Author Archives: ElizaAnderson

About ElizaAnderson

writer, poet, and just generally crazy

Workshopping, Part 2: The Writer

Last week I posted a list of workshopping dos and don’ts for the people reading the work in question. This week’s topic is dos and don’ts for the writer whose work is being critiqued.

Do:

  1. Bring a copy for yourself. Unless you know it word-for-word from the first page to the last, having a copy of your work in front of you can help you keep up with what your reviewers are saying.
  2. Take notes. Even if you’re not sure you like an idea, even if you think you disagree with what someone says isn’t working, mark it down–circle it in your copy, draw arrows, label things, and mark down questions that need answering. You almost certainly won’t end up using every suggestion that you receive during workshop, but it’s helpful to be able to go back over all the suggestions later and give each one careful thought.
  3. Ask questions. Questions are not only for the reviewers! Maybe you don’t understand a point that someone’s trying to make, or maybe you didn’t realize an issue before and now want ideas for resolving it. Ask your reviewers to clarify their meaning. Ask them if they have any suggestions for fixing an issue that’s been brought to light. Just because it’s your work doesn’t mean you have all the answers, and that’s okay.
  4. Listen and be polite. If you don’t agree with someone, don’t turn it into an argument. Just try to see where they’re coming from and mark down their opinion. You don’t have to work off it when you’re revising later; just respect it.

Don’t:

  1. Take things personally. Unless a reviewer is making personal attacks on you rather than critiquing your work, there’s no need to blow up over things. Maybe you won’t agree with all the “problems” the reviewers see with your work, and that’s okay. You don’t have to. But don’t see their problems with the story structure as problems with you.
  2. Spend the whole time talking. Ask questions when you have them, by all means, but a workshop spent entirely explaining yourself or gushing about your inspiration or whatever won’t do you any good.
  3. Be arrogant. Look, the point of workshopping is to help you improve your draft. If all you’re going to do the whole time is explain to everyone why the problems they perceive are not, in fact, problems, then why are you here?

This list can be boiled down to one rule: Remember why you’re here. Unless you were somehow forced into a situation where you’re required to workshop (i.e., you’re a creative writing major), you’re here for help. You’re here because your piece is not as good as it could be, and you want the extra eyeballs to look over it and get it there.

Remember: Workshopping is not for finished pieces. If you’re unprepared to have people tell you that your piece is not perfect, don’t bring it to workshop.

Look for more in our Workshopping series in the next few weeks!

Related articles:

Workshopping, Part 1: The Critiquer

Workshopping

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Workshopping, Part 1: The Critiquer

Workshopping! One of the banes of writers. We write a draft, and then we put it out there for people to see, baring our project and our thin-skinned artist’s ego to the world. And then we’re expected (or at least it’s polite) to review someone else’s piece in return.

It’s particularly on my mind right now because we’re finally to the point of workshopping in our novel-writing class now.

So for the next couple weeks, I’m going to do a series on workshopping. Today is a list of “dos and don’ts” for reviewers.

Do:

  1. Express thoughts on both what’s working and not working in the piece. The writer needs to know what could use improvement, yes, but also talking about good things helps temper the feeling of criticism. Plus it’s often easier to keep doing things that are working in the piece than to get rid of bad things. I like to do a review sandwich: Talk about some good things, then move on to things that need improvement, and then finish up with more good things.
  2. Be detailed. Rather than just saying, “This isn’t working,” explain what isn’t working and why. Is it a line of dialogue that seems clunky or out of character? A bit of prose that was awkwardly worded or confusing? Does a description seem to drag on? Details about what isn’t working (or what is) help the writer improve more than a simple “This is no good.”
  3. Keep it about the writing. You’re here to critique the piece, not the person.
  4. Keep calm. We writers can be a dramatic bunch, which probably comes of a) writing dramatic stuff and b) procrastinating online all the time, which can make us even more dramatic because we’re both freaking out about not having enough time to write (our fault for procrastinating) and we’ve been busy fangirling on Tumblr with other dramatic people. Plus we put a lot of work and revision into our writing. So some of us can get snippy during workshops, especially when you’re pointing out things you don’t like. If this happens, keep calm. The writer might act belligerent and argue against every one of your suggestions, but there’s always the possibility that your sensible demeanor and reminders that you’re just trying to help will calm them back down.

Don’t:

  1. Be mean. It’s possible to tell the writer what could use improvement without being a jerk about it. Rather than “This sucks,” you can say something along the lines of, “I’m not sure this is working.” Then proceed to explain why it’s not working. (Refer to Do #2.)
  2. Be vague. Simply telling someone “I hate it” or “I love it” is not helpful. I like praise as much as the next person, but I’d rather have a tough critic who gives me details about what’s not working and why than someone who loves the story but can’t do anything more than sing generic praises of it.
  3. Make it about the writer. Even if the piece is politically charged and your opinions are radically different from the writer’s, leave the writer as a person out of it. Don’t assume anything about the writer based on the piece (even if your assumptions might be right). If need be, talk about the narrator (even of a poem or nonfiction piece) as if she is a separate entity from the writer. That makes it more likely that you can focus on the good and bad points of the writing, not the writer’s personality.

Keep an eye out for “Workshopping, Part 2: The Writer,” coming next week!

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Novel-Writing Class

About half of our usual group is taking a novel-writing class together this semester. It’s nice, being in a writing class with friends whom you know and trust, friends who have a history of reviewing your work. It makes the prospect of having sixteen classmates and a professor tear a chunk of your novel to shreds slightly less terrifying.

Me, every day of my life. *hides in conveniently located hole in the ground*

I love writing classes. Not for the substance, although obviously I find that helpful and interesting. What I love is what my creative writing professor back at community college told us to expect.

“You’re all writers,” he said on the first day of class. “Other people don’t get that, but everyone in here does. You’re going to become really close as a class, just wait.”

And he was right. For the first couple weeks we sat around silently reading or writing before he entered the room and started class, but one day I started talking to a classmate across the room. When other people came into the room, they joined the conversation. And by the time our professor showed up, we were all talking like we were old friends.

The only difference in our current class is that our novel-writing professor seems a little weirded out about the things we discuss. I feel bad for him, though, because no matter how animated our conversation before class, the moment he starts asking us questions about what Suzanne Collins did well in “The Hunger Games,” all he gets is awkward silence.

(That’s probably just because our age group is not really the target audience for “The Hunger Games,” and although it’s technically well-done we have a lot of complaints about it. Sorry, tributes.)

I love this spontaneous feeling of community, born of the mutual weirdness most writers possess, but the class itself scares me. I started off deciding I would rework a novel that has already been through several years, much brainstorming, and three drafts. It’s had the most work done, after all, and it could use a good workshop.

But I’m writing a story on Tumblr at the same time, just to get myself writing a page every day, and it’s really weird to switch back and forth between two different stories each day. I mean, the oft-redrafted novel is a very modern urban fantasy with a multitude of characters and messed-up personal relationships and stuff like that, but the Tumblr novel is more like old-school fantasy (think “The Hobbit” or “The Chronicles of Narnia”); it’s got a lot of description and a lot of semicolons, and it’s very experimental (for me).

Actually, probably not success. I also use conjunctions. But so did the writers of yore.

I finally figured out a system that worked pretty well for exactly three days: Write a page of the Tumblr story as early in the day as I could, and spend the rest of the day working on the novel for class.

The Tumblr story’s been going very well this way, but the other story… Every time I wrote three pages, I decided those three pages were absolute shite and rewrote them. Then I’d add three more pages, but those three pages turned out to be shite and needed rewriting too.

It was exhausting. I was essentially writing two drafts of a single novel at the same time.

So I decided last night to shelve the rewrite for now and focus solely on the Tumblr novel. I’ll use that for class, though I’m a little worried that my confidence in it will be obliterated by the workshop on March 14 and I won’t feel up to finishing it.

But that’s exactly why it’s on Tumblr. If it’s on the Internet, where people can see it, I’m more likely to keep going. After all, that’s why experts say you should tell people about your New Year’s resolutions: You’re more likely to keep them if you’re accountable to someone other than yourself.

And I have a fan on Tumblr. Just one. But I think that’s enough to keep me going.

Not today, God of Not Writing. Today I will write. Later. But seriously, it WILL happen today.

 

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Three Basic Poetry Mistakes

First of all, happy New Year! Glad to see we all made it through the infamous December 21st alive.

Anywho, on to poetry.

This is not an in-depth post about metaphor, symbolism, diction, whatever – this is just a list of things that will immediately turn an agent away from your poetry. In fact, these problems can even turn other writers from giving you an in-depth critique of your poem.

Lack of capitalization. Okay, I know e.e.cummings is famous for this – so famous, in fact, that we don’t even capitalize his name (it just looks weird) – but you are not e.e.cummings. You’re not. You might boast to your friends, your critics, your potential agents, that you are the next e.e.cummings – but if you’re just starting out, you need to stick to tradition. You can’t break the rules until you’ve learned the rules, as the saying goes, and if you look at all the masters who are famous for breaking the rules, you’ll see that that’s true. Picasso painted portraits and landscapes. Lady Gaga was trained classically. And e.e.cummings used capital letters.

Poor grammar and spelling. Spelling is self-explanatory, so let’s turn to grammar. The most common mistake I see in poetry is with comma use. For some reason, many people feel a need to put a comma after each line, whether it’s necessary or not, like so:

The trees in the wind,

were so beautiful.

To some people, this will look alright. But it’s not alright. It is evil. It is the bane of Elizabeth. (Okay, maybe that was a bit melodramatic.) Fortunately, there’s an easy way to remedy this problem. What I usually suggest to people is to rewrite their poetry as prose, like this:

The trees in the wind, were so beautiful.

Now pretty much anyone can see that the comma in question does not belong, delete it, and rewrite these lines correctly.

The trees in the wind

were so beautiful.

Vague language. The lines above were obviously terrible, but there was a point to my using terrible lines. Not only did the previously misuse a comma, but they also use vague language. Let’s have them one more time, shall we?

The trees in the wind

were so beautiful.

Urgh. Doesn’t inspiring further reading, does it? For one thing, “trees” and “wind” are both common, all-encompassing words that don’t make me want to read on, but today let’s focus more on “so beautiful.” It’s horribly vague language that really gives you no mental image at all, even though “beautiful” is a commonly used adjective.

What does it mean to say that someone is beautiful? Yes, the first question your friends will ask about that girl you met in the mall is probably, “Was she hot?” and you’ll probably say, “Yes,” but what does this really mean? Does your definition of beauty match that of your friends? And even if it does, there’s probably more than one type of person that you would consider beautiful. The girl was beautiful, but you like blondes and brunettes, blue eyes and brown eyes, so what did she actually look like?

It would be better to say – in poetry as in prose – that the girl in question had a clear-skinned, fine-featured face with high cheekbones and blue eyes with dark lashes and dark hair that curled around her shoulders.

Of course, if you actually say that to your buddies at the mall, they’ll just look at you blankly (unless they’re also writers), but for both prose and poetry, this is much better than “beautiful.” I think it’s almost more important to use concrete language in poetry than in prose – because prose tells a story, making it inherently a little interesting by virtue of plot and character, even if the manner of telling isn’t great. But poetry often taps into deep emotions, abstract concepts like “love” and “honor” and “freedom,” all of which are fine things but really boring to read about unless you put them in terms of concrete images.

But that’s a topic for a different post.

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The White Dwarves of Fiction

I probably should not take it upon myself to write a piece about flash fiction, since I’ve just broken into it in the last couple of years, but what the heck?

Flash fiction is difficult because it’s between 300 and 1000 words (depending on whose definition you’re using), but it needs to tell a story in its own right. But of course, you can’t just tell a story in 300-1000 words and call it flash fiction – that would go against the oft-repeated “show, don’t tell” rule.

And flash fiction has to contain the intensity of a novel in the space of a few paragraphs, hence the title of this post: A white dwarf is a star with the mass of our sun contained in a celestial body the size of the earth. (For those of you who don’t understand what a big deal this is, 1.3 million earths could fit inside the sun.) It’s so dense that a teaspoon-full of white dwarf material would weigh several tons on earth. When I was thinking about this post the other day, I thought about how flash fiction would be considered extremely dense in astronomy terms – but in literary terms, of course, you never want your piece to be called “dense.”

So I decided to use the metaphor of the white dwarf instead. In case you were wondering.

*clears throat*

So, back to flash fiction.

The best definition I’ve found for flash fiction is a story told through a single important moment. I don’t remember where I heard this definition, but I think it’s a good one. A couple examples that I think are awesome:

  1. “Mr. Sandman,” by our very own Jasmine. We see the MC sitting in her window, pondering about the sleeping-pill salesman who sold her some pills that kill her each night. Of course, this could be a novel, but it’s written as a very short piece that both ends in a satisfying, spine-chilling way and leaves you wanting more.
  2. “Train Man,” by Ruth on youngwriterssociety.com. This may be the most – I mean, I really just want to say “the best piece of literature I’ve ever read,” and this is just a girl on YWS who, as far as I know, is not yet published. Anyway, the story is told from the first-person POV of a train passenger in Great Britain, who realizes that the polite man, the affectionate father, sitting across from him is a suicide bomber. It’s the most mind-blowing moment of any story I have ever read, when the train pulls away and the narrator, looking back out the window, sees the man open his jacket in the train station to reveal a bomb strapped to his chest. And this piece is only 199 words. WOW.

Basically, my plan of attack for flash fiction is: Pick a single moment or event, dramatize the most important part of it, and end it with a whammy. If I may be permitted to use yet another metaphor, a flash fiction piece is the epigram of prose. (For those of you who don’t know what an epigram is, read this.)

Try it out. Write something under a thousand words, then work your way down – under five hundred, under three hundred, perhaps even under one hundred. See what you can come up with. Even if you don’t write a piece of flash fiction that you feel you can be proud of, flash fiction writing can help slim down your other works and make them more succinct.

If you have an account with Young Writers Society, you can read “Train Man” here.

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National Novel Writing Month

Naturally, with October partway over and November on its way, my first post had to be about Nano. I’m counting down the days until November 1 on the dry-erase board above my bed (22 days!), and it just can’t come fast enough.

For those of you who don’t know, National Novel Writing Month, or Nanowrimo, is a month-long novel-writing palooza in which writers around the world (novices and veterans alike) attempt to write their own 50,000-word novel in just 30 days. And by “around the world,” I mean “around the world.” From Egypt to Wyoming, from Hungary to Ontario to Sri Lanka, writers all over the globe race against the clock to get those stories out of their heads and into a word processor.

(Or onto paper, but a word processor keeps count of the words-so-far for you.)

You might be thinking: That’s crap. And in two ways, you might be right.
It can be stressful, trying to complete a 50,000-word novel while working, going to class, raising a two-year-old, taking care of a Labrador, or whatever. And, let’s face it: Most of what you write at that speed will probably be crap.

But that’s okay, because Nanowrimo isn’t about producing a best-selling literary masterpiece that the critics will love and that will set you up for life. Nano is about actually writing that novel you always said you would write. For the duration of November, duct-tape your inner editor to a chair and throw him in the closet.

You can always edit in December.

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You can find the UTWG Nano thread here.
You can add Elizabeth as a Nano buddy here.
UTWG write-ins will be at Biggby Coffee on West Central Avenue at 7:00p.m. on Mondays. Nano kick-off party TBA.

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