Small Beer Press, 2005, 190 pages, US$16.00 tpb, ISBN 1-931520-16-X
If you’re not familiar with the subculture of Science Fiction writing, it can be difficult to explain the reputation that the Clarion Writers’ Workshop enjoys within the SF community. Clarion was the first big SF writing workshops for neophytes, and still remains (even after its mitosis into Clarion East and Clarion West) one of the finest. For six weeks, a small community of aspiring writers congregates in a campus, living as a group and spending their time either writing short fiction or critiquing the work of their fellow participants. It’s an intense experience: imagine living and breathing genre fiction for six weeks with little pause for anything else. (Now imagine the let-down of a return to normal life, and understand why a web search for “Post-Clarion Stress Syndrome” will net a dozen hits) Nearly every Clarion participant emerges from the experience a much better writer, which testifies about the workshop’s effectiveness.
Since the beginning of the workshop, dozens of the genre’s best writers have been to Clarion, many of them returning to teach a few years later. The program now benefits from academic sponsorship, widespread recognition and institutional respectability. But it wasn’t always so, and part of Kate Wilhelm’s Storyteller describes how the Clarion workshops developed from humble beginnings and through some rocky years. The other part of Storyteller is a compendium of Wilhelm’s writing advice, distilled from numerous Clarion workshops and her own considerable experience writing in and out of genre fiction.
The impatient will turn to the penultimate chapter, “Notes and Lessons on Writing”, as a handy summary of the writing advice offered through the book. How and where to begin a story, how to realize characters; how to describe setting; how to develop a plot. Wilhelm explains the distinction between the various forms of stories and takes some time in exploring the means and meaning of living like a writer. It’s simultaneously simple and complex writing advice. Simple, because it can be boiled down to a few pages of self-evident advice. Complex, because these axioms were derived from years of experience, and numerous attempts in finding out what works. We’re left with the results, but the proofs are left to the students.
Veteran of how-to-write books may not find anything startlingly new here, but it doesn’t matter as much as you think: the basics of writing are universal, and Wilhelm’s voice is entertaining enough that she’s captivating even when explaining the obvious difference between a novel and a short story.
But there’s also the historical-Clarion side of the book to consider. For some students of the genre, this is the part of Storyteller that makes the book worth its price. Wilhelm and her husband Damien Knight were, for decades, the backbone of the Clarion Writers’ Workshop. Storyteller is her memoir of life at Clarion, through cohorts of students, evolving teaching methods and variously supportive environments (for a few years, Clarion students were so rowdy that the workshop was never allowed to take place more than once at the same place).
For fans of the genre, anecdotes about budding writers are what makes Storyteller sparkle. Page 151 alone is crammed with affectionate memories: “Ted Chiang, quiet and mostly silent, who never missed a word or a nuance… Kim Stanley Robinson, already deeply serious, and George Alec Effinger, who never was… Lucius Shepherd, a mobile disaster zone… Robert Crais, as debonair and handsome then as he still is.” (Yes, that Robert Crais went to Clarion.) More interesting are the unnamed participants, those who fell by the wayside and were never nominated for Hugo awards: “the woman who seduced everything that moved, then apologized to the director because she had run out of time before getting to him.” [P.152] (Well, I’m assuming she was never nominated for a Hugo.)
Those moments, the water-gun fights and concerns about places to eat, the story of “The Red Line of Death” and dormitory troubles, are what sets Storyteller from other books, and possibly why the book earned Wilhelm a Hugo Award in 2006 for best related non-fiction book. It’s a short but perfectly enjoyable read from the fine folks at Small Beer Press, who continue to publish quirky books that may not have much of a chance otherwise. If you can’t make it to Clarion, have a look at this book. It’s decades of writing advice and experience compressed in less than two hundred pages.