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Excerpted and adapted from Storyteller: 30 Years of the Clarion Writers' Workshop © 2005 Kate Wilhelm
Published by Small Beer Press, Northampton, MA
176 Prospect Avenue, Northampton, MA 01060

One year Damon and I arrived to teach the last two weeks of the six-week Clarion Writers Workshop with a list of stories we forbade the students to pursue. We explained each item on the list and said don't do it again.

First the Poor Me story. Mother hates me, Father hates me, brother, sister, teachers . . . Also I'm ugly and I can't get laid.

Enough, we said. No one who asks for pity gets it. Save it for your shrink, someone who gets paid to hear your complaints. Reading is a voluntary act and no one wants to hear a litany of whines. A dead-end, go-nowhere story. No more.

Next, the obverse. I'm wonderful. After I slayed the dragon and rescued the damsel, I took on and destroyed the army and taught the inhabitants how to do everything. I solved the problems, found the treasure, was the object of every girl's desire . . .

Enough. Save your adolescent wish-fulfillment fantasies for the shrink. No one likes a braggart.

The Gotcha! story. Ha, ha, you just read three thousand words about a bug, or a cloud, or a rock or some other insensate creature or object. What's the point? To prove how clever you are? A deceived reader rejects story and writer as well. You have to play fair and be honest, or take up politics.

Anecdotes. These are amusing or intriguing little things to mention at a dinner or cocktail party but have no meaning outside of the small incident itself. Although they can be incorporated into a story through a character, they don't substitute for story.

The Fantasy Lover. The lover is a dream image, a succubus or incubus, a spirit, a ghost, someone who is great in bed, or disappears. The Fantasy Lover doesn't wash dishes, leave dirty socks on the floor, go shopping, get headaches, complain . . . More wish fulfillment that goes nowhere. Get a live-in companion and get a life.

Travelog, or What I Did Last Summer. Write an article. Memoirs don't work as short stories unless and until they are fictionalized.

No Problem. But it gets solved! Dick and Jane can't decide between the mountains or the coast for a vacation. They like both. They go to the coast. The Non-Problem is solved. Or the decision involves a pink or blue dress. Or chocolate or vanilla ice cream. Okay, I simplified a little, but the core of the story was a non-problem that was solved.

Drug trips or dreams. Then I woke up. Why bother? Nothing is real here, it's vaporware before there was a name for it. We got more tired of drug trip stories than we could bear, and in the end they were all the same with minor variations.

Fan Fiction. Nothing is more boring than Star Trek done in three thousand words with new names given the characters, or Lord of the Rings, or Star Wars. Save it for a fanzine, for someone who cares. Few editors do, and fewer readers who are not addicted to that particular show or novel. Amateurish and juvenile. No more.

Incomprehensible stories deliberately made so by arcane knowledge and language, obfuscation, or neologisms that are indecipherable. No footnotes are allowed in short fiction, no glossary. No one wants to read a short story that requires a good dictionary or a university degree in one or another of the arts or sciences. If there's no meaning to be found, it's a dead-end, trivial story, regardless of how profound the writer judges it to be.

You must help me! No. No one must help someone else, although people often do. But it is not story material. The helper too often turns out to be an observer, and we want to read about the person directly involved, not someone implored to help, who is then free to go back to whatever she was doing in the first place.

The students sent a delegation of protest. One of the women wailed, "But there's nothing left to write about!" We could commiserate, but not relent. No more finger exercise, typing practice, filling pages just to be doing something. It can be habit forming. You don't want to train yourself to write trivia. Every time a trivial story gets treated seriously you're strengthening the synapse that will feed you another just as trivial. It has to stop here and now. If there's nothing to write about, possibly you've chosen the wrong career.

The students went on strike and did not turn in any stories for the next class. We lectured then sent them away to write. We knew there was always a slump along about the fourth or fifth week when exhaustion had reached a peak. Then stories began to show up again, and they were real stories.

Rules exist for good reasons, and in any art form the beginner must learn them and understand what they are for, then follow them for quite a while. A visual artist, pianist, dancer, fiction writer, all beginning artists are in the same boat here: learn the rules, understand them, follow them. It's called an apprenticeship. A mediocre artist never stops following the rules, slavishly follows guidelines, and seldom rises above mediocrity. An accomplished artist internalizes the rules to the point where they don't have to be consciously considered. After you've put in the time it takes to learn to swim, you never stop to think: now I move my arm, kick, raise my head, breathe. You just do it. The accomplished artist knows what the rules mean, how to use them, dodge them, ignore them altogether, or break them. This may be a wholly unconscious process of assimilation, one never articulated, but it has taken place.

One of Carol Emshwiller's students told me that he asked her if she outlined, made notes, did all the preliminary work he was told to do, and she said, "No. I just plunge in. But you have to."

Exactly. There are rules, and there is technique, and once the rules are understood, and technique mastered, you can do just about anything you want with words and no one will object.

It also happens to every writer I know that sometimes a story is a gift; it arrives in consciousness whole and complete, and demands to be written. It can happen to a beginning writer as well as an old pro. When it happens, yield, write it. The student whose story we praised said that was what happened to him. The story was just there. He was not deliberately setting out to break any rules, or do anything extraordinary; he had been given a gift and used it.

We also pointed out that a story of revelation doesn't generally involve any real plotting. The reader comes to understand something new when the story is finished even if the character and the situation are both unchanged.

The path to a writing career is well developed and generally familiar. You write your story, correct it to the best of your ability, put it in the mail, and then spend far too many hours watching for the mailman, fully expecting a check, or a contract. Months pass, six, ten, eighteen, and one day the envelope comes back with a simple rejection slip enclosed. You have no idea why your story was turned down. Editors are not teachers for new writers. Few of them have time to become mentors. They have magazines to put out month after month, and there are enough writers who have learned their craft to fill the slots. Slush piles often are measured by feet, by yards, a year's supply of unsolicited stories piled up to be considered.

What a workshop like Clarion does, and is meant to do, is make that turn-around time a matter of a day or two instead of a matter of many months. Most stories are still rejected by the professionals, but they explain why and when possible offer suggestions about how to fix them.

These beginning writers need more than just encouragement in the form of pats and praise. Many of them have been writing and submitting stories for years without any tangible encouragement from beyond their own circle of admirers. They need to know why they are not succeeding. A workshop like Clarion is where they can find out. It is hard and it is demanding, and for those who understand and accept what it can do, it is a shortcut, often of many years.

They can get pats and praises from their mothers, lovers, spouses, and what they can get at Clarion are honest evaluations of their work from professionals who know what is publishable and what isn't most of the time, and who can offer advice that the home folk are not trained to give. So, yes, it is hard and demanding. No one ever said it would be easy.