I didn’t get into Clarion. Or Clarion West. I applied, but I got rejected along with hundreds of other hopeful writers. I really wanted to go to Clarion, though—either Clarion. See, I’m a self-taught writer, and I thought that a genre-fiction workshop was the only way I would improve my storytelling and jumpstart my publication game/get a book deal/get my career in order. I thought.
I was wrong.
In 2015, I attended the Kenyon Review Writers Workshop, and it was a game changer in terms of how I approached my work. In 2015, it taught me pacing, the power of word choice, and how to construct character-driven stories. I applied again in 2016, but due to a personal emergency, I couldn’t attend. The Workshop graciously extended my tuition to 2017.
So, because I didn’t get into Clarion (either Clarion), I went to this year’s Kenyon Review Writers Workshop—a literary fiction workshop. I went full of skepticism. I went thinking I wouldn’t learn much that I didn’t already know. I went thinking I wouldn’t fit in.
Again, I was wrong.
My instructor was E.J. Levy, an award winning short story author and current Creative Writing teacher at the university level in Colorado. Her workshop style was different than anything I’d ever experienced; she taught through positivity, instructing us to find “what was awake and alive” in each others’ pieces. Again, I thought I wouldn’t learn from that.
Again and again, I was wrong.
By Wednesday of the week-long workshop, I found myself making different choices in my fiction. I found myself changing sentence structure; molding my stories and characters differently; moving things around not because of what didn’t work in my piece or others’ pieces, but because of what did.
I admitted to everyone there immediately what kind of writer I was. “Hi, I’m Jordan,” I said to each person I met, “and I write fantasy and horror.” People were either appalled or amazed, but I used the workshop as it was intended and wrote only literary fiction during my time there—I wanted to respect the workshop and its merits (I also have a hard time bending rules). Turns out I did well. People respected me and my opinions, and my reading was very well received.
There was a lot learn from this literary fiction workshop, that can be applied to fantasy and horror. My greatest takeaways were things like: subverting the narrative; folding the second story into the greater story; using the language and rhythm of poetry in my prose; making exposition and description of other characters personal to the narrator or main POV character; using “high exposition” to include the reader and make them feel smart about what’s going on; and finally, letting the reader in on secrets early, so that the reader feels included in the story’s/narrator’s plans.
I’m going to say it again. All of this applies to fantasy and horror. All of this is not exclusive to literary fiction.
Subverting the Narrative: we saw it in the second episode, season two of Preacher, we saw it in Wonder Woman, we see it all the time in novels and in stories, where what we are initially presented with (in the case of Preacher: the girl in the covered cage), is not what the reader/viewer initially assumes it to be. In art, we call this trompe l’oeil. In life, we call this a “gotcha moment.”
Folding in the Second Story: The initial story of short fiction/novels is the plot. The second story is what the main character/POV character wants or needs. While the two usually run hand-in-hand and sometimes the plot is driven by character wants, they are not always running along in tandem (this is more often true of literary fiction or tragedies in any genre). What I learned at last week’s Workshop is that the plot cannot be absent of the character wants/needs and must have those evident in the first scene in order to make the story or novel compelling to the reader. Readers follow characters, not plots.
Using Poetry to Make Prose Rhythmic: This was my own takeaway. I often read my work aloud, even in early drafts. I am a narrator for PodCastle and I enjoy reading my work both dramatically and poetically. I like it best when the two work hand in hand. Like, when the words just sound good when read out loud together. Also when the words create a different drama when read out loud, but are still dramatic when read silently on the page.
Making Exposition and Description Personal: Like I said earlier—Readers follow characters, not plots. Nobody likes an infodump. Making the description of the landscape have some impact on your narrator/POV character (without going into a long backstory jag) makes the me (the reader) have more stake in the landscape, it also makes the character/narrator have more stake in the landscape. In terms of descriptions, if the narrator/POV character has opinions about how a different character looks, that also tells us not only about that different character, but a lot about the narrator/POV character. Now your description’s doing double-duty.
Using High Exposition to Include the Reader in the Story: An example of high exposition from one of the pieces I wrote: “See, there’s this thing about funerary ashes the movies never tell you: Akitas leave a fuckton behind.” High exposition both informs and includes the reader in the informing. It pulls the reader in close, like sharing a secret. It’s conversational and educational. I’m now looking for places I can use it in more of my work.
Letting Readers in on Secrets/Surprise Early: In the third draft of the novel I just set aside, I was told by an editor that I like to keep things from the reader, and that wasn’t good. Now I know what she was saying. (It wasn’t you, Anna Geonese.) E.J. Levy looked over my piece “Fairy Tale Ending” where the initial first line was “Giselle was at a fitting with her mother.” E.J. suggested I change it. (It is now “Giselle was at her last fitting for her last dress.”) E.J. mentioned that because I didn’t hint early that the terminal illness was there and that the tragedy was there, that she missed it when it hit, and it hit hard, she said. But because she wasn’t looking for it, she read right over it.
So I asked about Chekov’s gun. I asked if we’re shown the gun in the first act, so that we wait for the rest of the story, anxious and tearing our eyes out. Who will shoot the gun? When will it go off? Will someone die? Who will die? Then it finally goes off in the third act and we’re horrified, but relieved. E.J. Levy said, “Exactly.” As someone never taught the idea of Chekov’s Gun before, I hadn’t understood it until just then. Now I do.
Some of this may be rudimentary to you, but it wasn’t for me.
When I came home, I had a piece that had been rejected twice. Once before the workshop and once during the workshop. I sat down upon arriving home and entered, for the first time, EDITING BRAIN. I reworked and massaged the story, the words of every editor I’ve worked with seeping in and helping me with my changes. Things people said at Writeshop over the past year and a half echoed in my brain and altered the text. Things other writers have said cautioned me against this or that.
When I was done, I read it out loud a few times for revision and … I was impressed. I had learned so much. I sent if off again, where it will probably get rejected, but I’m confident that this version will find a home.
So while I didn’t get into Clarion, I know the Kenyon Review Writers Workshop was a transformative experience, even for this genre fiction writer. Thank you so much to David Lynn and E.J. and Elizabeth and everyone there. I look forward to coming back a third time.