Over the weekend, the science fiction and fantasy community lost Gardner Dozois, writer and editor extraordinaire. I’ve known Gardner for decades and wanted to share with you a single instance illustrating how remarkable he was.
Gardner did a stint as the editor-in-residence for the Clarion Writers Workshop the year I attended. Over the four-day period he not only lectured and extended his own unique brand of friendship to every one of us. It was apparent that he wanted us to become the best writers we could be. To that end, he read all the stories we submitted when applying to Clarion plus every single story every one of us had written in the four weeks we’d been there. This had to total around 80-100 stories and he read them during those four days! Then he held one-on-one conferences with each of us in which he critiqued our stories, gave suggestions for what needed work, how to tackle problematic aspects of those stories, and even told us which ones were not worth any more work. His help was above and beyond what any of us had expected, all the more so when I stop and think back on what he could and did accomplish in a mere four days.
When Gardner took his leave of us, my head was spinning! And yet, what he did not do was tell any of us that he wanted to buy our stories for Asimov’s Science Fiction. While disappointing, it wasn’t surprising that none of us had written an Asimov’s-worthy story—yet. Naturally, Gardner could see more clearly than we could that writing is a long game. He did buy from some of later and/or gave us an honorable mention in one of his year’s best anthologies.
I came away from Clarion vowing to sell Gardner a story. Alas that never happened. But here’s what did occur: Gardner’s advice helped me sell some of my Clarion stories once they had been rewritten from start to finish. A couple of those eventually went on to find homes in Asimov’s sister magazine, Analog. So in closing, I want to thank Gardner for helping to make me the Analog writer I became.
I was interviewed on today’s episode of the Scott Edelman’s podcast, Eating the Fantastic! That in itself is pretty fantastic. In case you don’t know, Scott’s a writer, editor, foodie, and the driving force behind the podcast, Eating the Fantastic. Over scrumptious meals (and you ALWAYS want to go to restaurants he picks out), Scott interviews science fiction, fantasy, and horror writers, as well as editors and other creative types about how they got their start, what they’re working on now, and whatever else comes up. I’ve been enjoying his interviews for well over a year.
Now it was my turn to be interviewed over lunch at Momofuku. This relatively new restaurant in downtown D.C. has made a big splash. I get what the fuss is about. We’d both highly recommend it. Such fond memories of these pork buns:
But anyway, I hope you’ll listen to the podcast as it was my chance to talk about attending Clarion and Taos Toolbox, writing for Analog, doing readings, and other topics before unveiling my major new writing project involving dinosaurs. I hope you’ll listen. I’ll blog more about my latest project in a few days. Until then, Scott has the exclusive.
Years ago at Clarion Writers Workshop, one of my instructors talked about there coming a time when a writer stops writing. For years! Hah, I immediately decided that none of this could possibly be applicable to me. Though he was trying to be reassuring, I tuned him out. I was so wrong. Due to a massively demanding job, I ended up not writing any fiction for about ten years. Now that I’ve taken up the fiction gig once more, I’ve been thinking about my own experience as word comes of several other writers I know who are setting aside their own writing due to work and family commitments and competing priorities.
If you’re thinking about taking a break, it can be scary. Here’s what went through my head during my own writing hiatus.
- Will I ever go back to it?
The answer was yes. Once I left the demanding job and had recovered from a bit of burn-out, I began gradually by pulling out a couple of stories abandoned in progress. After ten years, they didn’t look all that bad. In fact, I could see ways to work with them, which is a compelling reason to never toss any work in progress. This led to my second fear.
2. Will I forget how to write fiction?
Nope. In fact, my demanding job had required much writing and editing. That made the resumption of fiction writing easier than ever. Those half-finished stories were a great starting point, as I could see immediately how to improve them starting with the title. In fact, I’ve sold a couple of them.
3. What can I do to help myself get back into writing fiction?
First, I resolved to write only what really interested me, like dinosaurs, and not what I thought was trendy. Second, I resolved to write about cool stuff even though I hadn’t spent decades researching a particular topic. Fact is, there will always be someone who knows more about paleontology, or many other subjects, than I do. So what? Even if I spent time learning a ton more, that would still be the case.
Second, I decided to attend a terrific writers workshop–Taos Toolbox–to get back into the swing of things. I recommend it highly.
Third, I wrote down my specific, measurable objectives in terms of words written, completed stories, etc. I started a spreadsheet to track my output on a daily, weekly, monthly, and yearly basis.
Now I’ve received word in the last month that no fewer than THREE other writers who had taken lengthy hiatuses have returned to the pen monkey gig. What’s more, they are all older than me. Truly, there’s no time like the present.
What can a non-dinosaurphile learn from a journey, however brief or prolonged, into the Mesozoic? How many dinosaur species existed? How can we extrapolate so much about dinosaurs and so much about the history of the Earth based on, well, a handful of decayed carcasses? Or do we have other clues? What do we not know about dinosaurs and need to know and why do we need to know?
These were a few of the thought-provoking questions that Carl Slaughter asked when he interviewed me for SF Signal. While I pondered my answers, I learned a couple of things, myself. First, it’s a lot more fun to be interviewed about a topic that you love, particularly when the interviewer’s comes at the subject in a way that you hadn’t quite considered before. I hope you’ll check it out, particularly if you’re like me in that you’ve never lost your love for dinosaurs. And while you’re at it, I hope you’ll read Diamond Jim and the Dinosaurs in the April 2016 Analog.
Some writers talk about times when they find they’ve “written themselves into a corner,” and what to do about it. For me, it feels more like having written my way step-by-step into the dark heart of a thicket in which malevolent logic vines are rising up and choking my poor benighted plot to death no matter which way it turns. What’s a fiction writer to do to save her benighted protagonist?
One trick I learned many years ago at the Clarion Writers Workshop was to think of a couple of solutions and jot them down in a list. These are usually either obvious approaches astute readers will expect, or obvious failures, or both. So then I add to the list a minimum of four other possibilities. It’s a form of brainstorming. If I can come up with more, so much the better. Invariably, it’s #5 or #6 or #7 on the list that has real potential. But rather than starting to hack and slash at the thicket like a mad woman, I set it all aside for at least 24 hours, usually longer if I can. I need the perspective that time will give me to look over those options again before taking metaphorical machete in hand. But alas, sometimes there simply isn’t a way out of a particular plot thicket. Sometimes I just have to go back several scenes or more and save my poor protagonist from protagging his or her way into that particular plot thicket.
Well I remember the last day of the final week of the Clarion Writers workshop. So many emotions- but chiefly excitement at all I had learned, exhaustion, and stunned surprise at how quickly the time had gone. Returning to the “real world” felt unreal, for nobody in my daily life had any notion of what I’d been through. Nor did I think they could truly grasp it second hand, no matter how good my description and mastery of telling details might be.
One thing I remember as the following days turned to weeks, months, and years, was the struggle with how to put into practice all that I had learned, not to mention the struggle to stay in close contact with good people from Clarion. These struggles have confronted me again upon completing other writing workshops. Here’s how I’ve come to approach the inevitable question of where to go from here:
1. Sleep. Intensive learning is draining. You probably need more rest than you suppose.
2. Write out a plan for what you’ll do next – which stories you’ll revise, which ones you’ll send out with a list of at least six potential markets, which new ones you’ll start. Include dates and time frames and word counts – what will you have done in one month? By Thanksgiving? By the end of the year? Even if you’re not an inveterate list-maker, give this some significant thought.
3. Share your plan with at least two people to whom you’ll be accountable for making progress. Your workshop buddies are obvious choices.
4. Look over the various writer’s tools and techniques you just learned and use them all. By that I mean try one per week in working on a story. Sure, some of them may seem more valuable than others, but do not discard any of them without at least an honest effort.
Best of luck to you all.
As the Clarion Writers’ Workshop barrels full speed into Week Three, I’m reminded of my own third week at Clarion, and I look at this class with envy and amazement. Here’s the envy part: They’re in San Diego, whereas I spent all six weeks in East Lansing, MI. The summer heat and humidity of my Week 3 was punctuated by mosquito swarms, and our sanity depended on water gun fights. At that point, I wasn’t yet too physically exhausted to run around or too sleep deprived to fall asleep at my computer, both of which came later.
As for the amazement part: It’s remarkable how much beginning writers can learn in such a short period of time simply through lectures, writing exercises, critiquing others, having their own work critiqued by super smart people, and venturing beyond their writerly comfort zone. The other amazing thing is that a goodly number of the lessons learned in Week Three (and the other weeks, too) are time released. I never did figure out how great writing instructors do that, but they all seem to work that bit of magic. In other words, by Week Three, the Clarionites have learned more than they might suppose.
During my own third week, I wrote the initial draft of the first story that I ever sold. I’m wishing this year’s class great success with this week’s efforts.
Now is the time to apply to writers’ workshops. Now that I’ve had several weeks to let the dust settle from having attended Paradise Lost, and having attended Taos Toolbox last year and Clarion several years before that, I’m eager to plunge into comparing and contrasting these three science fiction and fantasy writers’ workshops. They obviously differ in the time commitment, ranging from three days (Paradise Lost) to two weeks(Taos Toolbox) to six weeks (Clarion & Clarion West).
Which is best for you? First and foremost, you should give some serious thought to whether you have the mental energy to complete them. At Paradise Lost, you’ll have a few weeks in advance to critique roughly four works of 5000 words apiece (20,000 total). At Taos Toolbox, you’ll have about a month to critique 15-16 novel beginnings of 10,000 words each (150,000-160,000 words total) and then another 5000 words per piece submitted during Week Two, which comes to somewhere around 230,000 total words. Clarion can be more variable, but I’m guessing you’ll read and critique around 250,000 to 300,000 words of stories over the course of six weeks. If you’re a slow critiquer, which I am, the time commitment is considerable. And that’s just for critiquing! There’s also the time you’ll need for your own writing, attending class and critique sessions, and socializing with other writers. What invariably gets shorted is sleep. I think it fair to say that the difference between the workshops is much like the difference between a sprint, a medium-distance run, and a marathon. Beyond that, they all shine at:
1) Providing topnotch classroom instruction by some of the best writers in our field.
2) Teaching you how to identify what’s working well and what could be improved in others’ stories, which can translate into improving your own fiction,
3) Supplying you with critiques of your stories by experienced professional writers and other workshop participants.
4) Removing the preponderance of day-to-day distractions from writing, such as your day job, your family, etc.
5) Fostering genuine friendships with other newbie writers or newish pros who know what you’re going through and can provide moral support and insightful critiques for years to come. Don’t discount the value of this as you embark on a solitary endeavor.
And yet, if you’re looking for a magic potion, you’ll find that these workshops cannot:
1) Make sure you keep on writing daily, weekly, monthly, or ever,
2) Force you to finish all – or any – of the stories or novels you began in a burst of enthusiasm,
3) See that you press the ‘submit’ button, and keep doing so each time a rejection comes back.
So back to the question – is one is for you? Here are a few more considerations:
1) How much time you can take away from family, job, friends, and your day-to-day life?
2) Can you afford it financially? Clarion does have scholarships that help a great many attendees.Paradise Lost has also begun to offer a limited amount of financial assistance.
3) Are you psychologically prepared for a bunch of smart students and an established professional to (hopefully gently) suggest that the child of your creativity is clumsy or merely ordinary or in need of so much more work? If you are already in a critique group, be prepared for a more intense experience.
4) Where are you in your career, and what you are writing? Clarion is a great starting point if you’ve never been published and are writing short stories. Taos Toolbox is terrific if you’ve published a story or three but feel you have more to learn, particularly about novel writing. Paradise Lost is good for those who’ve been to either of the other two workshops, and are seriously thinking of a career in fiction writing.
One last thought, Clarion, Taos Toolbox, and Paradise Lost are all head and shoulders above trying to muddle through by learning your craft in isolation. Yes, it is possible to do it on your own or via an MFA or on-line program or some other way. Many fine writers have done so. Then again, many other fine writers attribute their initial success to one of these workshops.
Some years ago, when my Mom was still alive, she provided the inspiration for my first published dinosaur story. I was attending Clarion SF Writers’ Workshop and wanted to write a time travel story. I thought she might make an interesting protagonist, but there was one problem. She was afraid to fly. You should know that she seemed to have a knack for winning contests. So my question was, if she won an all-expenses-paid trip to the Cretaceous, would she climb into a time machine and go?
My “research” consisted of calling her up and asking her that question. “Oh yes,” she said without hesitation. “It’s some place I’ve never been!”
That was the moment I knew I had to send her. The story is called, “Mom and the Ankylosaur,” published in 2004 in Fantastic Stories of the Imagination.
Even better than seeing the story in print was being able to use this story for the first author’s reading I ever gave. My Mom was in the audience. Today, on Mother’s Day, I’d like to dedicate this story to all mothers whose children are writers.