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.
What’s that, you say? A three-day weekend? And we’re not on the road? OMG! I smell an in-house writing retreat coming on!
To that end, nibbles: watermelon, pineapple, peaches, plums, naval oranges, plus the usual crisper full of apples.
Plus: a freshly made batch of refried beans, peach and tomato salad, fixings for the godlike tuna melts with comte cheese that Kelly made this afternoon, fixings for zeytoon parvardeh, burrito wraps, two pounds of coffee (that’s the unit it comes in!), puddings, applesauce, olives, ice cream sandwiches, fresh ice cubes, red onion, green onion, onion onion, tomatoes, lettuce, and garlic. I would mention the caneles but they didn’t actually survive into Saturday.
The mountain of toilet paper is purely coincidental. It was on sale, okay?
photo by Kelly Robson
One of my irrational peeves about pop culture is the way writer homes are sometimes depicted as vast, cool, expansive spaces, with tons of square footage and twenty-foot high ceilings with massive amounts of natural light and floor to attic bookcases on the walls. This doesn’t bother me about Castle, however, because Nathan Fillion’s character is portrayed as having come from money in the first place and being extraordinarily successful in the second, but when the fictional writer in question isn’t a New York Times bestselling born-with-a-silver-spoon personality, it irks.
Having said that, my little condo doesn’t much look like a set designer went nuts on the premises, but it does have an extraordinary number of luxuries attached to it.
The hot tub you’ve all probably heard about, and like most of these places, there’s a gym, communal barbecues, and an event room. The real perk is the location: we’re five minutes from the subway and smack in the midst of cultural treasures like the AGO, the TiFF Bell Lightbox, City Halls new and old, and all the theaters.
One of the things I probably don’t mention all that often is that my marvelous well-located building also has a library, complete with a random scattering of books, WiFi that mostly does work, and a TV and faux fireplace that–as far as I can tell–aren’t plugged into anything.
It’s big, spacious, quiet, and frequently empty, and it has a couple of workstations as well as the lounging chairs pictured here. There’s a window along one wall which lets in the light of day. It’s where I go to clear my head when I need to get away from home, cats and distractions, but can’t or don’t want to go all the way out to a coffee shop.
I’m sitting here as I write these words, sifting through projects and priorities for the coming month, with Of Montreal’s Sunlandic Twins playing via a portable Bluetooth speaker and a view of gray and rainy clouds.
I suspect and hope that 2016 is going to be an extraordinary year, filled both with wonders and opportunities. This little bit of quiet, at the stub end of the year, is all about gearing up and getting ready.
Three good things about this week:
Duacon! Jessica came, she saw, and she conquered, by which I mean we walked the streets of Toronto… far more than she probably expected. It is a trait of mine that the concept of “Not far” conflates all too easily with the cold hard fact of “Five miles later, I promised we were nearly there…” Do not trust me to have a grip on distance, my dear friends. Note my walking speed and ask me for an ETA. Or stand your ground, and demand to use transit.
Okay, tangent over! We dined out, we paid homage to the cats and the hot tub, and J and I spent an afternoon on that nice beach on Toronto Island. We did not actively workshop fiction, but we did go out for multiple writing dates, and talked shop constantly.
Kelly came home! Five nanoseconds after Jessica left, Kelly had a work retreat out of town, or too far to walk, whichever distance is longer. About the night apart, the less said the better. But it was a joy to watch the purple dot of my darling’s GPS coordinates inching home along the major commuter routes yesterday evening. I did this using an app that the iStore calls Find My Friends. It was even more of a joy to have her back home again.
Oh, what was the third best thing this week? Was it watermelons? Seeing horse cops yesterday? Having someone contact me to ask for a secret spy name of their very own, thereby indicating that my sense of humor is not, in fact, a trial to all who know me? (I wasn’t actually worried about that last bit.) Getting a reprint request this morning? Or was it… turning The Nature of a Pirate in to my editor at Tor? Oh yeah, that last thing. Let’s definitely go with that.
Today’s victory dance shall be… the Charleston!
In unrelated news, my WordPress page has about 24,000 users, most of whom have the sort of names and e-mail addresses that lead one to believe they are spammy hacky bastards, as opposed to real humans interested in my blog. Is this problematic?
Writing is, to a great degree, learned through trial and error. But errors can be hard to identify – especially as a writer starts to be pretty good at the basics. Once things start to go subtly wrong with a person’s work, it becomes obvious there’s no single right answer as to how to fix a given challenge within a manuscript.
Part of the answer, of course, is to find a group of peers with good reading skills and the same need to have outside eyes laid on their work. People with goodwill, a story in progress, and an understanding that half of critiquing is about helping the author fix their work and the other half is about cultivating your own critical sense so you can better address your own.
With short story critique groups, there’s a rhythm that can work quite well: new writers submit a story to a workshop, everyone critiques it, and then everyone goes home to hopefully rewrite the piece before sending it to market. When they return, it’s generally with another piece. There’s a fresh start. This is how Clarion and Odyssey and a number of other workshops are configured. (There’s an article in Wired about the SF workshops this week
, by the way. I found it a bit shallow, and the comments thread may make you blind with rage, but some of the actual interview responses are interesting.)
With novel workshops, the logistics get much trickier. If you submit your first three chapters, and get a bunch of feedback, do you then revise those chapters? If you do, do you submit them again to make sure they’re working? If they’re not, do you revise and resubmit them again? That’s just an ornate way of never getting the book finished.
On the other hand, it can feel very weird to submit chapter one, get feedback, try then to use that feedback to write a better chapter two. (Next you submit that, and try to use the next round of feedback to inform chapters three and four.) This gets your novel done–and I am a huge fan of done! But drawback can be that if you are truly improving your craft as you go, the last chapters of the book may be significantly better-written than the opening ones. This leaves you to discover, four or five hundred pages later, whether you’re up to the task of revising. You are drafting better, which is great, but can you raise something you wrote six months ago to the level of what you’re creating now?
Additionally, the plunge-forward system doesn’t address any huge structural changes you decide to make along the way. When you turn the guy who was formerly the love interest into the main character’s brother, around about chapter five, the question arises again… do you go back and tweak this before moving forward?
Okay, so what if you got a dozen writers together and they all managed to submit a completed novel draft on the same day… make it November 30th. You could then set some kind of reading period–one book every two or three weeks–and trade off so that each participant was getting one critique during each round. But how to get a dozen writers to all finish their book on the same day? I chose November 30th because it’s the end of Nanowrimo, but most Nanowrimo projects would require considerable massaging before they were workshop-ready.
There are other logistical challenges with novel-in-progress workshops, but these are some of the things I’m mulling right now.
Has any of you been in a novel group that worked? How was it structured?