Many years ago, when I first found myself giving people grades for their fiction projects, for the first time, I realized several things that may seem self-evident to you all…
–A huge part of being a writer is learning to turn a flawed draft into an utterly awesome work of fiction.
–The ability to revise a draft into something good develops with time and experience.
–Experienced editors can tell the difference between drafts with a lot of potential and those facing massive challenges.
–When we think we have nothing left to learn, we tend to stop learning.
To be clear, I do not submit immaculate stories to workshop! When I am writing drafts, a high level of craft is at the bottom of my list of priorities. I’m a pantser at this stage in my life. I’m not above naming incidental characters things like CousinTwo, or even getting halfway through a paragraph and writing “Insert kick-ass detail here!” or “WTF does this house look like?”
The compulsion to get the story onto the page, to drag the character’s journey into the light, is my first and overwhelming imperative. By the time something of mine hits a workshop, I’ve had to go through it three to five times… and even then, it’s still pretty much a shambles.
So. Drafts are crap. Even more, we routinely tell people to write drafts that are crap! It’s so important to have something to revise that we urge writers to, you know, spew whatever they can onto the page in service of getting finished.
So this leads to an apparent contradiction, which is explaining to my students that I can look at their crap drafts and evaluate their commercial potential. To assert that I am qualified to say “This manuscript is this far along the road, while this one is further behind,” even though I will never see what their authors might accomplish in rewrite.
What makes the difference in such cases is the task list, the things the author needs to do to the story, and how tough those challenges might be. If the author of a given draft is writing vivid scenes that give the reader a sense of immediacy, if their characters are relatable and in conflict, if they’re more or less telling a whole story and that story has something fundamentally cool about it, they’re close. Closer, anyway, than a writer that hasn’t learned some of those basics, or whose line by line writing hasn’t yet begun to carry the reader smoothly through their story.
Does that mean I can look at ten drafts and say which writers will be successful? No. Almost anyone who writes ‘how to become a published author’ essays will inevitably will tell you that success in publishing often amounts more to being persistent than to any kind of innate talent.
The same person whose 2019 draft story suffers from insurmountable weaknesses might write a very workable story on their very next outing! They might then whip through an intriguing third project, and then dive into an experiment that almost succeeds wildly before it crashes and burns. Meanwhile, the person who seems to be halfway to publishable in the same workshop might stall out, or give up before they reach their next artistic breakthrough.
As editors and agents and teachers–as professional readers–we look at the pieces submitted to us and say “Yes, there’s a terrific story in here.” Or, alternately, “This one isn’t ready yet.”
I do sometimes get feedback from students that I shouldn’t be subjectively grading their stories at all. That they should get full marks for submitting them, without any evaluation. They’ll point out that many of their other instructors don’t give them any component of a grade that measures quality or merit, that indicates how well a given piece is doing. So it’s tempting to go that route… it’d save me argument and negotiation, and intellectual energy, and all sorts of work.
I get this, I do! In fact, the lion’s share of the grade in most of my courses is awarded just for showing up–doing the assigned work, writing the critiques, following the guidelines, submitting fiction on time. I give these grades because of the aforementioned persistence factor, but also to reward professional working practices. It is by and large the people who show up and do the work, after all–the ones who seem at first glance to merely be putting out quantity–who are building an artistic practice that will probably lead to sales.
Why hand someone back a story worth 10 points, then, with a 7 on it, and a note amounting to: This is 70% of the way to being salable in a professional market; for the things that are still in its way, see my workshop critique? It feels to the recipient much as a rejection does, after all, and rejections are painful.
(Spoiler: The answer is no. I don’t strive to have people practice feeling rejected.)
Most beginning writers, especially the serious ones, want desperately to know if they’re getting closer to publication, and what’s holding them back. When I speak at conventions, you can sense a hunger for that answer in the questions that come from the audience: How close am I? Will I get there? What do I do to get published? What does it take?
Some of what it takes is accepting, in your bones, that sometimes your stories need major rewriting.
Now that I’ve been at this awhile I have seen, time and again, that when I critique a story or exercise and attach a 100% grade to it, their authors take the problems I’ve identified within that work of fiction–and the need to address those problems–far less seriously than when they get that sobering 70%. It’s getting less than a perfect mark that brings people to my door or inbox with follow-up questions about how to embark on revision.
Universities require that students be graded. I can’t not do it. And for me, making those grades meaningful means awarding them in a way that brings writers more deeply into the revision process. If that also brings them back to my door with follow-ups questions and demands for resources, so much the better.
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.
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’re 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.
*I got chaff about this, and deservedly so, in a Forbes article by Chad Orzel, who points out that of course there’s scope in physics for creativity. I was thinking about the rote physics teaching I got in high school, which was very much “Here’s how you calculate the force of acceleration, and here’s thirty problems… go to it!” Much of this was driven by the need to have students who could pass the provincial exams, and there were separate problems with my particular physics instructor. I’m tempted to edit the comment (and I did fix a typo!) but I think I’ll content myself with this clarification, and let the point stand.
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.