Be A Better Writer (pt. 1 – Workshops)

While I’ve been trying to write full time for only about a year and a half now, it is something I’ve been dreaming about and working toward for most of my adult life. I’ve read how-to books and memoirs, followed blogs and podcasts, and researched workshops and programs. All in the hopes of improving my writing skills and instincts.

Parsing through all of this, in the end, there are 3 surefire steps to becoming a better writer:

  1. Read constantly
  2. Write constantly
  3. Repeat unto death

But, like any music teacher can tell you, while practice is essential for improvement, practice without guidance can ingrain bad habits and hinder true progress. Step 1 is meant in large part to be that guidance. When you see how it is done well, and can really appreciate it and dissect it, you can see how to do it yourself. That’s the staff that shows where the Ark of the Covenant is buried. It’s the knight’s broken shield telling how to get to the Holy Grail. And when you see it done poorly, those are the giant rolling boulders and spinning head-level scythes you need to avoid at all costs.

Step 2 above is the practice part. It’s hours and weeks and years of getting beaten by crummy French archaeologists and Nazi goons before you make it to your destination, stronger and better trained for all your troubles.

But there are other forms of guidance too: the books and workshops and so on mentioned above.

So let’s talk about workshops.

I was describing these to a friend* recently, and when they heard my pitch, they said, “Oh, it’s like sleep-away camp for writers!” You show up, check in to wherever it’s held, and then spend your days writing, reading and critiquing the writing of the other students, attending lectures on the basics of writing genre fiction, and having one-on-one meetings and critiques with the instructors. You live and work and chat and talk shop side by side with your fellow students, and at some of the workshops, successful professional authors and editors as well. You come out the other end with a much deeper understanding of the craft, the field, the genre, and the life of genre writing. The same can more or less be said for all of these workshops, only the specifics differ.

*For the life of me, I can’t remember who this was. It could have been my wife, Di, or it could have been a friend, or even my dad. I’m drawing a complete blank.

When it comes to writing workshops, specifically those geared towards writers of science fiction, fantasy, or horror, there’s the big three, and then a few others as well. I want to talk about the big three, Clarion, Clarion West, and Odyssey. (also, there’s an Australian spin-off of Clarion, Clarion South, but I only just found out about that last night) But first, I’ll mention 2 of the smaller ones, Viable Paradise and the Center for the Study of Science Fiction.

(tl;dr version: 5ish major workshops, some differences, all expensive, Odyssey sounds the most helpful in my opinion)

Viable Paradise is a week long course held on Martha’s vineyard for 24 students ever October. The instructors at VP are some very big names, like John Scalzi, Scott Lynch, Elizabeth Bear, James Patrick Kelly, Cory Doctorow (All Amazing Authors) and Patrick and Teresa Neilsen Hayden, two enormous names in editing from Tor Books. There’s one or two of these instructors staying the whole week as writers-in-residence, the rest cycle through for a day or two.

The Center for the Study of Science Fiction is two weeks instead of one, it’s held at the University of Kansas. It’s run by author Christopher McKitterick, with Grand Master  James Gunn hanging around much of the first week and author Andy Duncan the second. I’m not sure on class sizes, but I think it’s around a dozen or so.

The big three are 6-week long summer workshops. While in the shorter workshops you can get a crash course in the basics, and maybe have one or at most two pieces of your writing critiqued (there isn’t time for more), at the longer ones, you can really dig deep into the guts of what makes good writing (and good writers) tick. And you have more of your work critiqued (the better to point out what you need to focus your practice on), more opportunities to critique the work of others (refining your internal editor so you need less outside help later), and meet and learn from more professionals. Those are the benefits. There are drawbacks, though. 6 weeks is a long time, and it’s hard to do if you work a day job, or have kids, or pets, or other commitments. And the costs for these run into the thousands of dollars. That’s just tuition. Then there’s room and board, travel to get there, etc. These can prove to be insurmountable hurdles to many struggling young authors.

Clarion is the granddaddy workshop. It started in 1968, and is now running out of it’s 3rd location, at UCSD. The first 4 weeks, there’s a different writer instructor each week, and the last two weeks are co-taught by a 2 instructor pair.

Clarion West, in Seattle, is limited to 18 students, and, similar to Clarion, is taught by a different instructor every week.

And then there’s Odyssey. Typically 15-16 students, held in Manchester NH. What separates Odyssey from the two Clarions is that instead of being run on a weekly basis by different authors, it is run continuously by a single person, Jeanne Cavelos, who is primarily an editor but also an author. During the 6 weeks with Jeanne, she is able to watch your progress over the course of 8 or so different stories, see where you’ve improved and where you still struggle. You can’t get that when each week a new pair of eyes reads only one of your stories. Of course, like the other workshops, successful authors rotate through for a few days at a time, lecturing and critiquing your work. And there’s also a writer-in-residence for a week as well, in addition to Jeanne. This summer, for instance, the writer in residence is Mary Robinette Kowal of Glamourist Histories and Writing Excuses fame. Some of the authors rotating through are multiple Hugo and Nebula Award Nominee N.K. Jemisin and Scott Andrews (editor of Beneath Ceaseless Skies), among others. The list of previous writers in residence is like a who’s who of grand masters and best sellers. George R R Martin, Gene Wolfe, Charles de Lint, Terry Brooks, Harlan Ellison, Ben Bova, Carrie Vaughn, and on and on. I’ve been looking at Odyssey for over a decade now saying, “One day… I’m going to go there… One day…”

Anyway, that’s our quick tour through the world of improving your writing through the clever application of directed study. Join us next time when we.. well, I’m not sure what we’re talking about next. Just join us next time, won’t you?

Here I Go,


About Matthew Shean

Matthew Shean is the author of several forthcoming novels and myriad short stories. He received his Ph.D. from the Weill Cornell Graduate School of Medical Sciences in New York, NY, and spent 20 years as a research scientist throughout the northeastern United States. He now lives in Long Island (against his will), with his loving family and disdainful cats.
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