How to Fake Clarion

So this happened this morning.

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 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.

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Confusion 2016: Here I Come!

Confusion 2016 is coming! And it is a conference! In Detroit! (Actually in Novi, Michigan, so named because it was stop number six on the rail line. ...Wait for it...)

Best of all I am going to Confusion! And also I am on programming! And here is my schedule! I mean if you like that kind of thing.

Saturday 11am Crossing the Streams
Where are the lines in genre conventions and what happens when we cross them? What needs to happen to make something a crossover vs. a fusion? Do transmedia projects and genre fluidity benefit the genre? How does crossover in media experiences and production impact the kinds of stories we see on the screen?

Saturday 12pm There's an App For That?!
Is the ability to interact with online applications a determining factor of human productivity?  What are the benefits and pitfalls of app-based interactions with the world around you?

Saturday 2pm Any Similarity to Real People is Completely Coincidental
It's easy to pretend that made up worlds shrug off the bias and stereotypes of our reality. Orcs and Elves, Drow and Ogres, and dozens of other constructs grounded in bigoted world views say different. What can we learn from these mistakes? How do we keep these stereotypes from bleeding through into our made up worlds.

Saturday 3pm Something Something Self-Driving Cars
Listen I don't have the official description but I am on this panel and it is the one thing I session I super wanted to be on because I lurrrrrrve to talk about self-driving cars so come on by and see me get excited about not ever having to drive again!

Saturday 5pm Autograph Session 2
OMG I could sign things! Like books! Or postcards! Heck, I'll even sign someone else's books if you like!

Saturday 7pm The Aftermath of Canon
Star Wars recently relegated all of its Expanded Universe fiction to non-canon, which was tantamount to betrayal for many fans. Aftermath, a novel in the new canon, was met with many reviews that could not come to grips with a Star Wars that included gay characters. How well did Disney handle their canon situation? And is there a place for fiction that services its readers' bias?

Sunday 10am Singularity for the Rest of Us
Is post-humanism really as straight, white, and Western as it often seems? How can science fiction talk about post-body identities without diminishing or dismissing embodied identity and experience? This panel will discuss the stories out there that complicate the uploaded experience.

As you can see, Saturday is jam-packed, so if you want to say hi, maybe track me down Thursday or Friday? I'm just saying your odds of a quality schmooze will be way higher. And on that note: see you there!

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Van Halen, M&Ms, and Accessibility Policies

Van Halen famously had a rider on their touring contract that stipulated there must be a bowl of M&Ms backstage -- with all the brown ones picked out. But despite appearances, this wasn't ego run amuck. That contract rider also had complex technical specifications for electrical systems, clearance, even how much weight the girders must be able to support.

Once Van Halen arrived to set up a show, any brown M&M was a quick red flag that the venue hadn't read the contract carefully, and so probably wasn't complying with those detailed technical requirements, either. And while a brown M&M might not be poison, those technical requirements were literal showstoppers. Electrical fires are not rock 'n roll.

This brings me to accessibility policies, and more specifically to Mary Robinette Kowal's pledge not to go to a convention that lacks such a policy. Seriously, stay with me.

Some years ago, John Scalzi made a similar pledge regarding harassment policies. At the time, I worried that participating would be damaging to my career -- when you're a tiny fish in a wide blue ocean, you have to take all the publicity you can get your grubby mitts on.

I've been to a lot more conventions since then, and here's what I've learned: the sort of convention that can't be bothered with a harassment policy is likely going to have serious organizational problems, weird politics, dull programming, or some combination thereof. It's true I'm very early in my career as an author, and I can't afford to miss out on promotional opportunities. 

But the flip side of that is that as an early-career author, I pay my own way to conventions. I have only so much time and money to give, and there are so many, many conventions. So I need to budget carefully to make sure I get the most bang for my promotional buck. I really can't afford to go to a lousy convention.

Which means harassment and accessibility policies are increasingly important to me -- not just because they're morally right, not just because of my leftist SJW politics. Even if you're not worried about harassment yourself, even if you're not worried about accessibility yourself, if those policies are missing, that should be your brown M&M. The sign that what you're dealing with is very likely to be a shitty convention. 

Sign the pledge.

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LonCon3, A Retrospective

This weekend I've been to LonCon3, my second WorldCon. I went last year and had a lot of misgivings. This year erased those misgivings entirely.

What a great experience. What a great con. Let me count the ways.


Last year, I wrote about how LoneStarCon3 made me feel... uneasy. At pushing 40 I felt young there, and to be honest, I felt like I didn't entirely belong. Some of that is me and my own baggage and social anxieties, of course. I don't for a second think that there's an intentional xenophobia wherein the Powers That Be are trying to aggressively chase away the gamers and the younguns. It's just that established social groups and institutions behave in ways that over time can feel that way. The only cure is to aggressively work toward inclusivity -- or as I called it last year, a "certain mindful attention."

LonCon3 hit that target for inclusivity, and they hit it hard. I felt welcome at LonCon, even when I was at a loose end and alone. I had any number of lovely conversations with people I didn't know, outside of any context where they'd have any reason whatsoever to care who I might be, and I never for a second felt edgy or defensive about whether I belonged there.

This might just be me, but it wasn't as lonely around the edges.

There was a fantastic gaming track. There were people across a tremendously wide age spread. People of all body types and abilities. People from a pretty broad variety of interests and fandoms. It was still pretty white, and I'd like to see that shift more, but I could tell the con had worked very hard to invite people in.

Respect. Mad respect. Progress has been made. I hope future cons work that hard.

No Room Parties ZOMG

My #1 favorite innovation of LonCon3? The fan village. Traditionally, in the evenings, a convention retreats to the hotel. Publishers, cities bidding to host a future Worldcon, and various other interest groups book hotel rooms and suites specifically to host parties. So the night life at an SF/F con happens in hotel rooms. 

Last year, I made a list of how to make newcomers feel more welcome at a con, and #3 was getting parties out of the hotel rooms. In retrospect I'd change that to #1.

At LonCon 3, they took over a huge exhibition space in the convention center and scattered a bunch of tents, tables, and seating areas across it to create a number of open but contiguous social spaces. It was open and welcoming. There was never a sense that you might be intruding on something that maybe kinda you hadn't really been invited to. It was less crowded, and less hot, and less awkward.

And best of all, if a creeper was bothering you, it was super easy to make an escape without climbing over a bed, or making a scene trying to push your way through a packed ear-to-elbow room or hallway. (This did not happen to me, but I do look for my escape routes, because doesn't everyone?)

Having seen the fan village concept, I think it's a great idea. The BEST idea. If we had a vote, mine would go toward "always do a central fan village, and abolish room parties for big cons for all time."

Room parties served a great purpose a long time ago -- when your con is for a hundred or so people who more or less know each other already, it's a great way to save money while still creating designated con-specific semiprivate festive spaces. They were a great innovation for the time, and solved a lot of problems fairly elegantly. But they don't scale very well to environments with many thousands of people who don't know each other and may have strongly differing views on what the social contract says is acceptable behavior.

Seriously, conrunners, pay attention to this. That fan village was a million times more inclusive and safer than a room party could ever be. If it's not in the budget, find a way to make it work.


And by way of addendum, it's people. WorldCon is made of people.

Special shout-outs to Naomi Alderman, Adrian Hon, Mur Lafferty, Zalia Chimera, Justin Landon, and Chris aka Cerulean Selachian, who all went above and beyond at various points to make me feel incredibly welcome and taken care of, in some cases far more than I actually merit.

I'd also like to name-check all of the frankly spectacular people I met, but such a listing would be prone to failure, amount to obnoxious humblebragging, and would probably only interest me anyhow.

Mostly, though, memory is human and fallible, and I don't want to hurt someone by leaving them out.

I met very, very many people. Authors and bloggers I admire, Twitter friends, co-panelists, people who have played my games, friends of friends, colleagues, total strangers. I gave hugs to a lot of them, and would've hugged more in retrospect. There were people I missed entirely and regarding whom I now feel a wistful regret. There is never enough time for all the wonderful people. Even at a bad con, most of the people are wonderful.

LonCon3, I love you. Let's hang out again sometime.

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My Schedule for Loncon3

Huzzah! I'm going to WorldCon this year! And I'll be talking about memes, and games, and ROMANCE in games. I get to complain about TED! I get to do a workshop about expanding your story with transmedia tools! It's going to be super fun! You can tell I am enthusiastic from the exclamation points!

I will probably spend a lot of time hanging out with The Authors in whatever bar The Authors are hanging around in. But if you want to catch me doing programming, here's my schedule, all official-like:

LOLcats in Space: Social Media, Humour, and SF Narratives

Thursday 12:00 - 13:30, Capital Suite 16 (ExCeL)

This panel will focus on the challenges science fiction authors face in dealing with the plot and setting implications of social media. How do these tools affect the way stories unfold? Can writers represent the playful and ever-changing conventions of social media discussions without writing a novel that looks hopelessly dated before it even hits the shelves, and if so how? Put another way: would Kim Stanley's Robinson's 2312 have been greatly improved by a GIF of a spinning asteroid with a cat in it saying: Asteroid kitteh sez yur lint trap'z fulla cat haerz? So panel. Very discussion. Wow.

Jean Johnson, Dan McKee, Andrea Phillips, Charles Stross, Adam Roberts

Love in Games

Thursday 21:00 - 22:00, Capital Suite 9 (ExCeL)

How do we design love in games, and what does this mean? Creating meaningful relationships in games is becoming something of a holy grail, and there are many ways of representing love in, for and around games. From the heart symbol that empties as Zelda dies, to giving Morrigan presents in Dragon Age, love is a difficult thing to understand, let alone simulate it within games themselves. Yet we 'love' games - sometimes too much, and this is key to our relationship with them. Here, we look at the importance of representing and expressing such a complex concept within games. 

Ashley M.L. Brown PhD, Nicolle Lamerichs, Andrea Phillips, Mel Phillips, Ian Sturrock

Zombies Run! New Ways of Understanding Games

Friday 13:30 - 15:00, Capital Suite 2 (ExCeL)

Not all of us think of ourselves as gamers, yet it's quite likely that we've got a number of games or apps on our tablets and phones, or sneaking a quick game of solitaire between breaks. Purchases of games on apps are a huge part of gaming culture, yet many players don't like to be seen as 'gamers'. Perhaps this is because of the sterotypes that surround the image of the gamer, but app purchases also allow alternative groups of players and play style. This panel looks at app gaming, including the interactive running game, Zombies, Run! Writers and developers will discuss not only why Zombies, Run! has become such a success, but what this means in terms of the identity of the gamer.

Ciaran Roberts, Naomi Alderman, Elizabeth Bear, Andrea Phillips

We need to talk about TED

Saturday 15:00 - 16:30, Capital Suite 15 (ExCeL)

TED talks began as a way to communicate "ideas worth spreading", and have since spread to encompass a wide range of TED conferences across the globe. How well does TED do at communicating their ideas to a generalist audience? Are we missing out on interesting science that can't fit into a slick 18-minute presentation?

Chad Orzel, Sarah Dillon, Vanessa Harden, Andrea Phillips, Nickolas Falkner

Using transmedia in your writing

Sunday 12:00 - 13:00, South Gallery Pgm Room (ExCeL)

A writing workshop led by Andrea Phillips. Spaces are limited for this item and advance sign-up is required: a sign-up sheet is available at the Info Desk.

Andrea Phillips


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