the feedback improving with each piece. Good feedback can be a buzz, and can encourage you to keep going. Contrast this with endless rejections from paying markets."
Can workshops like the OWW and Critters guarantee success? In and of themselves, no. Workshops can be an important tool, but, like computers, they will only turn out what is put into them.
Finlay states, "Writers who have a really clear sense of why they're writing, who know what they have to say, and who know how to set and achieve realistic goals will do well over time no matter what their circumstances. Those are the writers who get the most out of Clarion or OWW, because it's part of their overall development, not an end in itself, nor even the final step that's going to 'make' them a writer.
"There are always a few writers who are so discouraged or burned out by their workshopping experiences that they give up writing, or give it up for years. For some writers, though, a good workshop, whether it's Clarion or Odyssey, OWW or Critters, can crystallize their experience and help them find the focus they need. For those writers, it's a positive turning point. Those are the ones that it's fun to find in a workshop—and I was one of them—because you can just see opportunities open up for them."
The Most Important Element
In the end, it all comes back to the writer. All the workshops in the world won't help a writer who's not willing to make a go of it.
Are workshops like Clarion and the Online Writing Workshop the nebula birthplace of our future of published writers? No. That birth takes place in the heart of the writer. What these workshops are is the refiner's fire, to help remove the dross and expose what was there the whole time—the pure gold.
Writing fiction is a demanding career. So many people dream of creating bestselling books, but never move beyond that stage of dreaming. Some make the goal of writing a novel, but give up a few chapters in, for whatever reason. But those who have this burning desire to write, who have characters and stories in their head that won't let them sleep at night, who have pride in their work—yet can be humble enough to realize that while their words may be their babies, those babies must be changed frequently—they are on the pathway to greatness.
Good workshops like the Clarions or the OWW can take these potential success stories and give them the tools and opportunities to truly reach the stars.