The workshop practice of having all the readers speak their piece while the author of a story or book fragment is required to listen quietly is generally accepted. I’ve seen this rule in play at Clarion and Turkey City and literary workshops too, and have heard others refer to them as “Milford” rules. I’m not sure I’ve workshopped anywhere that didn’t have this as a guideline.
Most of us seem to agree that when it’s your writing in the spotlight, the best use of your time is to just pay attention to the crits. Any energy you might spend defending what you were trying to achieve, or explaining things that weren’t clear, or catching the group up on the real life events that inspired your story (“It’s not hard to believe–it’s how it happened!”) is energy that’s better spent on a rewrite.
Where I see more mud and less agreement is in the area of a reader suggesting fixes for a given piece’s problems. There are those who are dead against this: any suggestion from you, the argument goes, is an attempt to rewrite someone else’s story. The answer you’re offering won’t be the right one. If they take your advice, the writer will screw up their story.
How much you get into actively suggesting in a peer workshop may depend on its culture and rules, on how far along the participants are in their writing career, and how well they know each other. I know plenty of people for whom a statement like, “The characterization in this could use some beefing up” would be plenty of feedback. Speaking very generally, though, and as someone who teaches people who are newer to writing, I do believe there are ways to offer concrete suggested fixes without rewriting the author’s work.
In my UCLA courses, where I get to set the rules, I allow writers to suggest specific changes to each other, with the understanding that “Do this to Element X!” is just a different way of highlighting whatever issue you had with that story element. Sometimes it’s clearer, I think, to demonstrate what you think isn’t working when you take a hypothetical bang at fixing it yourself.
So that’s how I go about it–“If you do X,” I’ll say, “then this and that might happen, and maybe we’ll understand why he killed the music teacher.” Sometimes X will be a broad, obviously unworkable suggestion, because the ‘maybe we’ll understand’ is the key to the message.
I suppose I could bend myself into rhetorical pretzels trying to explain how and why I don’t understand or agree with a given writing choice, but often a quick example of how to go about tackling the problem seems to me to be both appropriate and as elegant a way as any to get the idea across.
How about all of you? I’m open to other opinions on this, as always.
In the meantime, here’s a shot from Maplewood Flats that I think is both pretty and soothing:
Kelly and I made a little change to our pre-work walk this morning, taking 8th Avenue past the new community garden where some friends of ours have a plot. I’ve been able to see the installation happening as I’ve gone to and fro–between one thing and another, I pass the Broadway/Commercial intersection four to six times a day–but hadn’t gotten a good look. What’s there is attractive and thoughtfully laid out. The central area holds raised garden beds made of cedar, already pre-planted with veggies and herbs. Ground-level flower and berry gardens encircle these beds, and the backdrop is the Grandview Cut. The plants were donated by a local nursery, all the cedar chips are new and fragrant, and the whole thing radiates a newness and warmth that’s very pleasing. We are thinking we’ll do the walk past a lot in the next little while.
Afterward, I made my way to Cafe Calabria and had a bash at the current fiction project, that slice of a novel I mentioned before, for the grant application. I was searching for one more scene to add into it, looking for something that had a bit of literary grit and referred back to the stuff I’ve put in the proposal, which is about shifting landscapes of privilege and the labeling, within large families, of different individuals as insiders and outsiders. On Wednesday I was sitting in the cafe scraping after that scene, whatever it was. I didn’t really expect to find the right answer, because I hadn’t slept the night before. But the idea came, to my surprise, and I scribbled some notes on it without getting started–trying to write on no sleep is never a good idea for me. Yesterday I drafted the first half, and today I wrapped it up. I have a piece I’m happy with now, and I have until fall to polish it until it shines.
I am delighted to have reached this point. If I’m not swamped by other commitments (some of which I’m chasing very actively), I will write a draft of the whole book in November, just as I did WINTERGIRLS and DAUGHTERS OF ZEUS.
Here’s a snippet from earlier the draft:
Sarah Varney’s address was a residential hotel, one that, from the look of it, was home to a good chunk of the city’s addict population. Its windows were black with grime, its awning greasy and tattered, with loose aluminium ribs inhabited by motheaten, feebly peeping pigeons. The sidewalk leading to the reinforced revolving door was glazed in bird droppings; it was impossible not to track them in.
The door spun them out into a lobby that smelled of Lysol and urine. A diminutive Asian crone eyeballed them through a cage of greasy bulletproof glass.
This feels very much as if it’s at a finished-for-now point, and given that we’re headed to Seattle for the LOCUS Awards tomorrow, I will probably skip actual fiction-writing for the whole of the weekend. By Monday, I’ll need to have decided what to work on next. I have another proposal I’d be delighted to work on, but I’m waiting on some notes; I have a drafted squid story that could use some attention, and a horror novel, SEE HOW THEY RUN, that I want to revise at some point in the near. I have a pile of books I need to read for various research stuff, and one I want to review.
Non-fic stuff on the go includes three last lectures for Novel Writing II and assorted admin stuff, two guest blog posts to write, a review, some things I want to talk and post about in this space, critiques for a couple of my one on one students, fine-tuning of a website I’m developing for my choir, and more work on the alyxdellamonica.com page.
On a more recreational note, I need to review everything I learned in last year’s Italian class before my next one begins in about ten days time and one of my Jonathan Coulton albums has vanished from my iPod.
As of today, I have two slots left for students in Novel Writing II: Writing a Novel The Professional Way, the new (to me) novel workshop course I am teaching via the UCLA Extension Writers’ Program this summer. ‘Fun slavedriver’ is how one former student has described me, and the class does promise to be a fair amount of work–everyone in it will write fifty pages of a novel as well as workshopping those of a few of their classmates.
The official start date for class is July 14th, but my classroom should be open July 12th; people will get acquainted with the discussion forums, introduce themselves to each other, and talk a little about the books they are going to work on before writing and critting begins in earnest.