Workshops, and the question of how to fix it

Posted on July 22, 2010 by

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:

Maplewood in July

Visitations

Posted on July 21, 2010 by

On Monday morning I was closing up the house when I noticed an especially stunning dragonfly on my grapevine:

dragonfly

Most of my day had been set aside for fun with Kelly–fun of the strolling about taking pictures variety, no less!–so this was an especially welcome visitor. Sometimes dragonflies are quite twitchy, and won’t let you get close. This one sat quite still and let me snap it for about twenty minutes, from all angles and just inches away. It was still there when we left the house.

The rest of the day was spent in self-indulgence. Coffee and a panini first; then we went to Maplewood Flats and ambled around for awhile, admiring the everything. We were particularly taken with some immature robins who were having a go at the berries in a big tree overlooking the beach.

Immature Robin

From there we went to Lynn Canyon, puttered across the suspension bridge, and joined a seething mass of humanity on the trail. We didn’t stay long: crowds and day camp groups and many many screaming toddlers didn’t make for a relaxing soundscape. It was neat to go from the salt marsh ecosystem to BC cedar forest, real Emily Carr terrain, in fifteen minutes flat. But the jostling and screeching were aversive; solitude was what we both wanted.

So we fled to Au Petit Chavignol, where we were the only people besides the wait staff. We had a little plate of cheese (including goat gouda with nettles!) and charcuterie, an heirloom tomato salad, some white wine (Joie Farm, A Noble Blend) and a decadent little brown sugar and butter cake with cooked cherries. I managed to shoot it before it got devoured; usually it would come with whipped cream too, but I had them leave that off.

I have to tell you that if they’d brought twice as much of this cake, I’d have finished it. If they’d brought ten times as much of this cake, I’d have finished it. Fifty, even. It was that good.

brown sugar cake

At that point it was time to go home and loaf within easy reach of our book and DVD collection.

Texting hexes: when magic meets gadgetry

Posted on July 20, 2010 by

Rather than posting here today, I’d like to direct you all to an article I wrote for Tor.com, on the intersections between magic and technology in urban fantasy and ecofantasy. It is called “Text me that hex, please? Kthxbai!”

The post is another tie-in to the Urban Fantasy spotlight going on at Tor.com this month. It gave me a chance to talk a little about the magical rules underlying Indigo Springs and to look at what some other authors are doing in a few new books, including M.K. Hobson’s incandescent The Native Star, whose book trailer is here:
Native Star Book Trailer

The Urban Fantasy spotlight, as I’ve mentioned, will also be hosting a novelette by me, “The Cage,” within the next week or so.

Photopost: water droplets

Posted on July 19, 2010 by

I feel unadulterated envy for Barb’s accomplishments in the realm of water droplet photography. She has taken images that are beyond stunning. My current fave is a field of your basic white daisy… in the foreground is one blossom covered in raindrops, and each drop has a prismatic, upside-down reflection of the flowers behind it. You’ll have to take my word for it: I’d link, but she doesn’t index.

Here’s my latest pale imitation, from the deck garden:

Droplets

Cameras and photography have been a big topic of conversation among my relations this week; I’m going on a cruise to Alaska with all my Nevada-based loved ones, and it sounds at this point like we may have 1.5 cameras per capita. We seem to share a drive to document natural things: trees and rocks and water, as the Arrogant Worms put it. In this case, I’m hoping for seals and whales and ice floes.

Talkback… or is it soccer?

Posted on July 18, 2010 by

Jay Lake ran with my earlier post about internet content that addresses the concerns–both artistic and commercial–of mid-career writers. My note, in turn, started with a germ from Jessica Reisman. What we’re really discussing is how writers talk to each other in these public forums, and what we say to beginners.

You can see what Jay and various respondents said here. Among other things, he points out that there are simply a lot more aspiring writers to talk to.

Me, making the pass..

And Jessica Reisman, kicking it all off.

On a completely unrelated note, if you ever want the Casino security peeps to get really really interested in you, pause in their awning with your great big zoom and photograph what you find there.
DSCN3568

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