By Cheryl Morgan
The Clarion writersí workshop has been much in the news of late, so this is perhaps an ideal time to learn more about what goes on at such events. And who better to tell that story than Kate Wilhelm. Along with her late husband, Damon Knight, Wilhelm can be counted one of the main founders of Clarion, and therefore one of the originators of the Clarion Method.
Her new book, Storyteller, published by Small Beer Press, sets out to do two things. Firstly it is a personal history of the workshops. In addition the book attempts to set out some of the advice that Wilhelm gave to her pupils. I suspect that the two strands of the book will have rather different audiences. Wilhelmís tales of life at Clarion did little for me besides convincing me that there is no way that Iíd ever want to attend a workshop. Having your writing constructively torn to shreds is one thing. Mandatory water pistol fights and ball games is quite another. At times Wilhelm made it sound like Clarion was a definite Lord of the Flies experience. Still, she does provide the occasional amusing glimpse of well-known writers:
Lucius Shepard, a mobile disaster zone; in his presence, things broke, items fell down, drinks spilled. He needed Clarion the way a bulimia victim needs a girdle.
The material on writing techniques, however, I found very interesting. Not that I am planning to inflict my fiction on you. That would certainly class as cruel and unusual punishment. But Iím well aware that many people feel that I have no right to comment on fiction because Iím not a writer myself. Well, equally I can barely get a cricket ball from one end of the wicket to another, but I can still study what Shane Warne does, how he does it, and why he is a genius. So I want to learn more about how writers do what they do.
Some of Wilhelmís advice to students is pretty restrictive. For example, she insists that there should be no colorful language, even such common formulations as, "íStop thatí, he growled". Apparently only dogs growl, men donít. Equally every element of the story should be spelled out clearly, you should never leave your readers wondering what is going on, or confused about the gender of one of your characters, and you should never start a story in the middle of the action.
Wilhelmís justification for this is that the students have to learn to write simple stories well before they can be allowed to break the rules. Sheís probably right. Remember also that the rules for short stories can be very different than those for novels where there is much more space in which to explain yourself, and Clarion is specifically about writing short fiction. It is also true that following Wilhelmís rules will help you sell to the bigger publishers who market to a larger and less sophisticated audience. Still, it must be frustrating for a young writer to be forbidden many of the classic tools of speculative fiction. And I canít help but imagine what would happen if Wilhelm found herself faced with a class composed of China Miéville, Gwyneth Jones and Gene Wolfe.
Judging from some of the anecdotes she told, some of the students clearly didnít have much of a clue (about grammar, let alone about telling a story). But others were much better and have since gone on to become famous. So Wilhelm was not above setting them interesting challenges at times. I particularly like this exercise:
Try writing a page or two of dialogue with your characters without any attributions. No he said or she said, no names given, only the dialog. Their speech patterns should vary enough to distinguish who is speaking, and speech should never sound like the narrative.
Thatís hard, and I can imagine many published writers struggling with it. Some are brilliant at it; L.E. Modesitt even makes a joke out of it in The Eternity Artifact. But in many books I have read all of the characters have the same speech patterns.
In addition, Wilhlem has many wise words of advice. Iíd like to leave you with just two important lessons.
Donít expect to make a living writing for a long time, if ever. Many successful writers donít make a real living from it after many, many years. Some successful writers never make a living writing fiction.
And, of courseÖ
Donít let a bad review get you down, or a good one go to your head. In the end, neither means a lot as long as they spell your name right.
If you are a budding writer, please spend $16 on this book before raising the money needed to attend Clarion. Youíll get much more out of the workshop if you do.