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The Online SF Writer's Online Resource
by Trent Walters

The Family of Summer SF Workshops

Other SF Writer's Online Resource Columns
For more information, you can try the following:
James Gunn's Writers Workshop and SF Institute
Clarion West
Let's get the nitty-gritty out of the way: no offense to the invaluable and dedicated laborers behind the scenes -- we love you -- but to everyone but those who run the workshops, the obvious choice as to which is best does not exist. If you get into one and not the other, don't whine that this one obviously isn't as good. You just didn't fit for the readers over there. Or maybe the cosmic powers of fate decided you will learn more here at this point in your learning curve. Remember: "If you can't be with the one you love, honey, love the one you're with."

So, no, these workshops aren't conducted online. I'll try to cover that another time. Instead, let's touch on each in the not-who's-best order of age (Prices are maximum. Each workshop has generous donors who help defray costs for students):

Web Site www.msu.edu/~clarion/
Workshop Dates June 8 through July 18, 2003 (Six weeks)
Application Cost $25
Deadline received by April 1
Cost $1059
Housing ~$1000 (includes $2.40/day of mm-mm-good cafeteria chow)

Clarion: The Granddaddy of 'em All

Like Clarion West, it certainly has prestige and a couple of other things going for it. Nebula-winner Howard Waldrop will kick things off. He's as kooky as his fiction. He has an essay online about submitting to Clarion that all prospects should read. Campbell-winner Nalo Hopkinson is new on the scene, but she's already teaching at Seton Hill and at Clarion West. Her fiction has a melodic dark Caribbean ring. Richard Paul Russo won the Philip K Dick award, nay not once but twice, with multiple other nominations. The subtle and sweet Kelly Link will no doubt be a huge draw for the literary writers (I know at least one writer wanting to attend solely for her). Scott Edelman, former editor of the much lamented SF Age, will be the editor who overlaps Link and the two-week anchor team to follow: Maureen McHugh (China Mountain Zhang being one of the best "fix-ups" in the history of the genre) and James Patrick Kelly ("Mr. Boy" is an excellent starting point), both superior writers and, I'm told, teachers with much of value to share.

What does this workshop have over the others? The overlap of different opinions between authors and editor in those last weeks. Everybody's feeling pretty frazzled by the end, and it's nice to have the double-up anchor team for two entire weeks: otherwise, the last fellow may feel like they're getting the dregs of what might have been good wine if they'd arrived at the party soon enough. Compared to Clarion West -- and I've not seen this mentioned elsewhere -- East emphasizes critique over production; West vice versa (again, mostly a six of one/half dozen of the other issue unless you really need to instill the critiquing mind-frame or to learn how to get your production up).

James Gunn's Writers Workshop and SF Institute
Web Site www.ku.edu/~sfcenter/courses.htm
Workshop Dates June 29-July 13 (two weeks)
Application Cost None
Deadline June 1
Cost $400
Housing $350 (or $185 if you double up)

James Gunn's Writers Workshop and SF Institute: Papa's Sagacity

Nebula-finalist James Gunn is as sage as they come and provides a less production-oriented pressure to focus more on the critical side. Depending on which circles you move in, this workshop has its own prestige set. Gunn is a straight-shooter, like Nancy Kress, with just as valuable advice. His critical entourage includes Analog-imaginaire-wonder-boy Christopher McKitterick (now if only his novels ever get circulated by his agent, the fans will flock to the stores) and Sturgeon/Crawford-winning Kij Johnson whose second novel, if it's anywhere as stunning as her first, should win a large and literate fandom. Three professional writers for the price of one (this workshop probably has the highest professional-to-student ratio).

Wait! That's not all. If you act now, you'll also receive critiques from Frederik Pohl (only fools would claim not to have read his Apollo-, Campbell-, Hugo-, Locus-, Nebula-winning Gateway), critic Betty Hull, and possibly an editor from Pocket Books, Stan Schmidt from Analog, this year's Sturgeon or Campbell winners. (Sturgeon-winner David Marusek ran out of red ink on my story, went hoarse from screaming, and his poor fists went numb from bludgeoning my face in utter rage at a misplaced modifier. Just kidding. Marusek is a great guy. He wouldn't have run out of red ink for the world)

After the Campbell conference which includes the aforementioned and that year's winning authors, plus an amazing pair of Ginsu knives, is the SF Institute which I hope to sit in on part this year. James Gunn has penned the essential anthology series on the history of science fiction, The Road to Science Fiction, and he dissects the why and wherefores in this two-week follow-up. The two-week Institute is unrelated to the two-week writer's workshop apart from it being taught by the same evil mastermind.

Clarion West
Web Site www.clarionwest.org/
Workshop Dates June 22 through August 1, 2003 (Six weeks)
Application Cost $25
Deadline April 1 (RECEIVED BY [emphasis theirs])
Cost $1400
Housing ~$1000

Clarion West: Brother Moon

Nebula-winner Nancy Kress kicks off the class again as she did ours. She is the Nuts-n-Bolts story artist and a class-act and the perfect starting point to get your act together. Kathleen Ann Goonan has rewritten the face of the Mid-South with her nano-techno-jazz. Arthur C. Clarke-winner China Miéville will probably be the literary draw here. (Although why not the others as well, who knows? Writers are a queer lot: see below. If you haven't heard of him, many defense lawyers would like to meet you for the trials of their serial killer clients.) World Fantasy/Nebula winner Elizabeth Hand will be a sight for sore eyes. Editors are a weird lot (because they have to deal with writers?) and the perspective of one puts a whole new spin on things. Patrick Nielsen Hayden has many broad insights on publishing that writers ordinarily miss: trees-for-the-forest problem. Hayden has an unusually upbeat perspective on the industry that most publishers lack. Samuel Delany is the kind of writer who can make straight -- or rather, he's one of the genres damned best. Rumor has it he's tough as nails, but apparently not quite as tough as Ellison is rumored to be.

The advantage is definitely climate with a spectacular view. It drizzled for two weeks but the rest were gorgeous. Oh, and the used bookstores with every book I'd never known I'd wanted! Every weekend sports parties of rubbing elbows with other famous fellows like Greg Bear and Vonda McIntyre and Octavia Butler and....

Web Site www.sff.net/odyssey/
Workshop Dates June 16 through July 25, 2003 (Six weeks)
Application Cost $25
Deadline April 15 (just in time for taxes)
Cost $1400
Housing $795.00 (or $397.50 if you double up)

Odyssey: Lil' Sister Wolfe

The newest welcome addition, which I have yet to attend, (surprise, surprise) may deserve more credit, being now its eighth year. How can you say no to a whole week of Gene Wolfe? (I for one wish I weren't in debt until death do us part.) What makes this workshop unique is the same editor, Jeanne Cavelos, formerly a senior editor at Bantam Doubleday Dell and winner of the World Fantasy Award, presides for six weeks, giving personal assignments. Five fresh faces poke their heads in for twenty-four hours (give or take a few minutes): Roland J. Green, Campbell/Lambda winner Melissa Scott, Nebula-winner Bruce Holland Rogers, agent Lori Perkins, fantastic fantasist John Crowley.

Still can't decide? Probably a key point not commonly remarked upon is the housing set-up. Anything that forces you to be more of a community is a plus. Yes, occasionally, the caged rat syndrome rears its ugly head to demand a human sacrifice. But this can be prevented by talking. Did you hear that? Talking. In case I didn't make that clear, go talk out your problems BEFORE class. Don't carry them around with you like a backpack of hardened cement.

But a close-knit community is an undeniably major benefit lost on those who chose to drive in or are separated by smaller spaces. Everyone who does it regrets it. Impromptu writers' discussions pop up constantly at the oddest hours. If you want to hash out your idea, knock on the door next to you or walk down to the lounge an chat with those recuperating from writing or editing manuscript masterpieces. Clustering dorm rooms in one area is something that, if Gunn hasn't laid down the law to the residence halls yet, he or Chris or Kij should do -- even if it means males or females have to walk up a flight of stairs to another set of community showers. Community over amenity. What do you think you're here for anyway, soldier? Hit those manuscripts. Hop to!

I haven't been to Odyssey but I would wager that some sense of community is lost in living in townhouses, as more pleasant a lifestyle as that may sound. That just means a little more effort at creating community: I say, demand students double-up (the townhouses apparently have room for four) and meet at a favorite place of congregation.

Go meet your teachers. Eat lunch with them in the cafeteria (or in the case of Clarion West, walk with them to and from class and out to lunch). Take them out to dinner. Get them trashed at the local pub. Kiss their arses. Lavish them with gifts and your gift of wit. Force them to enjoy your company at gunpoint if you have to.

All but Gunn's has individual meetings to go over your manuscripts. This can be helpful, especially if your emotions have been riding high on that first draft, being so close to it. (Though, usually, the manuscript in Gunn's workshop has had some distance from the author before they attempt to revise one in the final week.) The sessions can also provide a larger overview of your work as each new writer comes in with a different take on your blessings and errors with the foreknowledge of your earlier first drafts. Too often your fellow day-to-day critics are running on fumes and as close to your work as you to recognize patterns.

The heat (we're talking the physical) at Clarion East is tremendous. You can squeak by on two cold showers a day. Hopefully, everyone has money enough for an A/C next year. You don't want to suffer for your art and your overheated bodies. The heat is a minor problem in Seattle on the west side of the dorms, but you also get to see how high you can spit cherry pits on the building next door. Gunn's workshop must have had A/C. I don't remember it being a problem. The best Fourth of July was at Gunn's when we sneaked up on the roof to watch fireworks going off all around town. Sure the dorm supervisors were upset, but then they were on the roof next door.

The rooms at Clarion West are the largest (though the Odyssey townhouse is, no doubt, far more spacious), followed by Gunn's, then Clarion. But Clarion's rooms use space quite smartly with lots of neat little cubbyholes and beds that slide underneath the cupboards. All workshops provide linen service so that's one hassle to forget. But this is all the piddly stuff. Community is your number one concern. Build it yourself if you have to. Knock on your neighbor's door. Annoy them with questions. Don't allow Jeanne, or Chris or Kij or Jim or whomever to sneak off without setting up a time for chow.

Journal-writing while at the workshop? Do it for youself, if you're doing it. Use it to clarify your thoughts on the themes that concern you while writing your stories and to remember the lessons you were too dense to learn while you were living through them. Otherwise, don't do waste your time.

You will work your ass off but, despite the occasional misery, have the time of your life. Because of the intensity and close-knit community, nothing like these workshops exist outside the genre. And no, probably not even in graduate programs. When the rest of the writing world gets wind of this little set-up, the workshopping world will transform overnight.

In some ways, the best part of the workshop is after the workshop has finished. You now are not alone. Writing does not have to be a lonely night vigil standing at a typewriter with a hat of lit candles dancing on your head: every class sets up an email exchange, sharing joys of acceptances and commiserating rejections. You know whom to trust with manuscripts, what to look for in a critique, slapping your head when combing the old critiques on the eureka that your critics weren't all full of it after all.

Weigh your time and money, but all workshops have funding for the needy. Weigh what you need against what's offered, but all workshops offer something worth listening to. Physical location should probably be last on your list of considerations. Number one should be how much time you have, and the writers/editor whom you admire. With whom are you familiar or would like to be familiar? "Can they teach?" is almost invariably, yes, but each will have something entirely different to offer. Keep your mind open to all they have to say and the experience will reward.

Copyright © 2003 Trent Walters

Trent Walters' work has appeared or will appear in The Distillery, Fantastical Visions, Full Unit Hookup, Futures, Glyph, Harpweaver, Nebo, The Pittsburgh Quarterly, Speculon, Spires, Vacancy, The Zone and blah blah blah. He has interviewed for SFsite.com, Speculon and the Nebraska Center for Writers. More of his reviews can be found here. When he's not studying medicine, he can be seen coaching Notre Dame (formerly with the Minnesota Vikings as an assistant coach), or writing masterpieces of journalistic advertising, or making guest appearances in a novel by E. Lynn Harris. All other rumored Web appearances are lies.

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