Archive for the ‘Clarion South’ Category

A great article by Aidan “Add More Monkeys” Doyle, one of my fellow Clarionites from the 09 rendition of Clarion South.



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An interview on Tor.com by the excellent Matt Staggs with Clarion South Convenors and general powerhouses, Kate Eltham and Rob Hoge.


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The Clarion workshops, held in the US and Australia, are intensive 6-week spec fic writing bootcamps.  Below is a message from Kate Eltham, one of the organisers of the workshop. If you think you might want to write for publication some day, and maybe even dream of attending Clarion yourself … please help if you can.

Due to a run of really bad luck, Clarion South Writers Workshop has hit some rocky financial times (not unlike the rest of the world!) For the month of March, we are running a fundraising appeal to help set us straight again and ensure future workshops continue. We hope to get to $4000 by 31 March 2009.

There are a few ways you can help…

1. Donate to our Fundraising Appeal Simply go to http://www.clarionsouth.org/donate.htm to make a PayPal donation directly to Clarion South. If Paypal is not your thing, you can also send cheques to Fantastic Queensland Inc. (our non-profit auspicing body), PO Box 1394 Toowong QLD 4066 AUSTRALIA, or direct deposit to: Bendigo Bank | Fantastic Queensland Inc. | BSB: 633-000 | Account Number: 125291708 We really do appreciate even tiny donations, and if you are not in a position to give, that is perfectly okay. We know it’s grim out there for everyone right now.

2. Spread the word Even if you can’t donate to the Appeal we would love your support to spread the word about our fundraising drive. By the end of March we are hoping to raise $4,000 for Clarion South. If you know any friends who are sympathetic to the aims and activities of Clarion South, please let them know – via Facebook, MySpace, your blog or any other means. We’ll have a Facebook group up shortly, but in the meantime, please feel free to direct people to our website at http://www.clarionsouth.org And if you’re just wondering what the heck Clarion South even is, meander on over to our website at http://www.clarionsouth.org

Thank you in advance for your love and support. We’re incredibly passionate about Clarion South and would like to see it thrive and continue into the future. Your contribution can help make this a reality. Don’t hesitate to email Kate Eltham if you have any questions: keltham@fastmail.fm

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One of my problems in the beginning of Clarion (and, some might say, in the middle and at the end), was having novel-brain. Now one might think that any kind of writer-brain enables you to write … not always. There is a very big difference between novel-brain and short story-brain. It took me three weeks to remember what it was.

You see, I’d spent my eight weeks in the lead-up to being embedded at Clarion trying to finish a first draft of the Crusades novel. This involved learning the art of novel-brain, which on the most basic level (if you are a passably accomplished short story writer), is planning a lot and adding more in. Layers are required, like an onion or a parfait. So, I had spent MONTHS learning to layer so that my novel didn’t (oh, sweet mother of crap, I hope) read like a flimsy piece of tinsel, as insubstantial and likely to blow away in the breeze as a Dr Who set circa 1972.

And then I went to Clarion and found I had forgotten how to write short stories. My short story-brain had deserted me and gone to lie on a beach in the Bahamas. It spent its time sipping on a drink that was bright pink in colour, with at least three of those tiny umbrellas in it. This, needless to say, left me in something of a pickle. My short stories had too long a lead-up – I mean, Appian Way kind of lead-up. There was too much telling and not enough showing; too much passive and not enough active. In short, as short stories, they both sucked and blew. As chapters of novels, they may well have sucked and blown far less – but I wasn’t writing novels, was I?

It took me three weeks. Sean Williams in weeks one and two gently tried to prod me in the right direction. Hell, I even came up with the Three C’s for him. A short story is about crisis, choice and consequence. Good, innit? Do you think I could put it into effect? Nah. We had a chat about how the short story is about avoiding the ‘brown’ – the brown being the extraneous ‘stuff’ – and that the short story is all about the ‘gold’, the highlights, the facets of the story that make it shine.

In week three, Margo Lanagan gave me a pitying look. She said “You know how to do this, Angela”. And she was right … that’s when I thought out my next handy hint: the short story begins just before, in the middle of, or just after the crisis.

So, then I wrote The Navigator for Jack Dann’s week four – which seemed to do all of those things right. Jack read it and said if he was buying stories, he would have bought that one. Yay.

The short story is about Impressionism; the novel is a Renaissance painting in which you see every brush stroke. In the novel, the brown is okay – it is the workman-like fiction that carries the narrative along and it also carries the golden boats that are your brilliant ideas. The short story must be light, you’re showing a slice of something; there’s no room for brown.

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The following is cobbled together from several of my Clarion-embedded posts on LJ. It’s funny to look back on them three weeks out – and it’s always nice to be able to strip away the weeping/wailing component that inevitably went with the intensity of being ‘in-country’. 

On learning to crit:
In week 2, one of my fellow Clarionites asked how I had learned to crit. Basically, it was a combo of:
(a) the short story class at uni;
(b) having the good fortune to go to the Tin House Summer Writers Workshop in 2006 (http://www.tinhouse.com/workshop/index.htm )  and be taught by the jaw-droppingly amazing Aimee Bender (
http://www.flammableskirt.com/). One of the most valuable things I took away from the Tin House experience was, I hope, to be respectful of people’s work;
(c) teaching first years at uni (marking creative writing assignments means you see the same problems over and over – so you recognise them!);
(d) indulging in a metric butt-load of practice, reading and writing.
In the first short story tutorial I attended as a student I noted down ‘Things to look for’ when critting a story. This is that list:
1. Characterisation
2. Plot
3. Setting
4. Dialogue
5. Description
6. Correct grammar, spelling and word usage (repetition of words and phrases?)
7. Info-dumps
8. Point of view
9. Voice/tone

As time went along, I added a few things like: is it a cool new idea or is there originality in the use of an old idea? Is there consistency of story/world? Is the story believable because the author has shown authority in the writing (if the story doesn’t make me suspend my disbelief, then why not?)? Is there a rhythm/cadence to the writing? And does the writer really know who or what the story is about? Do they know the world they have created?

These are things I am now so used to – the stuff that runs like a program in the background – that it was a bit of a brain-shock to have to express it for someone else. It was, however, useful because it made me examine what I did and reacquaint myself with First Principles.

On Giving a Crit:
The crit is about working out what is right with a story and balancing that by figuring out what is not working. When I give a crit/feedback, I guess the foremost thought in my head is “What can I say that is the most useful to this writer? What will help her/him polish their story so it’s publishable?” 

In a Clarion crit-pit, where you go around the table intoning “Ditto” or “Anti-ditto” to others’ crit, no one needs to hear repeated what everyone else is saying. So you need to say only what is new and useful to the story and the writer. The other Big Thing to remember about the crit is that’s not about the critter or the crittee[1]; the crit is about the story. End of discussion. The point of the crit is not to scar someone so badly that they never want to write again; it’s not about making someone think “OMG, I just wasted my life’s word count! I just wasted ink and killed a tree for nothing! Nothing!!”

By Clarion week 3, critting got a lot harder – everyone’s work improved, but some people had just done the leaps and bounds thing so well that you had to wonder if they’ve been taken over by writing cyborgs. You had less technical stuff to crit, such as spelling, grammar and formatting (although comma placement remained a bone of contention), so you started to look at story extra hard …

The nature of the crit means it is a minefield, no matter how experienced critter and crittee may be. The critical line to be aware of is this one: at what point am I trying to improve the story and at what juncture am I slipping over into “Well, this is how the story would look if I wrote it”??? Note: it’s not your freaking story. The point is to make that story – which belongs to someone else – the best thing it can be in and of itself. Keep the vision of the writer in your head – not what your vision might be. A writer is like Michelangelo letting the David out of that block of marble – other artists had tried and failed to work on that particular block for years. Why? Because they were trying to impose a shape on it rather than letting the thing be what it needed to be. So, don’t try to impose your shape on a story that isn’t your own. What is the writer’s intent? What’s the best way to help him or her get to that final product? Offer suggestions, not orders.

If you don’t like something, then why don’t you like it? Acknowledge your biases. Just because science fiction isn’t your bag, baby, doesn’t mean that the story is inherently bad.

On taking the crit:

It’s easy to say “I can take constructive criticism!” It’s another thing entirely to get your story critted and feel as if you have poignards sticking in your heart. Some days it feels as if your skin’s been peeled off then handed to you with a cheerful “There ya go! Doesn’t that feel better? Nothing like a good flensing.” In about week 3, I heard a couple of my fellow Clarionites saying “Angela has nerves of steel” in hushed tones. Well, no. But I knew the crit wasn’t about me; and I knew the crit was about improving the story. I also knew there was a lot of choclit in the fridge and that I could eat comfort food until I felt sick or passed out on the couch in a choclit-coma.

One of the after-effects of Clarion is that, back in The Real World™, you sit down to write and find you’ve got not only your 16 fellow students in your head, but also your tutors. There’s a party happening, the Jameson Irish Whisky is flowing, someone’s made a choclit pavlova, but you can’t enjoy any of it. Your writing brain is not your own; you’ve been possessed; an exorcism is required. In the end I found the only method that worked was just sitting down at the desk, writing and yelling “Shut up, you’re so annoying!” in the tone of King Julian from Madagascar. Go figure. This may not work for everyone.

The other thing to keep in the fore-brain: you don’t have to listen to everyone (that way madness lies). You don’t have to listen to anyone at all. It’s about cherry-picking the useful and discarding the dross (i.e. the stuff that smacks of someone re-writing your story to their vision[2]). If the majority of critters say the same thing, then maybe it’s worth considering trying something they’ve suggested. Yes, it may well suck, but TRYING is the way to learn and explore. We only improve our craft by constant engagement with it.

You can refuse to change anything at all. Maybe you will get published and be celebrated as a cutting-edge-genius-writer-type; and you can transmit a range of contempt via the medium of “Nahnah-nah-nahnah”. Then again, maybe you won’t be published and you’ll spend your time sopping your soul with “Nobody understands what a genius I am.”

Fine. There are plenty of unknown geniuses out there. Do you really want to be one?

In summary:
The crit is about the story not the writer – if anyone mentions your shoes, however, then it’s definitely about the writer and you should feel free to react accordingly.

If the story genuinely isn’t working it doesn’t mean the words are wasted. Maybe it just means you haven’t got them in the right order yet. Or you’ve actually attached them to the wrong story. Maybe your storylines are crossed and you need to start unpicking them like crazy spaghetti. The crit is about helping a story be the best it can be. The crit is about flensing, autopsying, rebuilding from various body parts. The crit is about resurrection.

All writers are Dr Frankenstein.


[1] It’s only about the writer to the extent that s/he can learn from it (if willing).


[2] Note: someone correcting your bad spelling, grammar and formatting doesn’t count as ‘imposing’.



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(This is long – go get a coffee, maybe a biscuit … off you go, I’ll wait … )

And so, it is now almost two weeks since seventeen Clarion South 2009 alums left our luxurious digs at Kelvin Grove and returned to our everyday lives only to find that we no longer fitted in them. To varying degrees I think this was true for everyone of us; personally, it’s only this week that I’ve been able to start re-moulding my life to fit around the new shape I took on after six weeks of CS09. It’s also the first week I haven’t sat in a corner and cried because I miss my fellows and because for six weeks I got to be a fulltime writer. But let me start at the beginning, which is a very good place to start …

I had actually been selected for the CS07 round, but due to a variety of circumstances I couldn’t go that year. So, I had to wait two years and then re-apply and hope, pray, and fear that I might get in again. I got in again – like most people who fiercely pursue something when I got it I had a moment of ‘Oh. Right. Crap. Now what do I do with it?’ A bit like a dog that actually catches the car it’s been chasing. Whoops.

The pre-Clarion dreams started about a month to six weeks beforehand. A cast of dozens lined up in my nightmares to tell me I wasn’t good enough. Who did I think I was? Did I think I was special? More than once I woke up in a damp sweat, thinking ‘What have I done?’

My office closed down for Christmas on 18th December, so I was left with just on two weeks to spend time with family (which I did), try to get the first draft of my Crusades novel finished (which I almost did), and to try to calm down about the oncoming storm (which I didn’t). The 4th of January dawned then limped around for a bit while I packed things I thought I would probably need (in retrospect: fewer pairs of shoes, more books would have been better). In the afternoon my friend Peter Ball (CS07 alum) arrived to drive me over to the Kelvin Grove campus of QUT. In the car, I noticed he was wearing a unicorn t-shirt of questionable … design, shall we say? The conversation that followed went along the lines of Me: ‘Oh my God. Your t-shirt. Not that t-shirt.’ Peter: ‘I figured today was the only day you’d be so distracted you wouldn’t notice it until it was too late.’ Peter is a smart man.


We arrived. Peter noted that the KG campus of QUT was considerably more civilised than the campus of Griffith Uni, where he (and previous other CS cycles) had been hosted. I believe the words ‘But … but … but you have civilisation. There’s a supermarket. There’s a Subway!’ When I pointed out there was also a sushi train, a bottle shop and a deli, there was some muttering and there may also have been profanity. Anyway, he re-grouped in the face of my ‘soft’ Clarion digs and left me to unpack, he and the offending t-shirt riding off into the sunset.

In apartment 347, I met my roomies: Alex, Steve T and lovely Lisa Bennett (with whom I’d shared a ToC in Canterbury 2100, and with whom I’d been LJing and emailing for a few months). Within about 10 minutes we worked out we’d been separated at birth and each held the other half of the brain neither of us realised had been missing. Needless to say Alex and Steve bought earplugs.


We all wandered down for our official welcome and eyed off our fellow students. Most of them looked relatively normal (you know who you are) J. Then the important business of getting to know each other began. These were to be our companions for six weeks – killing and eating each other was not an option, so we had to learn to get along. Luckily, we all seemed mature enough to realise this and so we proceeded from there.


We had changes to the program – we seem to have been the year that broke the tutors: Marianne de Pierres, Kelly Link and Gavin Grant all, due to circumstances totally beyond their control, were unable to come to Clarion. While we missed them, we were incredibly lucky that the Clarion Convenors (Kate Eltham, Rob Hoge, Rob Dobson and Heather Gammage) were both (a) determined and (b) highly capable of getting us replacements who not only rocked, but also never felt like “replacements”. Everyone fitted right in as if they were meant to be there. Each of our tutors was the bearer of gifts; they all gave more than anyone had a right or inclination to expect. The great thing about such a variety of tutors was that if a student didn’t connect so much with one tutor it didn’t matter – because they invariably connected with most of the others.


And so, the week by week account:

Weeks 1 and Two: Sean Williams (aka Good Sean and Evil Sean)

Sean bears the distinction of being known as the nicest man in Australian spec-fic* and the most productive man in Australian spec-fic. Because we had him for two weeks instead of one, he created a week 2 persona ‘Evil Sean’, who was pretty much indistinguishable from ‘Good Sean’ except that he seemed to have grown a small demonic goatee. Both of them gave out Haig’s chocolate frogs during their one-on-one consults with students and made tea or coffee as requested. As well as giving us the benefit of his considerable experience as a successful working writer, Sean was instrumental in creating the culture of our class. He showed that it was important to be respectful even when disagreeing with someone or critiquing their work, and that was a value that carried through with us for the whole six weeks. There was always respect (insert Ali G impersonation here).

*only if Trent Jamieson isn’t in the room.


Week 3: Margo Lanagan (Australian Legend – no pressure)

Margo’s reputation arrived well ahead of her – we all knew who she was and what she’d achieved with her writing. And some of us were more scared than others. I was terrified. Sure, we’d shared a ToC in Dreaming Again, but man! She’s MARGO LANAGAN. Surely she was both talented and evil. Well, she was talented, mildly evil in a good way and wonderfully wicked. Some of our favourite quotes came from Margo, including: ‘Smells like nuns to me’ and ‘I love a good pile of bodies’. We learned from her ever-shifting list of banned words (and promptly used many of them the week after she was gone J). And we got to hear her reading from her new novel Tender Morsels, which was a treat.


Week 4: Jack Dann (Our Rebel in loafers)

By the time Jack got hold of us we were … tired, but still well-behaved, and possibly settling into a rut of being too nice to each other in the crit-pit. Jack kept us back later and later in class until we learned how to crit properly. The problem with week 4 is that you all like each other. You know what to expect from each other. You don’t want to hurt feelings and you get a bit soft. We all did that. Jack kicked our asses. He was precisely what we needed. Couple that with his enormous experience as both a successful writer and one of the most commercially savvy editors in the business, we got the kick we needed to get us over the week 4 hump. Plus he is adorable and has more energy than the entire class combined. And we got to hear him read from his new work-in-progress, which was a privilege for starting-out writers, to see how the master does it.


Week 5: Trent Jamieson (The Actual Nicest Man in Australian Spec-fic)

Ah, Trent the Terrific. Trent stepped into the first week breach left by Team Kelly and Gavin and he was fabulous. He is genuinely the nicest man in spec-fic anywhere on the planet – I believe the only time he’s ever gotten into a fight was with, well, Sean Williams when they both stood aside for two hours each insisting that the other be first to enter the room. Trent has a great perspective on what can make a good story great – he looks at things just a little differently and makes suggestions that seem a little crazy, but invariably, you realise he’s right, dammit. He has a tremendous feel for and sense of what a story can be. And he won his second Aurealis Award this year. He rocks.


Week 6: Team VanderMeer (Jeff and Ann VanderMeer)

Even though Jeff was the only corporeal manifestation of Team VanderMeer, Ann was very much in evidence, having read everyone’s stories and offering comments and advice via the magic of T’internets and occasionally by being channelled through Jeff. Not only were there story crits, there was advice about how to move forward after Clarion and that was something that hadn’t occurred to most of us as something we’d need (we’re a bit thick like that). You need to keep in mind that by week 6, even those of us who’d maintained a fairly well-controlled schedule (i.e. myself and Brain Lisa) had drifted into sleep-deprivation and begun to regard choclit and coffee as the two major food groups (pavlova was the third). This resulted in, well, sock puppets on Jeff’s first day in the crit-pit with us – seventeen slightly wild-eyed adults with sock puppets at the ends of at least one of their arms. Poor man had handed in his latest book, gotten on a plane, flown to the ass-end of the world, had a little nap, and then fronted a bunch of feral students, whose vocabularies had been reduced to ‘ditto’, ‘anti-ditto’ and not a few creatively combined profanities. To give him credit, he didn’t bat an eyelid (it may have been the jetlag or the shorting out of every brain synapse in his possession); to give us our due, we handmade those sock puppets. Jeff and Ann’s professionalism and generosity were wonderful and deeply appreciated. Team VanderMeer was everything we didn’t know we needed.


Well, class, we will continue with this in Part Two, which will appear when I write it. I’ll cover things such as the daily routine, lessons learned, how to fit back into civilian life, and exactly how much Jameson’s Irish Whisky will lead to sock puppets.

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