Anthologies: Variations on a Theme

The Metaphorosis Books anthology Reading 5 x 5 was designed to provide insight into the process by which authors write to a detailed theme.

Themed anthologies and themed magazine issues are big these days. They enable editors to focus on timely topics and they attract new readers interested in those issues. Themed publications are inspiring for writers, too. In the past year, I’ve written stories for six anthologies:

Of particular interest is Reading 5 x 5, edited by B. Morris Allen. The book was designed to provide insight into the process by which authors write to a detailed theme. Allen brought together 25 authors, grouped them by five speculative fiction subgenres, and for each subgenre provided a fairly detailed story brief. (His concept is described at the Reading 5 x 5 website.) Thus all five authors in each group started out with similar characters, settings, and plots. The resulting stories — most wildly divergent — are fascinating.

While I’d written to general themes for the other anthologies, I struggled with writing a story outlined by someone else. I may have been the “bad girl” of my group (I was in the soft science fiction group, writing in a style that non-genre readers might know as “space opera.”). I felt hemmed in by the detailed brief and spun my wheels for several weeks — until I came up with the idea of writing a story in which someone hemmed in by authority rebels and plots an assassination. To see how my little revenge fantasy turned out, buy Reading 5 X 5 and read “Patience.”

I strongly recommend the writers’ edition of our book, with 100 additional pages including the original story briefs we worked from, authors’ notes for each story, and two additional stories.

The editor and writers involved in the Reading 5 x 5 experiment agreed at the outset that proceeds from the book will benefit the Jo Clayton Memorial Medical Fund. Administered by Oregon Science Fiction Conventions, Inc., the fund assists professional science fiction, fantasy, horror, and mystery writers living Oregon, Washington, Idaho, and Alaska who need help with medical expenses.



Pay in advance for speculative fiction

Build a foundation for the next wave of speculative fiction by supporting the Clarion West Write-a-thon. Find out what 200 writers are doing this summer to raise money for the Clarion West Writers Workshop.

woman reading a book with colors emerging

Summer is early in Seattle, and I’m getting a head start on my annual summer project.

No, not gardening! The Clarion West Write-a-thon. What’s that, you ask?

Clarion West, along with its sister program, Clarion in San Diego, is renowned as the world’s pre-eminent workshop for emerging writers of speculative fiction. (“Spec fic” covers everything from the magic realism that Junot Diaz writes for The New Yorker to George R.R. Martin’s Game of Thrones to classic science fiction novels like Starship Troopers and fantasy like Neil Gaiman’s Sandman. Quite a range.)

This year Clarion West accepted 18 students from across the world, most of them recent college graduates. They were chosen based on the quality of their writing. If they follow in the footsteps of previous Clarion West graduates, more than a third of the Class of 2015 will go on to publish professionally. Many of them will be nominated for — and win — major awards in the field of speculative fiction.

For the students, the six-week Clarion West residential workshop is a full-immersion, once-in-a-lifetime experience. Many of the students have left their jobs to attend, borrowed money from family and friends to pay for travel, and several of them are receiving support from Clarion West’s scholarship program.

How You Can Get Involved

If you are a speculative fiction reader, I encourage you to underwrite the next wave of speculative fiction by supporting Clarion West, its scholarships, and its operations (run by a part-time staff and a cadre of volunteers).

The Clarion West Write-a-thon seeks donations at all levels, from $5 to $1000. (Many donors divide their donations, giving $5 or $10 through each of a dozen or more writers’ pages.)

Meet the Writers

The Write-a-thon harnesses the power of some 200 writers, people at all stages of their careers, who form a “shadow workshop.” While the six-week workshop for the Class of 2015 is underway, the Write-a-thon participants work to meet their own goals. Each of these writers has created a Write-a-thon page where you can read an excerpt of their work and see the goals they’ve set for writing and for raising money for Clarion West.

Many of the writers are offering incentives to sponsors who donate through their pages. You can browse the writers, or search for your writer friends, here:

You’ll find folks including Aliette de Bodard, Helena Bell, Steve Miller, Henry Lien, Kelly Sandoval, Usman Malik, Eileen Gunn, J.M. Sidorova, Randy Henderson, E. Lily Yu, Pat Cadigan, Mark Teppo, Nisi Shawl, Paul Park, Neile Graham, Julie McGalliard, Caroline M. Yoachim, Helen Marshall, Curtis Chen, Rachel Swirsky, Kris Millering, and this year’s Worldcon Guest of Honor, Vonda N. McInytre. You’ll find Viable Paradise workshop graduates, include Beth Morris Tanner, Spencer German Ellsworth — and me.

TIP: Be sure to read Eileen Gunn’s writing sample, a flash-fiction piece about a time-traveling necktie collector.

Become a Sponsor — and My Muse

What am I’m doing for this year’s Write-a-thon? After spending the past six months submitting stories to magazines and anthologies (I’ve sold three stories, which will be published this fall), I’m going to spend the Write-a-thon focusing solely on new writing. I’ll be writing six stories for the Write-a-thon — and my plan includes opportunities for the people who sponsor me to act as “muses” for those works.

Please visit my Clarion West Write-a-thon page to find out more. And, of course, to donate!

Meanwhile, back at my desk

Why I’m thrilled that I attended the Viable Paradise speculative fiction writing program on Martha’s Vineyard last week.

Viable Paradise Oak Bluffs

A heartfelt thanks to my clients who were patient while I attended the Viable Paradise speculative fiction writing workshop on Martha’s Vineyard last week.

Many of you know that I was for many years a book reviewer for January and other publications; and most of you know that I’m on the board of the Clarion West Writers Workshop (a six-week summer program in Seattle). But not many people know that I also write fiction.

I studied fiction writing in college (Daily Themes — 300 words, submitted every weekday for an entire semester). I came away from that experience with the conviction that writing every day would make it possible for me to write something substantive — if and when I had something substantive to say. I certainly didn’t in college. But I learned to watch, analyze, and describe the people around me. This led to Columbia J-School and a career in journalism (which is another story).

Back to fiction.

In the early 1990s, I wrote a mystery novella set in a depressed industrial town in New England. Starting a long work is easy; finishing one, difficult but highly satisfying. By finishing, I discovered the shape of a book. However, I realized that it was the wrong book to submit for publication. For one thing, it was the wrong length. Not many mystery publishers want novellas. For another, I didn’t want to get “stuck” in that particular sub-genre. If your first book is about amateur sleuths in New Hampshire, you’re labeled a “cozy mystery writer,” even if your second book is about spaceships, aliens, and an evil computer named Zorg-X13.

I did not want to be a writer of New England small-town mysteries.

Life, as they say, intervened, and about 10 years ago I found myself experimenting with near-future science fiction. Then I dabbled in classic fantasy (magic! elves!), steampunk-flavored alternative history, and urban fantasy. Four years ago, while attending a panel at the Fourth Street convention in Minneapolis, I suddenly “saw” a story. I wrote it, workshopped it, and submitted it to magazines. I got some encouraging rejections from editors, including several suggestions that I develop the story into a novel. So I sketched several stories in that same world and submitted the core story as my application to Viable Paradise.

Of course, what happened at Viable Paradise was not as expected. It was far, far better. I had the good fortune to be with a group of writers that gelled rapidly. In short, I now know 23 people I trust to be superb beta readers and insightful reviewers.

I’m a kinetic learner, and it was only by going through a six-day round-the-clock process of lectures, writing, rewriting, getting critiqued, critiquing my classmates, and hearing both pros and classmates critique the work of others that better ways of doing things sunk in. How much better? I wrote a complete story on the plane on the way back to Seattle. And it’s the best story I’ve ever written.

If you write fiction, and want to move up to the next level, I whole-heartedly recommend a residential workshop.

Apply to Clarion West (Seattle) or Clarion (San Diego) if you can carve six weeks out of a summer.

Apply to Viable Paradise if you can take a week in the fall. I can’t say enough about the nine Viable Paradise instructors (a group of authors and editors that has worked together for years). The staff is a large team of Viable Paradise graduates. They can provide you with anything from an analysis of core works in contemporary speculative fiction to a large sandwich when you’ve forgotten to eat and are verging on the incoherent. (Best of all, you don’t have to ask for the sandwich. They will take one look at you, recognize all the symptoms, and hand you the food.)

Sure, at the end of all this, I had to return  home to the leaking window that needs to be caulked, the suspicious behavior of the aging refrigerator, the sink that mysteriously fills up with dishes when I’m not looking, and the lawn that needs to be mowed if and when it ever stops raining. And a few hundred emails.

But now I know what I’m capable of writing, and that’s the best motivation to institute some serious time management that willenable me to write, if not every day, at least three times a week. And I have a network of writing colleagues who share a similar experience and determination.

Speaking of time management: Writing for clients resumes a regular schedule today — barring intervention from spaceships, aliens, and Zorg-X13.

If you write speculative fiction…

Join the writers of the Clarion West community for the 2011 Clarion West Write-a-thon (June 19 through July 21)

Is there a speculative fiction writing project you want to get finished? Started? Submitted to a magazine, agent or publisher?

If so, I want to invite you to join the writers of the Clarion West community for the 2011 Clarion West Write-a-thon (June 19 through July 21). It’s a great way to challenge yourself to meet your writing goals — while raising money to sustain one of the nation’s foremost programs for speculative fiction.

People have used the Write-a-thon to start novels, to experiment with new writing techniques, to complete works-in-progress, and to polish and submit stories for publication. Last year author Michael Swanwick wrote flash fiction pieces that featured his donors as characters — and we expect there’ll be more such playfulness this year.

If you join the Clarion West online forums (, you can report on your progress and talk with other Write-a-thon participants.

Here’s how to get involved:

  1. Register for Write-a-thon and create your profile page. Use the profile to tell people about yourself and your Write-a-thon goals, and  post a short excerpt from your fiction.
  2. When the Write-a-thon starts on June 19, ask friends to visit your page and donate to support your writing goals and the Clarion West program.
  3. Start writing! You’ll have until July 21 to meet your goals.

You’ll find complete information on the 2011 Clarion West Write-a-thon at

Our goal this year is to involve 100 writers, attract 270 donors, and spark the creation and publication of some outstanding fiction. Please join us!