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.
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.
My winter course offering at the UCLA Extension Writers’ Program, Introduction to Novel Writing, is now open for registration.
This class is about planning and starting a novel rather than busting pages… you brainstorm and evaluate a number of ideas, winnow them down to one contender, and strive to get a really good start on the opening. We talk about all the foundations for a novel: plot and characterization, of course, but also suspense, transitions, and the ever-important need to find joy in the project you’re working on.
Early registrants get a break on tuition; drop me a line if you have any questions.
If you’re further along with your novel, interested in screenplays, short fiction, or poetry or for any other reason would like to check out one of the program’s many other fabulous offerings, here’s a way in.
Writing 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.
And it was an endless cascade of unexpected delights.
Kelly and I went with a friend to see Alan Cumming’s cabaret show on Saturday night. It’s available as an album and I recommend looking at the set list, because his idea of a sappy song might match what you imagine. To give you an idea, there’s an original condom commercial, Billy Joel’s “And So It Goes,”–that one I knew he’d pick–a thing by Miley Cyrus, something called “Mother Glasgow” (which comes with an annotated version for those of us who aren’t Scottish) and “Complainte De La Butte.” The patter is included in its entirely too, and Cumming is hilarious.
It was the best concert I’ve had since the magical evening when I first saw Jonathan Coulton. He is a stunning performer: every cell of him is electrifying.
On a more teacherly note, my spring course at the UCLA Extension Writers’ Program, which bears the not very poetic name “Advanced Speculative Fiction Workshop” launches this April. If you might like to be part of the workshop, the link is here.