Clarion Helped Me Be A Better Writer. Let Neil Gaiman Tell You How.

Knowing Neil Gaiman is sort of like being friends with a hurricane; he causes a large stir wherever he goes, always making headlines, and as such people email you if they think he might be coming near.
So when I woke up last Sunday, I had several emails telling me that my old Clarion teacher had mentioned me in a talk he’d given at Cambridge, just as he was preparing to teach at this year’s Clarion Science Fiction Writers’ Workshop.  The best email was from my friend Tiffani Angus, who said this to me:

Dear Ferrett,
Last night I went and saw Neil Gaiman (likely just ‘Neil’ to you) give a talk and do a book signing at the Cambridge Union Society in the room where Cambridge uni has held debates for, oh, like 150 years or so (which, by Cambridge count, is a freaking drop in the bucket since this place has been here for 600 years). During the Q&A, I raised my hand and asked him his opinion on the argument that some have that creative writing can’t be taught–that it’s innate talent and not a skill set. I prefaced it with the explanation that I knew he’d taught at Clarion in 2008.
He said that he thought having creative writing as a course was good because it feeds creative writers (the teachers). But, he said, the most important thing to do to become a (good) writer is to just write, as much as possible, and that he hopes that’s something that is passed on to the students.
And he told the story about being at Clarion and how one of the students came up to him one day and asked, “So, who here do you think will make it?” The student pointed at a couple of the more ‘advanced’ writers, and said “Them?” And Neil said “I don’t know who’s going to make it. But I know that to make it you have to write. Just write, as much as possible.”
And then this past year he went to the Nebula awards, where he had been nominated, and the student who had asked him the question at Clarion was the first of his students to be nominated for a Nebula. I mouthed ‘Ferrett’ at him, and he said “Yes, Ferrett. And I was so proud of him.” Because you’ve put in the work these past years, and you’ve shown that writing as much as possible is the only way to improve.
Later, when he signed my book, we talked very quickly about it, and he said, “So, you know Ferrett.” I explained that I’d never met you in person, but had known you online for a few years. (I didn’t explain that I’d done Clarion.)
And he signed a poster for me. “Make good writing, Tiffani” he wrote. I pinned it above my desk. To remind me that I’m here inn the UK for a reason, and that even though my life has been so busy and everything exploded 6 months ago, the only way out is through, and the only way through is by writing as much as possible.
So, that’s the story of how you were part of the discussion in a city in a country far across the ocean from where you are now. And how, although you and I have been found inspiration in Neil, I have found inspiration in you.

There’s no word that I know of that summarizes “tears of pride and joy,” but if I were slightly more talented I would have invented it.  Neil being as popular as he is, I know he’s told that anecdote before to other audiences.  And so it is that I have become legend: The Boy Who Worked Hard.  I’m now a go-to tale in Neil’s pocket when he wishes to talk about the need to keep writing through laziness, uninspiration, medical trauma, and distractions.
And yet.
The truth is, I could have just kept writing for twenty years, and still not gotten there if it hadn’t been for Clarion.  I know this because I had written for twenty years, and wasn’t much good. Clarion showed me what professional writing really is – not just the sheer bull-headedness it takes to get you there, but the standard by which you must write.  For years, I was way better than all of my friends at writing, and I thought that was good enough.  I took shortcuts.  I wrote not-quite-ambitious stories.  I didn’t submit enough.
Yet when I went to Clarion and had seventeen brilliant writers breaking down my stories, I realized: there were no shortcuts.   Every time I said, “Aww, I’m sure that doesn’t matter,” someone caught it – and it did matter, really.  I was exposed to other viewpoints, other ways of approaching stories, and eventually came to the honest truth that for the past twenty years, I was writing perfectly good stories.  Which was fine, but if I wanted to get published?  To get into Asimov’s, I had to not only be as good as Connie Willis or Robert Silverberg or Joe Haldeman, I had to be better.  Because as a nobody, my name on the cover got them no additional sales.
Read that: to be published in a professional magazine, I would have to be better than Neil fucking Gaiman on that day.
So I tightened up my prose, and adhered to Jay Lake’s Bathtub Theory, where as a writer, you have good days and bad days, but the crest of your work is directly dependent on all the effort you’ve put in before.  So I wrote.  Every day.  I went to workshops, analyzed stories for friends, read more, immersed myself in it.  I tried to figure out things I did poorly as a writer, then hammered home on them with surgical precision in experiments designed to make them better.  I made my goal to be better than my teachers.
And I’m still not that great.  Many people would kill to have my success, I know – twenty-five published short stories since graduating Clarion, eight of them in pro magazines, a Nebula nomination – but that’s all a result of me pouring in All the Words.  For every one of those published tales, there are at least three where my bathtub didn’t slosh enough to get me over the edge.  All I can do is write.  A lot.
Clarion taught me the standard I was expected.  It stripped away my bullshit, my bad habits, my sense of entitlement.  And when I walked out, I was a professional writer.  Even though I hadn’t published a damn thing yet, I was acting like a pro.  As I hope Tiffani does.  I’m so proud to be a goad to anyone – because I really do think this is all about persistence and honesty.
And that is why, every year, I participate in the Clarion Write-A-Thon, where I ask you to donate and sponsor me as I raise funds for my alma mater.  They’re a good group, churning out amazing writers, and if you donate you’ll not only be helping the next generation of fantasy writers, but you’ll get stuff from me.

  • A $5 donation will get you membership to the super-secret Clarion Echo workshop on LiveJournal, where I’ll be live-writing three stories this year – the first being about a Cthulhuloid internet worm that infects Google, for a Lovecraft tribute I’ve been commissioned for.  I don’t just write in the Clarion Echo – I discuss what worked and what failed about today’s words, pulling it apart so you see the fiction as I see it, really trying to break it down as a professional writer looks soberly at his flaws.   In this way, I try to do a mini-Clarion for anyone who wants a taste of it.
  • A $25 donation will get you a full short story/chapter critique from me in the Clarion Echo workshop.  I’ll analyze your fiction the way I’ve done for countless professional writers’ groups, weighing in on its weaknesses and strengths, hoping to show you where maybe you’re taking shortcuts and hoping no one notices.

I’ll be doing this every day for the next six weeks, even on the vacation I’m taking in Hawaii – because as a writer, I go by Stephen King’s maxim, which is that you tell people you write every day except on Christmas and your birthday… and secretly write on Christmas and your birthday.
Clarion means a lot to me.  It’s a small donation, and if you do donate, please email me at with your LJ name so I can add you to the super-secret and awesome club.  And I thank you.

How Chipmunks Stung My Hands

The thing about beekeeping is, it involves bees.  Which involves being stung on occasion; not often, but more than the number one would be prefer to be stung at all, which is none.
Which is why, depending on your beekeeping style and your bees, we cloak up.  Some people go bare-chested and figure, hell, getting stung is just what happens.  Others go bare-handed but wear the suit, because the gloves are clumsy.  But after getting stung several times by a hive of very mean bees last year, Gini and I switched to gloves.  It’s just too much trouble to get stung on the hands when your job is typing and your main exercise is biking, where you rest a significant portion of your weight on your hands.
So when I got into the hive yesterday, I put on the gloves, knowing this was going to be a very quick operation.  The new hive (of much nicer bees) has expanded, and needs space.  So all I was going to do was to pop the top of the hive, put on a second deep, and leave.  Simple as that.
Except there were two problems.
First, the hive was covered in bees.  Which I wasn’t expecting.  Generally, the bees stay on the insides of the hives, but when there’s a lot of them and it’s hot outside, they congregate under the shade.  Which meant that clustered underneath the lip of the lid were several bees.
Second, because I’d cleaned up the garage and put all the beekeeping equipment where the animals could get at it, the gloves actually looked like this:
Yes, I’d seen the chipmunks running in and out of the garage before, and thought them adorable. But apparently, the propolis and honey residue on the fingertips of the gloves was very appealing,because they literally ate nothing else.  The backs of the gloves?  Perfectly fine.  And who the hell thinks to check whether their gloves had been gnawed by chipmunks?   (The glove on the left, presented for comparison of how bad it could have been, was sadly Gini’s.  I wish the chipmunks had eaten my gloves that thoroughly; this, I would have noticed.)
So when I went to lift the lid of the box, my first sign that something was wrong was a feeling like hey, I’ve been stung.  How the hell could that happen?  I’m wearing gloves!
And then I bring up my hands and see that my fingertips are swarming with bees.
This is not a moment of great pride for me, because I saw the bees that stung me, and they were all like what the hell, bro?  Bees don’t like to sting.  But here, in ignorance and confusion, I’d decided to shove my bare hands among them to crush them, and they’d stung reflexively, like a frat boy punching some kid who stole his beer.  They seemed baffled as I frantically shook them off, wondering what the hell had happened to them.
I ran into the garage, my right ring finger with at least three stingers in it, to brush it off.  And get ice.  And then, curse an awful lot.  Because this wasn’t the bees’ fault.
It was the chipmunks.  Chipmunks ripped my flesh.  I can honestly say now, “I got stung because of chipmunks.”  This is A Thing.  It is true.  And it is ineffably weird.

Can A Ferrett Build An Arcade Cabinet?

Can I build an arcade cabinet?  Honestly?  I don’t know.  But it begins, my friends.  Check out this particular birthday present to myself:

That is the X-Arcade Tankstick, hooked up to a MAME emulator on my laptop running Ms. Pac-Man.  It was a really magical moment, when I finally doped out how to get the software to work with the controller, and pressed a button to start.  It was like I’d somehow literally captured a part of my childhood, in a half-assembled laboratory spread out across the guest bed.
(Incidentally, if you ever do want to build an arcade cabinet, X-Arcade has its shit down.  The MAME Plus! software is configured by default to have all the controls work with the joystick, and their very affordable coin door is set to work with a splitter to tie right into your computer.  It’s extremely, satisfyingly, user-friendly.)
What I intend to build is, eventually, this:
As designed by the fine builders at, and with a few tweaks suggested by my friend Todd.  But right now, all I have is this:
…which is to say two very large and heavy boards of 3/4″ cabinet-grade birch plywood.  I’ll need to find some way of mapping the small JPG I have onto that larger surface, and then use my power jigsaw for the first time.
(Fun fact: Since we have a Lowes right across the street in the mall, and the boards were too cumbersome to fit in the car easily, I simply borrowed a wood cart and pushed it the three blocks home.  Which was a good, cheap plan, except that a) it was a windy day and I was pushing two large, flat sails across the asphalt, and b) the rattle-and-bang as it hit every crack ont he sidewalk alerted Gini I was coming from half a block away.  Here I was, a wild-haired balding guy grudgingly pushing a stolen cart down the street, announced by huge hollow-tubed booms, distinctly not making eye contract with anyone.  And I’ll have to do that again.  Lord knows what the neighbors think. [And yes, I returned the cart.])
So that’s this Sunday’s work.  I hope Erin helps.  I could use some help.  Because standing at the base of those two huge sheets of wood, knowing that somehow I have to shape these into that, is intimidating as fuck.

I Think I Felt My Soul Break

Do not send money to your online interest. There are online users that earn a living by faking love and pretending to run into hard times.
Part of me read that and went, “What an interesting fiction challenge! I bet I’d be really good at that.”
Then I started to map out the sorts of personality traits it would take to appeal to the lonely guy/gal – a good reason for a stunningly attractive person to be lonely and looking for someone on the Internet, the secret rituals that make someone feel loved, constructing the steely-eyed hard-luck story where I’d never ask for money, I have my pride, but – no. Really? You’d do that? I couldn’t. But….
Inevitably, I’d run into other professional love-fakers. We’d get together for conventions, flown to exotic locations on the dollars of sad men, exchange best practices for not being found prematurely, gossip about our best and worst conquests. We’d hold contests to see who would extract the most money, and I’d win. Other lonely-hearts extractors would whisper about me: “Have you seen his techniques? Oh, it’s a pleasure to watch him set the hook.”
In time, I’d step away from the danger of predating on sad boys in basements – they’re eager, sometimes they track you down, sometimes things get violent. Instead, I’d move into the role of paid advisor, troubleshooting sticky situations for a cut of the gross, showing up like Mister Wolf – a chain-smoking professional who barely shows his disdain for the clumsy hash you’ve made of things. Really? You let him buy airplane tickets for his mom to meet you? Oh, we’ll have to –
And then I snapped back to reality, realizing what a horrid, horrid fantasy this all was. I’d never do it.
But if I did? I’d be good at it.

The Spring Depression: Skipped

Every spring, my Seasonal Affective Disorder comes sniffing around.  It’s an insidious thing I must be watchful for; the way I discovered it is that I said, “Hey, I seem to have had an annual suicide attempt in June for the past three years, this seems to be A Thing.”  And that timeframe got bumped up a bit when I moved to Alaska – theory was, all that excess daylight triggered something odd in my body – but the fact is, every spring, I’m going to have a solid ten days crying and trying hard to stop from cutting myself.
Except this year.  Why?
There’s three theories:
1)  The catastrophic trauma from my triple-bypass surgery stopped it dead in its tracks.  It sounds strange, but the other time I had major surgery for my burst appendix, it truncated what was a pretty nasty depressive incident.  Which is a strangely heartening thought, that even my body views this depression as a sort of luxury; if there’s something seriously life-threatening, it’ll stop making me sad and concentrate on getting me to live.
2)  I’m eating far better than I was before.  More fruits, more fish, less meat and sugar.  Could be.  I’ve been on some strange diets through various iterations of SAD, which never helped before, but I’m told by some that fish oil helps.
3)  Super mega-doses of Vitamin D.  My cardiologist put me on a weekly, prescription-level dosage of 50,000 units of Vitamin D.  Which, I’m told, helps ameliorate depression – something I’d shrugged off before, because a) I drink more milk than any non-calf being in the known universe, and b) I’d already been taking a vitamin supplement. But this is the theory I stick to – lots of other people find Vitamin D helpful, and so I’ve started taking a daily supplement just in case. (As Sheldon said, it might just be “the ingredients for some very expensive urine,” but the pills are comparatively cheap.)
None of this is to say that my SAD vanished. I had a couple of days where the slightest jolt would send me into sadness – a fight with a sweetie, a rejection, a writer who said something I felt was unfair – but it was at least a triggered depression, not the kind that just enfolds you out of nowhere.  And it was a 4 out of 10 on the Crushing Depression scale, something that might destroy a non-depressive, but my depression-fighting muscles are strong.
So I dunno.  My advice to you is if you suffer, try taking 5,000 units of Vitamin D daily, and maybe a pair of fish oil caplets at night.  (Always at night.  Otherwise, you risk getting the dreaded Fish Burps during the day, which is bizarrely traumatizing.)  I think the body chemistry is what’s causing it, but it was very nice to have glided over the SAD this year instead of falling in.
Or you could try having a heart attack, followed by a chest-cracking triple bypass.  Wouldn’t advise it as a strategy, but if you give it a go, lemme know how it works out.