by michele cashmore
QWC member Michele Cashmore spent six weeks at Clarion South Workshop – also known as speculative fiction’s ‘boot camp’. She survived the challenge and shares her tips and advice.
Clarion South Workshop has been described as a ‘boot camp for speculative fiction writers’. And it was. It was tough, intense and worth every ounce of blood, sweat and tears. This biennial six week-long residential program was an opportunity to learn from professionals in an environment completely focussed on writing. Acceptance to Clarion South is highly competitive – only 17 participants are invited to attend, and I was one of them. Each week a different professional writer conducted the workshop and lived on campus, making themselves available to the students if necessary. The tutors included eminent Australian speculative fiction authors: Margo Lanagan, Simon Brown, Rob Hood and Lee Battersby, as well as international authors and editor/pulishers: Gardner Dozois, Kelly Link and Gavin Grant.
My Clarion experience began the moment I arrived at Griffith Uni where I met my five flat mates, soon to be some of my closest friends. The dorm-style accommodation consisted of a fan, a single bed and a desk. By the end of week one many of us had stuck photos and pictures to the uninviting cement walls giving colour and inspiration. We made those tiny rooms our homes, after all we would be living here for six weeks.
A typical Clarion day would consist of the following:
9 am –1 pm: Group critiquing in a lecture room at Nathan Campus. During this time we would fortify our sometimes battered egos with copious amounts of coffee and biscuits, before getting back into the serious critiquing of our stories that for most of us were written over a couple of days and tight schedules.
During lunch many of us ended up having round table discussions about all things writing. Afternoons were spent napping, writing, reading, critiquing or having private one-on-one sessions with the tutor. These sessions allowed the students to ask questions about their individual writing styles and how their work could be improved. They were also a good time to discuss publishing markets and agents. For me, listening to the authors’ personal experiences validated my own insecurities as a writer, and encouraged me to keep moving forward.
Evenings were almost always spent critiquing (four stories a day) and writing our own. Invariably we took time out as visitors from other floors popped in, usually around 1 am, to participate in writing exercises, or brainstorming each other’s ideas before getting back to the work at hand. This meant, for many of us, crawling into bed at some ridiculous hour of the morning. This was not unusual, odd or even disturbing. Somehow everything was at it should be.
Clarion coincided with the Summer of Speculative Fiction Festival allowing us to attend author talks and readings at Avid Reader in the West End. As the weeks progressed all 17 of us were invited to read from our own material. I found this a liberating experience and good practice to begin mastering the art of public speaking in a protective and nurturing environment. Other events included workshops and seminars, discussion panels and the Aurealis Awards Ceremony, an opportunity to not only celebrate Australia’s best fantasy, science fiction and horror writing but a great chance to meet and rub shoulders with authors, agents and publishers within the industry.
If I cast my thoughts back to when I was first accepted into Clarion, I remember it crossing my mind, just for a nanosecond, that six weeks was a very long time to live and breathe writing 24/7, but I found that six weeks just wasn’t long enough. By week four I found that I had revved up my writing a notch or two. All the things I was learning each day were beginning to kick in and the cogs were ticking over. And by week six I was in full swing. It showed me that the more we become part of the process the more apt we are at achieving our goals and the more fluid our writing becomes.
A major turning point for my writing process happened when I met Kelly Link. I had always written short fiction free form, ie coming up with an idea or a sentence and running with it, either being pleasantly surprised or horrified by the time I reached the ending. However, several novel workshops and two-and-a-half novels later, I had discovered and learned the necessary art of plot outlining in order to sustain a story over 85,000 words in length. I arrived at Clarion, still very much in the novel process, and Kelly suggested that I try writing free-form again. That was my light bulb moment. That night I hit the keyboard running and produced a story that I found exciting to write if not a little disturbing …
I had forgotten the excitement and freedom that comes with writing freely, without plot or structure. This was reinforced by Margo Lanagan in week five who advised me to write everything from the sublime to the ridiculous. ‘Let it go – be wild, be out there, let loose. It can be cleaned up and pared back later.’ I’m not suggesting everyone should write in this manner but, for me, especially with short fiction, it works very well as it allows me to be open to the writing process.
Both Kelly and Margo had seen something in my writing style that warranted the art of free form. Going by subsequent critiques by my peers, they were spot on. I had positive feedback on how my writing had improved, in style, prose and structure, not to mention my own excitement in finding a new and fresh voice.
By the end of week six I had completed seven short stories, 20,650 words and collectively we had written and critiqued 104 stories (401,062 words). It was time to pack up and go and, for many of us, this was a tough process. Every picture taken down, every book that was put away, was a constant reminder we were leaving and going our separate ways – some of us back to jobs and families and, for almost all of us, solitary writing.
The workshop has ended but our friendships and support have not. A few of us collaborated on stories during Clarion, which was no mean feat considering our workload, while others are collaborating post Clarion via email. Most of us are still active on the yahoo group where we share information on markets and writing opportunities. We are all available to critique stories as fellow Clarionites post them to the files section.
Now it’s time for me to settle back into the routine of my home life. I wander the quiet rooms and hallway of my house at 2 am looking for a fellow Clarionite to brainstorm an idea or to simply just hang with and have a few laughs. I miss the laughter. I miss the energy that is created by 16 other talented writers all sharing the same space and providing a mecca of inspiration.
My life is richer for knowing and sharing this experience with these special people. Among the many things I learned while at Clarion was a very simple but important tip from Rob Hood: ‘Write one sentence per day, every day. This invariably leads to a paragraph, then a page and then you’re on your way to finishing your story.’
My experience at Clarion was an extremely positive one. Being a night owl, I’ve learned to survive on as little as three to four hours sleep but, for others, sleep deprivation can be a very serious problem, particularly if you are not used to it.
My tips for survival at Clarion include the following:
- Connect with your fellow students. Remember you will be living, eating and studying with these people 24/7 for six weeks,
- Prepare for sleep deprivation. You may need to take power naps, meditate, take herbal medication, chamoile tea etc,
- Rest wherever possible, afternoons or evenings whichever suits your body clock the best,
- Prepare your family and friends for possible periods of no contact. It isn’t always that easy to get on the phone and have a chat. Your workload can be tough at times and for some it gets harder rather than easier,
- Be involved and participate. This is a once-in-a-life-time experience that can be either enhanced or jeopardised largley by your attitude toward others,
- Make yourself accessible,
- Look after each other. Six weeks is a long time when you are away from family and loved ones,
- East as healthily as possible. Each floor is equipped with a fully functional kitchen. Make time to prepare healthy food; this will help sustain you and manage your workload,
- Take multi-vitamins,
- Work hard, laugh hard, write a lot and most of all have fun!
More information can be found at: www.clarionsouth.org
Published: WQ July 2007 Issue: 164 WWW.QWC.ASN.AU