Clarion Workshop Alumni Interviews: Kenneth Schneyer

Today the Clarion Workshop begins. Over the next six weeks, eighteen handpicked students will undergo grueling critiques from their peers and instructors, a team of established authors. Founded in 1968 by Robin Scott Wilson and championed for decades by Damon Knight and Kate Wilhelm, the Clarion Workshop is now held at UC San Diego in sunny La Jolla, California.

In honor of the workshop, I will be posting interviews with some of my fellow Clarion classmates and alumni. To find out more about the workshop and read the first interview, click the link below.

A list of past Clarion instructors reads like the table of contents of a Best Science Fiction and Fantasy of the Year anthology, including such names as Samuel R. Delany, Harlan Ellison, Neil Gaiman, Joe Haldeman, and George R.R. Martin. The list of alumni is no less impressive, including Octavia Butler, Ted Chiang, Cory Doctorow, James Patrick Kelly, Kelly Link, Kim Stanley Robinson, Bruce Sterling, Lisa Tuttle, and Jeff Vandermeer. Many of these alumni have gone on to teach at the workshop as well.

The Clarion Workshop follows the Milford Method. For six weeks the students live together and write a unique story each week. The stories are distributed to everyone the night before a critique session. Students read each story and make notes. Then, during the critique, the author of the story must remain silent as the other students each offer their thoughts on the story. Some focus on characters, others plot, some prose or theme. This way the author gets a wide variety of critiques. Finally, the instructor offers his or her thoughts. And then the whole process starts over again. By the end of the workshop, each student has six new short stories, the incredible reputation of the workshop as a calling card, a bad case of sleep deprivation, and seventeen lifelong friends.

I attended the workshop in 2009. My instructors were Holly Black, Larissa Lai, Robert Crais, Kim Stanley Robinson, Elizabeth Hand, and Paul Park. When I finished Clarion, I promptly made my first short story sale, and suddenly I was a viable candidate for work for hire at publishing houses that would not have considered me if not for Clarion. At some agencies and magazines, having Clarion in your bio is enough to bypass the slushpile. As one fiction editor said to me upon my return from the workshop, “Now you’re legit.”

But the real reason many authors find success when they complete the workshop is not because of Clarion’s reputation, but because the reputation is well-deserved. Clarion makes you a better writer.

Over the next few weeks, I will be interviewing some of my fellow clarionites from the class of 2009. My hope is to show that while Clarion alumni go on to be Stan Robinsons and Bruce Sterlings, they also have considerable success in the first few years after they attend the workshop.

So without further ado….

Kenneth SchneyerKenneth Schneyer attended the Clarion Workshop in 2009. His short fiction has appeared, or soon will appear in Analog, Clockwork Phoenix 3, Abyss & Apex, GUD, Bull Spec, Cosmos Online, and Nature Physics, among others. His work has recently been translated into Russian. He is the newest member of the Cambridge Science Fiction Workshop, and teaches legal studies and humanities at Johnson & Wales University in Providence, RI.

Matt London: How did you first hear about the Clarion Workshop, and what inspired you to apply?

Kenneth Schneyer: I think I first saw Clarion in the directories in, in 2008. Back then I wasn’t ready for a six-week commitment—I’d only been writing seriously for a year, and had neither the money, nor the time, nor the guts to ask my wife to let me do it—so instead I attended the Wesleyan Writers Conference, which only lasts a week (and doesn’t have admission requirements). But that was such a blast (nothing like Clarion, by the way) that I wanted to try something more serious. The next year, I read more deeply about the “Milford Method” workshops—Odyssey and the Clarions—and thought it sounded like a transformative bootcamp (which it was).

Matt London: What was your fiction writing experience before attending Clarion?

Kenneth Schneyer: I’d written a little fiction in high school and college in the 70s and 80s (even submitted a couple of stories to the Big Three [Analog, Galaxy, and The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction] when I was 15), but I’d only ever published nonfiction (articles on legal theory). In 2006, I started writing fan fiction in order to escape from a home renovation; it was low-pressure and social. But people who liked my stuff said I should try “working without a net,” so I began working on original stories. I got lucky and sold one flash story to Nature Physics pretty early, won a little drabble contest and sold a story to a token-paying market, but apart from that I mostly had rejections. By the time I applied to Clarion, I was trying to write every day.

Matt London: What was the workshop experience like?

Kenneth Schneyer: Terrifying, exhilarating, exhausting, deeply endearing. The hardest part was reading all those stories late at night, knowing you had to deliver coherent, helpful comments at 8 AM the next day. Eventually I was doing my first reads and marginal comments in the evening, then slept on them and woke up at 5 AM to bang out the more coherent comments. I always managed to get breakfast, but it was close a couple of times. One of my fondest memories is sitting in our living room with you, drinking wine, and interrupting each other’s reading to remark on how brilliant our classmates were.

But the critique sessions were the real eye-opener. How many ways eighteen people can find to read one story! How different their views! And how many things there are to think about!

Matt London: Can you think of an instance when a comment from a classmate made one of your stories better?

Kenneth Schneyer: During the crit of “Keeping Tabs” in Week Two, one classmate said, “This feels like a Philip K. Dick story—but in Dick, the technology would break.” That one sentence caused me to restructure the whole second half of the story, as you saw in the second draft in Week Five. But that’s just the first one that leaps to mind. There was gold in every one of the crits I received.

Matt London: Can you talk about one of your instructors who inspired you?

Kenneth Schneyer: The truth is, they all inspired me. Holly’s insistence that plots make sense; Larissa’s advice that language should do hard work; Bob’s refusal to accept cop-outs from the author; Stan’s warning never to let your second-best work be published; Paul’s stress on the sense of place; Liz’s reminder that plots are a sequence of binary character decisions. I actually chronicled some of the good advice I got from the instructors on my LiveJournal page: here and here.

Matt London: What was it like having close and constant contact with such big names?

Kenneth Schneyer: It was intimidating at first, easier later, and that cycle repeated each week. Initially I was most intimidated by Stan Robinson, because I’d heard most about his work, and one of his stories (“The Lucky Strike”) had mattered profoundly to me when I was younger. But each of them was so down-to-earth and honest with us, and seemed to care so much about us and our writing, that it was hard to think of them as anything but friends by the end of the week. It was clear they all really wanted to be there. And of course, we’ve kept in touch by e-mail and at cons. When half of our class did that reading at Readercon, I remember thinking that Liz [Hand] and Paul [Park], sitting in the back, looked like happy parents at their kid’s high school play.

Matt London: What was the most important thing you learned at Clarion?

Kenneth Schneyer: You can’t think about setting, sensory data, character consistency, plot plausibility, symbolism, voicing, emotional impact all at the same time! Therefore every story should be revised in several passes, because there are so many elements that demand separate attention. And for that reason, a second (preferably third, fourth and fifth) pair of eyes is absolutely necessary.

Matt London: Tell me about some of your writing experiences since completing the workshop.

Kenneth Schneyer: I’ve had a number of rewrite requests from editors that later turned into publication offers. The editors always seem surprised at how much I take their comments to heart and how thoroughly I revise the story, sometimes adding or deleting whole scenes. I guess this isn’t a very common reaction to a rewrite request, but to me, it seems like the professional thing to do. Also, after Clarion, you’re sort of immune to the disease that says, “Well, he just doesn’t appreciate my genius because he’s an idiot.” You internalize the importance of the intelligent input of other people.

Last summer I did a Kickstarter project where I got funding to write the first drafts of six stories, which mimicked the pace of Clarion. It was fun, because I felt like my backers were looking over my shoulder (some of them supplied prompts). I’ve only just started the second drafts on two of those stories, and I’m keeping the backers in the loop.

Matt London: Was it difficult to maintain your writing momentum after Clarion ended? Six stories in six weeks. Did you worry about burnout?

Kenneth Schneyer: I still do. My day job requires that I work at home in the evenings during the academic year, and it’s tough to churn out 1,000 words a day of fiction in that context. But I’m so scared of drying up that I use all kinds of tricks to keep myself writing (some of which I learned at Clarion). Part of what keeps me going is seeing the good work my friends & classmates turn out—I sometimes get to comment on their drafts, so I get excited when those stories are published. And I think that I want to do it too; it’s almost like being afraid to let down the team….

Matt London: Have you sold any of the stories you workshopped at Clarion?

Kenneth Schneyer: Most of them. “Calibration,” my Week One story, appeared in The Newport Review in 2010. “Liza’s Home,” the other submission story, was in GUD a few months before that. “Keeping Tabs,” which I wrote in Week Two and revised in Week Five, will be in Abyss & Apex this fall. “Tenure Track”, my Week Six story, can still be found in Cosmos Online. My Week Four story has been in the queue at a market I’d better not name, for the last 15 months. And my Week Three story will probably never see the light of day, because it sucked.

Matt London: I have always admired your persistence in submitting stories. Not only are you prolific, but have a knack for finding short fiction markets when they seem to be disappearing. Your spec-fic market database is quite intimidating. How do you stay so focused in the face of rejections?

Kenneth Schneyer: Thanks for the compliment. My mantra is, “Expect rejection.” My other mantra is, “Submitted stories don’t exist anymore.” It’s easy to get dragged into rejectomancy and biting your nails about submissions. But once the story’s submitted there’s nothing I can do about it, so all I can do is write some more. If you expect rejection, then acceptances (and even rewrite requests) seem like gifts. I usually submit to the faster-turnaround markets first, because I want to get those rejections out of the way. And I always, always, know where the next submission is going before I send out the current one. I don’t let a rejected story sit on my desk (or in my hard drive) one second longer than it has to. I’ve got an acceptance rate of only about 7.5%—which is good for a newbie like me, but which means I have to anticipate that a story will go out twelve times before it finds a home. Sure, some of them get accepted the first time, but that’s the exception. So, since rejection is the norm, there’s no point in doing anything but send the story out again and write the next story.

Matt London: You recently joined the notable Cambridge Science Fiction Workshop, an ongoing crit group with James Patrick Kelly, F. Brett Cox, Steven Popkes, Sarah Smith, Elaine Isaak, James L. Cambias, and Alex Jablokov. What can you tell us about the group, and how is it similar/different from Clarion?

Kenneth Schneyer: Steve founded CSFW thirty years ago, basing its method on his own Clarion experience. We meet once a month, rotating among the members’ houses. Our geographic distribution covers about 200 miles, so someone is always coming a long way. The crit sessions would remind you a lot of a Clarion Workshop meeting—we go around the room giving detailed critiques, the writer doesn’t open his/her mouth while they’re going on but often responds at the end, etc. The big differences are, first, that we get the stories weeks in advance, so we have a chance to do much more detailed reads and crits than you could write the night before at Clarion. Second, we sometimes get whole novels, which require a different scope of critique. Third, these people are a lot more experienced than I am. The depth and subtlety of their analysis is breathtaking, and I have to work hard to keep up. Oh, and we get food while we’re critting.

Matt London: What advice would you give to aspiring writers who are thinking of applying to Clarion, and those who are at the Clarion Workshop right now?

Kenneth Schneyer: To applicants: The core of the workshop is the getting and giving of criticism. If you cannot do one or the other without collapsing into a puddle of shame and resentment, you won’t benefit. But if you can take it and give it, the experience will forever change your life and your writing. It turned me from a teacher who writes as a hobby to a writer who teaches for his day job. And the friends you’ll make will change your life in ways you can’t imagine.

To the current Clarionauts (as I hear they’re calling themselves): Take care of each other; don’t miss a chance to submit your work; sleep when you can; and, in Holly Black’s words, “Take big risks and fail spectacularly.”

Matt London: Thanks for the advice, Ken! Readers can find fiction by Kenneth Schneyer here and here. Keep up with his Livejournal, and follow him on Twitter.

Matt London is an author and filmmaker who lives in New York City. He is a graduate of the Clarion Writer’s Workshop (but at this point you probably know that), as well as a columnist for, Lightspeed, Fantasy Magazine, and Realms of Fantasy. His fiction is out right this second in the anthology The Living Dead 2. Follow him on Twitter, or else!


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