Applying to Clarion West

This time last year I was busily revising my stories that I would submit with my application to Clarion West.

It was my third time to apply to the workshop.

This doesn’t mean I’m a worse writer than those who got in on their first try, or that I’m a better writer than those who weren’t accepted for the workshop. It just means that last year I was at the right place in my writing life for me to benefit the most from attending Clarion West.

I’m thankful to the judges who didn’t accept me the first and second times that I applied, because I was not ready. It’s easy for me to say that now, after I’ve been to Clarion West. But I still remember how it felt to apply and not be accepted. I was terribly crushed each time I received the rejection email. I felt ready. But looking back on the stories I submitted, I realize now that I wasn’t.

The first year I applied I submitted an excerpt of a novella, with a synopsis of the ending. It was a story that my graduate classmates had really liked, it was fantasy, but it had no structure and no emotional core. I applied to Clarion West at the last minute, using a version of the story I hadn’t looked at in weeks. I felt like I had it in the bag. I wasn’t accepted.

The second year, I submitted a literary short story (by literary, I just mean that it didn’t contain any speculative element). This was an earlier version of a short story I eventually sold. It was a fine draft of the story. It had an arc, real characters, things happened. But it didn’t have specific details, and there were parts that needed to be cut to get to the real heart of the story. I applied once again feeling like I had to be accepted, and once again I received a rejection email. This time, however, my rejection email had an additional line added, prompting me to apply again next year as my story had ranked highly with the judges.

The third year, the year I was accepted to Clarion West, I spent the entire month of February working on my submission stories. I revised, edited, and revised again two stories. One was a story that had an experimental structure. The other was a short piece that was lyrical and intensely emotional. Both had elements of fantasy. In essence, I worked on two stories that displayed my strengths and interests as a writer. I showed my style in these stories. And although they did not have the best structure and I have revised them post-workshop, they were a clear impression of my writing abilities. I submitted. I decided not to get excited. Then Neile called to tell me I was in.

Clarion West is open for submissions for their annual writers workshop. This year the instructors are Mary Rosenblum, Hiromi Goto, George R. R. Martin, Connie Willis, Kelly Link & Gavin Grant, and Chuck Palahniuk. The deadline for applying is March 1st. You can find more information on applying here.

If you’re thinking of applying, then go for it. Even if you think you can’t afford it, or that you won’t get in. If you’d like to go, please take the time to apply. Clarion West is an amazing experience, and people will help you get there if you’re accepted.

And if I may suggest, write the type of story that you love. Use the writing devices that make you smile and keep your fingers on the keyboard late into the night. Because if you love writing it, there’s a good chance that the judges will love reading it, too. And as much as you can bear, spend less time looking for Clarion West blogs, and more time revising and editing your stories. You’ll have all of March to spend daydreaming about what it will be like at Clarion West.

And if you don’t get in, try again next year. And the next. Writing isn’t a race against other people, it’s a personal journey. The only person you’re competing with is your past selves, to be a better writer each new day.

Good luck to you! I hope you find yourself at Clarion West this summer.

The view of Seattle from one of the Friday evening parties at Clarion West 2011.
{NOTE: I do not have any insider information on how the participants are selected. These are just my personal feelings about how my submissions progressed over the course of a few years. Please take this information as one person’s viewpoint, and follow your own instinct when making the choice about your submission stories. 🙂 Good luck again!}

Continue reading “Applying to Clarion West”

Real Letters

Mary Robinette Kowal’s recent post, The Month of Letters Challenge , has gotten me thinking about communication. Specifically, how we share ourselves with others through language, images, memory. 

I have a sticker on my laptop, right beneath my keyboard. It says “real people write real letters.” I can’t remember where I got it, other than that it had something to do with a zine, or zine-like project. 

Years ago, before grad school, I made a zine every month or two and mailed it out to my family members. It was called “Frazzle,” and it wasn’t super interesting. It had some doodles, some news about my day to day life, a photograph or two. I was twenty-five and terrified that the people I loved did not have any idea who I was. So I made these little missives and sent them out, hoping for some karma of personhood to flow back to me.

A page from Frazzle, Issue # 1

When I got to grad school, all of my extracurricular creativity stopped pretty quickly. I was reading two books a week, reading my classmates’ stories and critiquing them, plus reading for the class I taught. Grad school was wonderful – I learned so much in just a few years. I’m thankful everyday for my chance to have had that time.

But I lost the zen of creating for the pleasure of the act. The happiness of sending something scruffy-necked and not quite perfect out into the world and moving on before life stopped me long enough to convince me that it wasn’t good enough. Creating words and images that weren’t necessarily story, just themselves.

So I’m going to take Kowal’s excellent idea of writing a letter every postal day in February, and tweak it a bit. I’m going to make one page every day in February. At the end, I’ll put them together into a zine and mail it out to anyone who wants to read it.

If you’d like to get an issue of Frazzle: The Return, leave a message in the comments below. I’ve opened up the commenting restrictions so that anyone can leave a comment without logging in.

Or email me your mailing address at (don’t forget the dot between the first and last name). 🙂

I hope you take advantage of this challenge as well, to spend time with a piece of paper and your favorite pen, sending yourself everywhere you’d like to go.

Strange Southern Thing: Snow and Stars

It snowed this week. Not enough to stick, or to let kids out of school early, but enough to keep people off of the roads at night. The snow covered the roof and hung in the bush-branches.

Alaska snow is large and fluffy, maybe not always, but that’s how I remember it. The snow flakes would float down like forest spirits and land on your coat. They were as big as a thumbnail and as thick as lace. You didn’t need a microscope to see the branching patterns.

Alabama snow, on the other hand, is usually small and vaporizes the moment it touches anything. You don’t really get to experience it as snow unless it builds up over a few days of heavy snow and freezing temperatures, which usually doesn’t happen. So Alabama snow is more of an especially mean winter rain.

But this week the snow here in Alabama was a bit different. It looked like, well, DippinDots.

These little balls of snow-stuff started falling, and they bounced all around the yard.

And watching this weird snow reminded me of Stars Fell on Alabama, the old book that my history buff friend showed me back in undergrad. He told me that the book was about this big meteor shower that fell in Alabama, and that afterwards everyone was very proud of the event. They liked to brag about it, and would tell northerners that the stars falling on them had made them so strange.

A few years ago this motto was on the license plates for the state. And I loved having this phrase replace the “Heart of Dixie” slogan. I imagined all of these people in Alabama proudly driving around, knowing they were weird and being okay with that.

I am trying to honor this weirdness in my writing. Trying not to write characters that I think everyone would be comfortable meeting. Because those aren’t the people I know, and they aren’t the ones I want to live with on the page.

Writing Rhythms

I’m up to my neck in short story revisions at the moment. Which means less of the fun “I’ll fix this problem later!” typing, and more “Crap, how do I fix that problem?” staring at my computer screen. I have twelve stories I’m mending at the moment, making sure that the stories have forward movement and clarity, their backs sewn up into fulfilling arcs.

There’s a lot riding on these twelve little stories. They comprise my thesis for my MFA degree. When they’re finished, I will have to defend them in front of a panel of university professors. My thesis and its defense will determine whether or not I will be able to graduate with my MFA degree. And I need my degree to get a job teaching composition (and hopefully someday creative writing) at the community college and/or university level.

I have also taken the “all or nothing” approach to finishing my thesis. I quit my job working for a non-profit, where I worked 50+ stressful hours per week, and am now living on my student loan. So I have to make these days, hours, minutes, and moments count. Because I am paying for them, with interest.

The problem with this is that I have a hard time stepping away from work. Even if I am not physically sitting in front of the computer, my mind is still working away at my story problems. It’s difficult to turn off the “how do I fix this story?” stress level.

Recently, I tried implementing a new kind of writing rhythm into my daily writing schedule. This advice came to me from Ellen Sussman’s article “A Writer’s Daily Habit: Four Steps to Higher Productivity” published in the Nov/Dec 2011 issue of Poets & Writers. 

One of Sussman’s suggestions is to use “the unit system” :

Each unit is one hour of time. For the first forty-five minutes of that hour, you write. You do nothing but write. You don’t stop writing. Then, no matter where you are at the forty-five-minute mark, you get up from your desk. You take a fifteen-minute break and you do something that lets you think about the work but doesn’t allow you to actually do the work. 

Before I read this article, I had been dividing my days into two giant groups of time – working on thesis time and rest of life time. But I wasn’t ever able to really transition from one to the other. I’d dread sitting down at the keyboard, because I was stressing over my stories constantly. I would already feel like I’d been working on writing before I even opened up the Word document.

But forty-five minutes – that’s a manageable amount of time. I can push myself to be actively productive for a forty-five minute stretch, if I know that I can get up and walk around at the end of it. In those fifteen minutes I do the little chores that let my mind take a break. I feed the cats, do the dishes, check the mailbox. Sometimes I dance. And when I come back to my story on the start of a new hour, I feel newly energized. I don’t always have Aha! moments after those 15 minutes, but the knots in my stories are usually a little bit looser, easier to pull apart and straighten out.

Making the transition between conscious writing time, and non-actively writing time, several times a day has helped me step away from the story world more fully at the end of the day. In the evenings I still read stories and novels, observe the world around me, and do all of those other activities that help nourish writing. But I take a few hours to breathe, to tell myself that the stories are coming together. And the next day I’m rested, ready to sit down and start to work.

Even if you only have an hour a day to write, I think this is a great system to try. I know that for myself, it is easier to be productive when I know that there’s a break – or a change, no matter how small – looming just over the horizon.

Tools & Talismans for 2012

 My writing goals for 2012 include a few tasks that I’ve been shirking on, and several new endeavors that will throw me out of my comfort zone:

  • Finish my MFA thesis
    • Submit these stories until they are published or I run out of suitable markets
  • Learn more about writing novels
    • Begin writing a novel
    • Workshop the first 5,000 words of a novel and the novel outline at DeepSouthCon
  • Attend at least one big convention (AWP & World Fantasy Convention are my top choices)
  • Continue to workshop stories with my Clarion West classmates
  • Read more & seek out new authors
  • Be more involved with my local geek community: writing, sci-fi, gaming 

In order to reach these goals, I’ve got a few tools that I found in 2011 that I will carry into the new year:

  • Book: The Productive Writer: Tips & Tools to Help You Write More, Stress Less, & Create Success by Sage Cohen – I love this book. It isn’t a craft manual. There aren’t essays on how to strengthen your characters or structure your story. Instead, Cohen has written a guide on how to structure your life so that you have the time to write, and gives you advice on how to focus that time. One of my favorite lines: “I have come to appreciate schedules as little maps of the possible to guide us in the deep and sometimes overwhelming waters of time.”  
  • Podcast: Writing Excuses – 15 mins of fun and inspiration with working authors. It’s kind of like eating a quick snack with a bunch of writers at a workshop. I’ve been listening to an episode before I settle down to write. 
  • Magazine: The New Year’s Guide to an Inspired Writing Life.” Poets & Writers Magazine, Jan/ Feb 2012 Issue – I admit that I do not always read the articles in Poets & Writers, but the current issue has several articles that I have found very helpful. From revision, to making a reading list, to having a distraction-free workplace, this issue has helped me look at my daily writing tasks in a new light. “It’s true that the longest distance in the universe is from the mind to the tips of your fingers” (from Jeremiah Chamberlin’s article “Inspired Revision: Writing as an Act of Discovery”). 
  • Online Image:You just gotta fight” quote by Ira Glass – I printed this quote, taped it to the front of my notebook, and took it with me to Clarion West. A great reminder that working your way towards your best creativity takes time, so keep making things even if they don’t live up to your expectations just yet.
  • Writing Groups:  Setting goals means much more to me when I have people waiting on me to reach them. So in 2012 I’m going to make an effort to be more involved with my online and local writing groups. I’ll have to have finished stories to show to these groups, and knowing that others will be reading/ hearing my work will encourage me to make sure that work is tight and well-written. 

As for talismans, I’ve got my Clarion West certificate beside my desk, reminding me that I’ve reached one goal, and that I can reach others.

What resources are you using to meet your writing goals this year? I’d love to hear about them. 🙂

Have a Geeky Holiday!

I love my library.

Definitely for the books, where would I be without them? But also for all of the awesome events and programs that the library organizes to make me feel more connected with my community.

Right now the library is decorated with about thirty Christmas trees, all sponsored by community organizations. These organizations decorate the tree with club-themed ornaments and have informational displays and brochures by their tree. It makes the whole library feel festive, safe, and warm.

All of the trees are lovely, but there’s one that is my favorite.

This is the tree sponsored by my local chapter of Starfleet – the USS Wernher von Braun. I took one of the brochures home, and it made me smile for the rest of the day. I’m going to their meeting in January to see what the club is all about, and just to meet new people who like to talk Trek. 
Here’s a closer look at some of the ornaments:
Kirk overwhelmed with tribbles!
Astronaut outside the shuttle bay doors
Rocket launch, complete with fire and dust cloud at takeoff

Aren’t these awesome? I’m so glad my local Star Trek group has a tree at the library, so that I can daydream about having my own geek tree someday. 

Here’s hoping your holiday is full of the people you love and all of the geekery your heart desires!

Looking Back on a Year of Writing

The VerisimiliToad eager to start writing on the first day of Clarion West 2011.

This has been a great personal year of writing. A large part of this is due to attending Clarion West this past summer. The workshop gave me energy, insight, and friendship with 17 of the most talented writers I have ever met.

As for publications and acceptances, I had one short story accepted at a small literary journal. I’m very excited, because this short story is one I worked very hard to complete. My mentor, Gerri Brightwell, guided me through the revision process, continually asking questions that made me dig deeper into my character and his motivations. I’ve written many pages in my life, but I consider “In Miniature” to be my first real short story, where the characters, the plot, and all of those other little pieces came together to make a whole. It will be published in 2012 in the River Oak Review.

My friends from Clarion West have had a great year, full of professional sales and prestigious awards. I’m continually learning from them, and also just having a wonderful time reading their stories.

Here’s to a great year of learning, making friends, and writing! I know 2012 will be just as grand. 🙂

Corinne Duyvis
    S.L. Gilbow
    • “Alarms.” Lightspeed Magazine. 2012. 
    • “The Old Terrologist’s Tale.” The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction. May/ June 2011. 
    Sarah Hirsch

    • “A Dancer for Aonou.” Kaleidotrope. 2012. 
    • The Nightmare Eater.” The Colored Lens. December 2011. 

    Cassie Krahe

    Jei D. Marcade
    Jenni Moody
    • “In Miniature.” River Oak Review. 2012. 
    Jack Nicholls
    • Katherine Susannah Prichard Speculative Fiction Award, 2011.
    Mark Pantoja
    David Rees-Thomas
    • Reads “Kavar the Rat” by Thomas Owens, Pseudopod, Episode #249
    • Reads “Still Small Voice” by Ben Burgis, Podcastle, Episode #181

    Maria Romasco-Moore

    • “Fisheye.” Fish. Dagan Books. 2012.
      Jeremy Sim
      • Octavia E. Butler Memorial Scholarship, 2011. 
      Anne Toole
      • “The Red Bandit.” The Digital Wall. 2012. 
        • Reprint of “Night in the Library”. Originally published in Crossed Genres, February 2009Issue #3. 
      • “Accidents Happen” and “The Voices” for Me2. 2011. 
      Nick Tramdack

        Making a Journal Your Own

        I’m fickle with my journals. 
        I’ll buy them, write in them for a day or two, and then buy a new notebook that has a nicer cover, better pages, a spine that falls open more easily. Once I’ve got three or four half-written in journals around the house, I’ll finally settle down into making one of them more approachable. 
        Blank pages are terrifying. So are slick, mass produced covers. 
        My best-used journal to date is one I accidentally spilled diet coke on. The bottom of most of the pages have a light brown shadow cascading across. Once the pages had that small stain, they weren’t as terrifying. I wrote in that journal for all of my years taking classes at UAF, going to readings, discussions with friends about books we’d read,  and that stained journal became my common-place book for my graduate studies. 
        So making your journal less pristine helps. But if you aren’t willing to go that route, you might also try giving your journal a new cover. 
        This is a cover I made for my new journal this weekend. Knowing that it won’t be mistaken for someone else’s, that there isn’t another one like it anywhere, gives the journal a wonderful feeling of discovery. The kind that you feel as a kid when you find a secret hiding place. I want to write in it, and I’m not afraid of marking on the pages. Because let’s face it – this journal is totally my friend now. 
        I started out with a journal I bought for $10 at Target. This is what the cover looked like. I loved the nice binding on the side, like an old library-edition book. 
        Also of super-importance: the pages were lined, and not too busy with extraneous illustrations taking up the corners. I also liked that the spine fell open easily. It makes writing in cars, and anytime you have the journal propped on your lap, much easier. 
        I had picked up two free books months ago at the Friends of the Library used bookstore. There’s this little box right by the door, and usually it’s just full of AAA Road Maps and tiny New Testaments. But on that day there were these awesome books. 

        I dug these out of my “someday I’ll make an awesome craft out of this” bin, and read through the pages with my Exacto blade ready to cut the illustrations free.

        Once I’d decided on the ones I liked, and on their placement on the cover, I trimmed their edges to match the side-binding and glued them down with purple glue. Then I covered the pages with clear packaging tape, to protect them from wear and tear. 
        And hooray! New journal. One that I’m not afraid to write in. 
        Plus, these images from two different books are beginning to speak to each other.  I’m starting to think up a story about this shady guy, 
        what the rats are saying to each other, 
        and what message the riders bring. 

        Show Me Something Interesting

        This weekend I went to the North East Alabama Craftsman Association (NEACA) craft show with my mom and boyfriend. I’ve been going to this craft show for several years, and I see many of the same vendors there year after year. 
        Some of the vendors are wonderful. They make crafts with heart and wit and skill. 
        My favorite lady at the NEACA craft shows is one who makes old-style holiday themed dolls and such. I can’t tell you her name, because she doesn’t have a business card or any tags sewn into her work. 
        This is a snowlady that my mother bought for me last year at the craft show. 
        I love her. She has so much character and charm. It is a little hard to see in this photograph, but she has eyelids over her button eyes. Her dress isn’t brand new, the lace is crumpled and the satin looks like it has been worn for centuries. Her little mouse friend has wooden stick-arms, and his fabric body has been dipped in wax and baked. Everything in this artist’s booth looks as if it has come out of an old chidren’s book, where adults were mean and cold and you weren’t sure the story would end happily. 
        When my mother bought the snowlady, I told the artist how much I loved her work. Her husband was standing behind the booth, and he overheard me. 
        “She’s got pieces of these things all around the house, baking in the oven, drying in the bathroom.” He said. 
        I love the image of art being in pieces all around a person’s home, and of her bringing all of those pieces together to make a piece of art, a craft, that is singular and delightful.
        Yet there are other booths at the craft fair that we pass by and whisper, “I could do that.” We hear ourselves echoed in other people, “I know how to do that.” 
        A canvas bag with an iron-on image of Pooh Bear traced in gold puff-paint. 
        A plastic glass with a monogrammed initial stuck to the outside.
        A bag of marshmallows labeled as “Snowman Poop” with a rhyming poem attached.
        I do not know if my snowlady is made with the best stitching, if the techniques for aging her clothes and rat companion came out the way they were meant. But she makes me smile each Winter when I pull her out of storage and set her in my living room.
        She holds together. She’s interesting. She has Story. 
        And that’s all it takes to make me come back to the snowlady maker’s booth each time, excited to see what’s new. 

        The Little I Know about NaNoWriMo

        November is almost over, and those participating in National Novel Writing Month are in the final push to meet the 50,000 word count goal.

        I’m not participating in NaNo this year, but I’ve been paying attention to people who are writing their first, third, or many-enth novel as part of the celebration. I’ve had a fuzzy vision of NaNoWriMo for years as an activity people participate in all alone. Maybe they put a logo up on their blog or tweet their word count, but otherwise they might as well be writing in any other month of the year. This year I realized that NaNo is about more than just setting a high goal and going for it. It helps you build an accessible community of writers – locally and online.

        My local NaNoWriMo group held writing meetups every Monday night at the public library. Participants gathered together and wrote on their individual stories. In other (perhaps larger) cities, they held writing meetups several times a week.

        Why are writing meetups such a good thing? Because it is a time you set aside when you tell your family, friends, and the world “I am not available right now. I’m writing.” For many of us, this can be hard to do in everyday life. At Clarion West Nancy Kress told me that it is difficult for people to accept this concept. Your loved ones want to be with you (that’s why they’re your loved ones!), and they don’t always understand why you want to be alone in a room making up stories instead of being with them.

        But a writing meetup seems to me like a type of mini-residency. For two or three hours, you’re whisked away to an island. And the best thing about this island?

        All the other people on it are writers.

        Being around other writers is one of the best motivational tools I know of for reaching your writing goals. It lets you know that writing isn’t such a weird, hopeless thing to do. And there’s a camaraderie that you only find with your artistic peers.  When a fellow writer asks you “How is your story going?” it isn’t a polite question. It’s a conversation starter. At UAF, I had some of the most helpful story discussions in the elevators of the English building on the way to class with my fellow students. Characters I’d grown tired of writing came alive again in the hallway of the 8th Floor of the Gruening Building as I walked from the printer back to my desk, all because I  happened to pass another MFA student on the way and they asked me “How’s your writing going?” The same kind of conversations happened at lunch, at 4:30AM on my way for a glass of water, anytime and anyplace at Clarion West.

        Physical proximity with other writers transforms our work from the impossible to the attainable, from thick forest into a path.

        Intellectual proximity can be just as helpful. There’s Google+ hangouts, which are awesome in the way things of the future should be, but it’s here now. If you don’t have a  NaNo group in your area, you can create a Google+ NaNo hangout with your writing friends from around the world. Mary Robinette Kowal, author of Shades of Milk and Honey, created a Google+ hangout while she was at her local NaNo writing meetup. People could write along with the group, and then chat with each other during the breaks.

        No matter where you are in the world, if you have the internet then you can find the NaNo resources to connect with other writers. And once the month is over, you’ll have a strengthened community that you can turn to through the rest of the year as you revise your novel or begin work on other projects.

        Now that I have a better understanding of how NaNoWriMo works, I’m excited to start planning ahead for next year.

        Another great result of National Novel Writing Month is all of the discussion it prompts about how we write. Here are some of the great blog entries about NaNoWriMo that I’ve come across this year:

        Ashley Cowger, MFA Classmate and author of Peter Never Came
        Entry for Sunday, October 30th, 2011

        Sarah Hirsch, Clarion West 2011 Classmate
        “The Dark, Grey Month of November – Finally!”
        (This is the first in a series of posts about Sarah’s NaNoWriMo experiences.)

        Mary Robinette Kowal, author of Shades of Milk and Honey
        “Shades of Milk and Honey was a NaNoWriMo Novel”
        Pep Talk