I hope that this blog post would be useful for prospective applicants, or at least satisfy curiosity of what a (not THE, mind you,) successful application cycle looked like.
Table of Contents:
-how I got the news
-my writing sample
-writing sample advice
-my Clarion West essay
Submitted complete applications: December 31, 2019
Acceptance call from Clarion West: February 24, 2020, 7:56 PM ET
Acceptance email from Clarion UCSD: February 29, 2020, 4:52 PM ET
Application deadline: March 1, 2020
CW class publicly announced: March 29, 2020
Keep in mind that the turnaround of my applications isn’t the norm. I didn’t even know beforehand that being accepted before the deadline was a thing. The majority of decisions are made after the March deadline.
How I got the news:
Clarion West, short version: On the night of February 24, I was studying for the next day’s anatomy & physiology midterms.
An incoming call interrupted my mobile Spotify playlist.
It was Clarion West.
I was like, “no way.”
They were like, “way.”
Clarion West, long version: I’d been studying all day. That night, I was approaching the last set of Lecturio slides and Anki cards for anatomy and physiology. I distinctly remember listening to “I Go To Work” by Kool Moe Dee on Spotify when a call put it on pause. (I’ve been watching a lot of Brooklyn Nine-Nine lately. Gotta love the funny song choices with their slow-mo scenes.) I checked my phone. Some random number from Washington. I don’t pick up for unknown numbers, so I ignored my phone, resumed the music, and went back to reviewing renal physiology. The thought that it could be Clarion West crossed my mind, then I thought “no, they wouldn’t call this early. Applications haven’t even closed yet.” But ~10 minutes later, I got an email from Rashida Smith, the workshop administrator for Clarion West, saying that she tried to call me, left a message, and to call back at my earliest convenience. Attention span for midterm reviewing flew out the window. So I called back that same night, and I thought “they must want to tell me that I forgot something in my application or whatever.” Nope. Rashida was calling to let me know that I got in. Best. Phone call. Ever. And that’s coming from someone who hates talking on the phone.
Clarion UCSD, short version: 5 days after the call from Clarion West, while recovering from midterms week, I got an acceptance email.
From Clarion UCSD.
I was like “shut the front door.”
They were like “nah girl it’s open.”
Clarion UCSD, long version: Clarion West told me in an email to let Clarion UCSD know about my early acceptance so they could process my application faster. I sent UCSD the heads-up and 5 days passed. By that time, I was done with midterms and my brain was fried. While loafing around at home and watching Brooklyn Nine-Nine on Hulu, I got the email from Clarion UCSD saying that usually they would wait until the deadline to process all the applications, but they made an exception for my early Clarion West acceptance and extended an invitation to attend. I had to read that email three times to make sure I didn’t need even thicker glasses than the thick glasses I already have.
Unfortunately, (Boromir voice) one cannot simply attend both Clarions. I had to make the difficult decision of choosing just one before March 10. On March 6, I had to politely decline Clarion UCSD’s offer, and I informed Clarion West about my desire and confirmation to attend.
Both Clarions told me to go sit in the Keep-Your-Mouth-Shut Timeout Corner. So I tried to stay quiet for a whole stinkin’ month until the gag order was lifted and classes were announced. Fun times.
My writing sample:
1) ~3k word Vietnam War fantasy (written in August 2019 and sold to Podcastle on January 2020)
2) ~3k word Norse fairy tale (written in January 2019)
3) ~500 word Vietnam War fantasy flash (published at Remixt in 2017)
Same stories as Clarion West minus the flash, because their guidelines said to submit 2 complete short stories.
Story 1 is intensely personal, based loosely on the true stories of my parents who were Vietnam War refugees. It’s told entirely in censored, coded letters exchanged between a POW and his wife. The speculative element is the presence of Vietnamese dragons, which are forced to participate in the war as living weapons for the communist army. One of the protagonists, the POW, is based loosely on my maternal grandfather, who served as a medic for the southern Vietnamese army and died as a POW. I didn’t think it was possible, but Story 1 became even more personal after my dad passed away from a stroke in January. I wrote this story shortly after I started school in Florida. This was the first story I wrote and completed after Taos Toolbox in 2019.
Story 2 came about as I read Jackson Crawford’s translation of The Saga of The Volsungs. A line stated by Brynhild caught my eye: “There’s often a wolf that lurks in a dead man’s young son.” I ran with that and gave it a literal spin. I titled my story “Wolves Lurk in the Sons of Dead Men,” and it’s told in the collective first-person POV of boys who turned into wolves after the deaths of their fathers. A jotun would kill the fathers and enslave the orphaned boy-wolves. One day he takes in a boyish-looking girl whose father he killed. Definitely not an Own Voices story, but very much a passion project. I love wolves and Norse mythology. Really cool how a single line from another work can inspire an entire story. I distinctly remember writing this story at work on a spiral notebook, during lulls of an overnight shift at the ER.
Story 3 was way out of my norm length-wise because I tend to write long. This was actually the 1st flash I’ve done. Like Story 1, Story 3 is personal and loosely based on what happened to my parents, though it focuses on a narrower window of time: when they had to flee Vietnam by boat.
So, in summary, what got me into Clarion West and UCSD:
-the story I read to my comatose dad before he passed away
-the story I wrote while working in the ER
-the 1st flash I had ever written
Wild, huh? It’s so thrilling that writing about wolves and dragons got me into the Clarions. I thought that like vampires and dystopia stories, wolf and dragon stories would be considered an overdone and saturated subject. But, on the other hand, that didn’t stop me from wanting to write about what I love. I’m glad I didn’t stop myself.
P.S: This was my 1st time compiling and submitting a manuscript from Scrivener, which I only started using since September 2019. Good to know that the 1st attempt didn’t end up in flames.
Questions you might be having:
Should I tailor my writing sample to the instructor lineup?
You could, but I don’t think you should. I didn’t. Neil Clarke and Ted Chiang, two of the instructors for this year’s Clarion West, are well known for their involvement in science fiction, yet none of my submitted stories were sci-fi. The instructors don’t even read your sample. Not at Clarion West, anyway. At Clarion UCSD, an anchor team of instructors is part of the selection committee. My advice still stands, though. Send work that speaks from your heart, not what you think would butter up people reading your sample.
Can I submit a novel excerpt plus synopsis instead of short stories? (For Clarion West)
You could. Submission guidelines don’t prohibit it. But Clarion West also explicitly states that it’s to your advantage to send short fiction. They want to see how you pull off a complete story arc. Short stories are Clarions’ focus, after all, and the curriculum really doesn’t make room to work on novel-length stuff. Therefore I recommend sending short stories. I’m sure there are people who managed to get accepted with an excerpt, so serious kudos to them. Still, I think it’s a risk to submit something longer and incomplete. If you’re burning to send part of a novel, and want to work on novels, then apply to Taos Toolbox.
Should my writing sample consist of a variety of genres?
If you write in a variety of genres and you’re comfortable with showing your range and versatility, sure. If that’s not the case, don’t force yourself to write outside your comfort zone, just for the sake of fulfilling some variety quota that doesn’t exist in the selection of students. As for me, my strength lies in writing fantasy. I can count the number of sci-fi I’ve written on one hand, and the number of horror written on one finger. (Yes, seriously. One. And it’s not even done yet! It’s an WIP and I can’t figure out what the ending should be. Horror, like flash, isn’t my thing.) My 2020 writing sample to the Clarions doesn’t score high on the variety scale. They’re all fantasy stories and first-person POV. Apparently, fortunately, limiting myself to one genre and perspective didn’t count against me. Just submit what you believe to be your strongest work that best represents you.
Should I have other people look over my writing sample?
I highly recommend it. If you have a critique group or classmates from a prior workshop, take advantage of those connections and have another pair of eyes assess your work. I can definitely attest to the value of good feedback, which led me to drastically revising Story 2 before sending it to the Clarions.
Would I have the advantage if I submitted published stories instead of unpublished ones?
Nope. Your strongest work may very well be the story you haven’t shopped around and sold yet. Story 1 was, at the time of submission, not sold yet. Story 2 wasn’t even shopped around. I wouldn’t determine your pick based on a story’s unpublished/published status.
Other writing sample advice:
-Submit a body of work that speaks for you: stories that reflect your background, strengths, and interests. Your stories are the most important and heavily weighted factor in your application. I think they read your sample before your essay, so your “about me” should really come from the stories first. I think that this is the best possible submission advice I could give you, hence the emphasized italics. For example, I’m Vietnamese-American and fascinated with eastern and northern European culture, history, and mythology. I tried to show that in my 3 pieces this year: 1) a Vietnam War epistolary story, 2) a Norse fairy tale, and 3) a Vietnam War flash. Whether your work’s published or not doesn’t matter. 1) is published by a pro-paying venue, 2) hasn’t even been submitted to markets yet, and 3) was published before I had applied.
-Submit recent work. Put your best foot forward. Show them where you stand. Show them the kind of writer you are now and the kind of writer you want to be. It’s up to them to see if they can take you even further through workshopping. For me, I consider anything written over two years ago to not be recent, and therefore not something to include in my application.
-There’s an art to naming short stories. Treat your title as if it’s something you can easily search on Google, so generic, common titles probably aren’t gonna cut it. Make your title the hook before you even start the first sentence. Ex: my submission stories to Clarion 2020 are titled “Wolves Lurk in the Sons of Dead Men,” “Caring for Dragons and Growing a Flower,” and “Tucked In The Folds of Our Eyes.” John Joseph Adams wrote a great article on this topic: https://www.sfwa.org/2016/05/27/zen-art-short-fiction-titling/. Also look to Tina Connolly and Caroline Yoachim for inspiration in quirky long titles. Some examples of theirs:
”The Carnival Was Eaten, All Except the Clown”
”Please Approve the Dissertation Research of Angtor”
”Press Play To Watch It Die”
”That Seriously Obnoxious Time I Was Stuck at Witch Rimelda’s One Hundredth Birthday Party”
”How Frederika Cassowary-Jones Joined the Ladies’ Society of Benevolent Goings-On”
I think you get my point now. Those titles stand out and stick to you before you even start reading the story. No one’s going to remember “Home” or “The Gift” (which, according to Clarkesworld’s report, happen to be among the most common titles seen in that magazine’s slush).
My Clarion West essay:
Note: The essay I have here isn’t verbatim. I omitted some personal medical information that I’d rather not disclose on public online space.
1) “I have the mind of an explorer. Writing lets me open the door and step outside of myself to explore new perspectives, worlds, and stories. It also lets me take a step further into myself, whenever I write my most personal stories that tap into my background as the Americanized daughter of Vietnam War refugees.
2) Since I was a preteen, I wrote fanfiction. Years of fostering a passion for my favorite series and characters, writing for free, and building a large following of readers who left valuable feedback and support, comprised of much of my development as a writer. Writing is truly a labor of love, I learned. It wasn’t until recently that I became “serious” about writing and shifted my efforts to submitting original work to short story markets and agents. While I have fanfiction to thank for giving me a foundation, I am eager and striving to take the next step in my writing journey.
3) I enjoy and recognize works of great merit in any genre, though recently I’ve been poring over short story collections, and I am particularly inspired by successful Asian genre writers like Ken Liu, Aliette de Bodard, and Yoon Ha Lee, who I regard as my literary role models. I take interest in a variety of cultures and histories, especially Russian and Scandinavian, and this shows in my body of work. But, of course, writing about Vietnamese characters and settings remains closest to my heart.
4) I previously attended Viable Paradise in 2017 and Taos Toolbox in 2019. I have had the honor of sitting at the feet of prolific, experienced writers to learn from the likes of Elizabeth Bear, Nancy Kress, Walter Williams, and Max Gladstone, to name a few (and, for one day, George R.R. Martin). I continue to participate in short story and novel critiques that my classmates and I hold throughout the year. This is how we transcend the boundaries of geography and time, and how we keep in touch when many of us have not seen each other since the workshop. I thrive off of these meetings to reinforce community support and keep our writer lifestyles going strong. Because of my workshop and critiquing experience, I feel that I am ready for the rigorous six weeks dedicated to reading and critiquing other’s work in Clarion.
5) Camaraderie and networking among fellow writers, who share my dedication and passion for the craft, is what I most enjoyed from prior workshops. I want to experience that again through attending Clarion. I also hope to pick apart the brains of the instructors and learn from them what it takes to climb to the top of the slush pile, win over editors and agents, and make a successful career out of writing. I feel like I’m at the cusp, the “bridesmaid but not the bride,” as I collect higher tier, personalized rejections and manuscript requests, but can’t jump over the hurdle to acceptance and publication. I hope that Clarion can help give me a boost to jump high enough. I am burning with a drive to improve not only my work, but my eye for mistakes and areas that need revision. I definitely know that I can do better, but often not where or how in my work, which can be frustrating. That is why I greatly value feedback from others, especially from people who share my passion for the craft. I learn the most from being told what needs work, not so much what is already working.
6) As someone in graduate school, and studying to enter the medical field, I am no stranger to periods of intense study and processing large volumes of information in preparation for exams. Rather than regurgitating what I know, however, for Clarion I would offer my workshop peers honest and balanced input, and of course, my encouragement and support for their endeavors. I look forward to expanding my writing network, and using this workshop as an important stepping stone in my writing career. Thank you for considering me and my work.”
Clarion West had a list of suggested prompts to address in the essay. They say that the more of these prompts you can work in, the better. So, being a neurotic go-getter, I tried to answer ALL of them. I think that’s a solid strategy. This leads me to say that I didn’t number paragraphs on my actual essay, but did them here for convenience. Below are the prompts, and where I addressed them in my essay:
-Why do you write? (Addressed in paragraph 1)
-What do you read? Is there a piece of recent fiction that you find especially inspiring? (Addressed in paragraph 3)
-Describe your writing experience. (Addressed in paragraphs 2 and 4)
-Tell us about your workshop and critiquing experience (if any). (Addressed in paragraph 4)
-Is there anything in particular that you’d like your instructors and/or peers to know about you? (Mostly addressed in paragraph 1)
-What would your ideal workshop experience be? (Addressed in paragraph 5)
-What do you have to offer your workshop peers? (Addressed in paragraph 6)
-Clarion West is demanding. How would you prepare yourself to engage, for six weeks straight, in writing and critiquing with the sustained intensity and the fast turnaround times required by the workshop? (Addressed in paragraphs 4 and 6)
-Why do you want to attend Clarion West now? What makes you feel ready for this experience? (Addressed in paragraphs 2, 4, 5, and 6)
Misc. general essay advice:
-The essay isn’t the best place to be quirky and flowery. Save the elaborate metaphors for your writing sample. I turned off storytelling mode and opted for the clear, straightforward approach, like I was writing a medical school personal statement.
-Have a logical progression to your train of thought. Avoid writing that’s hard to follow and jumping all over the place.
-Avoid making the essay all about you. You don’t want to come off as self-centered, and you won’t be the only student there. It’s not just about what you want. Think about what you would offer to the class as much as what the class would offer you. Both are equally important.
-Do not ignore addressing the rigorous, demanding aspect of Clarion. 6 weeks away from home dedicated to writing is nothing to sneeze at. As someone who worked in the ER and is studying medicine, I’ve seen burnout eat people alive. It can be quite a beast. It’s really important to lead a good lifestyle that keeps burnout at bay. Do you have this awareness and ways to prevent burnout? Can you balance hard work with healthy living? Mention that. Take the 6 weeks seriously. I find medical school similar to the Clarions in that they really want to make sure that those seeking entry are up for the challenge.
-If you have critiquing experience (particularly for Milford style critique), mention that. Showing the workshop runners that you know what you’re getting into, and have had the experience of benefitting from it, will only help you. If you don’t have critiquing experience, at least mention an enthusiasm about gaining it. Half of workshopping consists of giving and receiving critiques. Speaking of that…
-Mention that you can be comfortable with handling and giving criticism. More importantly, be willing to learn from it. You’ve got to be able to handle and appreciate 17 other voices stripping your work apart. Workshop runners are looking for people who can come in with a good attitude and the right mindset. Workshops are not for people with fragile egos and heads stuck in the sand.
Questions you may be having:
Is it worth mentioning my publishing, academic, and membership credentials?
I don’t know. What I do know from my own applications is that it doesn’t count against you if you don’t have any. I don’t have a BFA or MFA in creative writing. I’ve never taught creative writing. I’m not a freelance writer. I didn’t mention any publications. I’ve never been an editor or a slush reader. I’m not a SFWA member. Officially, anyway. (Technically I qualify for associate membership, but being a full-time student living off loans keeps me from wanting to register and pay.) As mentioned in my essay: before the workshops, the only writing “training” and development I’ve had is spending half of my life writing fanfiction. And reading a lot. I hope that what I’ve said here would provide inspiration for prospective applicants who don’t have writing-related degrees or jobs like me. In my humble opinion, the only credential that matters and is worth mentioning is your passion and dedication to the craft.
Could I mention the instructor lineup as part of the reason I want to attend?
I didn’t do this in my essay (in hindsight, I wish I did), but I think it would help if you have a specific, concrete reason to attend. This applies to writing for entry to any program, not just Clarion: being specific and concrete is better than being generic and abstract. If any or all the instructors for the year have inspired you and your writing, and you want to learn from them, by all means, incorporate that into your statement for wanting to have a spot in that class.
I’d be happy to look over your application essay if you want feedback and advice. I will, however, refrain from looking at and judging your writing sample itself. I believe that you are your own best judge of what work you want to send.
If Clarion doesn’t work out and they tell you no:
I’m not gonna lie: it’s disappointing, it stings. I’ve been there. It took me 3 tries to get in. The past 2 attempts resulted in form rejections, not even the so-called “higher-tier” rejection or waitlist, so the acceptances this year came out of the blue for me. It’s totally natural to feel disappointed, but don’t let the decline make you feel any less of a writer. There are far more applicants than slots, and the admission committee has to make very hard decisions to fill those slots. Plenty of people like me have had to try many times to get that yes. So, if you still have the motivation and time in the summer, dust yourself off and keep trying! What if Clarion ends up ever not working out? The workshops are an amazing opportunity, but certainly not the one-way ticket to success. I know plenty of absolutely amazing writers who never attended a single workshop.
This is my reasoning and thought process that I’ve formulated through the application process, and because I’ve had a successful run, I thought it might be worth sharing. I hope you’ve found some insight, inspiration, and benefit from my experience.