Clarion West!

Sorry for the delay in my big, super exciting news. I wanted to wait to share until I had a better sense of how everything would shake out given COVID-19.

But now that I have some clarity …. /drumroll …. I was admitted to Clarion West this year!

For those who aren’t party of the speculative writing community, this is kind of a big deal. Clarion West and Clarion UCSD are the most prestigious speculative writing workshops in the US (and maybe even world?). Each year a panel of esteemed writers at each workshop evaluate applicants’ story samples (often 2+ short stories) and cover letter. Admittance rates apparently rival Harvard’s (though stats aren’t officially released).

This year was my fourth year applying (though not fourth year in a row — I haven’t applied when I wouldn’t be able to take the significant time off to attend). While I don’t think attending a Clarion workshop is required to be a successful speculative writer (most best-sellers and award-winners never attended one of these workshops), for anyone who has their heart set on going, I definitely encourage you to keep applying and don’t give up just because you’ve been rejected.

Being admitted to this workshop this year was hugely validating for me as I’ve been working on improving my writing for years and years with few successes. I don’t think writing fiction comes naturally to me, but I haven’t given up, and I will continue to improve. Clarion will likely be an important step in that journey, and I can’t wait.

Speaking of waiting though, it is still unclear if the workshop will actually be held this summer or not. Fortunately, Jae and Rashida (our excellent workshop administrator and coordinator, respectively) have shared a few different contingency plan options that are incredibly thoughtful, considerate, and generous given the uncertain nature of COVID-19. My new cohortmates and I could not be in better hands. But still TBD on what the future holds exactly (I’ll share when I have definitive answers).

Thoughts on Applying

I have no idea what actually lands someone a coveted spot at either Clarion, but I do remember how helpful other blog posts I’ve read from admitted Clarionites were in my preparing to apply. I want to be as forthcoming and helpful (?) as those others were for me. So in the spirit of transparency, I’m going to share the cover letter I submitted below as well as some thoughts on the story/stories submitted.

My Cover Letter:

For previous cover letters I submitted, I took a fairly serious tone. But I was starting to feel like how often can I express the same dreams, goals, heart’s desires, etc. without it sounding repetitive (remember this wasn’t my first time applying). So instead I went with a much more casual tone — honestly a more casual tone than I probably should have gone with. Having said that, I know other admitted students who wrote deeply personal, heart-wrenching letters who also had success. Long-winded way of saying: there is no one-size fits all with the cover letter. My recommendation: follow the instructions on the website, be your authentic self, and don’t try to guess what the staff wants to see.

Here’s my letter:

Hello Clarion West Faculty,

It’s Sydney again – taking one more swing at the Clarion West fences. I’ve had a hell of a year and feel more prepared than ever to attend your workshop, should I have the good fortune of being accepted.

Since my last application, I’ve made a ton of progress on the writing front:

  • I’ve sold three short stories at the SFWA pro-rate ($0.08/word). Two of these stories are due out to be published next month (January 2020) in Reckoning 4 and Flame Tree’s A Dying Planet. The third story sold to Apex Magazine, one of my dream publications. Sadly, a week after this sale Apex announced they were shutting down immediately, and my story wouldn’t be published. And so it goes.
  • Speaking of SFWA, these aforementioned sales qualified me for SFWA active membership status, one of my lifelong goals. I am incredibly excited and proud to be part of this organization that helps so many writers find their footing in the industry.
  • I also finished my latest novel. Clocking in at ~80,000 words, my novel <NAME IN PROGRESS> is a twisty murder mystery on a post-apocalyptic tech company campus. I’m pitching it as Six Wakes meets Westworld. The novel just came back from my beta readers last month (all writer friends I met when I attended Viable Paradise Writers Workshop in 2017) and they loved it … except for the entire last third (~100 pages). So right now I’m in revision mode and hoping to finish draft two by early Spring.

While progress still feels slow, I’ve really moved in the right direction with my writing this year. On reflection, I am especially proud of my progress given how busy I’ve been (a new marriage, a demanding job, baby Yoda, etc.). I just keep writing because it’s what I have to do and who I am. This year has really proven to me that no matter what I’ve got going on, I will never stop writing.

I’ve also read some incredible stories this year. These are my favorites and why:

  • “Why Aren’t Millennials Continuing Traditional Worship of the Elder Dark?” by Matt Dovey published in Diabolical Plots. This story is hilarious and really resonated with me given my own affliction of being one of those darned millennials who are ruining Everything.
  • “Dandelion” by Elly Bangs published in Clarkesworld. Bangs interweaves the lives of three generations of engineer/astronaut women in a truly haunting and touching story.
  • Jade War by Fonda Lee. Whoa! Can Lee land a sequel. I don’t think I’ve ever read a sequel I enjoyed more than the first book in a series. And multiple POVs is SO hard.
  • The Ten Thousand Doors of January by Alix E. Harrow. This book is beautifully written. I want to be Harrow when I grow up (even though I think technically I’m older than her … oops). The prose in this book is just utter perfection.
  • White Fragility: Why It’s So Hard for White People to Talk About Racism by Robin DiAngelo. Okay okay I know this isn’t fiction, but I felt weird putting together a best-reads list without including this one. DiAngelo really opened my eyes to how harmful it is that we aren’t comfortable openly discussing race and racism. I’m always striving to do and be better.

Reading these (and many other) amazing works makes me yearn to level up my own writing. My experience at Viable Paradise Writers Workshop back in 2017 and what I’ve learned about Clarion West from former instructors and alum lead me to believe that Clarion West can really help me improve my short fiction. I am desperate to get better and eager to submerge myself in Clarion West.

If you admit me, I promise to be fully committed to the Clarion West experience, support my fellow classmates, and give back as an alumnus. To prepare, I will read more (especially more works by the instructors), I will critique more (novels and shorts from my friends on Codex and fellow VP alums), and I will write more (this one is easy ;)). I have never felt more ready to dive in and, if you give me a chance, I know I can make you proud.

Enclosed is one fantasy short story: “Mishpokhe and Ash.” This story is deeply personal and is a fantasy retelling of my grandmother’s experience in WWII. A Jew living in the Hungarian countryside in March 1944 had a less than 10% chance of surviving the next 12 months. I hope this piece is worthy of her story.

Thank you so much for your consideration. Beam me up, Scotty.

Sydney Rossman-Reich

Now that I’m over dying of embarrassment from posting that, let me say again there is no one-size fits all. Who knows? Maybe this cover letter hurt me and my story is what carried me through? Speaking of which ….

The story

Again, I have no idea what anyone behind the scenes is looking for. But I will say, I’ve noticed some recurring themes across the stories submitted by accepted applicants. Take all this with a grain of salt. My unconfirmed thoughts:

  • Stories you love. If you’re planning to apply, I’m sure you will see this advice a lot. The writers I know who’ve been accepted to a Clarion seemed to have submitted stories they felt a strong connection to and really loved … whether or not those stories had been published / loved by editors or not. I will say this: I once applied with a story I sold to an incredible anthology and was rejected. The story I was accepted with at CW this year is still unpublished to this day.
  • Personal stories. This one is a little harder to nail down, but I’ve seen a bit of a pattern of accepted writers submitting stories they not only loved, but also had some deeper and specific link with their own history, background, experiences, etc. A friend of mine pointed out that this might just mean we writers poured more into the story and the application readers picked up on this. This very well may be the case. Whatever the cause and effect, might be worth considering…
  • The number of stories submitted doesn’t matter. I submitted one story to CW this year. I know someone admitted who submitted three stories to CW. I’ve seen folks agonize over this question given CW’s page limit maximum (with no minimum). Don’t fret. Submit the story or stories that feel right to you. I wouldn’t try to “game the system” and submit more or less because you think that’s what the readers want versus what story/stories feel right to you.

Anyway, what do I know? Hopefully though these thoughts are helpful. Either way, good luck applying, I’m rooting for you, and feel free to ping me if you have any other thoughts or questions (I may not have any answers, but if I can be helpful, I’m happy to be).

Also, I’ll probably make a post about my CW experience once I’ve graduated (even if it’s not for a very long time given the virus – TBD!)

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