Five Things I Learned At Clarion

Some of these things were discussed explicitly in class, or personal conferences, or in the full throttle banter that still couldn't quite disguise the bleak cafeteria food. Others simply became apparent through being exposed to so many different and wonderful viewpoints and experiences of writing and reading fiction. Thank you to all the students and tutors who helped me learn these things in one way or another.

1. Voice

The idea of authorial voice used to vex me. What is it really? Why does it matter?

The impact of voice is clear. When I read just a paragraph of text, I know without looking at the cover whether I'm reading Stephen King or Stephen Fry. It's voice that tells me that. Through some combination of word choice, cadence, tone, perspective, sentence length and a dozen other sub-conscious processes, Voice is created.

It's also what isn't said. Where the white space is on the page and what happens there.

The best way I can describe it is 'attitude'.

It's the way an author stands in the story. Do they slouch against the wall, chewing on the end of a rolled up cigarette, pointing out a dead body with just a flick of the eyes? Or do they stride toward  the body head on, showing you every blood smeared cobble and torn piece of clothing?

I used to worry. How do I know what I want my voice to be? How do I achieve that voice? Why is it that I can't sound like author X when I'd really, truly, love to be like them?

In our first class at Clarion, we critiqued 1000 word stories we'd prepared the week before. Jeff Ford had us read them aloud.

By the time the fourth person had read, I'd got it. Every single one sounded so different and unique to each of us, that no-one else in that room could have written it. We could have all described the same scene from the same character's perspective and they still would have sounded entirely distinct.

Suddenly, it was clear to me. Your voice--it's just the way you sound. And at that moment, I stopped worrying.

2. Characterisation through setting description

The elements of a setting that you describe (or your character notices) gives a reader insight into what a character wants, who they are, and what they're scared of. Don't waste it. This is the opportunity you have to show rather than tell.

This is one of those pieces of understanding that evolved gradually during Clarion. I knew it on an intellectual level beforehand. But reading so many stories so quickly brought my understanding to a deeper level.

To help me remember this lesson and be more successful in not just using what i would see in every scene, I came up with the following exercise*:

Level-Up Your Characterisation

(i) Imagine you're in a place that you know well. Write a paragraph of description about it. What do the things that you notice say about you or your mood?

(ii) Imagine you're in a place you've never been (or made up). What elements would you describe in order to evoke the characteristics and mood you identified in (i)

(iii) Put one of your characters in the same place as (i) and describe the scene again. What's different, why? What does this say about the character? What personality traits do you know about the character that aren't evoked by this description? How can you make them felt?

(iv) Put the character from (iii) in the setting from (ii). How can the description evoke the mood you built in (iii)?

You get the idea. Repeat until your character's perspective is so deeply absorbed by the text, that it is impossible any other person would see that place in the same way.

One day, I imagine I'll be proficient enough at this not to have to go through such a drawn out process with each new character.

*I think I came up with this, but I may have unwittingly stolen it from somewhere. If you think that is the case, please let me know who I should credit.

3. I can make people feel things with my words

To hear a room full of people respond with passion to something I wrote was astounding. Listening to them say, 'I loved it when…', 'this broke my heart', or 'Jeez, that woman's a stone cold bitch…'

A little piece of my heart was living inside them.

It made me giddy with joy.

4. Theme 

My realisation concerning theme came through reading so many first drafts that were good, but hadn't got it quite right. Most of us tried to bundle two or three stories in to one piece of text. It made me think of 3-D pictures. The ones that were the next-hot-thing for forty-five seconds somewhere in the depths of the 90s. A jumble of fuzzy dots until your eyes crossed over to a certain point, then bang, it was a unicorn eating a burger...or something.

The components of theme only became visible to me through listening to Delia and the rest of the class unpick these from each other. Gradually, I felt like I'd internalised all the elements that worked together to create a successful theme.

The theme is the central question posed by a text.

That's it. Doesn't look much, does it? But for someone who has never taken a literature class, it was a big revelation. This was not an idea that was ever discussed in my epidemiology lectures. What is is the theme of a flu epidemic? Can human beings transcend their natural selfishness to help even those they don't love in a crisis? Is it possible for species with conflicting needs to occupy the same world?

Nope, these questions just never came up.

The power of a theme is in understanding what resolution makes sense for a story. To be really satisfying, an ending must not only resolve the surface problems set up by your plot, but also provide an answer to your thematic question. If it can do both in a surprising but inevitable way, then that's a *great* ending.

5. Writing doesn't have to be a lonely pursuit

My image of writing as a career--and of writers as people--was one of lonely endeavour, quiet contemplation and possibly, if energy allowed, bouts of fevered pacing. My discovery at Clarion was that although this is true in part, putting words on a page is just the culmination of a whole lot of mental processes, many of which can happen in concert with others.

The first personal conference I had at Clarion was with Jeff Ford. He asked us to bring some story ideas to discuss. I could barely squeeze the words out of my throat to tell him about my malformed little creatures. Ideas with no head or no heart, or possibly with their hearts on their head like a curiously fleshy hat. I was scared because I didn't have all the answers. I didn't know what they were or how to make them into the beautiful things they could be.

Jeff, with his unique brand of directness, said, 'Where's the story in that? Why's it interesting, What's she looking for?' He didn't care if I didn't have the 'right' answer. He asked enough questions to help me figure out which ideas were interesting and which were corpses before they'd even drawn breath. During the rest of Clarion I plucked up the courage to go through the same process with friends. I figured out that a five minute discussion could get me as far with an idea as hours or days of contemplation had previously.

An idea that Holly and Cassie introduced us to was micro plotting. Thrashing out the detailed blow-by-blow of a novel's story line with a group of friends (at least, they're friends at the beginning of the process) in a room for 2-3 days. It sounds painful, and apparently you have to turn off the internet and lock the doors, because the questions are hard, and under pressure we'll do anything to try and elide the details of a story.

'Why didn't she just call her mother and tell her what's going on?'

'Because then there wouldn't be a story?'

'Nope, sorry not good enough, think of something else…'

The benefit is that you can write the story much more quickly after this. You know what has to happen in every chapter, and your friends have already helped you iron out the gaping holes and saggy wrinkles. Thanks friends.

You need at least three writers to help in this endeavour. They (and you) have to be humble and give generously, and trust that you will do the same in return. It's a huge investment, and finding people who fit the bill isn't easy.

Luckily, Clarion hooked me up with more than enough qualified individuals. Amazing writers who I'm supremely grateful to call my friends.