This essay first appeared in Ecdysis Issue #4, Fall 2014.
Invitation to the Clarion Game
The Internet and print abound by now with reports and diaries processing the experience that is the Clarion Science Fiction Writers’ Workshop. Before I departed for San Diego this summer, I spent a great deal of time that may have been better spent on my graduate studies reading them, trying to see between the lines, and trying to guess what the experience would be like for me.
I was at Clarion 2014 as an emphatic Canadian, adding diversity to a group that also included writers from Australia, Bulgaria, Finland, New Zealand, the Philippines, and Spain. And as a Canadian I will use the structure of another Canadian SF writer’s masterwork to tell my story. For Clarion reminded me most of that classic I read in grade six, Monica Hughes’ 1990 novel Invitation to the Game (now republished as The Game by Simon & Schuster Teen).
Hughes’ book was strangely prescient to the generation of today: a group of talented young people, coming from good schools, yet finding that they cannot get satisfactory jobs, find rumours on the street of a mysterious Game. That offers hope and change and magic.
And one day in March, their own invitation comes: “We are pleased to invite you to the 2014 Clarion Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers’ Workshop…”
Actually, theirs said something different. But without hesitation, we said yes, and in three months, we entered the virtual reality that is the Game, and found ourselves in the middle of a beautiful desert, each with our own talent to bring, having to help each other in order to win.
The players in Hughes’ novel included a man with a perfect memory, a den mother and painter, a historian, a martial arts expert, a chemist, a woodworker, a doctor and a farmer. Likewise, we had writers who could spin a metaphor that takes your breath away; writers whose characters you long to just call up for a coffee date that turns into an entire evening; writers who sent us rolling on the dorm floor with laughter, writers whose horror gave us nightmares, writers whose tragedy made us weep into the cafeteria breakfast, and writers who made us ponder for months afterward. All of my classmates, without question, deserved to be invited to this Game. Many already had publication credits; a few had even gotten honourable mentions and reprint invites in prestigious anthologies. Others, like me, had never sold a story before, and some of them you just want to shake and ask why the heck not?
But creating a story that is publishable is different from creating one that is amazing. And there are many things that can go wrong on a first draft, on a draft that at times was submitted in the evening or at night, and many signs of struggle and frustration. We grew proficient at seeking out all the ways things can go astray in each other’s stories, from underdeveloped characters to logic flaws, to someone with expertise in law, science, languages, computers, acrobatics speaking up as to why this premise would not work.
The Game is difficult. The Game is punishing. The Game throws us off a cliff and only afterwards reminds us that this is all fiction, a virtual world, that rationally we should not let any of this affect us so much, but of course we do.
Which is why we had the advantage over the players in Monica Hughes’ novel — we had mentors.
And oh, what mentors they were. Four — Gregory Frost, Geoff Ryman, and Ann and Jeff VanderMeer — had taught at Clarion before (Greg and Jeff were themselves alumni) and had seen a hundred ways before that a story could go awry, that a heart could break, and could suggest ways to fix it. Catherynne Valente and Nora (N. K.) Jemisin were new to Clarion instruction, but left us incredibly grateful that they were invited.
Cat held us to exacting standards of word choice (explicitly forbidding certain overused words that week, to the point where a writer had to use “vascular organ” instead of “heart”), character motivation, thematic archetype use, and most of all, drive. Why did we feel we were the ones to tell this story? Why now? And don’t you dare write a word without passion behind it.
And Nora, with her kindness and wisdom and most of all empathy, was the ideal person to lead us through the exhaustion and breakdown and tears that almost inevitably occur in Week Four. In the Game, when you are injured and likely to die, the gamesmasters whisk you back — until they do not any more. In Clarion, although no one got injured beyond a cut thumb while cooking or a bad leg cramp, and catching the next flight out of San Diego was technically an option, we all knew that this was an option we won’t take, no matter how badly bruised our egos were.
I came to Clarion prepared to be unimpressed, wondering what it could teach me beyond the books on the writing craft and, in the end, the usual writing advice I heard from the late Pierre Berton: “read, read, read, write, write, write, rewrite, rewrite, rewrite.”
Well, in the end all writing success does come down to that. But what shortens the process, for a new writer, is getting feedback on his or her own particular developing voice. Books on craft would tell you how to fix craft issues that the book writer had struggled with, while your issues may be entirely different, and that, only interactive feedback from other living and literate humans can tell you.
For example, a lot of revision advice tells you to cut, cut, cut down on the assumption that first-draft stories are like rough marble, for which you need the blue-pencil chisel to remove everything unneeded. So when I turned in stories over 5000 words, I expected to hear where I could cut them down. Instead, to my astonishment, I kept hearing: “You need to expand this”; “We want more detail”; “This can probably be a novel”; “Let the story breathe…”
Some writers are indeed sculptors, their first drafts like roughed-out marble, the polish happening in the removal of needless words. But some writers are painters, their first drafts pencil drawings of what happened, waiting for the revision to add all the background and all the colour. They keep wondering why they can’t apply this blue-pencil chisel everyone seems to be using, without ending up with shreds. Because it’s the wrong tool for the job.
(The job of a good editor is to never let the readers know what kind of first-drafter the writer was.)
That was what Clarion teaches you, rapidly: your own weaknesses, as well as your own strengths, as well as what works fastest for you under pressure. These are things that are hard to learn by yourself, things that are hard to simulate. You learn to re-evaluate your assumptions. You learn that there is more than one way to write a good story, and your own acquired values may be working against your own strengths.
My background is in math, logic and analytic philosophy of language, fields that take pride in making things equally clear for every reader (ironic as that may seem to those who find the notation impenetrable, but the notation exists for a reason). If one reader disagrees with another on what a proof says, it’s the writer’s fault. Even at Clarion, I joked that I hated vagueness and ambiguity.
In Week Four, I wrote and submitted a story, based on an idea and several paragraphs that I had written a few weeks before. I felt I had to write an ending that explained everything in the story, even as I cursed and struggled with that ending all weekend because I had to cram it in and whack it with a hammer to make it fit into a short story.
Every single person in the workshop hated the ending, as did I. Then came Nora Jemisin’s turn, and she agreed that the ending was flawed, but she saw an easy solution.
“Just cut it.” Leave it ambiguous. Not everything has to be explained and solved and revealed. Clarity sometimes makes things worse.
In Week Five, for one-on-one conference with Ann and Jeff VanderMeer, I sent them my Week Four story with the ending cut off, asking for any further advice to improve it.
And that was how I ended up among the four Clarion 2014 writers (with Haralambi Markov, Nino Cipri and Noah Keller) whose stories Ann VanderMeer bought for Tor.com.
Mine has ambiguity in it.
The Library, and the Players Who Came Before
In Invitation to the Game, the protagonists, looking for ways to survive in their urban environment, discover a library. As did we, the great neo-Brutalist Geisel Library (named after Dr. Seuss), used as a spaceship in several science-fiction movies, led to by a path in the shape of a winding, scaly snake. They do say serpents are a symbol of wisdom.
“It was a dusty place, with shelves of pre-electronic books, yellowed and mouse-nibbled…” But “once I got used to the oddness of moving my eye down and turning the page at the bottom, I found I enjoyed reading for its own sake.”
Unlike some of the other Clarionauts, I didn’t use the general resources of the library for story research. But we were all fascinated by the Clarion Archive. Every story that has been critiqued at Clarion (well, almost) has been carefully filed into boxes by year, that we could request to read. On paper only, the early stories with errata hammered over by typewriter, some of it yellowed if not mouse-nibbled. Photocopying or photography is not allowed, and our Clarion alumni instructors joked that they were glad of this, that those were the only copies remaining of their early efforts.
Of course, we had to request the years with authors that would go on to fame: Kim Stanley Robinson, Gregory Frost, Cory Doctorow, Jeff VanderMeer, Nalo Hopkinson, Kelly Link, Lucius Shepard, Ted Chiang…
It was heartening for many of us to read the early stories, showing talent but also raw and flawed, and know that these authors, too, didn’t spring whole like Athena from the brow of Zeus, that they also struggled with first drafts.
Unless of course, they were Kelly Link, whose story “The Specialist’s Hat” would go on to be a classic of the Weird, and would win the World Fantasy Award, and I really don’t know how she possibly thought of it. And having read the draft in the Clarion Archive, I still don’t know, because the draft of “The Specialist’s Hat” submitted to Clarion matches the published version almost word for word. If I get a time machine, one of my priorities would be scooting back to 1995 and watching that story get critiqued.
But I went to the Clarion Archive with one big question:
How many stories did the notoriously slow producer Ted Chiang write at the notoriously rapid pressure cooker of Clarion?
And I did find my answer, which is “one and a half.” (One story written solo, and one co-written with a classmate who has not gone on to a science fiction career.)
There are many, many writers in the Clarion Archive who do not get read because they did not go on to a science fiction career.
Whatever the Game was, we were totally committed to it. We breathed, we talked the Game. …We had left school plump, pale, and more or less unmotivated. Now we were lean and keen. The Game had become our life. Everything we did sprang from some need of the Game.
And in the end, the Game becomes real. The players have moved from our world into the world of the Game, and may never go back.
We Clarionauts went back to the real world, to jobs and loved ones and people who have no idea what science fiction stories even are. But the world has changed, or at least we have, having had the taste of breathing the life of a science fiction writer for every hour of six weeks. We cannot help but read critically, re-reading a beloved classic by Monica Hughes and noticing that the plot structure can be tightened, that the characters are underdeveloped, that an antagonist appears in the first third and then never surfaces again. It is an issue Gregory Frost warned us about, of approaching every story from the fundamental assumption it is broken. Recalibrating to seek out the good parts is a struggle. For many people, just writing again is a struggle for the first while.
But we have a team to cheer us on when we do, and that is the true, lifelong gain of Clarion. Our classmates and our instructors, held together by social media for exchanging jokes and critiques, are there for us.
We do end the Game on a different world. The Prize, as the players called it in the novel. Because Week Seven of Clarion lasts forever.
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