It’s ten years since I attended Clarion West.
For those who don’t know it, Clarion West (aka, ‘Literary Boot Camp’) is an intensive, six-week writing workshop held annually in Seattle. Of the scores of applicants, only seventeen students are selected each year to work under the six resident instructors, one per week. Students come from across the nation and even from abroad, and ages vary wildly (my own class ranged from 21 to 50). The experience is exhilarating, the routine brutal.
Each day starts with a 9 a.m. class; after an hour or so of instruction, student stories are critiqued in rotation, three or four each day, with the class ending around 1 p.m. Grab some lunch and back to your room (thankfully, no sharing rooms), and start work.
On top of attending morning classes, each student is expected to write a new story each week, which doesn’t seem too much… except that you also have to read and prepare critiques of three or four of your peers’ stories every day, and these can be long. Get four 9k- or 10k-word stories on a day (it happens), and you have the equivalent of half a novel to read and critique on top of your own writing. Every day. Plus you have to eat sometimes, and of course you spend time whenever you can hanging out or going for a beer with your fellow inmates, all of whom are as sleep-deprived as you. It’s not unusual to find people in the common areas still working at three in the morning.
Happily, Friday nights—following a reading by the resident instructor for that week—are reserved for parties. These are held at the homes of the many Seattle area Science Fiction fans or authors, and, believe me, after a five-day, 80+ hour week, most students are ready to let their hair down. My own class was (I’m told) one of the more spirited and rambunctious ones: we’d go back to the dorms and start our own party and keep going, sometimes going till dawn. In six weeks we managed to set off a fire alarm and get the entire dorms evacuated as well as get visited by the campus police–yeah! Happily, the weekends are free for sleeping, writing, hanging out, writing, sleeping… before it all starts up again on Monday. Week four is known for crackups, and students are advised to arrange a brief conjugal visit around this time.
Clarion West is, as you might expect, a serious bonding experience. Ten years on, I’m still in close contact with perhaps six of our group, three of whom are in my current writers’ group, Written in Blood.
What have I achieved in those ten years? Not nearly as much as I’d have liked. A few short story sales to semi-pro markets and anthologies; a full-length nonfiction work, ‘Aegean Dream’, the bittersweet memoir of the year my wife and I spent living on the tiny Greek island of Skópelos in 2007 (which, nine months after publication, is beginning to sell pretty well). I also edited and published ‘Eight Against Reality’, an anthology of short stories from the Written in Blood group, and three anthologies of original SF & F novellas (the ‘Panverse’ series, One, Two, and Three), which have enjoyed generally favourable reviews, with one story from Panverse Two winning the 2011 Sidewise Award for Alternate History and another from Panverse Three currently on the final ballot for the 2012 Hugo, Nebula, and Sturgeon Awards.
It’s not enough. Barely a beginning.
The last several months I spent writing a novel, a fairly mainstream caper-thriller about two old friends who don’t have the sense to just lie down and slip quietly into the long good night, and decide instead go on a last, insanely dangerous adventure which will most likely cost them their freedom and even their lives. I’m just starting on the rewrite and hope to be shopping it around this summer: working title is ‘Sutherland’s Rules’. Beyond that, another novel, a more fantastical one, is assembling.
Looking back, I see that I’m still integrating a lot of what I learned in those six mindblowing weeks in Seattle. I’m a late bloomer, but I’m far from done. And the rest of the class of 2002? One—Ysabeau Wilce—has written and sold several wonderful and unique novels; another, Doug Sharp, has an absolutely superb novel ready for publication; two or three others have sold a few short stories to pro markets.
Watch this space.
Dedicated to the extraordinary staff and faculty of Clarion West and to the six fantastic instructors of that luminous summer of 2002: Paul Park, Kathleen Alcalá, Pat Cadigan, Gardner Dozois, Joe and Gay Haldeman, and John Crowley.