Paths to Publishing

Nothing is vital; everything is helpful

Clarion-application-fever is going around on social media this week. Now, I see Clarion as a very positive thing for writers, but I wanted to take a post to talk about the illusions of what’s “necessary” to succeed in a writing career.

First of all, for those who don’t know, Clarion is a six-week workshop on writing speculative fiction. It is very highly regarded in the industry, to the point that I’ve seen it declared by big names that any aspiring SFF author “must” go to Clarion.

That is not correct.

It’s likely I needn’t even point out how problematic such a “must do” statement is, considering the number of writers who either can’t afford the travel, can’t afford six weeks off from work, life, or family commitments, are disabled in a way that makes such a workshop inadvisable, etc. Still, I see a lot of “fear of missing out” about Clarion and other workshops from people who can’t be there — and considering that these workshops are valuable for both craft and networking advancement, that FOMO is certainly understandable!

So let’s talk about this.

First of all, I’ve never been to Clarion or any other workshop. I don’t feel strongly either way about this fact, which also means I don’t really feel any regret about it. I’ve talked to other professional authors who either have gone or have taught there and have told me that I’m past the point where I’d get enough out of it, so I’ve sort of missed my window.

And it’s fine. My career is just fine.

On the flip side, I know many authors who’ve been and who swear by it as their introduction to the field, as their leveling up in their craft, or as essential networking.

And that’s also fine!

Here’s the thing. I don’t think it’s quite the right characterization to say, “not going to Clarion won’t hold you back,” although in some sense I would say that’s true — but I think it’s more complicated than that. Rather, I think there are a lot of things that are touted as “must do” that are not (workshops, cons, short story writing, etc), and it’s not that you need to do any one of those, but what you need is some route forward. And any of these things do provide some useful level of writing improvement or add some measure of career opportunity.

But you can always get those some other way also, if a specific thing on the list isn’t possible for you.

Something you’ll notice if you talk to a lot of writers is that so many people’s routes into publishing are different. And a publishing career is much less made up of grand, large turning points as it is a series of small victories — and defeats — that one hopes will begin to pile up eventually into something career-shaped.

Sure, Clarion can absolutely be one of those things. It’s useful. It’s helped a lot of people. And it does suck to be in a position where you feel like you’re being deprived of something potentially helpful. Difference in privilege is absolutely a thing in writing — a very frustrating thing, just as it is in many other career paths.

But the good news is that there are plenty of other useful ways forward that can be used to add bricks to that career advancement pile. It’s not necessary to go to Clarion; what’s necessary is finding some path to keep pushing up. Which can be through writing communities, crit groups, conventions, online networking, short form writing, querying/finding an agent, small press advancement, self-publishing, finding niche audiences, other classes or formal education, or plenty of other things. None of it’s easy — Clarion isn’t easy, either; very little of this career is easy or quick. The point is, no one piece of it is mandatory, and everyone finds a slightly different path.

It’s also worth remembering that there is almost nothing in the writing industry that will “make” a person’s career in one shot (a runaway bestselling novel — not making the NYT list for a week but a really runaway bestseller — is about the only thing I can think of). All the rest is just more of those much smaller bricks in building up a career out of many incremental achievements over time — of which a workshop like Clarion can be one, or not. In other words, just like not going to Clarion won’t break a career, going to Clarion likely won’t make one either; it’ll help but it’s no more of a magic wand than anything else.

To sum up: Everything anyone says is a “must” in writing I prefer to think of as more like potentially helpful chunks of path. I do very much sympathize with the frustration of lacking access to chunks that could make the way up easier… but I also want to assure people that no one thing is a be-all end-all.

So if you can’t go to Clarion, take a deep breath, tell yourself it’s okay, and keep on keeping on.