shweta_narayan (shweta_narayan) wrote,

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About Clarion applications

ETA2: Do note Jeff Vandermeer's comment below!

So if you're interested in going to Clarion, you probably already know that they're now open to applications, and will be open till March 1. And you probably also know that the instructor lineup is made of awesome.

And you might even know that the 2010ers get three of my instructors (though only two were official, my year), and that I'm totally jealous.

But there are things that aren't that clear about the process! I was going to post asking whether you guys have questions, but totally forgot to until sacredmime reminded me by asking me about it in comments to another post. So I'm yoinking the question up here and answering it as a start, and throwing this post open to any Clarion questions anyone thinks I might have a hope of being useful on.

To that end, I'm turning off comment screening for this post only.

So! sacredmime sez: I was just curious if you had advice for applicants on how to get accepted.

And I say: yes! Though obviously, grain o' salt; I am No Authority here.

The guidelines say: In addition to the application you must submit two complete short stories, each between 2,500 words and 6,000 words in length. The stories should represent your best fiction work to date.

The obvious, just to get it out of the way: respect the word count specs, and (when in doubt) go with standard SF/F ms formatting. As well as, you know, the rest of the specified guidelines. Don't screw yourself.

The less obvious: what on earth does "best" mean?

ETA-- And sometimes you just know, right? Sometimes you can go This is my strongest story and this other one is really strong and does slightly different things. And in those cases you can stop reading right now and send them in :) But sometimes you're going Argh this one is well put together and the dialogue is snappy but maybe it's a bit derivative and that one takes on hard topics and I really worked on the worldbuilding and this other one, well, I'm so proud of the writing, but because of the poetic stuff the characters are archetypal and might read as simplistic and so what do they MEAN by best? -- And in that case the rest of this post is for you -- it's pretty much what type of strengths I'd prioritize, if I were submitting stuff now.

And I think it means show them that you're reaching for the stars. Because they can teach you astronavigation, but they can't give you a rocket. So send them the stories that scare you silly. Send them something grand and ambitious, something deeply personal, something where you're taking risks. Because if you don't, it'll show, and there's no point going to Clarion unless you're willing to take maybe-terrifying risks and to fall on your face sometimes.

Here's what it doesn't mean: your perfect little stories. If you're anything like me, you've written some that are not very boundary-pushing, maybe a bit derivative, maybe trying out a technique -- you didn't take emotional risks, you tried writing something you really knew how to write, and you managed it successfully dammit and it helped you feel like a writer. These may well be your more publishable stories, and you might like some of them better than the intensely personal ones where you're saying something you care about but it's flawed; they're prettier and less uncomfortable/frustrating. You've polished the rough bits off.

But those stories are finger exercises, not sonatas.

DO send them your sonatas, even if they are flawed sonatas. I'm not saying send them a hopeless mess, or something you should still work on -- rather, err on the side of revealing your dreams. Clarion can teach you to overcome technical flaws (oh goodness can it), and I don't think the selection committee is looking for students who are already professionally publishable (Not that they'd *mind* I'm sure, but well, I certainly wasn't there yet!), but rather for a hint that, given the opportunity and resources, you might be seriously fuckin' awesome down the line.

So to sum up here: go deep.

Of course, this gets us to "What's seriously fuckin' awesome?" And that depends in large part on the people selecting the stories. So here's what the Guidelines page says about who you're sending your stories to:

Applications are judged by a review panel composed of the current Clarion anchor team of instructors (for 2010, Ann and Jeff VanderMeer); the UCSD Program Director, Donald Wesling; and one or more members of the Clarion Foundation Board.

So, I don't know what Don's looking for, and I don't know which members of the Clarion Foundation Board are reading -- but Kim Stanley Robinson read subs for my year, so do assume that it might be someone commercially successful. The Vandermeers were instructors of mine, but that doesn't mean I can read their minds (or sell them anything, y'know?)

And, while I learned a lot from them, and while I love Jeff's writing, I don't believe he is/was particularly taken with mine. (Y'know what?  This is just writer neuroses.  The following is true but he also had really good things to say about the story; and he suggested a realy interesting edit that I didn't ultimately do, but have kept in mind for other stories.  So scratch that!)  One of the words he scribbled (I think twice) on his copy of my better submission story was MELODRAMATIC.
(Oh and he was right; the narrator character was taking herself Very seriously, in a fairly gendered way. She was struggling with gender roles & expectations, so I don't see it as a flaw, but I totally grant the point.)

But there are a few things I am fairly sure of.

1) Jeff and Ann walk the balance between the "commercial" and "art" parts of fiction. They are professionals, and make smart, strategic commercial decisions, but I understand their hearts to be in the "art" side of it. Just look at Last Drink Bird Head :)
So -- they're likely to prefer your weirder stuff.

1b) This is not to say that their choices will be all about what they personally like; it does not mean you have to send them weirdness, or should force it. (And in fact, that'll show too, so don't do it.) It does mean that if you can't decide between two application stories, you might want to go for the one that's odder and more genrebendy/challenging. I understand that the selection process balances what excites instructors personally with how something could do in the biz and how well it'll interact with other good applications -- and there's only one of those we have any say in.

Being a huge fan of my anchor team, deliasherman and ellen_kushner , almost certainly helped me, because Ellen and Delia have affected how and what I write to a significant degree. But it's not like everyone in my class had even read or considered anything of theirs before applying. It was just one factor.

2) The Vandermeers laugh at rigid genre boundaries. You can tell this from anything they edit, really. It isn't to say they don't like straight genre stuff, they do -- just that they don't act like the boundaries box things in. They pointed us at plenty of awesome speculative fiction that's not categorized as such, and Jeff made us write stories with no speculative element at all. They're not gonna be impressed with genre-squee shinies for their own sake, though; in fact, Jeff said a lot of our submission stories "used genre as a crutch".

On the other hand, if you've got something interstitial, something offbeat, that you're not sure you can submit to a Genre Workshop ZOMG, chill :) You totally can.

3) Don't mail them dried squid.
Tags: advice, clarion, submission, thinky thoughts
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