Originally published in The Internet Review of Science Fiction in 2009

Attack of the Killer Sock Puppets

Six Weeks at Clarion South

by Aidan Doyle

I've always wanted to be a science fiction writer. I grew up watching Doctor Who and started writing my own stories when I was in primary (elementary) school. While my tales of a crime-fighting superhero hamburger might have amused my teachers, they didn't result in an immediate launch into the world of best-sellerdom.

In high school I started submitting short stories to Australian genre magazines. I had my first publication in a semiprozine when I was 19. Over the years I kept writing and submitting. It was hard to keep focused on writing, especially when there were distractions like world travel. At one point I went five years without writing any fiction. Some of my stories were published in semiprozines, but I didn't make any sales to professional markets.

The Clarion workshops are regarded as one of the best ways to take your writing to the next level. They are described as "intense" and can be a make-or-break experience for some. Many students have gone on to become professional writers while others have given up writing after attending. Unfortunately for Australians, attending a workshop in the US can be a very expensive undertaking.

In 2004, a group of volunteers organized the first Clarion held in Australia. Clarion South is now held in Brisbane once every two years. The organizers describe it as "the most intensive professional development program for speculative fiction writers in the southern hemisphere." It follows the same format as the US workshops—six weeks of writing and critiquing.

Along with sixteen other students, I attended Clarion South earlier this year. There were nine women and eight men, the majority in their 30s or 40s. The youngest was 21. A couple of the students were North Americans who lived in Australia. Another American had traveled to Australia to attend the workshop.

Six tutors had been scheduled, but due to a series of medical emergencies, three of them had to cancel at the last minute. While this was upsetting—most of us had been looking forward to meeting those writers—the organizers did a great job and organized some excellent replacements. Replacing the tutors at short notice placed added financial burden on the volunteer group that organizes Clarion South—and they're currently seeking donations to ensure the workshop continues in the future.

The basic format of the workshop involves critiquing three or four stories a day. Everyone is allocated two minutes each to comment on a story and the objective is to provide constructive criticism. How can the story be improved? Comments along the lines of "This story reads like it was written by a drunken monkey" are discouraged.

The writing interests of the group were skewed towards fantasy. Of the more than 100 stories critiqued, only a few were science fiction. Stories with zombies, ghosts, fairies, mermaids and unicorns were all popular, as were retellings of fairy tales. We didn't get any zombie fairy tales.

Our tutors were Australian writers Sean Williams, Margo Lanagan, Trent Jamieson and American writers Jack Dann (resident in Australia) and Jeff VanderMeer. Having a range of tutors is one of the strengths of the Clarion workshops. They each had different teaching styles and I learned a lot from all of them. Sean was particularly generous in showing us his financial records for the last twenty years, documenting how he made his living as a writer. It's not an easy task to earn a living as a professional writer in Australia. Margo showed us her collection of journals she used as a tool for inspiring story ideas. She had placed hundreds of beautiful and unusual pictures side by side. Jeff gave us advice on life as a professional writer from his new book, Booklife, one of the most useful books for writers I've read.

Sean also organized a screening of Throw Momma From the Train, a film that supposedly contains everything you need to know about writing—though, alas, I didn't learn any secret shortcuts to writing success. It seems as though there aren't any substitutes for discipline, persistence, and making time to sit down and write lots and lots of words. Although my own formula for revising a short story (add 20% more monkeys) didn't impress too many fellow students, the fact that two of the short stories nominated for this year's Hugo feature monkeys in their titles indicates there may be some hidden truth in my musings about a monkey-powered literary career.

It was great getting to know the tutors. Some of them had been raised on the same diet of TV shows I had, and others even shared my fondness for evil monkeys. One of the most memorable experiences was Jeff VanderMeer's first critique session. Some students, aware of Jeff's love of the weird, organized a sock puppet ambush. A tired and jetlagged Jeff faced a sea of students—and their decorated socks. Later, he admitted that we had broken his brain.

Although having to write a new story every week was tiring, the six weeks went all too quickly for me. I loved being immersed in a world of stories - reading, writing and talking about fiction day after day. It's not too often you find yourself sharing an apartment with people who can discuss topics such as the best way to come up with names for superheroes (arguably most of the good ones have already been taken), or how many monkeys it takes to write a horror story, or the possible uses for frozen god sperm. (Admittedly, I did get some strange looks when I asked about that).

Clarion obviously isn't for everyone. It's a big commitment in time and money and can be an intense experience. But it's one of the best ways to improve your writing. I was exposed to a wide range of writing styles and noticed faults in my own stories I hadn't seen before. One of the most valuable things about attending a Clarion workshop is that it gives you a group of writing peers that can provide encouragement and support after you leave the workshop. I made a group of lifelong friends.

I had been submitting stories for 16 years and hadn't achieved a sale to a SFWA level professional market. Within a month of finishing Clarion South I made my first professional fiction sale.