Kurt Vonnegut on story shapes, writing with style, and running experiments

Recently I picked up Conversations with Kurt Vonnegut, part of the Literary Conversations Series from University Press of Mississippi. The collection offers interviews and profiles of Vonnegut published between 1969 and 1999. The first comes shortly after the publication of Slaughterhouse-Five. The subsequent rocket ride of literary stardom Vonnegut enjoyed—or endured—follows.

The collection seems rather complete, culling all manner of sources, right down to a softball Q&A with Harry Reasoner for 60 Minutes. The collection is enjoyable if light reading, much like many of Vonnegut’s books, but it still held a few surprises for me. (Apparently after the success of Slaughterhouse-Five, Vonnegut contemplated throwing out Breakfast of Champions when he realized he could now sell any book he wrote no matter its quality.)

The more I learn about Vonnegut the more I’ve come to see how pragmatic he was when it came to the craft of writing. Vonnegut often lists Robert Louis Stevenson as one of his favorite authors because, as a boy, he was “excited by stories which were well-made. Real ‘story’ stories…with a beginning, middle, and end.” His essay “How to Write With Style” is advice of the roll-up-your-sleeves variety, featuring chestnuts like “Find a subject you care about” and “Keep it simple.” While teaching at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop he led a course help students make a career out of writing after graduating—teaching, technical writing, ad copy, anything to put bread on the table. Apparently the course was not well-received by other faculty.

One popular meme is Vonnegut’s lecture on the shape of stories. The audience chortles as he chalks out curves and lines graphing a set of basic story structures. (Maya Eliam’s infographics of these shapes are lucid and wonderful.) Most likely many in the auditorium thought he was satirizing when he said story forms could be graphed mathematically or analyzed by a computer, but his lecture is in earnest. This was his master’s thesis in anthropology, after all.

In a 1977 interview with Paris Review—the most in-depth interview in the collection—Vonnegut drops a mention of his story shapes:

Vonnegut: Somebody gets into trouble, and then gets out again; somebody loses something and gets it back; somebody is wronged and gets revenge; Cinderella; somebody hits the skids and just goes down, down, down; people fall in love with each other, and a lot of other people get in the way…

Interviewer: If you will pardon my saying so, these are very old-fashioned plots.

Vonnegut: I guarantee you that no modern story scheme, even plotlessness, will give a reader genuine satisfaction, unless one of those old fashioned plots is smuggled in somewhere. I don’t praise plots as accurate representations of life, but as ways to keep readers reading. … When you exclude plot, when you exclude anyone’s wanting anything, you exclude the reader, which is a mean-spirited thing to do.

The last sentence may be the most plainly spoken argument against the avant-garde I’ve read.

Vonnegut even compared writing novels to experiments, which I’ve explored myself. He felt experimentation was in his nature due to his education as a chemist and an engineer. (I believe this is the first time I’ve read another fiction writer describe creating fiction as a kind of experiment.) Here he talks with Laurie Clancy about Breakfast of Champions (still unpublished at this point):

Interviewer: Could you indicate what direction your new work is taking?

Vonnegut: It’s in the nature of an experiment. I don’t know how it’s going to come out or what the meaning’s going to be—but I’ve set up a situation where there’s only one person in the whole universe who has free will, who has to decide what to do next and why, has to wonder what’s really going on and what he’s supposed to do. … What the implications of this are I don’t know but I’m running off the experiment now. I’ll somehow have a conclusion when I’ve worked long enough on the book. … Regarding [God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater], I said to myself “Well, all right, what happens when you give poor people money?” So I ran the experiment off and tried to control it as responsibly as I could.

The Clancy interview is one of the best in the book. Vonnegut is engaged, thoughtful, and revelatory.

Ray Bradbury on getting stories published

When I was a younger writer, one question that monopolized far too much of my time was how to get published. Early on I recognized publishing was a numbers game for the starting writer. Any naive notions I held about the quality of my short stories leading to quick publication were dashed. Publication would only come by getting my work out there, far and wide.

Although short story writers are admonished to “study the market” and zero in on magazines suitable for their work, I honestly can’t say studying the market helped me get published in an of itself. What was more educational was when magazines flat-out rejected my best work, which encouraged me to continue to hone my craft and expand my scope. In other words, rejection slips taught me my best work was not so special after all.

I’ve been dipping into Wayne L. Johnson’s 1980 book Ray Bradbury the past couple of months, part of the Recognitions series published by Frederick Ungar. The Recognitions series features critical work on genre writers who’ve transcended their genre. Johnson’s Ray Bradbury is a biography of the author tracked through his output rather than a stiff-backed recounting of dates and locations of events in his life. Bradbury’s short stories are grouped by subject matter and style as a strategy for analyzing the author’s approach to fiction. Johnson’s book paints a picture of a man who delved deep in the human imagination and returned with some fantastic stories for the ages.

Galaxy Magazine (February 1951). Bradbury’s novella “The Fireman” was the nucleus for Fahrenheit 451.

Ray Bradbury was one of the most prolific short story authors of the 20th century because he never abandoned the form, unlike other authors who move on from them to novel writing. Bradbury capitalized on his bounty by disguising his short story collections as novels (The Martian Chronicles, The Illustrated Man). Even Fahrenheit 451 is itself a maturation of a shorter work first published in Galaxy Magazine.

What caught my eye (and sparked the idea for this blog post) was a brief aside in Johnson’s introduction about how Bradbury was able to sell his prodigious output of short stories across the spectrum of American publishing:

Convinced that most editors were bored with seeing the same sort of material arriving day after day, Bradbury resolved to submit stories which, at least on the face of it, seemed inappropriate to the publication involved. Rather than send “Dandelion Wine” (later a chapter in the novel) to Collier’s or Mademoiselle, therefore, Bradbury sent it to Gourmet, which didn’t publish fiction. It was immediately accepted. “The Kilimanjaro Device” was snapped up by Life, which also didn’t publish fiction, after the story had been rejected by most of the big fiction magazines. … Bradbury insists that he places complete faith in his loves and intuitions to see him through.

Bradbury was certainly a known quantity when these short stories were published but, as Johnson indicates, he still faced his share of rejection slips. I don’t think Bradbury’s wanton submissions were ignorant of market conditions; it sounds to me he was quite savvy with this strategy. (Sending “Dandelion Wine” to Gourmet magazine is kind of genius, actually.) But Bradbury’s strategy transcends the usual mantra to “study the market.”

I’ve been a front-line slush pile reader at a few literary magazines and I can tell you Bradbury’s intuition is spot-on. When you’re cycling through a stack of manuscripts one after another, they soon begin to look and read the same. Too often short stories trod familiar paths. Too often they introduced characters awfully familiar to the last story I read from the pile.

A story with some fresh air in it certainly would wake me from my slush-pile stupor. The magazine market has changed dramatically in the past ten years—and absolutely has reinvented itself since Bradbury was publishing “Dandelion Wine”—but I imagine similar dynamics are still in place in the 21st century. Surprise an editor with your story and you just might have a shot at publication.

And if you’re banging out short stories and fruitlessly submitting them one after another to the usual suspects, try taking a risk and following Bradbury’s lead. Trust me, if you can put on your next cover letter that your short fiction was published by Car & Driver or National Geographic, that will surprise editors too.

The absence of technology in literary fiction

Smartphones by Esther Vargas. (CC BY-SA 2.0)

Smartphones by Esther Vargas. (CC BY-SA 2.0)

One of my complaints about literary magazines—both the small lit mags of university English departments and the literary lions like New Yorker, Tin House, and so forth—is the peculiar absence of up-to-date technology in their fiction. Characters don’t send much email. People rarely text each other. Voicemail is about the most modern of the Information Age conveniences in contemporary literature, and even then, it’s usually summarized by the narrator rather than “heard” by the reader. Why?

It’s no longer cyberpunk for your characters to have instant access to cyberspace in their coat pocket. It’s not science fiction for your character to read the morning news on a handheld view screen. Literary fiction often preens itself as being “realistic” compared to genre fiction, but how realistic is it today for a mother of two in Long Island not to have a 4G touch tablet in her purse or a FitBit on her wrist reminding her she’s not burned enough calories today?

Unless it’s set in the past or some truly remote locale, you forfeit your right to call your story a work of realism if your characters don’t have access to the Internet and they’re not using it fairly regularly. Digital access is simply that pervasive, worldwide. Yes, there are exceptions. I’m certain some writers think their characters or their settings are those exceptions. Probably not, though.

One reason for technology’s absence in literary fiction, I suspect, is that modern tech screws with storytelling. As greater minds than me have pointed out, we live in a age bereft of bar bets. The Guinness Book of World Records was originally conceived to settle, once and for all, pub arguments over sports records, but it was Wikipedia that ultimately fulfilled that burning need. Any question we have about the world or history, the answer can be located in an instant.

It carries into personal relationships as well. People no longer craft letters and post them in a box, then anxiously await a reply over the next days or weeks. When I was young, a friend might say he would call at eight—and so I would have to wait by the phone in the kitchen at eight o’clock, telling everyone else in the house not to make a call because I was waiting for one. My parents would wake my brother and I up in the middle of the night to say hello to our Midwestern relatives because the long-distance rates dropped after 11pm. (Remember paying a premium for long distance calls?) For years, many of my extended family members were nothing more than a tinny voice at the other end of a phone line and a yellowing Kodachrome print in my mother’s photo albums.

For all the nostalgia value of these tales, I’m happy to no longer be bound by such ancient analog technology. The key word of modern communications is instant. Unfortunately, such friction-free gratification often runs counter to a lot of storytelling precepts, things like tension (which involves time) and desire (which involves immediacy).

But mostly I suspect the writers of contemporary literature simply don’t like modern tech. Receiving a pop-up on your phone for an email explaining a long-forgotten lover’s death lacks a certain airy elegance that a hand-penned note on hospital letterhead offers. The terseness of SMS and instant messaging grates against the literary author’s desires for eloquence and nuance.

More broadly, there’s a general disdain for popular American culture in our contemporary literature. SUVs and dining at Olive Garden are often literary code words for boorish, crass people. Sympathetic characters tend to read the New York Times on Sunday mornings, walk to work, raise a vegetable garden, and run into friends at farmers’ markets.

This is one reason why I don’t buy the assertion that contemporary American literature is realistic. Too often it presents a world the writer (and their readers) would like to live in. That’s not hard realism. And this restrictive view of proper living feeds back on itself: literary magazines print these stories, developing writers read these stories and think they represent “correct” fiction, and so they write and submit likewise.

Give your characters the technology they deserve. If you’re writing about the past, that’s one thing, but if your story is set in modern times, don’t shortchange your characters’ resources.

Instead of viewing commonplace technology as a liability to storytelling, consider how vital the technology has become for us. Watch this magic trick, from Penn & Teller’s Fool Us:

The audience feels the risks the emcee is taking when instructed to place his own phone in an envelope. The surprise when the mallet is brought out, the tension it raises. Look at the audience’s visceral reaction when the mobile phones are hammered up. Even though Penn & Teller see through the act, there’s a kind of narrative structure to the magician’s “story.” At each step of the act, the stakes are raised.

Do this: The next time you’re out with a group (people you know and people you’ve just been introduced to), pull up a photo or a message on your smart phone, and then hand your phone to someone else. (Or, if someone offers you their phone, take it, twiddle with it, and hand it to another person.) Rare is the person comfortable with this. We don’t like these little things leaving our grasp.

That means, as writers, these devices are a goldmine.

We are wed to our new conveniences in way we never were with “old” modern technology like microwaves, refrigerators, or even automobiles. Americans may love their cars, but they are married to their smart phones. Our mobile devices are lock-boxes of email and text messages, safe deposit boxes of our secrets and our genuine desires (versus the ones we signal to our friends and followers). Gossipy emails, intimate address books, bank accounts, baby pictures, lovers and lusts—our lives are secreted inside modern technology. This is rich soil for a writer to churn up, this confluence of personal power and emotional vulnerability.

Why dismiss or ignore this? Why not take advantage of it in your next story?

Quote

Philip K. Dick on realism, consistency, and fiction

Philip K. Dick: The Last Interview and Other ConversationsI recently dove into the so-far-superb Philip K. Dick: The Last Interview and Other Conversations (from Melville House, publisher of the increasingly-intriguing Last Interviews collection) and am enjoying every page. I’ve written before about my semi-tortuous negotiations with PKD’s novels, and am finding (some) justification for my issues in these interviews with him.

With PKD I remain hamstrung: he’s more of a speculative fiction (and philosophical) writer than the run-of-the-mill hard sci-fi writer, which is right up my alley; I absolutely love his questions of existence, identity, and freewill that lay the foundations of his novels; and he’s a Bay Area writer to boot. And yet I find him to be a flawed writer, one who was so-very-close to writing perfect novels but had trouble overcoming basic hurdles, such as the cardboard characters and sci-fi’s obsession with “ideas” over story.

(For the record, my list of great PKD novels, in no order, remain A Scanner Darkly and The Man in the High Castle. I’m sure PKD’s fans find that list ridiculously short and astoundingly obvious. I still pick up his work now and then, so who knows, maybe I’ll find another one to add. PKD was more than prolific.)

In The Last Interview, PKD mentions to interviewer Arthur Byron Cover his early affinity for A. E. van Vogt. (I recall being fascinated with van Vogt’s Slan in junior high school, a book built from much the same brick as Heinlein’s Stranger in a Strange Land.) PKD observes:

Dick: There was in van Vogt’s writing a mysterious quality, and this was especially true in The World of Null-A. All the parts of that book do not add up; all the ingredients did not make a coherency. Now some people are put off by that. They think it’s sloppy and wrong, but the thing that fascinated me so much was that this resembled reality more than anybody else’s writing inside or outside science fiction.

Cover: What about Damon Knight’s famous article criticizing van Vogt?

Dick: Damon feels that it’s bad artistry when you build those funky universes where people fall through the floor.

It’s like he’s viewing a story the way a building inspector would when he’s building your house. But reality is a mess, and yet it’s exciting. The basic thing is, how frightened are you of chaos? And how happy are you with order? Van Vogt influenced me so much because he made me appreciate a mysterious chaotic quality in the universe that is not to be feared. [Emphasis mine.]

It’s the questions after my emphasis that make the book’s back cover (“How frightened are you of chaos? How happy are you with order?”), and for good reason: they seem to strike near to the questions asked in all of PKD’s work.

But I’m interested in the line about the building inspector. Damon’s review of Null-A is dismissively brief (but I suspect what’s being referred to here is Knight’s essay “Cosmic Jerrybuilder”), and I’ve not read Null-A, but in principle I line up behind PKD on this one. Reality is not as sane and orderly as many writers would have us believe. If I’m critical of contemporary literature’s fascination with “hard realism”—obsession, really—it’s because I think PKD has put his finger on a kind of shared truth: reality is fragile, but what a thorough facade it provides. It’s one thing for the average person to think they have total understanding of things they have no access to—the heart of a politician, the mind of a celebrity, the duplicity of a boss or coworker—but it’s truly tragic when a writer writes as though they have this reality thing all sewn up.

In contemporary literature, there are many moments where the narrator (either first-person or third-) will have some moment of clarity into another person’s life. Often this moment is the epiphany, although it’s barely epiphanic. (See Charles Baxter’s “Against Epiphanies” for a better argument on this point than I’m capable of producing.) These moments are the obverse of contemporary lit’s obsession with quiet realism, its cult of poignancy. But there’s chaos in our world, and it produces strangeness and unexpectedness that is neither poignant nor tied to fussy notions of realism. These fictional moments of clarity usually reveal what the writer fantasizes the world to be—a charge usually leveled at genre fiction.

My only quibble with PKD’s observation is that I don’t see chaos as an external dark force in the universe tumbling individuals and civilizations about in its hands. We are the chaos. We produce it. I’m less concerned about the wobble in Mercury’s orbit than the ability for just about anybody to murder given the right circumstances. (See the 2015 film Circle for an exploration of just that.)

The human psyche is like a computer performing billions of calculations a second. Most of the results are wrong, some off by orders of magnitude. But the computer smooths out the errors (in its own calculations and others’) to walk a thin line of existence and consistency. And the computer tells itself that its footing is steady and sure, when in fact it’s walking on the foam of statistical noise. The number of calculations it gets right are the rounding error.

Update: Shortly after posting this I discovered Damon Knight partially backtracked on his criticism of A. E. van Vogt:

Van Vogt has just revealed, for the first time as far as I know, that during this period [while writing Null-A] he made a practice of dreaming about his stories and waking himself up every ninety minutes to take notes. This explains a good deal about the stories, and suggests that it is really useless to attack them by conventional standards. If the stories have a dream consistency which affects readers powerfully, it is probably irrelevant that they lack ordinary consistency.

Reading closely, Damon isn’t exactly agreeing with PKD’s comments (or mine, for that matter), but he does concede some flexibility on the supposed rigid strictures of fiction writing.

Aside

If you’re going to break the rules, break all of them, not only the “cool” ones

L'Avant-GardeEvery so often I meet a writer who proudly proclaims he or she is anti-Aristotelian—maybe not in such formal terms, but that’s what they’re saying. “Stories don’t require a beginning, middle, and end,” they announce, or “I don’t write plot-driven fiction. My characters don’t do anything. They exist on the page.”

Then, at the next writers’ group meeting, they bring in a short story that meanders and goes nowhere. Six or eight intelligent people squirm in their chairs trying to find something positive to say about a story that bored them into a coma.

Once I knew a guy who only smoked unfiltered cigarettes, a pack a day. “If you’re going to smoke,” he told me, “smoke for God’s sake.”

If you’re going to break the rules when writing fiction, break all of them, not only the “cool” ones. Don’t use fiction to signal your artistry. Be an artist. Write these stories:

  • Employ a deus ex machina. Trap your characters in an unwinnable situation and then have an all-powerful entity arrive and deliver them to safety.
  • Write a plot-driven story. Make your characters complete cardboard.
  • Tell a story using only summary and exposition.
  • Don’t give your characters an internal subjective logic, that is, they can’t even defend their actions or beliefs to themselves. Doing something to be cruel or for immediate gratification has an internal logic; your characters should do things randomly and wantonly.
  • Write a story with a beginning, middle, and end. Lop off the beginning and end. Or, lop off the beginning and middle.
  • Resist in medias res. Don’t start your story in the middle of things. Start it hundreds, thousands, tens of thousands years in the past. Or, start it hundreds of years in the future and never return to the main events, i.e. no flashbacks or time travel.

Write these stories, then write them again. And then write them again. After a year of breaking the rules, you’ll know if you’re an avant-garde writer or not.

At least you’ll have a better idea of what avant-garde really means in the realm of fiction, and not its surface interpretation so popular in our times. And, you’ll learn that the rules of fiction are not rules as much as hard-earned lessons of what succeeds and what fails when telling a story.

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 come up with 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. It’s more geared toward informal peer workshops rather than academic settings, but some of its points might be useful there too.

I’ve grouped this grab bag of suggestions 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.

(Really, 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.

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 should 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 merit 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 initial meeting to allow everyone to air what they expect from the others. Coalesce those points into a list that’s distributed to all members. Differing 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 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 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

Agree on genre. Some fiction workshops will accept creative nonfiction, but rarely poetry or plays, if ever. Some will only accept fiction of a certain length (for example, no microfiction or novels). I won’t argue one way or the other, but like my other suggestions, make sure everyone in the group is aware of the 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 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 before accepting previously-seen work. 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 possible exception to this rule: The story is up for republication and edits are requested 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 their part from 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 Starbucks 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 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. In informal workshops, the leader is sometimes the member who first organized the group or has been around the longest. Otherwise, workshop groups will often lack any formal leadership.

Recognize the 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.

Discussion leaders should monitor the group dynamic and gently remind people what stage they’re at, to keep the discussion on-track. Have leaders bring a watch to track the time and make sure everyone (readers and the writer) have a chance to speak. Make sure everyone knows that the leader has the right to interrupt someone if they’re going on for too long or taking the discussion down a hole.

The problem with round-robin is that some people simply aren’t good at this kind of role. (On the other hand, some people are too good at this kind of role.) This is where everyone has to step up to the plate—to rise a little to the occasion.

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.

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 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 don’t mean to sound unfair—Liz Lerman’s critical format is so well-known and widely-used, it’s left the world of dance and crossed to fiction (and perhaps other arts). Obviously there are people other than myself seeking alternatives to the Iowa format.

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. 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.

Unfortunately, the few groups I’ve been in that used Lerman’s process degenerated in a 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 which solicited manuscripts 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. 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