I've just finished reading Kate Wilhelm's "Storyteller: Writing Lessons and More from 27 Years of the Clarion Writers' Workshop," a book that is a combination of memoir and instructional treatise, written by one of the field's great writers, mentors and teachers.
Kate Wilhelm and her late husband, Damon Knight, taught the final two weeks of the Clarion writers' workshop every year for more than a quarter-century. This workshop -- "boot camp for science fiction writers" -- graduated such greats in the field as Kelly Link, Octavia Butler, Lucius Sheppard, Bruce Sterling, James Patrick Kelly, Kathe Koja and Nalo Hopkinson. I, too, attended the workshop in 1992, and was privileged to be taught by Kate and Damon, and this year I returned to Clarion as an instructor, with a group of talented and enthusiastic students to whom I tried to impart a little of what I'd learned from Kate and my other instructors, and from my practice in the intervening decade-and-change.
Teaching writing is a balancing act between compassionate encouragement and firm, blunt criticism. Kate is a master of it. The book uses reminisces about the founding, development and running of Clarion to frame a series of practical, plainly stated lessons for the beginning (and professional) writer. I learned a great deal reading it -- something that can be accomplished in a deceptively short time, for Kate is also a master of simply and clearly setting out complicated, muddy issues, a skill honed both in her award-winning fiction (Where Late the Sweet Birds Sang is a personal favorite) and in her long years of teaching.
Clarion is not like a university creative writing program, where the emphasis is often on theory and personal exploration: Clarion is a machine for teaching you to apply theory and personal exploration to producing commercial fiction that will sell in the market. Kate's book is jam-packed with this sort of advice, including stuff like:
When beginning a story, do not:
* Let your viewpoint wander
* Confuse immediate setting with background and let your camera eye wander in, out, and about randomly
* Start with a lecture in anything -- history, physics, biology -- anything. Expository lumps anywhere are to be avoided if possible, but they are deadly in the opening.
* Start in the middle of a scene. This is why flashback openings are a mistake almost every time. You interrupt an ongoing scene to tell us something that happened earlier that results in ongoing scene. Once started, the scenes should be concluded before you move on. An ongoing conversation is hard to catch up with. Who are these speakers, what is their relationship, what kind of voice should I be hearing in my head? Introduce them before they open their mouths.
* Mislead the reader with false information or try to create suspense or arouse curiosity by withholding necessary information. What you arouse is mistrust and annoyance.
* Sprinkle around neologisms or made-up words that cannot be found in a dictionary.
* Use words that only you and a few other people in your speciaility can understand.
* Use contractions if you can avoid them, and only sparingly no matter what.
* Have your character look into a mirror or other reflective surface in order to work in a description of her.
* Let your character talk to an animal or inanimate object in order to give information to your reader about what is going on.
* Play games with the sex of your character.