Deborah Bailey Answering the Clarion Call
Deborah Bailey is a writer I first met at a critiquing group at the Nottingham Writers’ Studio. She attended the Clarion Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers’ Workshop in 2012. so I thought it would be interesting to ask her about her experience with this famous workshop that is so sort after by writers, that Clarion can be very selective about who they accept.
Tell me about your publishing background.
I’ve known I wanted to be a writer since I was little, but it has been a very long and winding path to get me there. I studied politics and world history at university, so when I found my way back to writing, people I knew who’d kept going on writing path were quite a bit ahead of me.
I’d actually got into editing academic and non-fiction. So I was involved in academic publishing for quite some time, before finally quitting and becoming a freelance editor.
Over the past ten years, I have worked as a staff editor, a proofreader, a slush reader, an acquisitions editor, a developmental editor, a ghost-writer, a non-fiction self-help writer, a copywriter, and a blogger.
When I did start writing, I jumped straight into writing novels.
Did you actually find your background in academic and non-fiction writing a hindrance or help when it came to writing fiction?
50/50. Academic writing’s about removing the personal, whereas you want to get as much personality as you can into fiction writing. So in a strange sort of way seeing how to take personality out of a piece of writing also shows you how to get it in; although it was a bit like coming back to catch myself doing this. Fiction writing certainly wasn’t something I had an instant ability to do, but learning how to juggle words in what I was writing was useful.
How did you get your head into fiction writing?
It was something I’d always done in high school and when I was younger. When I was doing my PhD, I needed an operation on my back, so I had a leave of absence from the University for a month or two. I read Hyperion by Dan Simmons.
This was a revelation to me, because I’d been so involved in the academic side of writing. It was the first novel I’ve read in such a long time that I fell head over heels into the world he’d written. I rediscovered my love of reading, because I’d always liked reading as a child. I would be the one who would be found by my mother reading in the middle of the night. That’s when I started reading books under the bedclothes with a flashlight. But when you get so caught up doing academic studies, you just don’t seem to have time to read fiction.
That’s when I started writing my novel. It was dreadful. I don’t think twice about it now, but then it was a nightmare just trying to work out how get a character to walk across the room. When you’re a kid and you’re writing, you just write. It might be good it might be bad, but it doesn’t matter because you have a natural ease. You’re not self-conscious at that age about what you’re doing. When you’re adult you’re coming to it with different parts of the brain and it was an entirely different experience to the one I remembered as a child. This was very discouraging. When you’re a child making an imaginary world real is almost like a drug. I just wasn’t like that when I tried it as an adult. So it was very hard to keep myself going forward.
I was very much a hobbyist at that stage and wouldn’t show my writing to anyone for years. I wouldn’t admit that I wanted to be a writer, because it’s just something I was doing on the side. I think this was because I was scared to admit just how much I’d given up my childhood dream.
You’ve come back into writing again. Was it just the fact that you kept writing that enabled you to finish a novel? Or did you have to take certain measures in order to be able to craft it properly?
Both. The more you write the more you could look back on what you’ve previously written and see it doesn’t work. Also, I’m interested in writing and love reading books on the craft and seeing how others do it. The Internet is wonderful because of writer’s, editor’s and agent’s blogs. There are also forums where you can discuss your writing. There is so much advice out there, I just did the information junkie bit first, and I think got too much advice. It’s also easy to confuse reading about writing with the actual craft of writing. In the end I had to get myself away from that and just write. I didn’t take lessons or courses. It really was just me with a notebook on my lap and then a baby in one arm and trying to balance it all.
A lot of it was sheer bloody mindedness, because it never occurred to me to stop at that point. I just considered the endpoint was when the book was done, then I would worry about what came next. So long as I felt I was just working on my never-ending book I was happy, despite the fact I kept changing plots and characters and background more times than I care to mention. I found how to write through what did and didn’t work. For example characters emotional state in one scene didn’t suddenly match what was going to happen in another. I ended up with what I called plot-hole-whack-a-mole, where you fix one thing and this creates another problem, so you fix that problem and that creates yet another problem. This means you end up with a great big mess that has 50 million plots and nothing fits together. It ended up as a huge sprawling, tentacled jumble of a novel that I had no idea what to do with it.
That’s when I had to decide whether I was writing it for me or for an audience. It had been fun and I’m glad that in my first couple of years of writing I didn’t have to worry about thinking critically and that I’d let myself enjoy what I was doing, while I was learning and there was no pressure on me. But it was time to start thinking seriously about how I could take it to the next level. That meant thinking about things like plot structure and character arc.
I took a class, and found people who were prepared to critique my writing. I got a real shock because, for all that, on one hand, while I knew a lot, I had gaping holes because I’ve never been systematic in the way I wrote. That made it very difficult to fill in the plot holes, because sometimes people would see parts that were really well done, but then they’d be a plot hole, because parts of the story made no sense whatsoever. Five revisions back it all made sense in my head, but it’s not how you should go about structuring a story.
You ended up at the Nottingham Writer’s Studio (NWS). How has that helped your writing?
It’s been really good, in terms of helping my writing. I joined a critique group, which I’ve now been going to for about two and half years, because that was about the time I decided to get really serious about my writing. It’s funny how things come together, because I’d gone to a free workshop and through it found out about the NWS, so I came to the social and decided to join.
There were 15 people at the first meeting, after which there was a slow attrition until there are now a core of six of us. It really amazed me how much careful reading by my fellow writers has improve my writing. Reading other people’s writing and having to analyse it also helps your writing enormously. The benefit of a critique group is not just the feedback that you get on your own work, which is incredibly helpful. But it is also critiquing other people’s work, because you have to require a particular vocabulary and mental framework and apply them to do the job properly. This is because you have to understand how to pull apart a story and know what it means when someone’s character arc is working in terms of the moment of change and the resolution. So you can’t really act on criticism without having given it yourself, because they are two halves of the learning process of how to pull apart a story. It’s very different to literature classes where you analyse things as a reader, because as a writer you look for different things.
What are these differences?
I think the differences are because writers don’t really think in terms of theme. I don’t think writers think in terms of symbolism. I don’t think they think about parallel characters or mirror characters, or a lot of the things that literature analysis looks at. I think a lot of writers are quite surprised when something like this is discovered in their work, because it was more that their subconscious was at work there. They are things that are necessarily plotted out all they are intentionally. They might be noticed in the second or third draft and played at, but I really don’t think they’re considering this when they work through the first draft. They may have a general theme and every time they come to the plot twist they may consider whether it fits their theme.
So critiquing as a writer does make you judge differently. You can read something that’s a really good idea that’s poorly written. Or you can read something that is beautifully written but isn’t a very good story. If you look at classics that are supposed to be beautifully written and the number of classics that kids consider boring, you have to look at how stories are written today to see why they might find them boring.
Would you say that if somebody wants to write that they really need to be in touch what’s being currently written?
Depending on what you want to write I think you should definitely be in touch with what’s being written now, because it tells you if your idea has been done to death. Writing is a conversation with readers. As far as science fiction is concerned it’s also a conversation with your fellow writers, because it’s such a small community. People may write about similar things that could be five different approaches to the same idea. But if you don’t know what these people have written, you’re going into it blind. Why would you want to go into a genre that you don’t enjoy reading?
How did you get on to the Clarion course?
You have to apply, and it’s very competitive. I was shocked how competitive it was. I had to send into short stories and an essay. I think they probably get a couple of hundred, if not more applications but only 18 get in each year.
Everyone who’d done it before had said how amazing it was, and that’s absolutely true, because you get to do nothing but write, surrounded by other incredible writers. Your classmates are right there with you and are at exactly the same stage as you in their writing careers. Normally if you’re a critique group or class, everyone’s at different levels. But at Clarion, there has to be a certain mastery of writing going in. You not at the stage of needing to figure out whether something’s ‘show or tell’, or what point of view you’re using. You’re writers who are ready to move from intermediate to entry-level professional. It’s about kicking you up that final notch, because you not quite there yet.
The instructors are incredible. We had Jeffrey Ford, Delia Sherman, Ted Chiang, Walter Jon Williams, Holly Black and Cassie Clare. Every one of them has won awards. Cassie Clare’s ‘Mortal Instruments’ book has been made into a movie.
They were just so giving of their time. To hear them critique from such a high level gave us that new vocabulary of critiquing that I was talking about earlier. Sometimes when you’re used to being a beginner, you know a certain level of writing, and you can produce very good beginner level writing, because that’s all anyone has expected of you and that’s what a lot of classes try to teach to beginners. Then you start to submit your stories for publication and you get good rejections, but they’re still rejections and it’s hard to know what you need to do, because you need the next level of vocabulary. This is what Clarion does. It shows you this very clearly and helps you learn how to do it for your own writing and other people’s writing, so that you can get it up to the next level.
It is very emotionally draining and gruelling to hear something that you think you’ve done well being critiqued at such a high level. It’s about giving you a whole new framework for analysing stories. It looks deeper, pushes harder and asks more difficult questions. You can’t do that if you’re not willing to question what you already know or are prepared to give up what you already know.
I went in to Clarion thinking ‘Ok. I’m a fairly well rounded writer.’ I knew I had some holes and issues that I needed to work on. What Clarion taught me was that I had one gaping, giant hole and lots of really good coping mechanisms. So the experience for me was a lot of stripping away those coping mechanisms to deal with a very essential fact that I did not know how to structure a story. It goes back to that big sprawling draft where I kept chucking things in and trying to tuck the edges in so that they didn’t show to make it look like a story. This is where working on novels rather than short stories came back to haunt me, because I was used to huge ideas and pages of writing to set up the first act. We had to write six short stories in six weeks. Throughout this time we were critiquing our classmates’ stories and sleeping and hanging out with our classmates, as well is going to readings, with other people who had to just drop by like John Scalzi and Vernor Vinge. So you don’t want to be missing out on this, but at the same time you don’t want to turn in bad stories, because this is the chance for you to get feedback from amazing writers and your classmates. So it’s a very intense six weeks which felt like a year.
What sort of tools do they give you to work with?
I’ve written about some of this on my blog. The whole course was very well structured, even though the teachers don’t seem to coordinate with each other. Jeff Ford came in week one and made us write a thousand words of a story to present. He went through the sentence by sentence. He asked us what the sentence was telling us, word by word. He would say ‘Ok, you’ve chosen this verb. Is this the best verb or is there another verb that could work better? What are you trying to do with this verb? Let’s think of five other verbs we could use in this sentence. Ok now you’ve used ‘the’, is ‘a’ or ‘an’ better? Let’s see.’ He would rip each sentence apart, for its word choice.
Our sentences got so much better when we realised that every word and sentence has to do three things, reveal character, advance the plot and to create a theme or setting. In a short story every sentence should be doing these three things. You need to remove all the flab and stop being sloppy with your sentences. You need to consider all these layers of meaning because they are the foundation of your story. If you don’t have a good toolset and use them properly and practice them, just like a professional golfer or a painter will do, then they’re not going to improve. Writers have to practice using words to create different effects.
We also talked about how to work out what size and idea is, because it’s like a jewel that needs the right setting. Is it going to be in a big necklace or one exquisitely cut ring? Have you got a short story idea or is it big enough for a novel? How do you tell the difference? What do you want to make of it?
Delia Sherman came in and talk about what to do once you have a rough draft. By that time we’d all written our first Clarion stories. They have been written in a week, by sleep deprived people. She talked about how when you have a rough draft, how’d you know what the story wants to be, because everything changes in drafts. What story is your heart trying to tell you? What hints of your subconscious at telling you what direction the story is going to go? What is it trying to be that you might not even know you going to write yet? That’s part of not just accepting that you have a fairly decent story, but you need to look deeper. What more could the story be? What’s trying to break out from underneath it? She also told us how to identify this and how, as a critiquer to ask those questions.
Ted Chiang talked about two different aspects, firstly the science in science fiction. It’s not just a matter of thinking up the coolest thing you can think of. Science fiction has an important history of thinking about politics, sociology, biology and chemistry. It’s important but, as writers, we mustn’t let it weight us down, nor must we be pretentious with it. But it is important to think it implications of those things, such as ethical dilemmas that are posed by science, as it becomes more integrated with our daily lives. Science fiction writing is actually about today’s world and today’s issues. He also talked about character. This was that the point where I was panicking about the fact that I had a problem with plot. We had an hour-long individual meeting with our tutor each week and I’d reached the point where I was desperate to know what you put in the story. It was no problem to Ted Chiang, he was very kind, and told me that he started with the character. If you know whose story it is and what their journey is going to be, the only things that support that journey in the story. So he started with an ethical dilemma, a science issue that he wants to explore with his character and figures out what situation best explores that. That was a revelation moment for me, and just what I needed to hear to start put everything together.
Walter John William came in the following week. He is known as ‘the professional typewriter’. He told us that being a professional working writer who goes the distance isn’t just about writing your favourite stories. You have to understand the whole industry. You need to understand market trends and writing for the market and all that business side of writing. It’s an interesting perspective, because we had to think about how we were going to sell what we were writing.
The last two weeks are always taught by two people together. This is more about tying everything up and looking about, once you have it finished doing the revision, making sure we don’t have plot holes, and that the story is asking interesting questions, and whether the character arc is working. Holly Black had this great saying ‘protagonists have to protag.’ This means are they active in the story? This is an important thing to ask because three drafts in and you may suddenly realise you have a problem with the basic structure of the story. You have to look at all those sorts of things and make sure that every part of the story is heading in the right direction and telling the same story. Making sure that your theme is working together with your setting, and that your pacing is right is also important. All these things have to work in harmony for a completed story. At that point we had worked on all of those aspects individually and we needed to pull them all together. We each had different areas of strengths and weaknesses, so it was really good to bring everything together.
What have you done since Clarion?
I’m self-employed as an editor, so in the year after Clarion, I cut my work write down. I lived in poverty for a year to concentrate on writing my fiction. I did not want to have to fit it in at the margins, like you do when you’re working full time. I got through several drafts of the novel and revised about four of the six stories I did when I was Clarion. I also wrote five new stories. I made my first professional fiction sales. So I just lived, and wrote fiction. Coming out something like Clarion, this was the best thing for me to do. I really needed all that focus just to pull everything together I’d learnt.
Some of the people at Clarion were so much more polished than I was and were ready to go on and start selling right away and look more at other professional opportunities, but I really needed to address the gaping hole at the centre of my writing.
It was bittersweet to see the new Clarion class get accepted and follow their journey over the summer. I couldn’t believe it had been a year. I’m still so close with all my classmates. We’re still very much in daily, if not weekly contact. We critique one another’s stories and have one another’s backs. Moving forward on the journey with these people has been amazing as well, because they’ve seen the insides of your soul, which is really what it comes down to when you’re critiquing stories at that pace and at that level, and you’re tearing apart one another’s babies. You end up trusting them. That’s the thing, having your story critiqued and accepting that forms a trust. To trust someone to try and get what you’re saying without turning it into their story, or trust someone to look at an idea, and not laugh at it, is really important.
It’s also when a story idea is in your head, it’s so beautiful, but when you put it on paper it’s not. You have to remove the Elven glamour from your eyes, and learn to see the story that’s only on the page and not what it is on your head. That’s something that beginning writers have trouble seeing. The story on the page seems to automatically match what’s in their head, but it doesn’t. It doesn’t mean it can’t, but it’s a lot of work to get it there, because they’re so many things that automatically come together in the movie or the slideshow this in your head. They don’t always work together on the first try. That’s just the nature of the beast.
So was amazing to see how all the instructors were able to foster that trusting environment. They made it clear that we were in a sacred space for sharing stories and nothing goes out of the room in terms of what you felt about people’s stories. You could say whatever you liked about them, but there is no personal involvement about it. If you didn’t like somebody’s story, you had to say why. Even then if you didn’t like it, so what? You can still critique it. The character arc has nothing to do with whether you like the story or not. Again going back to the differences between writer’s reading and reader’s reading, it’s not about whether you like the story, it’s about looking at the technical elements and seeing if they’re working, regardless of subject matter.
Deborah is currently finishing her first novel. She blogs at FourGreenSquares.wordpress.com, and you can follow her on Twitter at @4GreenSquares.