Noder's Note: This piece was written by Bruce Sterling as part of his secondary introduction to the Turkey City Lexicon; my understanding is that this piece is freely reproducible for noncommercial purposes as long as Sterling's name remains attached to the piece
People often ask where science fiction writers get their ideas. They rarely ask where society gets its science fiction writers. In many cases the answer is science fiction workshops.
Workshops come in many varieties -- regional and national, amateur and professional, formal and frazzled. In science fiction's best-known workshop, Clarion, would-be writers are wrenched from home and hearth and pitilessly blitzed for six weeks by professional SF writers, who serve as creative-writing gurus. Thanks to the seminal efforts of Robin Wilson, would-be SF writers can receive actual academic credit for this experience.
But the workshopping experience does not require any shepherding by experts. Like a bad rock band, an SF-writer's workshop can be set up in any vacant garage by any group of spotty enthusiasts with nothing better to occupy their time. No one has a copyright on talent, desire, or enthusiasm.
The general course of action in the modern SF workshop (known as the "Milford system") goes as follows. Attendees bring short manuscripts, with enough copies for everyone present. No one can attend or comment who does not bring a story. The contributors read and annotate all the stories. When that's done, everyone forms a circle, a story is picked at random, and the person to the writer's right begins the critique. (Large groups may require deliberate scheduling.)
Following the circle in order, with a minimum of cross-talk or interruptions, each person emits his/her considered opinions of the story's merits and/or demerits. The author is strictly required, by rigid law and custom, to make no outcries, no matter how he or she may squirm. When the circle is done and the last reader has vented his or her opinion, the silently suffering author is allowed an extended reply, which, it is hoped, will not exceed half an hour or so, and will avoid gratuitously personal ripostes. This harrowing process continues, with possible breaks for food, until all the stories are done, whereupon everyone tries to repair ruptured relationships in an orgy of drink and gossip.
No doubt a very interesting book could be written about science fiction in which the writing itself played no part. This phantom history could detail the social demimonde of workshops and their associated cliques: Milford, the Futurians, Milwaukee Fictioneers, Turkey City, New Wave, Hydra Club, Jules Verne's Eleven Without Women, and year after year after year of Clarion -- a thousand SF groups around the world, known and unknown.
Anyone can play. I've noticed that workshops have a particularly crucial role in non-Anglophone societies, where fans, writers, and publishers are often closely united in the same handful of zealots. This kind of fellow-feeling may be the true hearts-blood of the genre.