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Here, Esquilax! reviews Edward Teller Dreams

Edward Teller Dreams of Barbecuing People-10_1410Dustin Heron, author of Paradise Stories and a good friend of mine, posted a rather nice review of Edward Teller Dreams of Barbecuing People. An excerpt:

In one of the books funniest scenes, the two apathetic rebels stage a sit-in protest for the lack of school pride at their High School. But it’s not a throwaway scene: in this novel, every scene illuminates, tells a joke, develops characters, and moves the plot forward, and big changes for Gene and Gwen hinge on that protest and its repercussions. But the broader and more subtle work being done in that scene is what makes Nelson’s book so effective and moving: Gene and Gwen are children of Baby-Boomers who decades before put flowers in their hair and “changed the world” and continued to congratulate themselves for doing so and who all of a sudden became middle management protecting the status quo they now had a vested interest in.

Read the full review, and while you’re at it, check out Dustin’s entire web site, which features stories, essays, improvisations, and more.

Three alternatives to the Iowa writing workshop format

Liz Lerman

Liz Lerman

The fiction workshop is so pervasive in the writing world it’s been converted to a verb: workshopping. Although it occurs in disparate settings (academic, informal, living room writing groups—whatever), a fiction writing workshop usually operates something like this:

A writer distributes his or her story (or book chapter) to the rest of the group ahead of the meeting. Each workshop member reads the story on their own, away from the group. Most groups require each member to write up a response, usually one page single-spaced. Often readers will mark up the manuscript as well: spelling, grammar, word choice, typos. They’ll highlight passages that are interesting or vivid, cross out passages that seem unnecessary or inappropriate, write question marks near confusing passages, and so on.

Then the group meets. The author sits still for thirty minutes while a half-dozen or more people critically pick apart what may be the most heartfelt and personal story he or she’s ever written. The author is forbidden from speaking during this time. He or she listens and takes notes while the rest of the room casually tears apart hours, maybe tens of hours, of work. Just about any critical opinion that jumps to mind may be aired without fear of crossing a boundary. With the right people, it can be ruthless.

After the discussion, the writer may ask the group questions, and the session concludes.

Although I don’t know how this style of critique developed, I’ve often heard that it originated at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, and so it’s sometimes called the Iowa workshop format. For better or worse, the Iowa format has become the platonic ideal of the fiction writing workshop.

For my purposes, the history of the format is not really important. It’s been handed down to us and dominates the critical process for fiction writers. It’s used in practically every living room writing group and creative writing course in North America, from weekly adult-extension classes to top-tier MFA programs.

The format is not set in stone. I’ve seen a couple of home-brewed workshop formats, and even endured a writing group that made up the rules as it went along. Some established groups have a formal structure, but often it’s assumed everyone “knows” how to workshop. It’s rare to see the workshop where its goals were enumerated and agreed upon by everyone.

A lot of time in writing workshops and a lot of negative experiences in them have led me to think about alternatives to the Iowa format. I can name three that are worth examination.

Liz Lerman

The most widely-used alternative to the Iowa workshop format originated in the world of modern dance. When a workshop organizer hands out their Xerox-of-a-Xerox-of-a-Xerox of Liz Lerman‘s Toward a Process for Critical Response, the phrase “dancing about architecture” leaps to my mind.

I’ve enrolled in a handful of workshops where Liz Lerman’s process was used. In the first session, the leader selected workshop members to read aloud each section of Lerman’s process while everyone else followed along. (This step reminded me of Bible study.) Then the leader went over Lerman’s technique in great detail, firmly and thoroughly discussing each stage, reiterating its emphasis on decorum, and above all its notions of fairness and neutrality.

For a fiction workshop, Lerman’s critical process structures the group discussion like so:

  1. The readers state what was “working” in the story.
  2. The writer asks question about their story. The readers answer the questions without suggesting changes.
  3. The readers ask the writer neutral questions about the story.
  4. The readers ask the writer for permission to offer opinions of the story.

Lerman’s process is designed to avoid confrontation at all costs. I would also say Lerman’s process requires a strong leader to guide the discussion along—a situation more suitable for an academic situation than a writing group of peers.

The few groups I’ve been in that used Lerman’s process degenerated in similar fashion. The first one or two sessions would follow Lerman to a T, but inevitably transgression of the format crept in. People would start questioning if they were “allowed” to say what they want to say. By the third session Lerman’s process all but disappeared from the radar screen. Steps got skipped. One stage would bleed into the next. Time ran out and the process cut short. (You need to go through each step for it to be worthwhile.) Sometimes the workshop turned into a pillow fight…the pillows filled with broken beer bottles.

I’m not blaming Lerman for this situation. Overall, her process is a positive one that emphasizes constructive criticism and neutral questions to give the dancer—or writer, or painter—a grab-bag of vectors for the next iteration of the creative process.

It’s just that I’ve never seen Lerman’s critical process consistently applied in a fiction writing workshop, academic or informal. Lerman’s process requires everyone to agree to it up front. Many people don’t, silently or verbally, either due to confusion (“Is this a neutral question?”) or rebelliousness (“I’m not here to sugar-coat my opinions”). Like so many group activities, if everyone doesn’t buy into the ground rules, problems sprout up.

Transfer magazine

One of the most positive workshop experiences I’ve enjoyed was as a staff member of Transfer magazine, a publication of San Francisco State University’s Creative Writing department.

Transfer used a blind submission process solicited from the student body. Manuscripts were distributed to the staff (20 or so students) who read them on their own and prepared note cards. On each card they described the story in objective terms and listed its strengths and weaknesses.

There’s only so much you can write on a 3-by-5 card. That limitation forced the staff to think hard about what they wrote, particularly since they might have to defend it later.

Then, in group discussion, each story was evaluated in turn. The note cards became a launching pad for the discussion. The story’s author was not present, of course—editors and staff could not submit work. With the author’s name unknown to everyone present (including the editors), the discussion was remarkably fruitful and civil. Many of the manuscripts were teased apart by the group, revealing details and forces within them no single person had noticed on their own.

I’ve thought a lot about how to borrow some of this magic for a standard workshop. There’s obvious problems with migrating this process to a standard fiction workshop. Even if the story’s author was asked to leave the room during the discussion, those present would know whose story was under the knife and that their remarks would eventually wind up in the writer’s hands. (Transfer‘s evaluation was not shared with the writers.) Anonymity fostered healthy discussion at Transfer, something not easily replicated in a weekly writing group.

On the other hand, the note cards and their space limitation garnered thoughtful responses from the students. The discussion, not the written responses, was where the real critical value lay. Most fiction workshops treat written vs. discussion as a 50-50 split. After Transfer, I’m not so sure.

Playwriting

Playwriting workshops have been another source of remarkably positive experiences for me. The differences between playwriting and fiction workshops are so marked, the first time I took a playwriting workshop I assumed it was a fluke of nature—a fantastical intersection of an energized instructor, great personalities, and wonderful writing. It was all those things, but I’ve enjoyed similar good fortune in the other playwriting workshops as well.

Unlike most Iowa-style formats, scripts are not distributed ahead of time in a playwriting workshop. Scenes are brought to the group and handed out on the spot. The playwright selects her “cast” from the other writers. Then the scene is performed cold, sometimes sitting at the table, sometimes using one side of the room as a makeshift stage. There is no blocking, no dramaturgy, no Method acting, but of course everyone gets into their roles a little.

The shock and delight of fiction writers attending their first playwriting workshop.

The toughest part for me, as a fiction writer, was this part of the process. Public speaking is difficult enough; acting is painful, and I know I was hamming it up. It’s common for dedicated playwrights to take acting lessons, and many of them did my scenes great justice.

Once the scene is acted out, a general discussion follows. The discussions are rarely structured, nothing as formal as Lerman’s process. If there is structure in the workshop, it’s the leader asking “What’s working here?” and then “Okay, now where is it stumbling?”

Yet there was an extraordinary amount of generosity in those sessions. I never saw the backbiting or sniping that pokes its nose into fiction workshops. The energy level of playwrights is something to see—people eager, anxious even, to help the writer refine her work from something struggling to something great.

There are cultural differences between the world of fiction and the world of theater. Fiction writing is romanticized as an isolated act, and there’s truth in that. Plays are collaborative efforts, from start to finish, and it shows in a playwriting workshop. There’s also the stereotype of personality differences: fiction writers as introverts, theater folk as extroverts. But there were other fiction writers in my playwriting workshops. They shined too. It was the process, not the personality.

Reading a script aloud, cold, and in a performative manner engages everyone in the room. Too often in fiction workshops I’ve received written comments that were scribbled on the last page of my manuscript like it was a cocktail napkin. If the comments were assembled that sloppily, I can only imagine with what impatience my story was read.

Acting through a script makes people pay attention. It creates stakes in the room—the group feels they’re a part of the work, rather than exterior to or above it. The actors make special claims to the play, speaking up about their character’s motivations, speaking about their character in the first-person (“At that moment I really wanted to tell her what I knew”).

Again, like Transfer, I don’t know if this easily translates to the fiction workshop, but it’s worth knowing there are workable and practical alternatives to our age-worn practices. The question is how much of this magic can be adapted into a process that has been so beaten into our heads. That’s what I’ll discuss in my next post.

Next: A fourth alternative to the Iowa writing workshop format

Writing better fiction with Syd Field’s three-act screenplay structure: The treatment

Syd Field

Syd Field

(See my “Continuing Series” page for a listing of all posts about using Syd Field’s paradigm to write fiction.)

Last post I explained Syd Field’s “paradigm” and how it applied to writing a three-act screenplay. I also explained that I’ve modified his paradigm for writing fiction (short stories and novels). What I’m about to explain is the first step in that process. It’s to write a treatment for your next story or book.

I’m not talking about a Hollywood treatment. In Hollywood, a treatment is a specific document produced near the beginning of the creative process. Different sources give different definitions, even wildly different page counts, for a treatment. For Syd Field’s purposes, a treatment is a brief description of the screenplay—part sales pitch, part outline, part proof-of-concept—three to five pages long, narrated in present tense with little or no dialogue. It lays out the beginning, middle, and end of the film, not shot-for-shot or in terms of scenes, but in broad summary form. Think of it as an overview of the movie script, whether the script is completed or not. Often a strong treatment is the basis for a movie studio to order the full script’s development. (Sometimes one wishes they were, on average, a bit stronger.)

I am not proposing you write a Hollywood-style treatment for your next novel or short story. I gave it that name because that’s my inspiration for this stage in the process. So, when you see that term here, don’t think of a Hollywood pitch. Think of your treatment as the first step in writing your story.

Writing a treatment for fiction is to prepare for writing a full three-act outline. A treatment challenges you with a series of questions that ask you, in sum, to honestly evaluate where your inspiration stands. It only takes a few minutes, but it makes the next steps even easier.

The fiction writer’s treatment

Let’s start by assuming you have an idea for a story. It might be an inkling, it might be an itch that needs to be scratched. It might be a big, bold idea, one you’ve mapped out in your head from a quiet, unpresupposing opening to a monumental, explosive finish. Maybe you’ve already written some notes. Maybe you’ve written a first page or a first chapter. Maybe you’ve written nothing at all. It could be a novel, it could be a short story, or it could be a dud.

Ask yourself the following questions in order. Use a clean sheet of paper or a fresh word processing document to record your answers; don’t do this in your head. Try to limit yourself to one to two sentences to answer each question. The next steps of this process will give you a chance to expound more. Right now the idea is to shake out that story idea and find its core.

Protagonist: Who is the main character of this story?
In one or two sentences, sum up your idea for the main character. If you don’t have a name for your character, just refer to him or her as “main character” or “protagonist” or “he” or “she”—don’t get hung up on names and ages right now. Don’t write about peripheral characterizing details, use this limited space to really drill down into his or her pertinent information.

Perhaps you have more than one main character in mind. Ask yourself if one of them is, in your mind, the true central character. If not, limit your answer to the bare number of characters central to your story.

Setup: What is the minimum of backstory, history, setting, or exposition that must be presented before the main story begins?
In one or two sentences summarize your main character’s situation when the story opens. It might be where she lives, or place of employment, or why she suffers from some limitation. Brevity is important. Limiting yourself to one or two sentences makes you really think what’s truly important about this character, why this character is important to you, and therefore to the reader.

If you think the answer is “None”—that no backstory must be presented to the reader—great, write that down. However, unless you’re Samuel Beckett reincarnated, most stories require some background or scene-setting before the events of the story begin. Even if it’s the name of the main character and where she lives, that’s backstory.

Inciting Incident: What event disrupts the rhythms and rituals of the main character’s daily life?
The Inciting Incident catalyzes the narration and launches the story. The disruption is usually external or physical, such as the family in Raisin in the Sun receiving a sizable inheritance, but it can be an internal realization or discovery.

Keep your answer to the disruption itself, not your main character’s reaction to it; that’s the next question.

Plot Point #1: What reverses the main character’s daily life such that there is no easy return to normalcy?
Another way to phrase this question is: What happens to prevent the character from simply ignoring the disruption that has occurred? For Raisin in the Sun, the grandmother uses the money as the down on a home in an all-white neighborhood, committing her 1959 African-American family to a precarious future.

Note that it’s possible for the Inciting Incident to be the first plot point. The nature of the disruption could be something impossible for the main character to ignore. (For example, he’s hit by a bus while crossing the street.) But often the inciting incident is not so monumental, even if it seems that way in your mind. Be honest: is there any way for your character to ignore or avoid the inciting incident? If so, you probably need to find a way to ensure there’s no way for her to turn away from it.

There should be no going back. That’s why I emphasize the word “reverses” in the question—there should be some event or decision, internal or external, that alters the trajectory of the main character’s daily life. If they can ignore the disruption and return to life as it was, most characters will. And there your story ends, most likely unsatisfactorily.

No going back

In my experience, the first three questions (Protagonist, Setup, Inciting Incident) answer themselves. When I’m inspired to write a story, I tend to have some idea of the character, their situation, and the event that launches the story proper. Answering those first three questions is largely an exercise in putting my inspiration onto the page, which is valuable in any case.

The fourth question (Plot Point #1) is usually the first challenging one. This is why I emphasize starting with the treatment. It forces you to honestly evaluate your story’s opening and ensure you’re not shortchanging the main character—or the reader.

Too often, underdeveloped fiction assumes that the main character will eagerly jump in to resolve the inciting incident head-on. It also assumes that the reader is along for the ride, that they won’t question why the character has taken on the challenge so willingly. Superheroes leap into action. More human characters look for ways to avoid leaping into action.

Consider Lolita. Confronted by the law and bouncing in and out of sanatoriums, Humbert Humbert resigns himself to moving in with Mrs. Haze, although he abhors her traditional domesticity. All evidence indicates he will simply abandon her and return to his lascivious ways. It’s when he sets his eyes on Haze’s 12 year-old daughter—the Inciting Incident—that Humbert’s “normal” life is turned over. Although he doesn’t want to return to the rhythm and rituals of his previous life, he has little recourse due to Mrs. Haze’s constant presence. Humbert engineers a chance to tussle with the girl—Plot Point #1—igniting his desires that form the remainder of the novel. Plot Point #1 is why there’s no going back for him.

(“Plot Point #1” is Field’s terminology. So far I’ve been unable to find a word or phrase I’m more comfortable with, so I’ve left it in.)

Here’s another example:

After work, a man goes to his girlfriend’s apartment. She announces that she’s pregnant. The man puts his jacket back on, walks downstairs, and hails a taxi. He goes to the airport, where he flies to Europe to put this unexpected event behind him.

This sounds forced to my ear, but the writer developing the story absolutely believed in it. It took the writer some time to realize he was railroading his main character to Rome in order to get to the juicy, intriguing part of the story that he wanted to tell.

My suggestion? Plot Point #1:

After work, a man goes to his girlfriend’s apartment. She announces that she’s pregnant. The man asks his girlfriend to consider terminating the pregnancy, but she’s committed for religious reasons. He walks downstairs and hails a taxi.

I’m not saying this solves every problem with the story, but it firms up the man’s motivation for his abrupt decision to flee. The girlfriend’s announcement is the Inciting Incident and her unwavering commitment is Plot Point #1. It ensures there’s no easy turning back. Otherwise, if your character can simply return to his or her hum-drum life, why wouldn’t they?

Part four: Completing the treatment

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A new cover for Edward Teller Dreams of Barbecuing People

Edward Teller Dreams of Barbecuing People by Jim Nelson

Click for larger image

After a lot of scratching around in the dirt and a couple of heart-to-hearts with myself, I made the decision to ditch the old cover for Edward Teller Dreams of Barbecuing People. That cover attempted to capture the aesthetic of a classic Pee-Chee All-Season Portfolio that’s been doodled up with pencil and ink over the span of a school year. As much as I liked the concept, my artistic skills were simply not up to snuff for the challenge. I was never really satisfied with the final product.

The good news is, I’ve returned to the drawing board and come up with a cover I’m much happier with. The image to the above left is the result of that labor. I’m updating the ebooks on my various distribution channels as we speak. This is one of the great things about ebooks: if you don’t like the cover, you just change it. (For comparison, you can see the old cover in my original release announcement.)

Speaking of Pee-Chee, check out this great Flickr collection of folders marked-up and mutilated decades ago by school kids who were not altogether dissimilar to Gene Harland, the narrator of Edward Teller Dreams. My favorite in the collection? This one referencing Berkeley’s own The Uptones and featuring a ska sprinter taking the lead on the outside. In the 80s, you lived and died by a white pressed shirt and a skinny tie.

Junior High Pee-Chee - Front