Category Archives: Writing

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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I was simmering, simmering, simmering!

For my American Literature class, we were assigned to read Ralph Waldo Emerson’s “Self-Reliance,” and one of the questions to answer afterward asked us to choose a maxim in the text and discuss it. But come on, it’s Emerson.

Image

The essay is full of so many that I agree with. I was simmering, like Whitman, and I too was brought to a boil when reading this. It was a kind of feeling I can only get when inspired by another’s writing to the point of using similar elements in my own works.

Not only did I find these to make sense in the realm of reality as it is, but I began thinking about how true these maxims would ring within the rules of my own world (the one I’m in the process of building in a story of mine).

ImageWorld-building. It’s serious business.

If created by a half-decent builder, a world has many different societies. A few of mine happen to be heavily influenced by Europe – especially northern Europe. Further down my world map are the less defined “Tropics,” the areas near the equator. While I was reading Emerson, all I could think about were my darling, developing island people.  The first main characters present in my story come from what I call the “Northern Lands,” and are thusly built, with their land, to a degree of familiarity at current.

In the meantime, I feel that Emerson has come to me at a time that couldn’t have been any more perfect.  My tropical inhabitants are a natural people, but I didn’t want to fall into the Pocahontas/Avatar cliché often associated with those who live in harmony with nature. Such groups are often stereotyped to emphasize the community, and I thought that that was the only way to go, really… until Emerson opened my mind to the divinity of the self. When he mentions the self, he doesn’t mean to be selfish, but to follow one’s intuition, to be oneself, to follow the actions of Jesus rather than doing what some preacher says to do. And, all this must be done while being one with nature. He spoke of the power and spirit of the landscape.

This, I thought, has to be the basis of these yet-developed people of mine.

From there, I began re-reading lines in the essay, taking notes, and furiously scribbling ideas into my notebook. I took some of Emerson and added a tinge of myself. As stated before, these people I am creating belong to a more natural and less industrialized society. This is by choice. “The civilized man has built a coach, but has lost the use of his feet” (36). And, rather than emphasizing community, they prefer to follow Emerson’s views on non-conformity. “Society is a joint-stock company, in which the members agree, for the better securing of his bread to eat shareholder, to surrender the liberty and culture of the eater” (21). They find principal, power, divinity, and spirit all within nature as well as themselves. These will be an intuition-driven people who are deeply in touch with “the self.” “Your isolation must not be mechanical, but spiritual, that is, must be elevation” (30).

All power and matter can be conjured and manipulated (through equivalent exchange) by the self and not relying on god(s) to perform miracles or preachers/priests to dictate doctrines. Because after all, we are star stuff, aren’t we? We are made up of the heavens themselves.

075-starstuff

However, there is no complete lack of group; there will be a sense of society, as there is in the world Emerson is trying to create: “I shall endeavor to nourish my parents, to support my family, to be the chaste husband of one wife, – but these relations I must fill after a new and unprecedented way” (31). These people will find harmony, a goal only achieved through truly understanding the self, because if you don’t understand yourself, how could you possibly ever hope to understand anyone else? “No man can come near me but through my act” (31).

Emerson, Ralph Waldo. “Self-Reliance.” Self-Reliance and Other Essays. Mineola: Dover Publications, Inc., 1993. Print.

Thanks for reading my craziness,
Jasmine

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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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Show V. Tell…Again?

We’ve all been told, a million times, to show and not tell. And we’ve all heard explanation after explanation as to what that’s really supposed to mean. Of course this is helpful, but, for myself at least, I’ve always liked nice, concrete examples to help me really get into the meat of a concept like this. Sure, you can read books, and you can listen to people talk, but there’s something that’s much more effective about finding someone who does what you want to do, well, and learning from them.

And that’s why I’m glad to share a story that I’ve had the pleasure of stumbling upon recently: His Face All Red, by Emily Carroll.

This comic is one of those rare stories that gives me that wonderful, uneasy feeling that sticks with me. It’s been almost a week since I first read the story and I’ve thought about it at least once every day since. That impresses me.

Read it. Take the time. It’s incredibly short. Like, eight pages. But give it a look and take the time to feel the punch of it.

Now just imagine if she had spelled all of that out? If she had explained every little detail inside of the round-faced brother’s head. It would feel flat. There wouldn’t be that enchanting, intangible creepiness that makes the story so enjoyable.
Now, this is a comic. So, how can we translate this into our writing, into straight-up prose? I suppose the answer might, in the details, be different for each of us. I need to feel comfortable imagining a scene before I can write it. So, showing, for me, is a matter of describing what I might see rather than explaining what’s happening. Though, at the same time, I have friends who feel more comfortable when they can shoot from the hip. That is, writing and letting a scene unfold impromptu.

This, I’m less comfortable with, but I feel like the same ideas might apply. Imagine you are creating a comic. Imagine you’re working visually, and really try to make those vital details pop. Does the way a character dresses tell us something about who they are? Does the way they carry themselves? Do they have nervous habits? Really try to picture those details, to see how your characters might act if you were to see them in real life, and let us view those actions or qualities through your eyes.

The important thing here is: what works for you? Seriously. I want to know. Leave it in the comments.

Now, I want to wrap-up with a little homework. Take a step outside of your comfort zone, find an example that really touches you, and just take some time to get to know it. Try to figure out why it makes you feel the way you do. And then hold it up next to your own work. See if you can’t add or subtract something to evoke a similar level of emotion. Try to make yourself laugh, or cry, or shiver and want to hide.  Try to pull out those feelings, and then step back, get super critical (read: stop patting yourself on the back), and see why that happened.
And, again, share your results in the comments! It’ll be fun.

Some extra links, for your enjoyment:
CoffeeGhost.net, A nice break-down of His Face All Red:

http://coffeeghost.net/2012/06/18/a-demonstration-of-show-dont-tell-with-emily-carrolls-his-face-all-red/

Brick by Brick, by Stephen McCranie:

http://doodlealley.com/2011/10/19/brick-by-brick/

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