One of the things that is sometimes debated within various pockets of the literary community is the question of whether writing, (or presumably, by extension, any art) can be taught. Though many authors currently practice workshopping in some form, though a good number of us have availed ourselves of night classes, MFAs, opportunities like Viable Paradise or Alpha, and certificate programs like the one I teach at, at UCLA, there are also those who believe teaching writing creates cookie-cutter work.
There are definitely writers who are ill-suited to workshops, and who’ll generally do better if they bash along on their own. But like all good kernels of thought, it’s possible to get dogmatic about this down with teaching proposition, to argue that a workshop or a class will inevitably ruin new talent by crushing their creativity into some kind of rigid publishing mold.
Naturally, I disagree. (As a general principle, I disagree with anything that presumes that one size fits–or fails–all.)
Now, of course, I would take issue with this, wouldn’t I? I went to Clarion West, after all, and my wife Kelly Robson attended Taos Toolbox. And I do teach, a lot, not only at the UCLA Extension Writers’ Program but in person at UTSC. My bread is entirely covered in student butter. (And I think Kelly’s many award nominations since she began to sell short fiction constitute a powerful argument, in their own right, that workshops can be a force for good!)
Do I think writing can be taught? Obviously. Do I think everything about writing can be taught?
With the arts, you not a physics professor laying out a formula, some cut-and-dried procedure for which there is one satisfactory answer. You’re not showing someone how to paint the perfect yellow line down the middle of a strip of road, or fly an airplane without making it go kersplat, or performing open heart surgery. The arts are more fungible. For every so-called rule, there’s at least one fantastic book or story that makes said rule a hilarious joke, a baffled wide-eyed “But!” with cream pie dripping down their face.
So what is teaching writing like?
One of my favorite analogies for the teaching of writing is that it’s a bit like taking a bunch of people to a junkyard, a vast expanse of crushed metal and random parts, oil and cogs and wheels, looming in creaky, ominous, teetering piles.
In a junkyard, at first glance, much of what you see is pretty familiar: busted windshields, steering wheels, coveralls, crowbars, and the smell of paint. Things may be mixed and jumbled, but a gas tank’s a gas tank. Or is that… an oil pan?
Teaching writing is like taking students out to this stretch of familiar parts, and saying: “Okay, you all know what a car is. Now build one.”
They go off. They work at it. Every now and then someone may bring me back a door, or part of an engine, and ask where they should put it. If they do, I’m only to happy to suggest moving a windshield wiper or adding a muffler. But essentially once the task is set, each writer is off, isolated, in their own corner of the wrecking yard, fusing things together into stories, clanking away and hoping it works.
Then, finally, we get to the point where everyone’s made something and the workshop can begin.
Almost all of us have been in more motor vehicles than we could possibly count. How would you even guesstimate? Cars are ubiquitous, less familiar than your skin, but not by that much. You’ve been strapped in baby seats. Drunk and headed home in smelly taxicabs. Alone with a podcast on your nightly two-hour commute. You’ve been on road trips in rentals, trapped on tour buses, and on tenterhooks, possibly, at your driver’s exam.
How many of us could assemble a car out of parts?
In this analogy, the first thing I ask when I see the cobbled-together creations of my students is a pretty simple question: “Does it run?”
If a story doesn’t go, if it can’t carry a reader from some point A to another point B, the author’s generally got to go back to the scrapheap for more or different pieces.
This is an important element of how I think about fiction in all my roles, as a reader, a teacher, an editor, and especially as a writer. I want to create things that are exciting, fuel-efficient, and stunningly beautiful. But none of that matters until the story can move someone. If it can’t, it might as well be a hunk of metal up on blocks in someone’s yard. No matter how great the paintjob, it’s of limited use.
If a story runs–even if it can only cough its way like an ill-used jalopy, to the corner of Flash Fiction Avenue and Finished Street–then I as a coach and the whole workshop group gets to move onto making it run better.
And when it runs pretty well? Then you can really drill into the aesthetics: “Any chance you’d care to make it more attractive and comfortable for the passengers?”
(One of the things that is fun about this particular analogy is that process of translating workshop critique into car talk.)
- “Right now the seats have a funny smell and the ride is really bumpy.”
- “I know POV lives under the hood, but just because you can’t usually see it doesn’t mean you don’t need one.”
- “After the adultery scene, it just kinda runs out of gas.”
Stories and written language surround us, just as cars do. They travel, as cars do. And what the car metaphor gives me is an ability to talk about the building process—to teach via metaphor. You can talk about getting a vehicle up to speed, about skidding out of a turn, about the flashy exterior of a pretty sports car. Oddly, this can sometimes make more sense than “Show, don’t tell.”
Now actual cars do have a right answer, when you’re building them. It would be ludicrous to expect mechanics to learn to assemble them from trial and error.
But what about the part you can’t teach?
I’m an expert, on stories. I can see if they run. I can say if the tires look good and the propeller on top is, probably, a bit too much. But because each writer makes their own story from the ground up, every time, out of a glorious randomosity of bits of wrecked dream, nuggets of grudge, precious hoarded research, glimmers of genius and cobweb threads of memory, the final path to making any tale roadworthy isn’t ever going to be a case of me giving you the One True Answer. Art is not Newtonian physics, or fixing Chevy Cavaliers. I may think that propeller I mentioned, above, has to go. Meanwhile the author’s gut’s is saying “We just need another one, on the bottom. It needs to be made of uranium.”
Somewhere, within that gap between my “That’s not gonna take a reader anywhere!” And their “The propeller is non-negotiable,” is the stuff that can’t be taught. That’s the point where the author has to slink back into the junkyard, wrench at the ready, in search of the pieces to make it fit.
About this post: There used to be a link on my now-defunct Livejournal to one of my photographs–a picture of a broken traffic light–along with some musings about the nature of teaching creative writing. I called it “the car metaphor essay,” and linked to it often. It contained some handy ideas, but it was also little more than a sketch of the core concept. This new essay attempts to adds a real engine and some new paint to the thing.
Happy Halloween, everyone!!
This week in my Creating Universes, Building Worlds class at the UCLA Extension Writers’ Program, one of my students said, in passing, that they thought James Cameron’s Xenomorph Queen, from Aliens, was a great villain, and that they thought Cameron was generally particularly good at creating villains. So I asked if they thought the Queen was a true villain, or–to split a semantic hair–an antagonist? She’s acting, after all, to avenge her offspring, and to survive.
What I was wondering, in that moment, was this: does villainy require premeditation, evil intent, or cleverness?
We batted that around a bit, talking about whether a baddie with simple motivations, like the Queen or the original Terminator (who does presumably know that what he’s doing is illegal within the time period he’s visiting, and who does a few pretty clever things to find Sarah Connor) is truly villainous. Here’s a snip from one of my posts in that discussion:
One definition of villainy is “wicked or criminal behavior.” If we were to contrast the Xenomorph Queen and the first Terminator, there’s an interesting question of intention. The former certainly isn’t setting out to be criminal. She’s essentially a big space-wasp. Wasps are parasites and what they do to their prey species is thoroughly horrible. And, to add in another wrinkle, she is smarter and more thoughtful than her soldier-spawn, who are orders of magnitude smarter than the face huggers. It is common in action movies to work your way up from dumb thugs to smart villains.
The Terminator is after one kill and causes a lot of collateral damage as he pursues it… in some ways, what he does is less horrible than space wasp parasitism. And, as you note, it behaves in ways that are consciously criminal and much more premeditated.
Anyone else have some thoughts? Is villain a value judgment? A level, like boss monster?
San francisco mural
When I originally conceived this essay, it was meant to be something in the way of a How To thing, for one of my classes, an easy to follow step by step guide on how to market your work. By the time I came to write it, though, I realized that this particular bunch of students already had that covered. And, anyway, there are lots of pieces like that. (A quick crank through Submission Grinder might be enough to get some writers started. Writers Digest has a piece on the basics, too.)
So what this became, in fairly short order, was more of an acknowledgment of something many of us realize, forget, and then learn anew over the course of our careers:
- Learning to write well–learning your craft–is hard.
- Learning to sell your work is completely different–and also hard.
- Both are lifelong pursuits with changing goalposts.
It used to be, in the days before the Internet, that the process of submitting a manuscript had an almost ritualistic air to it.
You had to produce a typed copy, of course… and if you go back far enough, that involved actually typing it on an old school typewriter. You needed a back-up, and before copy shops and the days of a laser printer in every home, that meant carbon copies. This was a pain in the ass the likes of which I cannot even describe.
Unless you had the random good fortune to live in the same city as and be buddies with your chosen editor, a mythical unicorn-like creature straight out of the pages of John Irving, who accepted prose directly from your hands and impressed it, deitybeams emanating all the while, right into the centerspread of The New Yorker, each submission had to go into snailmail, with a cover letter and something called an SASE–which means self-addressed stamp envelope. This was an envelope with enough U.S. postage on it (no matter where your country of origin was, and don’t get me started on International Reply Coupons) to pay to return your original. This in turn ensured that you didn’t have to type it again if a rejection happened to come.
If the story got picked up, the SASE was used for the contract.
There was no real way of knowing if Writers Digest was still on track when it said that a market like Tomorrow Speculative Fiction would take six months to get back to you. There was a sense of throwing your fiction out into the void to see if it might somehow, miraculously catch a yes. It was night fishing. It was slow. The most important part of many a writer’s day was watching for the mail carrier.
I came along somewhere midway between carbon copies and dot matrix printers, and so my point in telling you this is not anything along the lines of Oh, you kids have it so much better than the oldsters who founded this genre! It’s not even Hey, things are so much better now! They are, of course, at least in terms of logistics. It is much easier to get up-to-date market information, to canvas other writers about what any given editor may want, and to go to the aforementioned Grinder to find out things like the average response time for a given market.
In the end, though, it still comes down to this: your story, working its way into the unknown, trying to catch the attention of a single reader. That reader might be an overtaxed and jaded slush reader for a magazine that gets eighty manuscripts a day. It might be the agent who asked for your manuscript in person at a writing conference. The physical artifact might still exist: you may yet mail out printed Courier text on crisp white sheets of 20 pound bond. It might as easily end up being custom formatted, by the recipient, to suit whatever e-reader they keep by the bedside table at home.
There’s a metaphorical line, a reel and a piece of bait. And what hasn’t changed, between then and now, is that you are taking an immense emotional risk.
Some of us are years, even decades, from the first time we threw a manuscript out there. Some of us have reached a point where we don’t even find the process of casting our work out there particularly difficult anymore. Others will struggle every single time.
I have seen people get used enough to selling that the submission process becomes something they’re comparatively blasé about… blasé, that is, until that rejection for something they really wanted to sell hits their Inbox.
Then we remember. Oh, yeah! We’re putting ourselves out there. We’re taking risks.
Now, a thing about sticking your neck out is, of course, that you can lose. Lose badly, sometimes. The time spent writing a work of fiction is not a trivial investment. And I have seen people brought very low in the arts. There are discouragements and heartbreaks and dark nights of the soul. But the risk isn’t like casino gambling. The house is not against you. I sincerely believe there are more people hoping you will win than there are those stacking the deck against you.
So as you prepare your next submission, be it your first or your fiftieth, take time to recognize that you are doing something that is difficult, and brave, and worth applauding in its own right. Remember that there may have been a time in your life when you could not have imagined submitting your writing to a workshop, let alone a professional market. Remember that there may have been a time when you were unable to consider calling yourself a writer at all.
You are allowed to have this dream. It’s yours, and you own a little more of it every time you put words to paper, every time you research something you may later put in a story, every time you read a book or watch a movie with a critical eye even as you feed that impulse to entertain yourself. You are allowed to claw for time to make your art, and to send the finished product to people who may pay you the enormous compliment of giving you money and seeking an audience for it. Start thinking of yourself as part of the club.
And for those of you who aren’t in a space where you currently need reassurance, I say this: the day may come when you cycle back around to this emotional place I’m describing. To the precipice. There may be a future you who questions whether the risk is too great, who lacks the beautiful certainty of your now. So think of this little peptalk as a time traveler: pack it into your mental backpack, and carry it on to the future.
It’s often observed that the people who succeeding in fiction writing are the ones who just keep knocking on doors. That doesn’t mean their work is bad. Quite the opposite. It just means that they have, among other things, refused to give up on the idea of The Sale.
Practically ever essay I’ve seen on writing success talks about persistence. You’ve all seen those essays, I suspect, and the reason the point bears endless, tiresome repeating is specifically because risk takes energy. Risk gets tiring. Risk can even, when it’s day in, day out, and a lot of No mixed in with the Yes, become something of a grind.
So when writers turn out charming blog entries about how you just have to keep at it, remember that lying under the grassy green promise of those peppy essays are the ghosts of dreams, the memory of talented souls who gave up, the crawling worms that feed on the sleepless nights when we ourselves lay awake wondering if we might just be better off getting a real estate license. We’re telling you you have to keep at it or go under. And, simultaneously, we’re telling ourselves.
And this brings me to each other. In this, as in so many other things, the only people who truly get it are the people going through the same thing.
Writers workshop to receive crucial feedback for their fiction, but the other function of classes like my various workshops, and Clarion, and Odyssey, is to connect you with your fellow travelers. This is, again, an area where the Internet has been a game changer. It is possible now to have a writer’s group that will never meet in person. You can find a kindred spirit, anywhere in the world, and form a rich and lasting creative bond.
Keep making the work. Keep throwing it out there. Fish with a friend whenever you can. These are the things that are within your control, and they make it so much easier to survive those moments when the business side of this wacky, rewarding and idiosyncratic art–of giving voice to your dreams, in other words–starts to feel like you’re shouting into an abyss.
The slice of my life that is all about helping new authors find and hone their voices has been on fire lately, and I have been burning to tell you about all the nifty upcoming developments. Over at the UCLA Extension Writers’ Program, registration is open for “Creating Universes, Building Worlds,” my workshop course in short speculative fiction. This class makes a nice trial run for something like Odyssey, Clarion or Clarion West: you can write in any of the speculative fiction subgenres, and the workshop is run like one of the aforementioned programs (or as close to it as one can get with an online class.) You get to stay home, write one complete work of fiction, workshop it with the group, and make plans for revision and marketing.
Want more? You also get to read and discuss awesome stories by Kij Johnson, Nalo Hopkinson, Harry Turtledove, Tanith Lee and so many other fantastic writers!
But why is that exciting? You may well ask… I’ve been teaching this class for years. But for those of you who’ve taken CUBW and its follow-up, Writing the Fantastic, it does look like there will be a new and more advanced option for you at UCLA come Spring 2016. So that’s one very exciting thing.
The other wildly delightful development is that come January I will be teaching a realtime, face to face, honest-to-deity speculative fiction workshop at the University of Toronto in Scarborough, Ontario. Are there (or do you know) any U of T students who might be interested in that? If so, write me and I will give you the scoop as it develops.
One of my online students asked today how novels get workshopped in the real world. It’s a question with several dimensions. It references novels as opposed to short stories, and also raises the issue of face to face workshops versus the online kind. The real heart of this question, it seems to me, is “How does a group workshop a bunch of works that are probably all over 75K words long?”
I’ll home in on that, but first let’s glance past the side issues:
ONLINE VERSUS FACE TO FACE: The logistics of finding like-minded novelists to work with make it probable that any novel workshop you do find will have an online component. Unless you live in a big city and know a fair number of other writers,the pool of people available to you will be so much bigger if you expand it to include, you know, the whole Internet.
Face to face workshops have an immediacy that e-mail can’t match, but this is perhaps beginning to be a moot point in the age of Google Hangouts and similar conferencing software. If you want to talk through a manuscript and your computer’s not ancient, you can meet in realtime. It’s really about what you want.
Both types of feedback–written and face to face–can be crucial to a project’s development as long as the critiques are good and the writer is ready to listen. Your mileage may vary, but I believe the magic is in the people, not the delivery system.
SHORT FICTION VERSUS NOVELS: Short fiction, in workshop terms, has an awesome advantage over novels. It’s short! My UCLA classes run ten weeks and can have as many as fifteen students. Even if each student came in with a slender tome, (say 50K words or 200 pages) a whole-novel workshop would be looking at reading 3000 pages of manuscript. That’s just reading, and doesn’t consider the feedback! I wrote 8,700 words of critique last week on nine short submissions, and that excludes follow-up discussion.
A usual strategy is to submit a manageable section of a novel instead. Everyone gets a more or less equal chance to show off part of their novel. This highlights the other advantage of a short fiction workshop–writers can submitting whole pieces. We can evaluate them from start to stop; all their cards are revealed. If someone says “I don’t like the decision Proto makes here,” you don’t find yourself crying in your beer because it all makes sense in the next chapter.
LOGISTICS OF WORKSHOPPING NOVELS
So, how do you workshop novels? There are probably a billion strategies, and I’m open to hearing them all, but here are the three main tactics:
–Workshopping an already finished novel in its entirety.
–Workshopping a finished novel in parts.
–Workshopping a WIP (work in progress) in parts.
WHOLE FINISHED BOOKS: If you have a book done, you can look for readers who have time and the inclination to read it all. This generally isn’t going to be a 15-person workshop, but rather a handful of trusted readers to whom you’re going to owe the same favor. And, unless you set a reading deadline and then convene a meeting (at your house, a convivial restaurant, or online) the feedback is likely to come in a one-on-one format, via e-mail. This is just as it would come from an agent or editor, which may have some useful features… but it doesn’t allow the ferment that comes from discussion, give and take, agree and disagree.
The obvious advantage here is that the work is critiqued as a piece. You get feedback on the whole thing. Your set-up, character arcs, and whether you stuck the ending can all be evaluated, because–as with a short story–the readers have everything they need.
The possible downside is that you’re going to get one take from each reader… you’re hardly going to ask them to take a second run at the rewrite in six months’ time!
Getting a finished novel read after it’s drafted keeps the critique process from sabotaging your momentum, though, or tempting you to stray from the path you’ve set for the story. This is crucial for many writers. Then again, if you do conclude from the feedback on the early chapters that you’ve taken your characters in a bad direction, there’s that much more to rewrite if the other 450 pages have already been put to bed.
FINISHED BOOKS, IN PIECES: This may, for some, offer the best of both worlds. It assumes you have access to or can build a workshop with some kind of rotating roster, and you submit pieces of the completed draft of your book, in order, at regular intervals. You get feedback on Chapters 1-3, for example, and as you rewrite them you turn in Chapters 4-6. All the while, you’re reading and critiquing works by your peers.
The possible disadvantages here are that this sort of thing requires a certain amount of organizational discipline from the workshop, a group that sticks to its commitments and its schedule.It might also take longer than you’d like. People inevitably forget major chunks of chapters 1-3 by the time they reach 9-12. However, it may represent a lighter workload for a larger group–thus garnering more feedback– and be more generally do-able.
UNFINISHED BOOK AS YOU GO: This is the mode for most of the novel writing courses I teach at the UCLA Extension Writers’ Program, and it has a lot going for it. Writers get an immediate sense of what people like about the book, and a chance to rethink the elements that aren’t working before those elements get embedded too deeply into the book’s structure. Everyone is drafting madly, so the emphasis can be on big picture stuff rather than the fine details of prose and polish. And if you get someone on board with a story element they weren’t buying in an earlier round of critique, you know you’ve addressed a problem. That can be a great feeling.
A chief drawback with this kind of critique process is that sometimes the drafting stage of a book is a delicate time, and too much feedback during this early exploration of a story can disrupt a writer’s momentum, causing them to go back and rewrite their beginning over and over, or to abandon the project entirely.
Novels are big investments of time and emotion, and as such they come with big risks. Figuring out how to get decent feedback for yourself and for a particular project, at any given time, can be a genuinely tricky business. This post is long because it’s a complex question with no single right answer.
The best advice I can give you, therefore, is to get to know other writers who are in the same stage of artistic development as yourself. When you meet someone in a class or at a con who really gets your work, bend over backwards to give them amazing feedback on theirs, and work to stay connected. As you build a network of writers you trust and admire, your resources for structuring a workshop you can use will increase.