Morgan Hua

Published by Wendy Dye on

Clarion vs. Odyssey

This essay was originally published in Speculations, March 2000, issue #32. Morgan graduated from Clarion West 1993 and Odyssey 1998. His short story “Flashed Shadows” (Aboriginal SF, Fall 1996, issue #52) won second place in the Best Soft SF Contest for 1996. He currently works on cutting edge software in Silicon Valley.

You’ve heard all the rumors about Clarion, Clarion West, and Odyssey: sleep deprivation, emotional breakdowns, marriages breaking up, and instructors saying, “You will make it,” to one person, and “You will not,” to another. There are tales about students who couldn’t produce a single story during the six weeks, and of students who wowed the editor-of-the-week and got their story bought on the spot.

The myth is that one of these workshops will make you a pro.

The reality is that they are the boot camps of writing. They will compress two years of learning into six weeks.

So which workshop should you attend?

Since I went to Clarion West and Odyssey, I can tell you a little about their similarities and differences.

I went to each workshop for a different reason. I went to Clarion West in 1993 to learn more about writing, to meet authors I respected, and for validation—I had tried to write seriously for publication for two years and received only a stack of rejection slips.

When I went to Odyssey in 1998, I had one published story and an even taller stack of rejection slips. This time I wanted to hone my craft, rework my best stories, and maybe make them salable.

The workshops are very similar in some ways. All three, for example, cost about the same—about $2,000 for tuition plus housing. All three workshops follow the Milford style of critiquing—that by analyzing other people’s manuscripts and listening to other people’s comments, you would become better at analyzing your own work and thus become a better writer. During the critiquing session, the person whose manuscript is being critiqued is supposed to listen and not say a word. The other students in the workshop deliver their critiques, and the author is allowed to respond only after they’re done.

How does it feel have your baby stabbed repeatedly by your classmates with well meaning criticism, while you’re unable to say anything in its defense? Harlan Ellison described it as thousands of spiders scurrying around your brain trying to hide. Each critique is a mini-Judgement Day. You either close off your mind and think, They’re idiots, they don’t know what I was trying to say. Or you open up and think, I don’t know how I missed that, how I could have been so stupid? In either case, the usual response is to thank your fellow students and let them move onto the next story—nothing to see, please move on, ignore the mangled body and crumpled ego.

Why is this sadomasochistic ritual required?

Because it works. If a majority of your classmates make the same comments about your story, it’s most likely a problem that needs to be worked on. You’ll try to write your next story better, to avoid those twenty voices the next go around. What were the drawbacks of this method?

It’s where friends and enemies are made. Fellow students and professionals tell you the brutal truth about your work. Nothing is held back. In such an intense environment, it’s impossible to stay neutral.

At the same time, you are surrounded by writers who have the same love as you for speculative fiction. You finally feel as if you belong somewhere.

Perhaps because of the critiquing style, all three workshops create strong emotional bonds—of both love and hate. Different cliques form. Jealousy and paranoia appear in perfectly well-adjusted individuals: “Why did that person praise another’s work and trash mine? Why did that editor buy that person’s obviously inferior story? Why does that person hate me? Should I stay married? Should I relocate to Seattle?”

All the workshops give the students a chance to live together in dorms or townhouses. I discovered that those who had decided to save money by commuting regretted it; some even wound up renting a room in the dorms anyway. They found that, instead of being totally immersed in the craft, they got distracted by everyday life. They missed the in-jokes, dinner parties, movie nights, and hanging out with Nebula and Hugo winners.

So what sets the workshops apart?

Well, for starters, location. Clarion, the original, is in sweltering East Lansing, Michigan, near nowhere. Clarion West is in Seattle, Washington, the land of coffee and perpetual overcast. There are a lot of tourist attractions and non-writing distractions in Seattle. Odyssey is in stifling Manchester, New Hampshire, where the state bird is the mosquito.

Although each workshop has guest lecturers which vary each year, the teaching/ lecture formats differ considerably.

At Clarion West, each week was taught by a different lecturer: five authors and one editor. We didn’t have an itinerary, so it seemed like the lecturers taught whatever they liked. Pat Murphy taught us about the basics of storytelling; Geoff Ryman about verisimilitude; Connie Willis about writing techniques, plots, and humor; Lucius Shepard about contracts, editors, and agents; Alice K. Turner about editing; and Greg Bear about being true to the craft—“Don’t abuse your muse.”

The students lived on the same floor with one student per room. We also had a common room and kitchen where we could meet or cook. The dorms were in a bad neighborhood—in the middle of the night, drug dealers fought over their turf with guns. But at least the lecturers lived there with us!

The lecturers were available for individual conferences. We’d make an appointment to talk to the lecturer in private for an hour, about our writing or anything else that we’d wanted to discuss. Responses to this opportunity varied, from exhilaration on hearing praise from a favorite author to crushing disappointment when someone found out their favorite author didn’t bother to read all of their stories, or didn’t like them.

Each weekend, there was a welcoming party for the new lecturer—Seattle SF luminaries such as Vonda McIntyre often attended, which was a great opportunity to make contacts. On each Tuesday there was a public reading by the lecturer at the Elliott Bay Book Company.

This was how the typical day went. In the morning, we’d walk past countless coffee shops to the downtown classrooms. We’d hand in our manuscripts, pick up the stack of new manuscripts, sit in a giant ring of tables where we faced each other, get a lecture, critique manuscripts we’d picked up the previous day, have lunch, get an additional lecture, return to our rooms, read the new manuscripts, mark them up for critique, and try to write our weekly story. Rinse and repeat over a six-week period.

As the weeks wore on, the anticipation of reading a new batch of stories became dread. We had to read them no matter how badly written they were, no matter how we hated the latest magnum opus by the same author, no matter how much sleep we had or didn’t have.

By the fifth and sixth week you’re a physical and emotional wreck.

What did I get out of this?

I wrote six new stories, one per week, wrote numerous story fragments, made friends (two of whom are now married to each other and have a baby), made no enemies, and got a letter of introduction from Lucius to Ellen Datlow for one of my stories. I didn’t sell the story, but I got some nice rejection letters.

Odyssey was more structured and less stressful than Clarion West (except for Harlan’s week—see below).

At Odyssey, the students stayed in two-bedroom townhouses complete with kitchens and living rooms. Two or three students shared each townhouse. The townhouses were located on the New Hampshire College campus, in a sleepy section of Manchester.

Odyssey was taught by Jeanne Cavelos for all six weeks, which guaranteed continuity between the weeks. She was a senior editor at Dell Publishing and won the 1993 World Fantasy Award for editing the highly praised Dell Abyss line of books. Jeanne lived off-campus, so she wasn’t available after class except during her office hours.

Jeanne gave us daily handouts and weekly writing exercises—they were insightful and interesting—and we could only hand in a maximum of four manuscripts. Rewrites were acceptable. We read twelve manuscripts a week, compared to Clarion West’s nineteen.

Each week, a guest lecturer taught for one day, focusing on the specific aspect of writing covered that week: Patricia A. McKillip on character, John Crowley on point of view, Ellen Kushner and Delia Sherman (as a team) on character, James Morrow on plot, Jack Cohen (a scientist) on constructing realistic aliens, and Warren Lapine on publishing.

All of week four was taught by the legendary Harlan Ellison. A number of students chose Odyssey over Clarion because of Harlan. We had all heard the Harlan horror stories, and we all thought we knew what we were in for. We were wrong.

Harlan’s week was unforgettable.

He tried to make us write a story a day, then read and critique the eighteen other manuscripts each day as well. I only got five hours of sleep over the first two days. Harlan’s confrontational style was to either push or shame you into writing better. One student fled on the first day and never returned. Another had to go to the hospital for chest pains. One wound up crying on a couch in a fetal position.

But Harlan also introduced one student to a major literary agent and liked one story enough to give a student a letter of recommendation to one of the major magazines, though the story unfortunately didn’t sell.

Odyssey wasn’t the focused individual-study program I’d wanted, but I used it as a good opportunity to improve what I considered my best un-salable work and, in the process, uncover my weaknesses. At the end of the six weeks, Jeanne analyzed our progress and summed up our strength and weaknesses for further self-improvement.

What did I get out of Odyssey? I revised and polished one trunk story, got good feedback on three other rewritten stories, and wrote seven new stories. I picked up a few gems about writing and discovered several things about my writing that I had to work on. I made friends, made no enemies, and fed precious bodily fluids to the insatiable state bird.

After both Clarion West and Odyssey, almost everybody got writer’s block. Nothing we wrote was good enough, because our internal editors were stuck in overdrive. Some people got blocked for six months. Some never wrote again. I’ve heard similar reactions from Clarion in Michigan.

Odyssey tries to help with Post Odyssey Depression (POD) by having a yearly reunion where students are invited to a one week critique-fest. They also have a weekly submission list for online critiques.

Both groups send out newsletters, which help keep the students in touch with each other.

One of the prime benefits of these workshops is the bond created with other students. Just like the people who have graduated from the same college or were members of the same fraternity or sorority, there is an instant tie between graduates of all years of Clarion and Odyssey.

Graduating from Clarion or Odyssey also gives you a stamp of quality. A large number of successful authors have graduated from these workshops, and editors understand this. You may find it easier to get introduced to VIPS and get past the first slush pile reader.

If you had to choose, which one should you attend? I think that if you want more structured learning, go to Odyssey. If you want more face time with famous authors, go to Clarion. If Harlan is teaching, go wherever he is, but bring your asbestos suit.

Wendy Dye