Category Archives: Workshops

Friends don’t let friends edit their workshop partners… and the seven reasons why

Posted on November 3, 2017 by

photo by Kelly Robson

Here is the kind of paragraph I absolutely love to see when one of my students is critiquing another:

Your writing has some grammatical errors. I saw some confusion between it and it’s, and several comma splices. You might want to look into subject-verb agreement too. I’ve included some great and thoroughly unimpeachable links about these rules.

The reason I love this–especially if it’s tucked in at the end of a critique, after all of the substantial issues within the manuscript have been addressed–is it means the person doing the critique has learned that it is a misguided use of time if they copyedit* their classmates‘ manuscripts.

The urge to edit in a peer workshop is a powerful one. There is no greater joy than marking up someone else’s manuscript. Track changes options in word processing software make it easy and, to be honest, it’s fun. Providing a marked-up manuscript to a classmate shows an intense time commitment, usually earns some gratitude, and gives the reader a chance to directly share their own (possibly hard-learned) writing lessons.

So why am I arguing it is a bad use of resources?

Workshop submissions should always assumed to be early drafts. What’s important in a draft stage is to get the story out, and some writers cannot get out the words if they are worrying about the commas. Some members of your workshop might be perfectly capable of fixing up their grammar in later drafts, but are submitting 10 minutes before the workshop’s drop dead deadline. The reader can’t know if either of these things is the case. You could be driving someone into a panic without meaning to.

Almost no one in a student workshop is an actual copy editor. You’re fixing the errors you can see. A copy editor, who will ideally go through the manuscript in the latter stages of production, after even the savviest author and editor have polished it to a shine, can still find and address errors 90% of us won’t even dream of. Think of the movie ads that say: professional driver, closed course. Don’t try to drive the copy-editor’s race car.

Some participants may actually alter things that are correct and make them wrong. Unless the instructor checks every alteration in every edited manuscript, there’s no guarantee that someone isn’t teaching you bad grammar. Remember, there’s nothing to stop that person with the its/it’s problem from marking up your doc!

Copy-editing actually reduces the chance some people will learn the lesson. Look at the paragraph I love, above. If you tell someone they need to learn subject verb agreement, they have to go find out what the hell that is. If you just go and fix their sentences for them, all they have to do is hit Accept Change and go on making the same mistake in the next draft.

Copy-editing reduces the chance that you’ll learn something. All that time you spend changing mistakes that the author might know how to fix themselves (and possibly also mistakes they’re making deliberately as a style choice) is time you could’ve spent practicing your substantive editing skillset. That is to say: reading the manuscript more closely for big-picture strengths and weaknesses within characterization, plot, structure, setting detail, good images, not so good images, and clear thematic content.

Balance and positivity: Most workshops encourage readers to strive for a mix of positive and negative commentary in critique, so that the author knows both what they’re doing right and where they need to improve a story or novel. A document full of typo corrections and grammar notations is, by definition, a litany of negative notes. There is almost nobody who out there takes the time to mark up a manuscript while paying equal attention to the writer’s good sentences, clever ideas, nice character nuances, and brilliant turns of phrase.

Accountability: In a face to face workshop, you have to look the author in the eye as you deliver your opinion of their work. In an online workshop, your critique post has the same effect: whatever you say is out in the clear, where you’re responsible for it—and where the other members of the workshop can debate whether they agree or disagree with your points. If you say “I was confused by X,” another reader has the opportunity to say “I thought it was crystal clear and here’s why.”

The comments you append to an annotated manuscript aren’t public fodder, not really. Even if they’re available to the rest of the group, 99% of the time nobody but the author is going to read them. You’re taking a portion of your critique and tucking it out of sight, where it can’t be discussed.

Highest and best use of time: In a student workshop you should be aiming to try to achieve two amazing things with each and every critique. One is to give your classmate the best substantial reading you possibly can. The second is becoming a better reader and writer by formulating that outstanding critique. By reading deeply, digging below the surface (which is where the grammar lives) you sharpen your own sense of story. Every second you spend polishing the buttons and shoelaces, the commas and semicolons, is one you spend depriving both yourself and the submission’s author of deeper insights.

It is not always the case that the best and most thorough readers in my class are also the best writers. But there is a strong correlation. The better someone is at critting, usually, the better they are at craft.

Grammar can be a dodge: If a story is particularly difficult to critique—which happens both with the very problematic stories and the ones that are so good they seem done!—picking at the rules of language may even be a way of letting yourself off the hook. It’s hard to read and crit a great story. It’s incredibly tough to shine the way forward for someone who’s just beginning. If you’re copy editing their piece, are you really just writing yourself a pass to not wrack your brains about how to make the ostensibly great story incandescent? Or the apparently broken piece just one doable step closer to viable?

Give it some thought.

Finally, and in case you’re wondering, I’m not saying don’t critique the author’s writing style.** “It’s ungrammatical and hard to read” is a valid part of any prose critique… but it isn’t the whole story, and probably shouldn’t be all you have to say on the subject of their line by line writing.

All writers have to learn grammar. It’s okay to tell someone you think they’re falling down on this part of the job. Make the note, pull out a few offending sentences, offer some how-to links if you like… and then dig deeper. It’s tougher, but it’ll vault your whole workshop forward, and take your own writing with it.

____________

*Most new writers don’t necessarily distinguish well between line editing and copy editing. I don’t particularly want my students line-editing each other in a separate document either, and I’ll talk about why at length sometime, but the tl;dr meat of it is in the Accountability item, above.

**I’m also not saying that instructors shouldn’t do some document editing, or that peer workshops between pros might not agree that this is useful.

Writing the Fantastic is Open for Summer Registration!

Posted on April 26, 2016 by

SONY DSCWriting the Fantastic, my July course offering at the UCLA Extension Writers’ Program, is now open for registration. You can find the full course description and syllabus here, but here are the highlights:

This course expands the study of science fiction and fantasy writing to include both short and novel-length fiction. Infusing a narrative with originality and fantastic literature’s much-discussed “Sense of Wonder”–while at the same time preserving its clarity and heart–is a juggling act that can test a writer’s skills to the utmost. Writing the Fantastic places emphasis on meeting this challenge by merging the otherworldly content of speculative fiction with humane, emotionally powerful storytelling. Through exercises and readings, students deepen their understanding of the speculative subgenres: alternate history, time-travel, horror, dark fantasy, sword and sorcery, urban fantasy, sociological science fiction, and hard science fiction.

UCLA has tons of great classes and instructors if you’ve already taken this one. The popular stuff fills up fast, so browse now, browse often. My classes, especially my summer offerings, are intended to work as alternatives to something like Clarion or Clarion West, in case this isn’t the year when you can take six weeks off work, or preparation for same. WTF, as I like to call it, is one of the classes that qualifies you to take the Advanced SF Workshop that I also run, periodically, through the program.

Readin’, Research, Write-A-Thon Giveaway

Posted on June 14, 2012 by

I am going to Victoria tomorrow to do some research for the series of books and stories I’m currently writing–in point of fact, I’m going on a short day sail on a tall ship called the Pacific Grace, which is owned and sailed by S.A.L.T.S. It should be a neat experience. If I’m not clinging to a rope every minute, there will, of course, be pictures.

I am really excited about this, except in the moments when I wonder if it will involve barfing or hard labour.

But back to the current project, I have firmed up my decision to give away naming rights to one island nation on the world of Stormwrack to the person who contributes the most to Clarion West in my name this summer. I will also have a draw for naming rights to a landmark, animal species, sailing vessel or city on Stormwrack. It’s your choice. Anyone who wants to qualify for that one need only donate something, even if it’s the minimum.

To win, you need to 1) give money; 2) tell me so and 3) give me some contact info. The Clarion site’s supposed to let me know about contributions, but this didn’t work out so well last year–I’m doing something wrong when I log in, is all I can conclude, because I have immense troubles with the site, and I’m the only one. (It’s me, lovely wonderful Clarion folks, it’s not you. You’ve tried, Chaos knows you’ve tried…)

The reason I’m clattering for donations should be blindingly clear, but if it isn’t: Clarion is a great program. It does terrific work. It made a difference in my life. I wrote six stories in the weeks before I went to Seattle (see, I had a pre-season last time too!) and 220 pages of new fiction while I was there. It helped me improve at my chosen art, it got my nascent writing career on track and introduced me to some of my best friends in the world.

But wait, there’s more, and it’s not frickin’ steak knives!

You need to know what kind of a place Stormwrack is if you’re gonna name an island, right? So as I continue to Thon, there will be posts from all the interconnected works set in this world, and they will be about the island nations I’ve established so far. For example, in the first of a series of stories called The Gales, I have this, about Redcap Island:

To distract him, she asked: “What do you know of Redcap Island?”

“It’s a kingdom,” he said promptly. “Government is stable, king’s rule is absolute. The crown passes to the eldest son upon the death of the king or his sixtieth birthday, whichever comes first. Elder kings go into a kind of ceremonial exile, along with any other sons…”

“Yes?”

“There’s usually just one other son. They must use magic to affect the succession.”

Gale nodded. “Once there’s a healthy heir and a second son, the king’s consorts bear only daughters. The Blossoms Majestic—the princesses—run the government.”

From “Among the Silvering Herd,” out on Tor.com and available as an e-book too!

So you want to get going on a novel?

Posted on February 23, 2012 by

As some of you may have deduced, my spate of posts on basic writing skills is an effort to create some new resources for the students in my next UCLA Extension Writers’ Program course–Novel Writing I, Writing the First Novel. The class opens for ‘business’ on April 16th and the point is to conceive of and start a novel… to do the preliminary planning and get a first chapter drafted. I’m scheduled to do the N2 class in the summer, and the tentative plan is to then do N3.

What does this mean? It’s an opportunity for writers located anywhere on the Internet, and working in any genre, to have me look over their shoulders for three quarters in a row, and to workshop their books-in-progress with a group of 10-15 like-minded writers.

Questions? Let me know!

Now appearing at a conference near you!

Posted on October 18, 2011 by

I am pleased to announce that I will be presenting two workshops at the Surrey International Writers’ Conference this weekend. One will be a worldbuilding workshop based on my ten-week “Creating Universes, Building Worlds” course. The other is called “Taking Baby to the Story Doctor.” Essentially, it’s a trouble-shooting overview–a starting point for for critiquing your own novels and short stories.

I have been hoping to have the opportunity to be a part of this particular conference for some time. It has such a terrific reputation, and the guests this year are amazing (they are always amazing).

When I’m not actually in a workshop I will, of course, be mingling. Let me know if you’re going to be around and would like to connect.