Workshops redux

I guess Gaiman upset people with this?

First, can I offer an apology to the entire universe: for how hair-trigger sensitive the writer/author scene is? We are, as a class of creative folk, entirely too ready to fly off the handle at the smallest things. We are the very definition of people always seeking excuses to twist up our panties.

Second, Gaiman is simply expressing what all of us have expressed — from time to time — about our favorite learning experiences. I have evangelized for the Kris Rusch and Dean Smith workshops, the Dave Wolverton workshops, the Writers of the Future workshop, the Superstars Writing Seminar, the “Life, The Universe & Everything” symposium, and so on, and so forth. All of them have been very valuable to me, and remain valuable long after attendance and participation.

Can they be expensive? Sure. Can everyone afford them? Well, if you’re local to Utah, then LTUE is a steal, and ranks with any weekend program in existence, for pure, solid content. If you’re not local to Utah, but can afford travel and a hotel/motel, LTUE charges practically nothing, and delivers three whole days of some of the best panels (by the best professionals) any SF/F author or artist could want.

I never did Clarion, though I did dream of doing Clarion West, way back 20 years ago. In hindsight, I am glad I never did Clarion, just because I think the School of Hard Knocks taught me more about what I needed to know (for character creation and development especially) than a six-week, thousands-of-dollars resident program. Clarion, to me (now) seems like something only the subsidized or the independently wealthy can tackle. I mean, what grown adult can burn that much money, much less spare that much time away from work and family?

That doesn’t make Clarion bad. It just means Clarion is not an option for all. That it’s not an option for all, is also not bad. Ivy League degrees are also not an option for all.

But just like an Ivy League degree is not a necessity, if I may be so bold, Clarion is not necessary in order to become a professional author, either. Not even a professional SF/F author.

Especially since every workshop is a Your Mileage May Vary experience. Nobody gets the same results from every workshop.

And now that there are resident and on-line writing workshops by the dozens (hundreds, even?) it’s definitely a caveat emptor market. Which I’ve talked about in this space before.

I sometimes wonder if this isn’t just a matter of exclusivity. We human beings seem to be wired for dividing ourselves up into teams, groups, tribes, what have you. It’s in our blood. If any club or tribe imposes any kind of bar to entry — be it financial, social, or professional — that creates an exclusive environment. People like being exclusive. It’s the country club mindset. Due to the cost and time required, Clarion is very much a country club experience. I know many of the graduates and instructors would be unhappy with such a comparison, but it’s true. And as much as individuals may covet belonging to the country club, there are also just as many individuals who resent the country club. Which may explain a lot of the flack Gaiman has gotten for an otherwise harmlessly enthusiastic comment; about a program Gaimain clearly believes in.

It would be great if a Clarion-type experience were free. But running a workshop with that kind of scope and scale, is not cheap. And the truth is, there are people who will argue that it shouldn’t be cheap. That the high cost weeds out the dilettantes. So that only serious students, who are dedicated, will apply for acceptance. Clarion isn’t designed for wannabes. Clarion is for budding professional artists, who want to flower in an environment that will feed and nurture their professional artistry. Or at least that’s the ideal. And I definitely think Gaiman had the ideal in mind, when he wrote what he wrote.

Still, there is no royal road to publication and acclaim. I don’t have the stats in front of me, but I suspect Clarion’s success rate is probably on par with just about every other workshop going. Which means two-thirds of Clarion’s graduates, won’t make it. They won’t sell. Or at least, they won’t sell well. They will find that life has other work for them, and they will move on.

So, if you really, really want it — sometimes, you simply have to get down on your hands and knees, and dig success out of the dirt in your own back yard. I myself believe the best thing any aspiring or frustrated author can do, is to just keep beavering away at it. Nothing replaces work. It’s true in every vocation. Which is how I prefer to view authorhood: a vocation. Blue-collar. I learned my trade in a long, often unrewarding apprenticeship that spanned the better part of two decades. Two decades which did not include workshops, until the very end. I had my ego smashed against the wall of reality several times, by the serial disappointments and near-misses. And I am now thankful for the humbling. Because it’s made the victories so much sweeter. I cherish every single publication, and every single check. Nothing is taken for granted.

Because I remember vividly what it was like when both publication, and checks, were still a fever dream.


  1. I read Gaimen’s comment as enthusiasm, rather than an imperative. For myself, I don’t think I’d get much out of any writer’s workshop–that’s just not how I learn. I don’t find the tweet offensive, though.

    1. What Misha said. It reminded me a bit of people with a favorite book or vacation spot. “You have GOT to visit [place]! It is so neat, and there’s all kinds of things to do, and . . .” I follow a blogger who loves Disneyworld. Great. I’m glad they like it. I’ve been to one local workshop, learned some things, learned some things I don’t want to do, and decided I’d go Indie all the way. Would I do another? Maybe LTUE if my numbers come up on the lottery some time and I can take off from work.

  2. “Nothing replaces work.”

    And that’s it. Some roads might be slightly smoother than others, but there is no frictionless slide to genuine success.

    As for the rest, in an Age of Plenty, we manufacture scarcity. An example is that a decent t-shirt can be had for very little money. Pictures can be put on such for not much more. But some sites work by “Today only!” when the only reason to limit at all is to cause an artificial scarcity to try to manipulate demand.

    As a reader, I don’t generally know what schools, classes, courses any given author attended – and overall I do not care. Is the book one I want to read? Or is it one that makes me go, “Ugh!”? Now, that I care about. Some is variable taste (It might be the very best history of the NFL, say, and written amazingly well, and I will still leave it on the shelf) and some is ‘Can I stand the writing?’ (Editor Ingalls set a standard for telescope making books, and anything new there has to be at least close to that). Some supposedly great writing school? Some not so great school? School of hard knocks? Don’t care. Is the result worth a d*mn? I care.

  3. “Which is how I prefer to view authorhood: a vocation. Blue-collar. I learned my trade in a long, often unrewarding apprenticeship that spanned the better part of two decades.”

    That’s an interesting point. Perhaps we’d have more and better writers if writing were more often viewed akin to plumbing and mechanic work, rather than lawyering and journalism, or banking and accounting. As a practical, get-your-hands-dirty task rather than an abstract or intellectual pursuit.

    1. I can’t speak for accounting or banking, but neither lawyering or journalism is an abstract pursuit. Lawyers represent real clients with real problems. Journalists write stories about real people and real issues. In both cases, there’s a lot riding on the quality of your work and there are plenty of people ready to call you on anything you get wrong, so you’d better work up your presentation and pay attention to detail.

      There are lawyers who treat their work as an abstract pursuit, and there’s a word for that: malpractice.

      I find that I’ve learned a lot about writing from being a lawyer and (back in the days) a freelance reporter – certainly how to meet deadlines, and also how to organize facts and ideas. In the meantime, I learn to write the same way I always have, by reading and writing, and I’ve found all my experience to be valuable.

      BTW, I came here from File 770 and think Brad’s points are well taken.

  4. I attended Clarion East back in the summer of 1973. It was cheaper then, but I still spent practically every penny I had on it. The workshop was a mixed bag for a number of reasons, and that’s too much to go into here. The instructors were amazing. Personal advice from Ted Sturgeon? Personal insults from Harlan Ellison? A tarot reading from Kate Wilhelm? Priceless.

    What made Clarion important to me is that it persuaded me that I could actually *do* this stuff. I was 21, still an undergrad at a crappy local college, lower middle class, and very nerdy. I had the ability, but I lacked the confidence. Clarion gave me the confidence I needed to start sending my stories out to the magazines. Six weeks after I got home, I sold my first story. I learned a lot there about writing, editing, and critique. But the real take-away was simple confidence. And for that I recommend it, especially to people just getting underway. (I only wish Larry Correia had been there, yelling ‘BE PROLIFIC’ at the top of his considerable lungs. That’s a lesson I still need to learn…)

    1. What I’d give to attend that writing class he did in person last year. But most of it is available online I think, and it was set up as “distance learning” at the time and I think they didn’t cap how many could enroll. I hope he does it again.

    2. Mine, too. I really need to get the work habits that I acquired as a developer transferred into the writing.

      But, you know, I would dearly love to attend a workshop. Not for my confidence – but to have people that would rip my writing apart and tell me how terrible it is! Confidence is one thing I believe I have an overabundance of at the time – and I fear that it may be fatal.

  5. I can second the recommendation for LTUE, I spent the necessary time and money to travel from Ohio to attend. Brad talked me into it, actually… It was fantastic. It’s not just another con, it’s a place to learn. I was so happy I’d gone, and I wish I could this year (but it’s during the school year and I can’t miss the class time this semester).

  6. Back when I had energy and a life, I was a physicist.

    And now there would be no energy for such endeavors – I spend my spoons carefully, and these workshops, and conventions, tend to be very intense and pressured and rife with once-in-a-lifetime opportunities, most of which I’d have to miss.

    So instead I did what you say – put in the time, do the work. I read the books, and wrote, and figured out how to write group scenes so the minor characters don’t fade into the wallpaper.

    It’s good enough.

    Doesn’t mean I don’t get wistful.

  7. “First, can I offer an apology to the entire universe: for how hair-trigger sensitive the writer/author scene is? ” Perfectly put. Why are we always in such a hurry to be offended?

    1. Good question. Offence takes a lot of effort, and most of the time I can’t be bothered.

  8. I’ve never been to a workshop, and at this point I don’t know if it would be worth it. I see that Clarion is now five grand to attend (I thought it was twice that), but regardless, back when I was thinking of attending, I couldn’t afford the price nor the time off. Now in this current market, where five grand is a ‘good’ advance on a book, is it cost effective to go to Clarion?

    No, it isn’t. At a time where most authors are lucky to make 5K a year, and the average is 15K to 20K in income (because the publishers are paying so poorly), it’s not worth spending anywhere from your full writing income to may a quarter of it to go to the most expensive workshop that there is. Especially when their success rate only seems to be 1/3rd at best?

    Now if you’re an incredibly gifted writer, the kind that doesn’t need Clarion, it may be worthwhile to go, so that the pros there can ‘discover’ you, and help promote you to their publishing company, but in that case you’re not going there to learn anything, you’re going there to network. You’re -advertising-.

    I’ve known quite a few people who went to Clarion. I don’t know a single person who ever made their tuition back from their writing, or even sold a single book, (some short stories, enough so they could get into SFWA, but that’s it). So, unless you don’t need it and already are writing stuff that you known the Big Five are interested in buying, I think it’s just a waste of money.


    1. So you don’t think they should raise the price to scale it up and that the federal government should pay for everyone to attend?

  9. I agree. Clarion was on my ‘To Do’ list, but never happened. I never had the money when I was younger, and when I had the money I was too busy working to attend.

    But I got lucky. The York Region Board of Education ran a writing class at a local high school, and we had a fantastic teacher. Patti gave me the basics, and then a local writer, Shirley Meier, helped me put those basics into something that worked for me.

    The final stage was getting introduced to some people on Facebook, including John Manning who bought my first fiction sale, and Janet Morris, who showed me what a short story needed to be.

    The course we each take will be different. What makes sense to me, may be gibberish to the next person.

    But the journey was well worth taking. I love writing. I may not be the world’s best writer, but I enjoy what I do, and I’ve had enough people tell me they’ve liked my stuff to know I’ve gotten something write 🙂

  10. Stop the presses! Brad got praise from a File 770 regular!

    “Wildcat on January 18, 2016 at 1:31 am said:
    (13A) ANOTHER TWITTER MAELSTROM: When Brad R. Torgersen is a nominal voice of reason in a dustup, there must be a great disturbance in the Force.”

      1. “Brad Torgersen, Destroyer of Worlds” looks much better than “Hugo Nominee” on a book jacket, IMO. I would buy the sh*t out of a book that could credibly state that about the author.

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