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Posts Tagged ‘writing workshop’

Expectations for a writing workshop

My aforementioned short story gets reviewed in fiction workshop tonight and I thought I’d take you on a backstage tour of my brain so you know my mentality going into the workshop…

“I hope my peers in the workshop like my story, and I’m going to be okay if they don’t.”

Audience is at the forefront of my mind in most all of my creative endeavors. I write to entertain and I read to entertain, so I hope my readers are entertained. This doesn’t often come up in a workshop situation, however. The best workshops are less about writing peers like and more about how peers interpret the writing works. This is where written comments on the manuscript pages and verbal comments during break come in handy.

But let’s say they don’t like it. Be prepared to accept that. Not every story is for everybody, no matter how well written (I enjoy T.C. Boyle, but there are long stretches of The Tortilla Curtain that do not entertain me). Your story will find its audience, but consider what this first audience thinks of it so you can adjust it as needed (or not, if  you don’t respect them, though you should respect your peers if only at least a little bit).

“I hope my short story works, and I hope my peers are able to tell me if it doesn’t.”

I try to use craft choice to enhance my writing, and I hope my work shows. As a young writer, however, it doesn’t always show, so I have to hope there’s enough to entice my readers. If my choices aren’t working, or the piece would be enhanced by other choices, my hope is my peers tell me so and give positive suggestions on how to do so. Basically, try to write well and if you don’t, have people interested in your continued improvement.

Your craft choices may end up heavy-handed or on the other hand, far too subtle. Decide which choices are best for the story, not which ones are the most impressive. Remember, your peers are studying the same skill set of craft choices you are, so it’s worth listening to what they have to say.

“I hope I walk away from the workshop experience excited, and I absolutely know I will.”

Whether a story gets eviscerated in workshop or published in Tin House, the writer should feel excited about their product. I put a lot of work into my writing, and the writing that excites me is the writing I enjoy giving my time and effort. If you aren’t excited about what you’re writing, why bring it to workshop? How can you expect anyone else to get excited about it?

This is a lesson in marrying humility with self-confidence. If you’re too confident, it becomes vanity and you won’t listen to anyone about your writing. And if you’re too humble, you’ll take every single suggestion thrown your way even if it ends up being detrimental to the story. Rather than those two directions, let them combine as excitement and let that fuel you in a workshop.

Hopefully, I’ll be able to take my own advice tonight. I’m pretty excited about this story, and my last point will be the most important for me to follow, particularly if it doesn’t work for this audience. I’ll let you know the specific workshop results tomorrow, dear reader.

-nm

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Workshopping a YA short story

I had another short story reviewed in fiction workshop last night and the results were mixed. The story is meant to be the opening tale in a young adult (YA) short story collection narrated by a thirteen-year-old boy about his family, his small Minnesota town, and his observations of the ridiculous world around him. That last bit, the observational nature of the story, held much of the workshop’s focus in terms of what was working or in this case may have issues.

The narrator, Evan, is highly observational – he can really read people and understands where they’re coming from. He’s smart, smarter than a lot of the adults (many teenagers think they’re smarter than the adults they know but in Evan’s case, he actually is), and often lets their bumbling play out all in the name of satire. We discussed how this plays out – does it detract from his simple goals and conflicts? Does it ring true? And of course, who is this story for?

A majority of the conversation revolved around YA as a genre, particularly around the audience and what entices a ten-year-old boy to read a book. I know it’s the kind of book I was looking for at age ten, when I was into novels like To Kill a Mockingbird, Shogun, and work by Nathan Benchley as opposed to sports stories by Will Weaver and Chris Crutcher or full-length books by Jack London (I dug his short stories, like “To Build a Fire” at that age, though). What I was looking for and what young boys today are looking for may not be matching up 100%.

Yet for as many story notes that I received and will take under consideration in subsequent drafts, there are a few I think will get thrown out the window. I think notes I received on the story’s focus and weight will serve me well during revision, but notes I received on Evan’s observational tendencies and ability to read people and whether that rings true really don’t interest me. And they don’t have to -that’s the beauty of workshop. Take what works for you and run with it. Leave the rest, so long as you’re open to its potential.

When it came time for me to ask my peers questions, I only had one – what was funny and worked and what was clearly supposed to be funny and didn’t work? I got feedback on this and appreciated hearing what people had to say. I’m trying as hard as possible to not let anything superfluous to the story at-hand weasel its way into a story just for the sake of the gag, and it looks like I didn’t avoid that trap entirely, this time around. I especially want to look at how crowds are handled for comedic effect. I’m reading The Legend of Bagger Vance by Steven Pressfield these days and am enjoying how Pressfield handles the gallery around the golfers both as a character and as satire.

When it comes to the humor aspect of the story, I fully admit I’m far too concerned with only one aspect of the story, and that’s not setting other aspects of the story up for success. That said, I think many young writers do that to some degree, it just so happens my way of doing this is by focusing on the comedy aspect of the story over everything else. This makes the comedy distracting instead of an augmentation.

I’ll keep writing the stories in this collection, that I know. I have six finished stories (which all need another draft and a polish), one halfway done, and a few down the pipe, mostly in outline / note form. I had thoughts of this being my thesis instead of the screenplay I’m currently working on, but the screenplay has too much potential to sit on a shelf for now.

I doubt I’ll turn in another story told by Evan for this fiction workshop, however, as I don’t want notes to repeat themselves and I want to explore another story in a completely different genre. We turn in our next stories on April 8, and I’m guessing my piece will be workshopped on April 22. I’ll keep you posted, dear reader.

-nm

My story’s workshop results

Last night saw my story, “Good Taste,” was discussed in my MFA Fiction workshop.

Most comments centered on the information the main character gives the reader (and what he doesn’t give the reader). He’s selective in what details matter to him, while at the same time being really verbose in his speech. My classmates wondered if more pitfalls weren’t apparent than pros in this move. On one hand, the character talks incessantly about the most mundane details, yet speaks virtually nothing about his past. Similarly, the question of an emotional center to the story was up in the air for most readers. Does this character change, and if he does, can we tell?

I included a few innovative moves in the story, at least innovative for my writing. The main character works at a product sampling company and his worksheets are included in the piece. I was also deliberate in style, his manner of speaking lending itself to a three-paragraph structure on each page, the paragraphs falling into lengths of eleven lines, nine lines, and nine lines. These stylistic choices weren’t necessarily commented on, but they were new for me, and it was refreshing to try.

I’m often appreciative of written comments on my manuscripts, too, because I intended this story to be a comedy and it’s typically in the written comments where if something made someone laugh, they let me know. It appears I succeeded quite a bit in that department, so if I can couple stronger craft choices in other areas with the comedy, the story will hopefully come out stronger in its third draft.

Going into a workshop, one should always be open to any and all comments. I’m of the mind that one should take everything in during the moment and then deal with it all afterward to decide what to agree with and what doesn’t work. I was hoping for more comments on what worked, both because I think a lot of what’s on the page does work and because hey, who doesn’t write a story and then want it to work? That said, my peer Katie Lacey may have said it best on the way out of workshop: “I don’t think people go into workshop wanting only all positive comments.”

She’s exactly right. Whether comments questioned my writing choices or lauded them, they’re all going to help the story in one way or the other.

-nm

My story gets workshopped tonight.

At the end of January, I wrote a short story entitled “Good Taste” and submitted it for an MFA fiction workshop. Tonight, we’ll take a look at my piece to examine the choices I’ve made, their positives and pitfalls, and I’ll take extensive notes on the entire process. The workshop is small, eleven persons including the instructor, but other pieces have been treated with grace and genuine interest, so here’s hoping mine receives similar treatment.

As for the piece itself, I got the idea from a radio program I heard in January of 2007, then allowed to churn in my brain over a few months. I finally wrote four pages of the story in September, only to not include them in the latest draft that I wrote in January. The pages didn’t fit the direction of the story anymore, though exploring the character (it’s a first-person, past-tense narrative) and the story’s tone in those four pages was immensely helpful in writing the complete story. The fifteen-page manuscript is told by a man who, unaware of his ever-increasingly eccentric behavior, becomes obsessed with his new job working with unreleased consumer products. Okay, so that’s pretty vague, I know, but I’m not ready to let the proverbial cat out of the bag just yet. Let me just say the narrator did his job in surprising me as I wrote, even switching things around when I was sure I knew what would happen next. He made me laugh in all the right places, and I even felt a little sick at the exact moments he wanted me to. Yes, it’s that kind of story.

Tomorrow, I plan to post about the workshop, from the specific details of how it goes down to the kind of notes I received to what I plan to do with the feedback I receive. While the story may not be perfect, and the workshop process may not be either, going into the process with an open mind is what will make my effort feel worthwhile to me. I set out to write a good story, and this third litmus test (the first two being my fiancée and Barry Hess) will help me gauge success.

-nm

Making the positive post-workshop choice.

Last night, my screenwriting class workshopped my latest seventeen pages, a sort of Act II, Part One. I received plenty of notes, but not nearly as many positive notes as I wanted or thought would come my way. In fact, I admit my pages weren’t particularly well-received.

Which is a nice way of saying I bombed.

Much of what made the first act work for my classmates was how action and dialogue worked in-tandem. Picture Action, cool and confident, in the driver’s seat of the Scriptmobile. Next to him is his partner, Dialogue, smart and able, assisting Action with navigation directions. The pair work in perfect unison as a team, as partners. In these new pages, however, Dialogue has throatpunched Action and thrown him in the backseat. Dialogue has slid into the driver’s seat of the Scriptmobile and hit the gas, spewing as much vocabulary across the road of paper as it can, all the while laughing at the incapacitated Action. The new pages are dialogue-heavy, action-light, and have lost what made the first pages my class workshopped so enjoyable to read.

This leaves me with two choices:

1. Despise my classmates, loathe the workshop, and keep my golden pages because I put a lot of work into them and if I put in a solid amount of work they must be good, so what do they  know?!

2. Embrace the challenge of rewrite, give these peer thoughts proper attention, make a plan of action and fix what needs fixing, all the while pursuing new work.

If I’m not taking the second choice, I have no business being in a writing workshop, giving anyone notes on their writing, or writing at all. I’m learning to write for an audience. I’m learning to create good story. I’m learning to improve. Part of the learning process is understanding when something needs more work, and I’m on board with that concept. For me, these pages didn’t fail if they taught me a lesson (my class is 100% right, by the way), and I’m embracing the challenge I’ve created for myself.

-nm

The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly Story Notes

The good story note is honest.

It may be full of praise or mangled with brutality, but an honest story note during a writing workshop is going to help the writer more than empty compliments from the sides of your mouth. If it’s great, tell them it’s great and tell them why. If it’s not-so-great, tell them that, too, and tell them why you think it isn’t the hot story they thought it was. Of course, one tries to be tactful when delivering “bad news,” but don’t let tact replace honesty. Ask any coach who’s had to bench their star player, counselor who’s worked with a feuding couple, any surgeon who has had to tell parents their child didn’t make it. They’ll tell you. There are ways to tell someone bad news in good ways, so long as they revolve around honesty.

The bad story note is a lie.

If you have the time to make up lies, you have the time to practice writing better stories. Don’t waste the writer’s time or yours. Some folks will say that’s all anyone is looking for – the little lies which help us live our lives a little easier. Someone can tell you a lie to make you feel better but at the end of the day, the story you’re writing is junk, the lyrics you’re singing are cliché at best, and those pants still make your butt look big. Honesty piles like a mountain of solid, reliable rock. Lies pile up like, well, insert your own metaphor here – hopefully, someone will be honest and tell you if it works or not.

The ugly story note is left unsaid.

You don’t want to hurt anyone’s feelings. Nobody does. I understand that. But this isn’t Kindergarten t-ball and this isn’t middle school dating and this isn’t your mother’s hot dish you’ve been secretly loathing for thirty years. This is writing, and writing is art, and art is all about creating something so someone else is free to feel or react or respond to it. Keeping it inside, or keeping it ambiguous doesn’t inform anyone. Saying, “Good try, you’re coming along, keep at it, don’t stop now!” are all wonderful, but “This needs work, you took a step back here, try again, what you’re doing sucks!” are all wonderful, too, from a certain point of view. No one wants to hear what they’re doing needs work, but toddlers don’t want adults telling them not to touch the stove, either. Eventually, someone gets burned, and hopefully it’s a lesson learned.

~nm