What to Expect at a Clockhouse Workshop

What can you expect from a Clockhouse workshop?

We don’t usually record Clockhouse meetings. But here is a report on one, written by a regular member, Sandra Unerman, for a separate project, which gives some idea of what to expect if you come along.

We met on Saturday 30 November at 1.10 pm. As usual, the venue was an upstairs room at a church near Palmers Green, in North London. The workshop was led by Allen Ashley, an experienced genre writer, editor and creative writing tutor. In addition to Allen, nine people attended the meeting, four of whom are women. The gender balance varies from meeting to meeting but I have never noticed this make any difference to the atmosphere or content of discussion.

We often have a new person, who has come to try out the workshop. This time there were three, including one who had come down from Leeds on purpose to attend. The rest of us were a mixture of recent joiners and long-standing members, who come from all over London, from Croydon to Barnet. The dress code is casual.

People bring their own refreshments or treats to share around. This is not planned in advance but depends on whatever anyone decides to bring along. This time, perhaps because of the season, we had more treats than usual, including mince pies, nuts and chocolate-coated cranberries.

The aim of the workshop is to provide us with themes for stories, to nudge us into getting on with the actual process of writing and to encourage us to submit our work for publication. The unstated assumption is that we write for enjoyment, not primarily for commercial success. We are interested in discussing and sharing our work and in learning from each other. The mood is therefore supportive but workmanlike and the pace of discussion, set by Allen, is brisk. He prepares for the workshops by researching market opportunities for genre fiction and brings along a list, which he hands out at the end in a ‘tip sheet’.

Allen opened the main business of the meeting by talking us through several publishing opportunities for short stories and longer work. He told us what he knew about the publishers concerned and invited members to add any experiences of their own. Two people did so, including one of the new members.

We spent longer over a competition for a short story. The brief was to write a fantasy horror story inspired by a picture on the publisher’s website, of a castle by a lake. Allen provided us with copies of the picture and a list of questions to set us thinking about what kind of place it might be, what kind of characters might live there, and so on. He then gave us about ten minutes to work on our own, which we did in silence. Some f us began scribbling at once: others sat and thought, before making a few notes. This is a regular process at the workshops. Some people can develop an idea very fast from almost any sort of prompt but my thoughts are often slower. I usually write down a few words or phrases. Several times, I have later been able to develop these into a story which has been published.

When time was up, Allen invited people to share their thoughts. Four of us spoke up. As usual everyone had different ideas about where the castle might be set and what might happen there. During the meeting, we went through a similar process for two other themes.

About half way through the meeting, we went round the table to exchange any news about our writing. Several of us reported on short stories accepted for publication by different anthologies or magazines. One person had had a recently published novella turned into an audiobook and another had been doing a podcast, as well as organising a series of readings on virtual futures. One new member commented that she was just starting out as a writer and was finding the event very inspirational.

Allen talked us through some more market opportunities, including one for a folk horror anthology. This sparked a discussion about the meaning of the term and the scope for urban legends to provide the material for a horror story.

Another proposed anthology which provoked discussion was one about retro science fiction, in the style of American classics from the fifties and sixties. Several people said that they had loved stories by writers like Heinlein and Asimov when they were growing up. But they were now much more conscious of the need to question the attitudes implied in such work, in relation to gender and other issues.

The meeting lasted two hours. My sense was that everyone found the experience positive. People were happy to contribute and to listen to others. Allen moves things along, in order to cover a lot of ground but gives everyone a chance to speak, new members included.