For many of us, Clarion isn't in the cards. Maybe you can't leave your job for six weeks without losing the job and your home. Maybe you're the parent of a small child, or take care of an elderly or disabled relative. Maybe you have a chronic health condition yourself, or an anxiety disorder that means you wouldn't be able to travel or participate. Maybe you're saving up for a house or paying off medical debt.
Maybe you'd rather go on a proper vacation if you happen to come into a few thousand dollars in disposable income.
None of these things mean you can't be a professional writer. But the good news is, there's more than one path to being a writer, pro or otherwise.
Clarion Isn't the Only Game in Town
First off, Clarion is a six-week endeavor. There are other writer's workshops that require only one week out of your life, and are also highly regarded. Viable Paradise, for example -- and I wish I could make the time for that one. Taos Toolbox is also reportedly an excellent workshop and worth your time and money, if you have them to spare.
Even better, these retreat-style workshops aren't the only way to improve your craft. There might be a genre writer's workshop in your own town that meets once a week, or once a month. And there are critique circles online ranging from Critters to Absolute Write -- I'm sure commenters will chime in with more. If you want a workshop-style venue to have your work read, and to critically read the work of other writers in turn, there are plenty of options.
And the truth is, workshops are helpful... but they're not necessary. Far from it.
Faking a Workshop
What a workshop does for you is hone your critical eye. Simply by being exposed to excellent critical thinking, you develop the capacity to critique your own work. But you can develop a critical eye on your own, if other means don't suit you.
Read. Read widely. But don't just take in the story. As you go, consciously reflect on what you're thinking and feeling. Are you expecting the story to go in a particular direction? What exact sentence or passage led you to that belief? What made you feel excited, or sad, or tense? How are the scenes structured? How are description, dialogue, and action blended together? How long are the sentences? A story is a machine, and every part should be doing a specific job. You need to become a mechanic, able to look at each piece of the story to identify what work is being done.
Read reviews. But not of your own work -- of the stuff you're already analyzing. When you've finished a book or a story, go looking for the reactions of other people to calibrate your own antennae. In preference, read longer, analytic reviews that talk about both what a work has done and how it fits into the overall landscape of genre publishing. Deep critical analysis like you'll find on NPR Books or Tor.com are perfect, but you'll even find insightful critique on Goodreads and Amazon.
Read bad work. This is, I strongly believe, an important part of a writer's development. Read stuff you know is going to be bad. And then -- this is the important part -- analyze the hell out of it. Why is it bad? Does it fail on a sentence level, on consistency, does it fail in terms of pacing or plausibility? Sometimes we learn from mistakes better than we learn from success. You can't watch Meryl Streep and learn how to be an amazing performer, but you can watch a fifth grade play and learn that maybe you shouldn't leave your hands hanging by your sides the whole show, and maybe you should speak up a little more.
Revise. This is where you apply what you've learned. The temptation to write and immediately submit is strong, but while you're trying to actively develop your craft, resist the urge. Come back to a story after a few days, weeks, months if you can spare them, and try to read as if you'd never seen the story before. Think about everything you're learning, and apply those lessons to your own work.
Repeat. Clarion (and other workshops) are an intensive course in this kind of thinking, but even when Clarion is over, you'll need to keep doing these things forever. At least, you do if you want to keep growing as a writer. And why on earth would you ever want to stop getting better?
Clarion's Secret Sauce
Here's the real reason Clarion is a big deal: the alumni association, as it were, is a powerful and widespread network in genre publishing. Human nature being what it is, we like people who have the same experiences and affiliations as we do. And we like to help the people we like. So if you go to Clarion, some doors of opportunity are a little more open to you than they were before.
We like to tell ourselves that publishing is a meritocracy, and that's only sort of true. People do emerge from the slush pile, naked and alone. You really don't have to know someone to be published.
But at the same time, it's a bit easier to break in if you've become a familiar face -- not just because people are more willing to go to bat for a friend, but because you'll begin to understand the kinds of work different editors and markets are interested in, you'll learn from the successes and mistakes of your peers, you'll become a part of the cultural conversation that SF/F fundamentally is.
So how do you fake the network? Duh, networking! Build your own. Go to cons, if you can. Make friends. Invite people to coffee or a drink. If that's not possible for you, work social media. Follow authors, editors, agents on Twitter.
And don't be all networky and utilitarian about it, because people can tell and generally super hate that. You need to approach everything as an exercise in meeting interesting people and making friends. Promote the work you admire. Ask questions. Introduce people to each other when you can; do favors when you can. Give to the community. Give. Give. You can worry about taking later, or maybe never.
Because Clarion is, at the end of the day, just one neighborhood in the SF/F community. But there are others, and you'll find professional writers in all of them.