Workshops: Is Clarion for you?

February 14, 2017 4:40 pm Published by

2018 update: I’m happy to announce that a YA fantasy concept I started playing around with at Clarion, and then had to set aside for years because I just couldn’t make it work as a short story, is now a… duology. The first book, Shadowscent: The Darkest Bloom will be published in the US and UK by Scholastic in 2019 and will be translated into six other languages. Latest updates here.

For me, 2016 was the Year of the Writing Workshop. Thanks to the financial help that comes with a Scottish Book Trust New Writers Award, I was able to attend a bunch of them, from single-afternoon sessions to long weekends or entire weeks in pretty countryside. Each event helped me improve my craft, progress projects, look at my process in a new way or meet new writing buddies. Some did all four!

I’ll be writing about the particular approaches and benefits of some of those 2016 workshops in future posts.

Today, I’m casting my mind further back to the first major workshop I ever attended. It was a big ‘un. As a fledgling genre-fiction writer, it was the holy grail of workshops.


And hey, you know what March 1 is? Clarion application deadline!

The Clarion Science Fiction & Fantasy Writers’ Workshop is a 6-week, intensive, residential workshop at the University of California (and also further north in Seattle for Clarion West). It’s held over the northern-hemisphere summer. With a seasoned professional writer teaching the workshop each week, it’s a crucible of creative development.

I could rant and rave for hours about why I loved Clarion so much.

But what are you thinking? Is Clarion for you? Not sure?

Understandable! It’s a huge investment of time and finances.

But if money or work and other commitments aren’t you’re main reservations, then you may be interested in my response to some of the more common doubts I’ve heard over the years:

I want to write novels and Clarion is a short story workshop

I see you’ve done your research! Clarion does indeed focus on short stories which, truth be told, I love. It’s such a potent form. The best short stories pack a punch that will haunt you for the rest of your days provide a very satisfying reading experience. That said, I read more novels than I do short stories, and before I applied to Clarion, I knew that I eventually wanted to focus on novel-length work. That transition to long form is still in progress. But it’s leaps and bounds ahead of where it would have been if I hadn’t been to Clarion. Why? Learning to write short stories forces you to tackle all those things you’ll need for novels, just in a more work-shop-able form. Did I learn about character at Clarion? Check. Worldbuilding? Check. Structure? Check. Plot? Check. I could go on… I’ll spare you.

Having other people read and critique my work scares the $#!^ out of me

I remember rocking up to class on Day 1, nervous as hell. Some of my classmates were already published! Many belonged to long-standing critique groups! Others had MFAs! My teacher was a Professional Writer! And whose application story had been selected to be workshopped by my 17 fellow Clarionauts in the first session? Yep. Bingo.

I won’t say it wasn’t painful. But it was ripping-off-the-bandaid painful. A shock, then much, much easier to take. Clarion was the perfect initiation into the art of giving and receiving constructive criticism on creative writing. Go to Clarion, and there’s a red hot chance you’ll be cured of the fear of critique, in a genre-friendly geek-tastic environment. Wouldn’t you love to be cured? And even if the terror remains, you’ll have learned a bunch of ways to overcome it. The more I learn, the more I realise that a cure or coping mechanism when it comes to fear of critique is essential for a long term career in writing.

Clarion graduates don’t get a degree/certificate/diploma

You only have to look at the list of former Clarion students and teaching alumni to get a sense of the calibre of the programme. History demonstrates that, in idyllic surrounds away from the usual distractions of daily life, Clarionauts level-up their writing at light-speed. Many, including me, make their first professional-market sales very soon after the course ends. Look into the early literary CVs of successful sci fi and fantasy authors today and you’ll find the ‘C’ word pops up a lot.

I’m by no means saying you should go to Clarion instead of taking a university course (the whole creative writing masters thing is way outside the scope of this post). That sort of choice is up to you. But if you’re looking for something shorter term, which has very real prospects of spring-boarding you towards a genre fiction career, then the proof is in the pudding. What’s more, you’ll find the Clarion name carries a cachet of its own. So perhaps getting a piece of paper with your name on it at the end is a moot point? Only you can answer that!

Want to know more about Clarion? I’ve written another post about preparing for the workshop. And alumna Liz Argall has an awesome collection of graduate experiences and other resources over on her website.


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