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UC San Diego's Clarion Workshop Teaches Promising Sci-Fi, Fantasy Talent

A banner for the Clarion Writers' Workshop at UC San Diego.
UC San Diego
A banner for the Clarion Writers' Workshop at UC San Diego.

UC San Diego's Clarion Workshop Teaches Promising Sci-Fi, Fantasy Talent
UC San Diego's Clarion Workshop Teaches Promising Sci-Fi, Fantasy Talent GUESTS: Cory Doctorow, instructor, Clarion Workshop Nalo Hopkinson, instructor, Clarion Workshop

As some of the biggest names in science fiction and fantasy flocked to ComicCon this week, a group has come get it in a different part of San Diego to work on their craft. Their students of the Clarion workshop, considered the premier list for science fiction and fantasy writers to hone their skills and become professionals. Over the years, instructors have included game of thrones creator George RR Martin. We are lucky welcome to instructors of the workshop. Cory Doctorow, instructor, Clarion Workshop whose latest novel is walk away. And Nalo Hopkinson, instructor, Clarion Workshop whose latest short story collection is falling in love with hominids. Why a workshop exclusively for science fiction and fantasy writers? Are the particular issues that writers in the genre face when it comes to storytelling? Definitely. It's very popular to say fiction is fiction and that's not exactly true. Science fiction and fantasy, you are creating a world as well as a story so there are issues of learning through both of those. Are there mistakes a lot of people when they are starting make. As with all fiction, there is a certain amount of mistake that is predictable. Science fiction has a particular failure mode which is the writer who mistakes confusion for suspense. There is a kind of writer's story essentially attorney we find out what's going on in the story. There's a lot of just eating around the head and shoulders until they work out the setting and scenario in the first few paragraphs and not worry. You have to get them to own it and establish the setting scenario in the first few paragraphs and move swiftly on to the thing everyone cares about which is people who have adversity, engaging with that adversity even though they are doomed to mostly fail so their problems can get worse and the tension can mounts. Given how many early writers love the existential ending, those stories will end with bitter try to do -- tragedy. He described it as a boot camp when you attended, what was it like as a student? That was me. -- That wasn't me.Do you throw people together and who came out surviving. My workshop, I had a really good experience with other people who had entirely the opposite. Are you trying to change that atmosphere that could have descended into bullying? Yes. When I was first asked to teach, those the first time anyone invited me to teach and I got into conversation with them and said I really didn't want to come unless we began to do something to change the culture. They let me write a letter to the students that was about beware, you may have come from a situation where you were the geek and the people picked on and a come and meet your people and you're on the top of the social chain and it's easy to replicate the same experiences of bullying and ostracization you experienced, so don't do that. It did you feel that pressure as well? I think we had a very good experience as well. There was interpersonal friction, there was a little bit of trauma, most of it didn't fall to me. Thing I've looked to encourage is a little different. To move from the Clarion mode of fiction writing which is the heroic mode in which you whole all nighters and right 10,000 words in a day and try to make miracles happen in a possibly short time and to say, this is about figuring out what you can do to transcend your limits. If you are going to be a working writer whose income or sanity depends on your fiction, you can't have your fiction be produced to the self-destructive, skipping meals, skipping sleep, snapping her neighbors and refusing to engage because it's vanishingly unlikely you'll manage to do that and if you do, no one like you. When I teach Clarion, I put a lot of emphasis on about how you will make writing something you do every day, including on days when you don't feel like writing and including on days when you're not writing well or it feels like you are writing well. How to continue producing in those moments. It was the one thing really missing from my Clarion. Any kind of sense of what a working life as a writer would be. I think that advice helps us overcome what's commonly called writers block. It's best understood as stress leaking into your work and make you think it's not very good. I have learned although there are days I feel like I am doing really good work and days when I felt my work is lacking, I cannot tell the difference six months later. There's so much more to do with my butt sugar level than my literary a competence. I have been speaking with writers. I want to thank you both very much.

Some of the biggest names in science fiction and fantasy are flocking downtown to Comic-Con this week. But aspiring future writing stars in the genres have congregated in a different part of San Diego to work on their craft.

They are students of the Clarion Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers' Workshop, considered the premiere place for sci-fi and fantasy writers to hone their skills and become professionals. The summer workshop dates back nearly 50 years, with past instructors including "Game of Thrones" creator George R.R. Martin, "American Gods" writer Neil Gaiman and "Kindred" writer Octavia Butler. Clarion has been held at UC San Diego since 2007.

"Like a lot of Clarion students, I was one of the most precious writers I knew. When I got there, I discovered I was about average for a Clarion student. That was an important lesson," said author Cory Doctorow, who attended Clarion in 1992 and is one of this year's instructors.

One of the things Doctorow tries to teach his students is to avoid "card tricks," such as having a story's point of view wander from one character to another, making it seem as if one character can intuit the thoughts of others.

"There is something borderline miraculous that happens when we read made-up works of fiction. Nothing that happens is of any literal consequence. Romeo and Juliet never lived. The bacteria in the yogurt I eat live more consequential lives than Romeo and Juliet," he said. "And yet we react as though it does. I’ve come to realize the first job of fiction is to not remind the reader that what’s going on doesn’t matter. And you do that by calling attention to the artifice, that you’re just making it up. It’s like reminding Wile E. Coyote he’s gone off the edge of the cliff."

Nalo Hopkinson was a Clarion student in 1995 and is another of this year's instructors. She said it might have taken her six years to learn what the workshop taught her in six weeks.

"One of the things I say is Clarion is where you come to write really badly," she said. "You are testing your limits and trying new things so much that it’s not about whether or not you’re going to produce a great work of thrilling genius at Clarion. That’s not the point. The point is to try things you haven’t and take some risks with your fiction."

Doctorow and Hopkinson joined KPBS Midday Edition on Wednesday with more on what it takes to write good science fiction.