As the title of this post says, I applied to CW six times (every year starting in 2008, only skipping 2012 because of WarTron) before I attended the workshop in 2014. My classmate Shannon Fay recently posted her CW personal essay—requested as part of the application; they want a "description of your background and your reasons for attending the workshop"—and I remember having the same experience she describes, of wondering what it was I should say about myself and how much weight the essay (vs. the writing sample) would carry with the decision-makers who selected each year's students.
So here's my own CW2014 personal essay, which was used "to introduce [me] to the workshop’s instructors" after my acceptance. Did the people reviewing the initial applications even read it? I don't know. On some level, I was really writing this essay for myself, to codify my own thinking about where I was with my fiction writing and what I wanted to work on next.
NOTE: hyperlinks below were not included in the original document, but have been added here for reference.
HAPPY NEW YEAR (BACKGROUND ESSAY)
by Curtis C. Chen
Hello again! Here's what I've been up to (writing-wise) since my last Clarion West application in 2013:
I started querying my science fiction spy novel, WAYPOINT KANGAROO (the writing sample attached to this application), and the first place to which I sent it was literary agent Janet Reid's "Query Shark" blog. I'd never written a query letter before, and I figured it would be good to get some impartial feedback. Of course, there was no guarantee she'd even look at my e-mail, but it was a good way to set an external deadline--and those really help me get things done. (More on that later.)
So imagine my surprise when Janet Reid wrote back three days later to tell me she was posting my query on the blog. Not only that, but she wanted to read the novel! Now I really had a deadline to meet.
I cranked through the rewrites-in-progress, finished them in less than a week, and sent Janet Reid the full manuscript. Two months later, she replied--saying "it's not ready yet" but offering very detailed advice on how I might improve it. She also said she'd be glad to take a look at the next revision.
"Chuffed" doesn't begin to describe how I felt. I've done a lot more work on KANGAROO since then, and plan to get a new draft back to Janet Reid before the end of March--which would [be] one year since the Query Shark post. Deadlines are good.
Speaking of deadlines, I also wrapped up my "512 Words or Fewer" blog project last year. In October of 2008, I set myself the goal of posting an original piece of flash fiction every Friday. I wanted to force myself to write more and different stories, and this compact format seemed like the perfect way to experiment and actually finish things.
Why 512 words? Mainly because I used to be a professional software engineer, and thus have an affinity for powers of two. (2^9 = 512.) It also seemed like a manageable amount to produce on a weekly basis. In fact, that was one of the first things I learned: my first draft of any scene tends to come out around 1,000 words. Cutting that by half can be painful, but it was an invaluable exercise in critical thinking--I had to decide which words were absolutely essential, and which darlings I could murder. Learning to see the forest for the trees was one of the most important things I learned from the 512s, and it's something I've been able to apply to all my writing.
I concluded the 512s in August, 2013, after 256 consecutive weeks. Not all of the stories were great, but the process of creating them has made me a better writer. I'm aware of how much more clarity I now have when thinking about capital-S Story, even if it's simply heckling a sloppy plot contrivance on Downton Abbey. (Seriously, eight months later, he's still got the damn ticket? C'mon, guys.)
To commemorate the 512 Words project, my wife helped me select 117 of the most interesting stories to include in a collection which we published on January 31st of this year. That process taught me a lot about what it takes to design and produce both a printed paperback and an electronic version. The 512 book (which we titled THURSDAY'S CHILDREN, ha ha) was also a fun project, but I'm not sure I'd want to self-publish again--I would much rather have help navigating the business side of publishing.
In fact, I recently had a very good publishing experience with a novelette I sold to Leading Edge. They're a BYU publication, and as such have guidelines about explicit language and sexual content--which required me to revise my story featuring foulmouthed police detectives and cloned prostitutes. They were willing to copy-edit the swear words themselves, but also wanted me to consider rewriting one of the final scenes.
So I cleaned up the language, rewrote the scene in question, and did some minor touchups here and there--but otherwise was pleasantly surprised at the overall quality of the piece. (Good job, past me!) And the whole process, from contract to rewrites to final copyedits, was about all of us pulling for the same goal: getting the story in shape and into print.
I want to write fiction people want to read. That means developing my skill as a writer, and also understanding markets, editors, and audiences. I believe Clarion West will help me with all of those things.
Thanks for reading!
I don't know what factors, apart from me improving as a writer between 2008 and 2014, led to my finally getting into CW. To be honest, when I was working on this essay, I thought of it like Red's final parole board hearing in Shawshank Redemption: it was more important to speak honestly than to try to game the application process. Because, in the end, all you have is your own integrity.
And it doesn't matter how many times you fail, as long as you always fail better. Getting a result means you're making the attempt. You can't succeed if you don't try.