I had the great privilege of attending the Clarion Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers’ Workshop at the University of California at San Diego this summer. The eighteen students spent the six-week-long workshop writing stories and critiquing them.
Critiquing is at the heart of the Clarion method and the Clarion philosophy, which is that you become a better writer by reading and critiquing the stories of others.
Each morning, for four hours, we critiqued three or four stories written at the workshop. Each student was allowed to speak about each story for as long as three minutes. Afterward, the instructor of the week spoke as long as he or she wanted to, and then the story’s author responded to the critiques.
In the afternoon, we met one-on-one with the instructor, worked on our next story (most people wrote one per week), socialized with other students, went to the nearby cliffs (at right) or ocean to decompress, or napped.
In the late afternoon, we received the stories to be critiqued for the next day. We were often up till the early hours of the morning critiquing because evenings frequently included a talk by the instructor of the week, a trip to a restaurant, a field trip to Mysterious Galaxy (a San Diego bookstore, also online, that specializes in speculative fiction and mysteries) for author talks and shopping, or a wait for stories turned in late.
Did critiquing help me become a better writer? Yes. I learned to look at stories with an eye not to whether they were good, but to how they could be better. I saw mistakes people made and tried to figure out how they could be avoided or fixed. I learned new questions to ask when evaluating stories, whether mine or others: What did this story need to do to succeed? Did the story do that? Could the story accomplish its goals in a more effective way? I saw the risks other students took in their writing and realized I needed to take more risks myself and try new things.
The pressure-cooker atmosphere had pluses and minuses. On the one hand, many people were surprised to learn how quickly they could write a half-decent story when they had to. Everyone produced in a brief time stories they may be able to sell later. On the other hand, sleep deprivation and short deadlines meant that no one wrote the best stories they could, and the critiquing as a result sometimes focused on problems the writer already knew existed but hadn't had time to fix.
Contrary to the Clarion philosophy, I learned more from being critiqued than critiquing. It would seem almost impossible not to. When eighteen brilliant people study your stories and tell you what works, what doesn’t, and why, you learn a lot about your strengths and weaknesses, and you learn it quickly.
Although not everyone can go to Clarion, everyone can learn something from its approach. No matter what your avocation of choice—writing, playing music, dancing, gardening, cooking—you can improve by studying the work of people who do it well, getting feedback on your own work, and trying new things.
I’ll be blogging on Novel Spaces again on 7 September, when I’ll talk about what spec fic writers mean by “worldbuilding” and why it's important. I look forward to seeing you again then!