You’re in, what next? 10 tips for preparing for the Clarion Writers’ Workshop

March 15, 2017 6:00 am 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. More here.

2017 update: I first published the below post on 15 March 2012 – five years before today and one year after I heard I was accepted into the  Clarion Writers’ Workshop at the University of California, San Diego for the Class of 2011 (go Narwolves, aroooo!). Rather than write a new version through the kaleidoscope of memory, I decided to give you the original here. For those unfamiliar with Clarion, I’ve explained more about the workshop and why I wholeheartedly encourage new and emerging writers to consider attending in an earlier post.

It’s that time of year again.  The time when the last places in each of the Clarion and Clarion West classes are being decided. Applicants are sitting at their computers biting their nails and compulsively Googling ‘Clarion acceptance’ (if you’re anything like I was). Each day without news in your inbox is a day that draaaaaaagggggggs.

Then, within the next week or so, all 36 fortunate souls will have found out that yes, they made the cut. They’re going to Clarion. This northern hemisphere summer, they’ll be spending six whole uninterrupted weeks focusing on story, craft and the more intangible aspects of becoming a professional writer. If you’re selected for one of this year’s classes – congratulations!

For those of you who don’t know me, I had the amazing experience of going to Clarion in San Diego last year. It was one of the most challenging and rewarding six weeks of my life – full of memories that I will treasure always. That being said, I was thinking the other day: ‘if I could go back in time and advise my pre-Clarion self, what would be the things I’d want me to know?  What would I want to do in the months before I got on that plane?’

I’ve listed below, in no particular order, the thoughts that bubbled up.  Some of these are things I did do and found beneficial, while others are things I would, in hindsight, have liked to have done. Most are quite personal.  Hopefully it’s obvious that the best Clarion preparation, just like the best Clarion experience, will differ vastly from person to person.

But, if you’re interested, here’s what I would tell my jittery and over-excited pre-Clarion self.

  1. Read, read and… read some more.

You’re serious about writing, so of course you read. Duh. But don’t stop now.  It’s time to read things you’ve wanted to get to for ages but haven’t gotten around to yet. Re-read your favourite books and contemplate all over again why you love them so much. Make the experience a sweet one, because once you’ve been Clarioned, you won’t be able to enjoy some of them in the same way. Ever. Again.

Importantly, read short stories. You’re going to a short story workshop – if you don’t already read a whole lot in this form, start now. Right now. You need to be able to ‘think’ in short story at Clarion, and there’s no time like the present to start the cogs and wheels turning.

  1. Get thee a copy of Storyteller by Kate Wilhelm

This is on the same theme – reading. It’s a bit more of a specific point, though. Storyteller reveals how Clarion came to be, how it changed over the years, and what the experience is really like.  Before I set off for San Diego, I read many alumni blogs, all of which give you a certain insight into the journey. But Storyteller gives you that and so much more. Pack it in your suitcase; it will help you stay sane while you’re there. And, at the end, you’ll have an appropriate keepsake for all your classmates to sign. You can order Storyteller directly from Small Beer Press.

Also, acquire everything written by your instructors that you can get your hands on. For one, it’s good form. For two, if you’re not already familiar with their work, it will be of benefit to you to change that. Even if instructors only refer to their own publications in throwaway lines, you’ll still get more value if you know their stuff than if you’re ignorant to it.  Finally, you can get books personally signed, and that’s always nice.

  1. Start an ideas notebook

Ideas are cheap. And when you’re hanging out with 17 other people who love the speculative genres as much as you, ideas flow aplenty. Inspiration bounces around the common room quicker and more frenetically than a pinball in an arcade machine. But sometimes, in the midst of the pressure cooker of Week 4 or Week 5, formulating ideas that can translate into good stories becomes a harder task. If you don’t already, I recommend you maintain an ideas notebook, visual diary or journal of some sort.  Don’t actually start writing drafts (you will be strongly discouraged to submit any writing from pre-Clarion once you’re at the workshop), but collect your concepts, jot down quotes or stick in pictures, research some of the technical aspects of your ideas.  You might never actually need your ideas collection once you’re at Clarion, especially at SD, where the campus itself becomes character for many people.  Nevertheless, it’s always a good resource to have in reserve – just in case you do need it when you feel like you’ve been the victim of an invisible zombie apocalypse.

  1. Consider taking a break from writing

I know, this one is going to be controversial. Yeah, yeah, writing is a muscle, you’ve got to flex it and all that.  But when did you submit your Clarion application? Right on deadline? Were you working on your submission folio like a mad girl (or boy) up until then? Are you the sort of person who is naturally prolific, or was that a hard slog? If you’re the latter, like me, you may want to consider stepping away from starting anything new for a little while. Give yourself a rest.  If nothing else, Clarion is INTENSE. Starting fresh after taking a month’s break was therefore key to me getting through it, and it enabled me to produce five new stories in the process. While a couple of them truly sucked, three of them I’m now subbing out to market.

  1. Look after yourself

If you choose to take a break from writing, spend some of the extra time you’ll have looking after yourself.  If you don’t take a writing break, find the time to look after yourself. Get lots of sleep. Exercise. Eat well.  You want to be ready for the physical as well as mental aspects of Clarion. That thing is a marathon, punctuated by blind, headlong sprints at regular deadline intervals. During my year, most people got sick around Week 5. Luckily, I escaped the Clarion plague, but only barely.  I was relatively fit at the time, so that probably helped. At least that’s what I self-righteously tell myself.

  1. Make time to spend time with friends and family

You’ll miss them.  They’ll miss you.  Goes without saying.  Ensure you get as much quality time as possible in before leaving .  Not only that, talk openly about what you’re about to do and how absorbing it will be.  Prepare them – you’re not going on a nice summer holiday by the beach (though if you’re heading to San Diego, the beach is a bonus).  There will be times when you’re distracted, when those Skype calls home reveal a frazzled, emotional and perhaps distant or impatient you. Before you go, make sure the important people in your life know how important they are, but also prepare them for the rollercoaster car that you’re about to climb into, especially if they’re not writers. It will help you and them, both while you’re gone and once you get home.

  1. Get to know your future classmates

This isn’t essential, you’ll meet people in due course, but it helps to break the ice. On that first Sunday, when the common room is bulging with suitcases, everyone experiences varying degrees of nerves. For me, I was a lot more comfortable knowing that I’d already developed an online rapport with so many of my classmates.  We had a Clarion-supported blog once we were accepted, but we also chatted on Twitter etc. Long after Clarion itself is done, it’s your classmates who will be some of the most integral people in your writing career. Making the effort from the start can only be to everyone’s benefit.

  1. Tink about teh monies

I was lucky enough to get a substantial scholarship, and to this day I have to thank the Clarion Foundation, the Coordinator and all the donors for making my Clarion possible.  Knowing that I was not going into significant debt for my Clarion took the stress off.  If your financial situation will need to be stretched to get to Clarion, I highly recommend budgeting hard before you go (if at all possible). That way, when you arrive home, you won’t have to deal with debt and post-Clarion lag at the same time.

  1. Keep your day job

On a similar note, don’t quit your day job, unless you ABSOLUTELY have to (ie. if that was the only way I could have made it to Clarion, I would have walked out of that office and never looked back).  Sure, Clarion breeds success.  But it’s not a magic bullet that will transform you into a multi-million dollar bestselling author as soon as you sling your bag over your shoulder at the end of Week 6. If you have a day job, and you are able to wrangle the leave out of your organisation, keep said job.  The routine that a day job brings, whilst banal, can also help with re-entry into everyday life. I’ve been on exchange a couple of times during university, and I’ve lived overseas for various periods, though nothing compared to the culture shock of returning home from Clarion.  Knowing that the bills were paid and being required to turn up somewhere at a specified time helped with settling back into the ‘real world’.

Goodbyes are SO hard! Me and the awesome Jasmine Stairs – Clarion flatmate and ever-since friend – outside our UCSD apartment.


  1. Enjoy the lead up

Don’t let any of these points (especially the money-related ones) take away from the experience. You can only go to Clarion once. Therefore, you can only be excited about going to Clarion for a very special few months. Enjoy it. Daydream.  Ponder what you want to get out of your Clarion.  Is your goal to harness the structure and motivation to get five or six new stories out? Or is the overall experience more important than output? During my Clarion, most people produced 4-6 stories, but in other years, some students chose to aim for 2-3. You can go your own way, and it’s fun to think about what that might be before you set your ruby slipper on that first yellow brick.

Anyways, none of these things are rocket science, but I thought them worth posting.  As I said earlier, what you do after acceptance is going to be a personal process.

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


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