Flash back to 1995. I was finishing college at Indiana University and trying to break into publishing, either as a writer or as an editor or a layout designer -- I wasn't picky! I just wanted to work with books. I was full of enthusiasm but almost entirely lacking in clue. A woman who hosted a small campus writing group -- she assured me that my writing was "totally publishable" (ha! no.) -- told me about the Clarion Workshop and suggested that I should apply.
The Clarion Science Fiction & Fantasy Writers' Workshop was founded in 1968, and when I attended, it was hosted by Michigan State University in East Lansing (the organizers decided to trade mosquitoes for beaches and moved to UC San Diego in 2007). It's a six-week-long workshop attended by 18-20 students who have a different professional author (or team of authors, such as Tim Powers and Karen Joy Fowler) leading classes each week. Pro editors frequently come in on the weekends to give short sessions. All you do is write speculative fiction (likely something close to 5,000 words a week), read (probably 90,000 words a week), and critique your classmates' work. Some have called it "boot camp for SF writers" and that's fairly accurate -- it's an intense experience that galvanizes some writers and traumatizes others.
I'll admit to something shameful: I was a little cocky going in. Academia trains you to be competitive, and I'd unfortunately taken to heart our writing group leader's assurance that I only needed Clarion for the networking opportunities it provided. I was used to being a straight-A student, used to being the smartest kid in the class. I figured I'd get in there, impress the instructors, write a few stories to make everybody happy, leave with my address book filled with new publishing contacts and get back to working on my first novel.
I had my illusions blasted into itty-bitty bits the first night I was there. We'd met for our introductory session, and at the end we received photocopies of a few stories that students had already handed in for critique. Kelly Link was one of the students, and her story ended up at the top of my pile. You may have heard of her; she's won a Hugo award, three Nebula awards, and a World Fantasy Award for her fiction.
The story I held in my hands that night? It would win a World Fantasy Award just a few years later. Yeah. It was that good, and a few paragraphs in, I realized that not only was I definitely not the smartest kid in this class, I wasn't even close. I needed to shelve all my dumb-ass academic notions that the workshop was some kind of bell-curved competition. I needed to keep my mouth shut and my eyes and ears open and learn how to write.
After Clarion, I ditched the novel I'd started (Mediocre! Cliché!) and focused on trying to get short fiction published. I wanted to learn my craft, and my new personal goal of selling 50 short stories became my post-workshop apprenticeship. And I don't regret my decision; it took me quite a while to sell those 50 stories, but what I learned in the process -- both about writing and about publishing -- was invaluable.