Twenty Writers: Unstuck in Dresden

See the Introduction for more information on “Twenty Writers, Twenty Books.” The current list of reviews and essays is located at Continuing Series.


Slaughterhouse-Five by Kurt Vonnegut
Early one August morning in 2011, I set off for Dresden. I was lodging at a surprisingly spacious budget hotel located in what was once known as East Berlin. I showered, snagged a Brötchen from the breakfast table downstairs, and rode public transit to Berlin’s central train station, the Hauptbahnhof.

The Hauptbahnhof was a modest-sized transportation hub with a grand planar green-glass facade and crystal strands of staircases and escalators within. A number of national and international rail lines passed through the station on all levels.

In contrast to its modernity, the area surrounding the Hauptbahnhof appeared bombed-out. Weedy lots and half-built (or half-demolished) concrete structures of uncertain purpose surrounded the station, even though it was located in the dead center of town, and not the outskirts where this sort of thing might be excused.

In 2011, dereliction was not unusual in the eastern reaches of Berlin. The area that was once West Berlin was clean, modern, bustling—as sleek and efficient as the capitalism it had boasted of to its neighbors during the Cold War. What was once East Berlin was largely a patchwork of low-lying buildings, many redolent of America’s 1970s aesthetics bereft of its most garish extremes. Anything not man-made was lush and overgrown from the humid summer. (Berlin, my travel guide explained, was built on a swamp.) Buildings with blasted-out holes in the plaster stood here and there in East Berlin, the rubble having been hauled off but the damage not repaired. As I learned from the natives, Berlin was still recovering from forty years of Communist rule, where counterrevolutionary ideals like aesthetics and grounds-keeping were not prioritized.

Having visited Munich a few times, I would bet a stein of beer that the meticulous, efficient Bavarians would never have allowed for this situation to sustain. For any undeveloped lot, the Bavarians would have installed a beer garden or a park or some nice shopping. Munich is the neighbor who keeps their lawn trim and packs away the Christmas decorations on Boxing Day; Berlin is the family with the half-built additions and a porch painted a color intended for the whole house, but Dad never got around to finishing the job. It’s for those reasons I found what was once East Berlin relaxed and livable.

Having visited my favorite beer garden in all of Europe the night before, I didn’t wake quite early enough. I missed my train to Dresden by precious minutes, in part due to being lost in the Hauptbahnhof‘s Escher maze of escalators. Running up to the platform for Dresden, the train chugging eastward, I wondered if this was a bit of Vonnegutian fate, the kind of nondescript event that leads to major ramifications for the character later in the book.

Literary tourism

My visit to Dresden bore some emotional weight. It would probably be my only chance to see the city Kurt Vonnegut wrote about so prominently in Slaughterhouse-Five.

Literary tourism is a recurring compulsion in my life. I’ve sought out Hemingway’s Key West house and the six-toed cats who drink from an old bar urinal in the garden; Henry Miller’s ramshackle Big Sur cabin, surprisingly spartan for a hedonist; Beowulf under glass at the British Museum in London, a city practically designed for literary tourism, right down to the pub reproducing Sherlock Holmes’ parlor; even Mark Twain’s cabin in California’s Gold Country where he reportedly penned “The Celebrated Jumping Frog of Calaveras County”. Literary tourism has even made its way into some of my stories, in particular “A Concordance of One’s Life”, and to a lesser extent Everywhere Man.

With only one more free day in Germany, I woke the next morning even earlier and made it to the Hauptbahnhof with time to spare. As my train left the platform, I was treated to the very European experience of an Italian family arguing with the unflappable German conductor over seats, some business about assigned seating and Second Class. As English was the common language between the two parties, I was able to follow the argument. The conductor eventually conceded and moved on, leaving the Italian family to overtake the compartment. The mother pointed out to me that there wasn’t enough room for all of them, and so I moved to the next compartment.

The train ride from Berlin to Dresden took two and a half hours. If I’d traveled the day before, I had planned to find a cheap room to crash in for the night. Now I had to make the same return trip in the late afternoon via the last train out of Dresden to Berlin.

The Slaughterhouse-Five Tour

In a different book, Kurt Vonnegut wrote

Ah, God, what an ugly city Illium is!

“Ah, God,” says Bokonon, “what an ugly city every city is!”

I was curious to see what had sprung up in Dresden’s place after the end of the war, after the firebombing. I was also curious how Vonnegut’s book was now received by the city. I had it in my mind that Slaughterhouse-Five was a literary gift to the City of Dresden, a rather lengthy handbill proclaiming to a cold and unaware world the war crime they’d suffered. Much like my trip to Hiroshima, I wasn’t quite sure what to expect. Everything I’d read about both cities focused on one subject: utter destruction.

I wondered if there were Slaughterhouse-Five tours of Dresden. If I ran a Slaughterhouse-Five tour of Dresden, I would dress up like Billy Pilgrim and pretend to be unstuck in time. I would start the tour with this:

“And now our tour concludes. So it goes.”

And end the tour with this:

“Welcome! My name is Billy Pilgrim. Today I’m your guide for the Slaughterhouse-Five tour. On your left is our first sight…”

For all my planning back at home, it never occurred to me to attempt to locate the actual slaughterhouse Vonnegut and the other American POWs huddled in during the Allies’ firebombing of the city, safe while Dresden burned to nubs and ash. I assumed (wrongly, it turns out) that the slaughterhouse had been demolished after the war. I focused on the city center itself rather than striking out to the industrial areas in search of the structure that saved Vonnegut’s life and changed American postwar literature.

On the last leg of my train ride, two young women joined me in the compartment, college-aged summer hitchhikers making their way across Europe. They hauled mountaineering backpacks with sleeping rolls, enough gear to scale K2. Minutes before the Dresden station, we struck up a conversation. They were from Switzerland.

“I’m American,” I introduced myself.

“We know,” they told me. Whenever foreigners know my nationality it’s a little discomfiting, like meeting someone who can read my thoughts.

They told me they headed to Amsterdam. When they said “Amsterdam” they giggled between themselves.

“I’m going to Dresden,” I told them.

“Why?” they asked me, honestly perplexed.

Anatomy of a church

Dresden workers' muralOn my walk from Dresden’s station to its Old Town I passed a reminder of the city’s time under the German Democratic Republic. A broad mural spanned the second story of an otherwise unremarkable building. In the town I grew up, such a building would have been the advertising offices of the local newspaper or something equally mundane. This is what I expected to find in Dresden: postwar Socialist-drab architecture erected in a hurry and on the cheap.

The building was forgettable but the mural was not. Like so much social realism to come out of the Communist bloc, it features idealized caricatures of workers—women in head scarves, men in Trotsky hats—raising their sickles and rifles in a show of unity. The mural stood over a wide walkway, where it could be admired as easily as it could be ignored.

DresdenOnce past the mural and its uninspiring canvas, I discovered Dresden was not ugly. In fact, the city was charming. Although seventy years had passed since the firebombing, plenty of time to rebuild, I did not expect to walk into such a minute jewel. With East Berlin as my primer to post-Communist Germany, I presumed Dresden would be a place of unkempt parks, weedy lots, and an opera house or civic chamber destroyed by the Allies and left as rubble with a statue before it memorializing the carnage.

Strange then to see Dresden work so hard to appear as the city it was five hundred years ago, more medieval than mid-century. Its stout Old Town proudly exhibited a collection of limestone spires and copper-green cupolas. In the Middle Ages, labor was cheap, free when pressed into service by the Church. In the 20th century it wasn’t so cost-effective to refurnish a city to its fifteenth-century original without making do with mass-produced raw material—the financial temptation to erect a Disney reproduction of the original must have been great. There was nothing fake or inauthentic about Dresden’s Old Town as far as I could see.

Dresden churchThe rebuild was so complete, so meticulous, at first blush I wondered if anything remained to mark the firebombing that melted this city down to hot rubble in 1945. I found one, a block of permanently charred masonry standing in a cobblestone platz before a stunning Baroque church, Dresden’s Frauenkirche. A wordless plaque indicated where the block had fallen from the cupola above during the firebombing. In the human anatomy of the Frauenkirche, the masonry block fell from its heart.

(I know now that many memorials for the Dresden firebombing exist, some in the city and others elsewhere in Germany. Some only exist on the Internet as frameworks for remembering. I didn’t visit Dresden to search out statues and plaques and modern art commissioned by governmental panels, but I did expect to more of these markers than I encountered.)

Hundreds of miles from the Berlin swamp, Dresden offered a cloudless temperate day, the air off the river smelling fresh. The church platz was ringed by bistros lively with business. Vendor carts served cold beer as fast as mugs could be filled. Standing aside the masonry block and surveying the scene, I developed a theory: Dresden understood that remembering is different than never forgetting.

Of course

My own failings hampered my time in Dresden. I don’t speak a lick of German. Unlike Berlin, where an English-speaker can manage thanks to a mostly-multilingual population, few people in Dresden spoke my native tongue.

Rendered all but mute, I pointed to the beer tap when I wanted a beer, pointed to the menu when I wanted a brat, and did my best to pronounce Bitte? and Danke schoen for everyone I had dealings with.

At one of the beer carts off the church platz I met an English-speaking couple. Not only did they speak English, they were American. I did not ask the obvious questions. With a beer in hand and the sun on my back, I was incurious to know where they were from or who employed them.

She was talkative. He seemed totally uninterested in conversation. She asked why I came to Dresden.

Slaughterhouse-Five, of course,” I said. That “of course” made me out as a snoot.

She searched the air above her. “Is that a book?” She asked her husband if he’d read it. He murmured “Never heard of it” and drank more beer.

I told her she probably read it in high school. She couldn’t remember.

Fox tossing

When I asked why they’d visited Dresden, she explained it was a layover on their bus trip to Amsterdam. She giggled when she said “Amsterdam.” His attention never left his beer.

“Have you visited the castle?” she asked me. Their package tour included a ticket to Dresden Castle, now a museum. “Their king was the King of Poland. Twice.”

“Augustus the Strong,” her husband said, still not looking at me.

“Why was he called ‘the Strong?'” I asked.

“Because he was strong,” the husband said. “He could dead lift hundreds of pounds.” A bit excited, he finally turned on his stool to face me. “And he was a master at this game called fox tossing.”

“What’s fox tossing?”

“You throw foxes as high into the air as you can.” So animated, his beer was sloshing.

Dresden?

I trudged back to the train station passing the workers’ mural once more. Now I saw how out of place it was in Dresden, this relic of propaganda today apropos of nothing. Like Communism, it was not erased and it was not forgotten, nor was it intrusive or even damned, but simply left to be, a curiosity.

On the train ride back, I experienced a conversation I would have twice more in Berlin, all with Germans. When I mentioned visiting Dresden, the Germans’ response was always “Why?” They expressed in their best English that Dresden was a boring town with nothing to draw a tourist, especially one who’d traveled so far.

I asked each if they’d heard of Kurt Vonnegut or Slaughterhouse-Five. None of them knew of him, which wasn’t terribly surprising. I don’t read German novelists, after all. The name confused them, though, since Vonnegut is distinctly Germanic. I assured them he was American.

I told the Germans Vonnegut had written one of the greatest English-language novels of the past hundred years. “It’s about Dresden. He was there during the firebombing.”

Only one of the three knew of Dresden’s destruction. (They were younger than me, I should add.) All were bewildered at the idea of a novel about Dresden—”Dresden?“—especially a novel important enough to be taught in American schools and universities.

It floored them. “You’ve read a book about Dresden?

Imagine the situation reversed. Imagine learning that every student in Germany read a novel about one of Bokonon’s ugly cities: Illium, or Bakersfield, or Walla Walla, or Duluth. Imagine if Germans eagerly traveled to Duluth because it was featured in a popular novel. Duluth?

The second bewildered German I encountered—”Dresden?“—sat across from me. We were at a picnic table in my favorite beer garden in all of Europe. It was muggy in Berlin and nine o’clock at night, strings of light bulbs threaded through the tree branches. When I arrived at the Hauptbahnhof, I went straight to the beer garden.

We were joined by an American who’d emigrated to Germany to marry. He had a wife and a child, and had carved out a rather enviable life in what was once East Berlin. The first time we met he told me he never wanted to return to America.

“What are you two talking about?” He had brought us fresh mugs of beer.

“He went to Dresden today,” the German told him.

“Sure,” the newly-minted Berliner said as he distributed the beer. “Slaughterhouse-Five.”

Other books in the “Twenty Writers, Twenty Books” series.

Deutschland 83, SDI, and the birth of the modern era

Deutschland 83Tonight a new television series premieres on the Sundance Network, Deutschland 83. My cable package doesn’t include Sundance, so I won’t be able to watch the show in its first run, but so far I like what I’ve read about it. More than that, it’s exciting to read about its premise and development, as much of it reminds me of the impetuses that drove me to write Edward Teller Dreams of Barbecuing People.

The Cold War

Deutschland 83 and Edward Teller Dreams are both Cold War stories featuring individuals caught on the front line of a war that had no front lines. For Deutschland 83, the main character is Martin Rauch, an East German Stasi officer sent to West Germany under cover. For Edward Teller Dreams, teenager Gene Harland is the son of a nuclear physicist tasked to develop the Strategic Defense Initiative (SDI), a pie-in-the-sky system to deter nuclear attack that was immediately dubbed “Star Wars” by its critics.

It can’t be overstated how permanent the Cold War appeared in 1983. The idea that in six short years the Berlin Wall would fall, taking with it the Soviet Union and much of the Eastern Bloc, was so unthinkable it wasn’t even contemplated by science fiction or Hollywood. They preferred to traffic in darker visions of Soviet domination, such as Red Dawn, the Russians’ technological superiority in The Hunt for Red October, and 1983’s scare-TV sensation The Day After. Even MTV got into the act: 1983’s pop hit “99 Luftballons” was about a toy balloons starting World War III. Every Child of the 80s remembers Reagan and Chernenko boxing it out in Frankie Goes to Hollywood’s 1983 video for “Two Tribes”.

With each passing year of nuclear stalemate, the saber-rattling rhetoric, the occasional act of aggression that had to be negotiated down, the Cold War increasingly looked like Orwell’s vision of perpetual war. Of course, that comparison asks if the Cold War was ginned up to control populations or was a legitimate stand-in for irreconcilable differences between nations. Personally, I think it was a bit of both.

The birth of the modern era

I was also surprised to read that Deutschland 83 is set in “1983, the birth of the modern era”. Although I chose 1983 for Edward Teller Dreams because it coordinated with the year SDI’s development started, in earlier revisions I dabbled with setting the novel later in time, in 1984 or even 1985. The more I researched 1983, I realized I had to set my novel in that year and none other. (I’ll discuss more about this in a future post.)

Retailing in 1983 for $9,995 ($24,000 in 2015 dollars), the Apple Lisa mysteriously failed to capture the public's imagination.

Retailing in 1983 for $9,995 ($24,000 in 2015 dollars), the Apple Lisa mysteriously failed to capture the public’s imagination.

The developments in 1983 belie the stereotype of the Reagan years as drab, conservative, and conformist. In hindsight, the 1980s were remarkably dynamic, with 1983 perhaps the most so. SDI, Apple’s Lisa (the first personal computer sold with a graphic display and a mouse), the first reports of the AIDS virus and the solidifying of the gay rights movement, even the birth of the Internet on January 1st (the story’s more complicated than that, but roll with it). 1983 was more than an eventful year, it was a prescient year.

(And it was a great time to be alive if you were a reader: The Mists of Avalon, The Robots of Dawn, John Le Carre’s Little Drummer Girl, and Walter Tevis’ The Queen’s Gambit were all published in 1983. The Color Purple was published the year before. William Gibson’s Neuromancer would be published in 1984, following six productive years of groundbreaking science fiction short stories.)

Even in the context of the Cold War, 1983 may have been more consequential than 1962, the year of the Cuban Missile Crisis. In March 1983, Reagan declared the Soviet Union to be an “evil empire” and announced SDI, “a shield, not a sword”. In August the Soviet Union shot down civilian jetliner Korean Air Flight 007 and ignited an international uproar. All of this, as well as forty years of East vs. West posturing, culminated in the Soviet Union almost launching all-out nuclear war in November when it misread an American troop exercise as first-strike preparations. This series of “isolated” events—microaggressions on the macro scale— were not easily contained and soothed via formal diplomatic channels, the exact type of unchecked escalation feared the most during the Cold War.

Writing into near-history

When publishing an ebook on Amazon, Kobo, Barnes & Noble, or another distributor, the service asks you to list two or three genres to help categorize the work. While every author feels their novel transcends such pedantic pigeonholing—only partial sarcasm there—I’ve usually selected “historical fiction” for Edward Teller Dreams. It’s a problematic label, however, and not because I’m being snooty.

Edward Teller Dreams of Barbecuing People by Jim NelsonThe term “historical fiction” evokes costume drama and so-called simpler times of clear-cut morality and rigid social standings. Most historical fiction book review web sites will only consider work that’s set at least fifty, seventy-five, even a hundred years in the past. Edward Teller Dreams is set thirty-two years ago (and was less than twenty years in the past when I first started writing it). Even with all I’ve described above, it’s hard to say the world has changed that much. I easily admit there’s more similarities between 1983 and 2015 than there are differences.

But even in writing this one novel I uncovered a number of obstacles with setting a story in near-history, and I suspect the writers of Deutschland 83 faced them as well. Show creator Anna Winger says “The great privilege is it’s living history. People are still around and they want to talk about it.” I would say this privilege also nods towards its challenges.

In interviews with authors who pen historical fiction, there’s much discussion about research, authenticity, understanding the period, understanding moires and daily language, and so forth. Some historical fiction authors even go so far to dress in period clothing to better understand their subjects. Me? I threw on a T-shirt and a pair of corduroy jeans and—voila—welcome to exotic California, 1983.

But I’ll go to go out on a limb and say writing near-history is equally challenging to writing “real” historical fiction, and maybe more so. Ask someone what they think of the 1880s and you’ll receive silence, or maybe “I don’t know, why do you ask?” Ask someone what they think of the 1980s and you’ll get an earful. To retell near-history, you’re confronting people’s personal memories as well as the collective memory of our recorded culture.

I don’t think Edward Teller Dreams is a bold stab at righting some historical wrong, or rewriting the past in order to spotlight silenced voices. It doesn’t sound like Deutschland 83 is out to serve historical justice either. I do feel there are many stories of that era—of every era—that, if taken at face-value as told in good faith, will alter our understanding of history as well as our present. To retell stories from the 1880s is fine, but to retell the state of the world of the 1980s is to dispute our perception of the world today.

What happened to Longform.org? (part 2): Sponsored content

LongformBack in December I asked “What happened to Longform.org?”, a longish complaint about the changing course of my favorite curator of long-form journalism. Although I concluded that post with the tepid threat that “maybe it’s time for me to find a new curator,” I confess I never actually turned my back on Longform, the premier aggregate of long digital content on the Web. A few other long-form journalism aggregators have sprung up in Longform’s jostling wake (most notably, Longreads), but none have approached the ubiquitous or success of Longform. My hunch is that for an online magazine to get one of its articles listed by Longform is like hitting the daily trifecta at the track—a fat guarantee of tens of thousands of additional pairs of eyeballs being driven to the magazine’s site.

Today I noticed on Longform’s front page something new, that scourge of journalism, the advertisement masquerading as a hard-news essay, the puff piece known colloquially as “sponsored content”. Lodged between a New Yorker essay on euthanasia and Sarah Wambold’s reportage on natural burials in a Texas grove—make of that what you will—Longform dropped into their feed sponsored content from Hewlett-Packard, “Five Huge Industries That Never Saw Disruption Coming”. While the advertorial doesn’t shill HP’s hardware or services directly to the reader, any company established in the data services industry—or any company worried about being thrown aside by upstarts on their heels—is a bread-and-butter client for Hewlett-Packard, and so it’s in HP’s interest to appear as a high-tech sage, the rare Silicon Valley company with eyes on the horizon and not next quarter’s bottom line. “Five Huge Industries” paints HP as sitting in just such a tantric pose. Longform marked the link to “Five Huge Industries” as sponsored (and thankfully didn’t include it in its RSS feed), but the fact remains that the aggregation site is now using its linking power to send their readers off to corporations that have paid for that privilege rather than earned it through great timely writing.

I’m unsure if this is the first instance of sponsored content appearing under Longform’s lighthouse banner, as I’ve not followed the site terribly closely since I posted that first complaint six months ago. Linking to sponsored content is not an egregious sin or some tainting of hallowed journalist ground. I do know that sponsored content is not a good sign for anyone (including myself) who would like to see more diversity and greater breadth in Longform’s selections.

In 2013, gimlet-eyed media critic Jack Shafer wrote a great piece on sponsored content (known as “native advertising” in the business) and how it inevitably infects the reputation of even the most sterile news source:

If, as George Orwell once put it, “The public are swine; advertising is the rattling of a stick inside a swill-bucket,” then sponsored content is the meal so wretched that even pigs will reject unless sugar-frosted. The average sponsored-content page pits the advertiser against the publisher; the former attempts to make his copy and art look as much like conventional news or feature copy as powerfully as the latter pushes back as hard as he can to preserve “editorial integrity” without forfeiting the maximum fee. It’s common for both sides to come away from the transaction feeling soiled and swindled, but, hey, that’s the nature of most advertising.

I’d say this applies as much to a digital aggregator like Longform, which drives readers to other web sites via links and clicks, as much as it does for a traditional news site, where the advertiser’s content is integrated alongside actual content.

A fourth alternative to the Iowa writing workshop format

In my last post on writing workshops I discussed the Iowa writing workshop format and three alternatives to it: Liz Lerman’s critical process, Transfer‘s submission evaluation, and playwriting workshops. Thinking about those alternatives led me to think about a hybrid that I hope makes the fiction workshop more constructive.

This hybrid isn’t merely a group discussion structure, it’s a collection (or, less charitably, a grab bag) of suggestions for organizing a workshop. I’ve grouped this grab bag into three sections: organizing the group, managing manuscripts, and the group discussion itself.

Organizing the group

Define the goals of the workshop

For some people, the primary goal of a writing workshop, perhaps the only goal, is to make fiction publishable. For others, a writing group is a place to receive direction and encouragement toward completing a larger project, like a collection of short stories or a novel. Some writers are there for the camaraderie and to maintain a semblance of a writing practice in the face of hectic modern schedules. Others write for themselves (or a small audience) and have no broader ambitions of mass publication. For some people it’s a combination of these things, and maybe more.

In my experience, most people attend workshops with the goal of eventual publication. But even if everyone agrees on that goal, it only raises more questions: published where, and for what audience? Can any member in the group really claim knowledge of when a story is “publishable”? Genre writers add a monkey wrench to the mix—someone who regularly reads Tin House, The New Yorker, and The Paris Review might not the best arbiter of when a science fiction novel is ready for shopping around.

(In my experience, editors and publishers are in better positions to decide if a story is publishable or not. I was once told a story was unpublishable and weeks later landed it in a highly-regarded magazine.)

Liz Lerman’s process has some applicability here. As a baseline, agree that everyone in the group has an opinion of successful versus unsuccessful fiction, “success” being related to the quality of the work and not who might or might not publish it.

Also agree that everyone in the group is present in order to make everyone’s work more successful, not merely their own.

How a writer uses that successful fiction—publication, independent distribution, blogging, or simply personal satisfaction—is the purview of the writer and not the group as a whole.

Agree what’s expected of each member

Most people join a workshop thinking they know what’s expected of them and everyone else. Rarely does everyone truly agree on those expectations.

On a basic level, people understand they’re expected to

  • read the manuscripts presented to the group,
  • formulate some manner of thoughtful response,
  • attend the group meetings with some regularity,
  • and engage with the group discussion.

I’m not a big fan of credit-and-demerit systems, but some groups use them for motivation (such as “you must attend three meetings to submit one manuscript”).

Additional expectations are discussed below, but the point I’m making here is to verbalize (and even write down and share) these expectations. If you’re organizing a workshop for the first time, you might use the first meeting to allow everyone to air what they expect from the others, then coalesce those points into a list. Differing notions of expectations can lead to headaches later.

Cover the workshop’s agreements with each member

For each new member, go over the group’s structure and policies and goals with all the other members present—in other words, don’t do it privately over email or the phone. This ensures that everyone’s on the same page. It also refreshes the memories of long-time members. Avoiding miscommunication is incredibly important in a workshop group.

Stick to your workshop’s structure unless everyone agrees a change is necessary (or, after a vote).

Don’t make exceptions. Exceptions kill the group dynamic. People begin to see favorites, even if no favoritism exists. Remember, this is a peer group evaluating peer writing.

Manuscripts

Enforce page count and style

The era of the 25-manuscript-pages short story may be receding (I wish it wasn’t), but that hasn’t stopped writers from penning them. The problem with bringing so many pages to a workshop is that people are bound to skim long work. That means they have less understanding of the story and are less qualified to discuss it. The peer pressure to discuss it remains, however, and so people will.

I’ve brought in long work many times to workshops. In almost every instance, I’ve heard comments (or outright griping) about the length. It seemed odd to me that writers would complain about having to read 25 double-spaced pages, but then I reminded myself they’re reading work they probably would not pick up on their own.

I’ve also noticed my shorter work almost always received higher-quality reads and discussion.

Some groups limit submission length to 20 or 25 pages. My suggestion is to go further and require manuscripts be no longer than 10 or 12 pages. Yes, that means having to split long short stories into two or three segments, but the writer will get a better read of those segments. Chuck Palahniuk’s writing group in Portland has such a page count restriction. Its members seem to have done fine by it.

Page count restrictions require basic, common-sense manuscript style formats. Make it clear: double-spaced, 1.5″ margins, 12-point Times New Roman, or whatever format your group decides. I’ve seen writers game the manuscript format to subvert page counts. Don’t stand for it.

Agree on the role of manuscript edits

A lot of people in fiction workshops think there’s big value in marking up the manuscript itself. I’ve had manuscripts returned to me so marked-up I didn’t know what to make of them.

Some readers drew lines like football plays over my pages instructing me to cut sentences, insert or remove paragraph breaks, rearrange scenes, and so forth. One workshop reader circled every instance of “has”, “had”, “is”, and “was” to alert me of my overabundance of passive voice, even where no passive voice existed. Other readers circle words and mark them “wc” (“word choice”), insert and strike commas, semicolons, em-dashes, and so on.

Drawing attention to typos and misspellings is hard to argue against. Yes, if you see one, go ahead and circle it—but that’s gravy. Indicating confusion (“Who’s saying this?”) or highlighting passages that pop off the page have utility as well.

I’m arguing against line edits that are a matter of taste or philosophy. Telling me I should

  • change a word you found inexact or unfamiliar,
  • never to use passive voice,
  • only use “said” or “asked” for dialogue tags,
  • drop all semi-colons,
  • or strip out all adverbs,

these changes are not the purview of the workshop reader and, I would argue, counterproductive to a quality workshop experience. Too often the editorial mark-ups are writing lore masquerading as rules or received wisdom (and usually associated with some well-known writer who counseled them).

Assume everyone in the group is a capable writer. You are responsible for the fine-detail work in your manuscript, not the group. The workshop’s purview is to locate larger, broader issues in the story and (potentially) suggest paths forward for the next revision. Workshops are not editorial services for you, the writer.

My experience has been that people who make fine-detailed edits to others’ manuscripts are expecting the same in return. When they don’t receive them, feelings begin to bruise and grudges are harbored. Notions of equal work loads and reciprocity is often the source of fracture lines in a workshop.

If your group thinks it’s the purpose of the workshop to offer editorial changes, then make it an explicit policy.

Agree what the group will read

Again, this may sound obvious, but it’s worth verbalizing it rather than risk trouble later.

Agree on genre. Some fiction workshops will accept creative nonfiction, but rarely poetry or plays, if ever. I won’t argue one way or the other, but like my other suggestions, make sure everyone in the group is aware of restrictions. For example, I’ve witnessed friction where one member kept bringing prose poetry to a fiction workshop.

Some people will balk on this next point, but I’ll draw a line in the sand: The group should agree that the workshop isn’t there to critique first drafts. First drafts are too undeveloped and scattered to be productively critiqued in a group setting. Does it make sense to use six to eight other people’s valuable time to inform you of your first draft’s (usually obvious) problems? Especially when first drafts stand a high chance of being abandoned by the writer?

Likewise, late drafts are usually too set in concrete to receive any help from a workshop. If you’re unwilling to make substantial changes to the story, then asking the group to find its weaknesses is wasteful. (Never bring a manuscript to a workshop expecting unconditional praise. It never happens. Never.)

My rule of thumb: Workshops should be seeing stories after three or four drafts (or edit passes) and not after eight or ten drafts/edit passes.

Some groups allow submitting work previously read by the group. I would add the proviso that the work must’ve received substantial edits since its last go-around. Other groups may prohibit it or require full agreement. As before, don’t make this up as you go. Choose a policy and stick to it.

No one should ever submit a published story to a workshop. Yes, people do this. (One exception to this rule: The story is up for republication and edits are permitted by the publisher, i.e. it’s being anthologized.)

Formulate a written response format

Some groups may forgo written remarks, especially if the manuscript isn’t handed out ahead of time. Otherwise the response format should be agreed on by everyone.

I don’t mean page length (“one page single-spaced”), I mean what questions should be answered in the written response. It doesn’t have to be a fill-in-the-blanks approach. You could simply have a list of questions and ask each member to verify those questions have been answered (in one way or another) in their written response.

My suggestion? Use Transfer‘s system. Each reader writes on a 3-by-5 card a 1–2 sentence reaction to the story and uses the remaining space to describe its strengths and weaknesses. Use both sides of the card. Then the cards are read to the group verbatim. Readers will learn not to use the watered-down language so often found in a full-page responses (“I really like this piece,” or “This is strong.”) From there, launch into the general discussion.

If a 3-by-5 card seems too small a space, choose a longer format, but I still propose a length limitation to elicit thoughtful responses.

I’ve become convinced that the real magic in a fiction workshop lies in the discussion, not the written remarks. By giving each person only a sentence or two for strengths and weaknesses, the discussion can zero in on those thoughts and use them as a springboard for exploration.

The group discussion

Read the story aloud before discussing

As mentioned in my prior post, I noticed in playwriting workshops how reader-actors became invested in their characters. For fiction, even with an eight-page limit, it would take too much valuable group time to read aloud the entire manuscript.

What’s more, fiction is an inherently different experience than theater. A person reading a story aloud will not become as invested as an actor reading a script.

Still, I’ve been in groups where a selection of the story was read aloud before the discussion, and it did seem to help. Getting the story into the air brings the group together around the manuscript. Everyone is hearing it one more time—the language, the setting, the narrator’s voice, the dialogue.

If your group meets every other week, it’s possible a few people haven’t read the story in ten or more days. (It’s also possible some read it in the Starbuck’s around the corner fifteen minutes earlier—there’s not much you can do about that.)

Remember, the writer shouldn’t read their own story aloud.

Keep the discussion to what’s on the page

Discuss the story as it’s written. Avoid peripheral issues (such as personal viewpoints) and comparisons to other work (other authors, television shows, movies, and so on).

Personal viewpoints are a good way to poison a discussion. Saying things like “I would never do what the character did here” isn’t useful. A better question is: Would the character do what they did? Everyone holds a subjective internal logic. Most of us hold several subjective internal logics. Does the character’s actions match their internal logic(s)?

While a comparison to another work may seem harmless (“Your story reminds me of Mad Men“), popular culture is a kind of safe zone for people to retreat into. Pop culture will derail a workshop discussion. When the harmless comparison takes over, all discussion becomes re-framed by it. Instead of discussing the story, the group is discussing how the story reads in light of this other work or issue. (“Mad Men focuses on women in the workplace. You could add more of that.”) The story becomes secondary. This is unfair to the author, who has brought their work in to be critiqued on its own merits and weaknesses.

Workshop formats (including Liz Lerman’s) will often declare that readers shouldn’t make suggestions without the writer’s permission. This baffles a lot of people; if I’m not making suggestions, then what I am here to offer? Unearned praise and tender nudges?

Rather than distinguish between suggestion and not-suggestion, I say keep the discussion to what’s on the page. Staying close to the page means, for example, suggesting the writer remove a spicy sex scene because it’s unnecessary to (or even dragging down) the story. But suggesting the writer remove a sex scene because that would make the story suitable for young adults—a hot market right now—is straying from the page. Both are suggestions, but the latter is not the purview of the workshop per se.

Maintain a discussion structure

The Iowa workshop discussion format usually works like this:

  1. Each reader gives a broad reaction to the story.
  2. A general discussion opens between the readers, the writer only listening.
  3. The writer asks the readers questions.

Lerman’s approach is more involved and (as I discussed last time) more difficult to stick to, but it has some nice features that could be incorporated. For example, a workshop could be structured as so (incorporating some of the suggestions above):

  1. A portion of the story is read aloud by one of the readers.
  2. Each reader in turn reads their written remarks (or a summary of them) aloud. (This makes the 3-by-5 card approach more desirable.)
  3. General discussion by the readers. Keep the discussion to what’s on the page. Start with strengths, then move to weaknesses and confusion in the manuscript.
  4. The writer is offered an opportunity to respond to the discussion, ask questions for clarification, and prompt for suggestions.
  5. The writer summarizes what they’ve heard by naming three to five new directions the plan to explore in future drafts.
  6. If the group is open to re-reading work, the writer can announce what changes they intend to make before submitting it next time. (This is probably more useful in a graded academic setting.)

This is not radically different from the Iowa format, but by specifying the goals of each step, they aim to direct the group’s energy toward better revisions and, hopefully, better writing.

Appoint a discussion leader

In academic settings a discussion leader is naturally selected, usually the teacher or an assistant taking that role. Leaders occasionally run private writing groups when one member first organized the group or has been around the longest. Otherwise, workshop groups will often lack any formal leadership.

There’s a difference between an organizer and a discussion leader. Organizers solicit for new members, remind everyone when the next meeting will occur, arranges for a location to meet, send emails and make phone calls, and so forth. This is all important work (and harder work than it looks), but it doesn’t imply that the organizer should lead the group discussion.

I suggest rotating the role of discussion leader around the group. Round-robin through the members, skipping writers when their manuscript is under discussion. (The writer whose work is under scrutiny should never be the discussion leader.) Or, if multiple writers are “under the knife” at each meeting, let the writer not under discussion lead the group, and then switch the role to the other writer.

A lot of writers express disdain for discussion leaders, or for any manner of hierarchical organization. I would love to agree, but experience has taught me otherwise. There’s tremendous value in having someone appointed to direct the flow of the conversation and cut it off when it’s deviating from the agreed-upon format. I’ve witnessed a few situations where such a leader could have saved a group discussion, and even the group itself.

If you’re organizing a workshop, or are in a workshop and looking for positive change, I hope this ignites ideas and discussion. If you use any of these ideas, let me know in the comments below or via the social networks.