Clarion Week 6: in which we stumble across the finish line and wish the marathon was twice as long.

Heading out to the ocean

Week Six! The last week before I was thrust out into the cruel, uncaring world. The week when I realized that there was an ocean I could go heal my soul with RIGHT THERE, and the week when I got my feet put underneath me again by my classmates, and the week when I realized that this workshop wasn’t the pinnacle of my writing journey (with everything downhill from here,) it was a beginning.

“You wrote a story about a man who drowns a fish. Good job.”

Yeah, remember how last week I was despairing about ever being able to plot well and write like a grown-up? This week it was pointed out to me by several people that I was 22, with plenty of time to LEARN. I kinda clued in that I could rest, and let things percolate through my subconscious, and work on my skills and knowledge. I didn’t have to have it all in hand right yet.

“Self-loathing is not a good career path.  Cut yourself some effing slack.”  ~Kessel

I also slept a lot more, which helped.

Mark turned in his story for the last Friday. He slept significantly less.

(Side note; this did not actually take place at Clarion, but once I had left there, I listened to some people conversing, and I was utterly shocked to realize that they weren’t discussing writing. And worse, they were talking about it like it mattered, in a serious conversationI just didn’t understand. I still don’t understand. It’s a trip to Disneyland, not a novel!)

So, on this final week I had my retelling of Eros and Psyche critiqued! This was slightly awkward in the classroom because a.) I’d run out of time and energy and literally left out half the story, and b.) I was the unwitting perpetrator of that story that happens every year, the “I never really thought about it as rape before” story. Oops. (I’m sorry, everyone. And I’m gonna re-write that story and yeah. Sorry, everyone.) But on the non-awkward side, the general consensus was that my prose was SO MUCH BETTER. So, y’know, I curled into a ball when it was over and went HAHAHAHAHAHAHAHA ICANSTOPWRITING AHAHAHAHAHA oh I am so sad now. What should I do? How do I feel? How do I hands? How I can? I cannot can. Words gone. Words all gone. Ocean now?


You think I make a joke. I do not make a joke. That is the actual level of my language ability. I wrote a journal entry which reads.

“Went death-mobile story kit.

Ocean with Gill, mark, Chris, Todd.

Social Crit Session

Drank Beer– not good.


Clarion– it will ruin your capacity for language.

Josh must now join the conversation!

But inability to talk notwithstanding, the last week of Clarion was strange and amazing. We were becoming aware that we had been living in a state which most people would classify as “not the real world” and as we turned in our last stories day by day and looked around, we didn’t want it to end. I mean yes, there was some significant missing of family and significant others going on, but giving up this for the daily grind was not appealing.

“Tim will call you and be like ‘Send Lawyers, guns and money.'”

So we went to the ocean a lot, we hung out in the common room, we chatted and ate cupcakes and drunk tea and whiskey and wrote messages in each other’s books and took pictures and packed up and went to crit session and told each other we were awesome and made promises to keep in touch. My memories are all coloured with sorrow, but I’m pretty sure that’s the nostalgia talking.

Dying Brooke's hair.

Becky can't operate in these conditions!

Our group was entirely composed of introverts (what writing group isn’t,) and we were voluntarily spending as much time as possible together. There were trips to Sprinkles Cupcakes! There was ritual emptying of all the alcohol bottles which couldn’t be brought on a plane. There was the last trip to Mysterious Galaxy, where Kij read Story Kit, and like the week before, when Kessel read from his upcoming novel, I forgot to despair at how GOOD they were and how bad I was and just gloried in all the beautiful words.

"The class of Clarion 2011 had better be a courteous class or I'll kill you." -Kij

(Btw, Mysterious Galaxy is the bookstore where we went every week for readings. I come from a small town, so the idea that there are bookstores entirely devoted to Spec Fic was a REVELATION to me. I restricted myself to one new book a week, which was very, very hard. The staff was also amazing and kind and basically I’m a fan. If you’re in San Diego, go!)

Walking back from the ocean.

Saying goodbye is never fun to do.

And then we all had to pack up and fly home.

“It’s not that Burger King is salvation, but it’s reality.” -Kessel

If you want to apply to Clarion you can do that here. Should you apply? Clarion isn’t for everyone. It’s six weeks, which is a lot of time, and it’s five thousand dollars, which is a lot of money. However, there are scholarships for poverty and talent, (I got a “I work minimum wage jobs” one,) and six weeks is less than the time most jobs will give you for mat leave. IF THEY WON”T LET YOU TAKE THE TIME OFF YOU DON”T WANT THAT JOB ANYWAYS. *Jasmine Hast SPOKEN*

“You disappointed me, I thought she was going to be naked under the butterflies!”

In addition to the time and money budgeting, Clarion is also difficult emotionally and mentally. Even critique from very kind people who are your friends can be hard to take when you don’t have the opportunity to make it good, and you know that you COULD, if you just had more TIME.

I took this picture!

It is personally hard for me to take it when people say that ANYTHING is wrong with what I’m doing, as I have a strong attachment to being perfect, so it is a testament to the group I was in that I was able to take critique as well as I did. Add the strain of critique to the strain of all the writing and critical reading that is expected of you, and it is very tiring.

Bolander: “I want to eat the effing prose in this with a spoon.”
Chris: “You can’t eat it, it’s mine. I’m eating it.”

I’ve tried to be honest about the ups and downs of the experience in my recaps. (Other posts about Clarion, including my post about being accepted and other weekly recaps, can be found here.) In my mind, the positives of the experience wildly outweigh the negatives, and I say this as someone who is going to be working a 14 hour day today because I had to go quite far into debt to swing the cost of the workshop.

The last lunch, posing with the cafeteria staff.

If I could go again I would be applying this weekend and crossing my fingers even HARDER than I did last year. People have gone at ages 17 and at “more than 60,” people have traveled from Australia and the UK and Canada and from in San Diego. It’s my opinion that Clarion is AWESOME and I’d really, really encourage anyone who wants to be a writer to become part of that group.

Gill, Kessel and Mark.

Yeah, I want to go again.

“Excellent first draft, what a giraffe, covered in nanobots.”  ~Worrad


So, you know how I was talking in my last blog post about how darn useful critiquing is, as a reader and a writer? And how everyone should do it? (Well, I may not have said everyone, but it was implied, right?) I have found a position which will allow you to do almost exactly that!

The magazine I review books for, (first review forthcoming soon,) has a volunteer slush reader position open. It’s a YA spec fic magazine, so young adult fantasy, science fiction, horror and any mixture therein. And as a slush reader you’d read 5-10 stories a week, give brief feedback about whether it works or not, and why, and get an excellent add-on to put on your resume.

So, stats;

  • unpaid
  • 2 hours a week
  • excellent on your resume

You want to apply, yes? Yes. Here is the link.


So let’s talk about sharing stories.

Wait, let’s segue into how good I am at replying punctually to letters. (Hint: it is not at all.) Letters I am horrible at replying to. Stories I am slightly better at remembering to get to– by which I mean that I usually manage to read and then critique a story within six months of it being sent to me. Sometimes things get away from me and it takes seven or eight months.

I really wish I was exaggerating, but I am actually pulling the dates on the last few stories I critiqued. Oops.

Anyways, this lamentable tendency has in fact led to an interesting piece of learning.

In the last week, I critiqued something close to ten stories. Not a clarion-week’s worth, but still a respectable amount. And because I was close-reading so many stories at once, and thinking hard about how they were put together, I was also thinking about how I was thinking. (The byline for my blog used to be “I spent too much time in my own head.” It’s still flirting with being true. (My next business venture will be INTROSPECTION ‘R US. Tell your friends.)) I finally put my finger on an undercurrent in a story– the emotional through line– which I’d been trying to figure out but never quite managed it. And it’s not to say that I can do it with all stories, but there were a couple in a row where I was able to pinpoint emotional setup and payoff, and the line I was walking as the reader, and whether I got lost in the story and cool stuff.

And then I realized that I was learning something from critiquing.

It– shouldn’t take so long for me to figure this out. I did go to Clarion. I talked to people before about how it would be valuable, and to people afterwards about how it was valuable. But in much the way as the full import of ethics and what that does to a culture’s art took a full three years to impact in my head, this only fully clicked last week.

Critiquing, as an activity, is so valuable.

Just think about it; you are studying a story (in my life a story written by a friend) looking for ways it could be made better. So you are looking for strengths and weaknesses. You are looking for what makes a story work. You are looking for how to make a story work. For a writer, that seriously has to join Writing and Reading to make a holy trinity of “how to get better at your craft.”

A disclaimer should here be sounded, because I don’t know, maybe for you critique isn’t as useful. Maybe you get all you need to know by reading masterworks of the style of fiction you aspire to. Maybe critique isn’t useful at all; you learned everything in english class. But for me, the interaction with a story is intensely valuable. (I also have taken a grand total of two (2) english classes in my entire life. They were valuable, but not where i get the bulk of my knowledge about story.) So your milage may vary.

BUT DUDE LEARNING. LEARNING IS AWESOME. Because, you know, critiquing is a learned skill, just as writing is. It’s not as though you can walk in and sit down with a story and then every mark which proceedeth from your pen will be shining pure brilliance undiluted. Or okay, maybe that’s how it works for you. For me, it went like this.

I’ve had writer-friends for as long as I’ve been writing. (Yes, the two things are deeply connected. Correlation AND causation, you might say.) And when I joined in with the writing circle we would share around what we’d written, for fun and adoration. After all, what’s the fun of writing hilarious adventures if you’re the only one who gets to see them? Exactly. Not much point. Thank you for agreeing.

So we’d share around stories, and tell each other they were amazing and hilarious. And that was awesome. That was about Level 1 of sharing reading.

But along the way, and I’m not even sure where or when it happened, but we started offering critiques as well. Level 2! We’d read, and offer suggestions about what wasn’t working.

This was a rocky road, because a.) critiquing is a hard skill to learn to give, and b.) critiquing is a hard skill to learn to take. And I am a selfish and temperamental beast who doesn’t take personal criticism well. Anything directed at my story was suddenly an attack on myself. I had a track record of criticism taken so very well, indeed, that there was an intervention before I applied to Clarion from people who thought it would be bad for me and everyone around me. Once I was accepted, it was the one thing I was most terrified about. Writing six stories? No big deal. Having people tell me my stories suck? The night before my first crit session I barely slept, and the last time that happened was when I watched Blink and then went to bed in a huge empty house.

(Fortunately, I neither cried in class or attacked anyone physically.).

Clarion, my friends, was something like Level 10 of critiquing. I just skipped all the intermediate steps and went straight into a group of people who can tell you what is wrong with your story (everything) while making you feel proud of how good it is already, and excited to fix it with the suggestions they offer. Do you know how easy it is to take critique in that group? Very easy. Do you know how hard it is to critique like that?


Lamentably, being part of that circle of awesome did not mean I immediately achieved all the critiquing and critique-presenting skills. This is probably quite obvious from the part above, where I said I only just figured out how to identify the emotional paths of a story. But I am learning; slowly, surely and with great delight for each fragment of knowledge collected.

It’s fun.