Writing better fiction with Syd Field’s three-act screenplay structure: Now write it again

Syd Field

Syd Field

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

Previously I discussed the fiction writer’s treatment (and how it’s different than a film treatment) as part of this series on how to use Syd Field’s three-act screenplay structure for writing stories and novels.

To recap, a fiction writer’s treatment is a way to prepare yourself for producing a rough outline. The treatment asks direct questions about your story and force you to start thinking about its skeletal structure. The eight questions of the treatment are:

  • Protagonist: Who is the main character of this story?
  • Setup: What is the minimum of backstory, history, setting, or exposition that must be presented before the main story begins?
  • Inciting Incident: What event disrupts the rhythms and rituals of the main character’s daily life?
  • Plot Point #1: What reverses the main character’s daily life such that there is no easy return to normalcy?
  • Conflict: What is the primary or core conflict the main character now faces?
  • Assessment: What does the main character do to immediately resolve Plot point #1?
  • Midpoint: What revelation or reversal of fortune occurs that permanently shifts the story trajectory?
  • Plot Point #2: What dramatic or defining reversal occurs that leads toward a confrontation with the core conflict?

Although it looks like a lot of work, as I mentioned before, you should only be answering each question with one to two sentences. Remember, the treatment is for you and no one else—it’s to get creative juice out of your head, where your story is ethereal and plastic, and put it on the page, where it hardens and takes shape.

Writing down answers to these questions commits you to something. It puts a stake in the ground rather than allow your loosely-connected story ideas to jounce about in your skull. The treatment isn’t a hard contract, but it does dare you to commit to something regarding your story.

I assume some people reading this will already be skeptical about this process. I assume some will resist any process at all, in fact. But if you’ve come this far with me, I’m asking you come a little farther and see what happens to your creativity when you expend a little effort organizing it.

As I said, answering the above eight questions—on paper—is a kind of commitment on your part. Let me assure you: You’re not committing to anything. You’re free to write whatever story you want, or even not to write this story at all. For a little effort you can get an idea of just how much you have in the bank—and how much more you need to develop to finish your story.

A treatment is not saying “This is what the story is about.” Rather, it asks, “What if the story was about this?”

Also know that writing a treatment isn’t the end goal of this process. When you’ve finished answering the above eight questions, you’re not really finished. There’s two more steps to writing a fiction writer’s treatment.

First, walk away

That’s right, walk away from the treatment (and your entire story) for a while. Take an hour, a day, even a week. Keep your treatment with you or handy so you can review it during this duration.

If you feel the urge to write a chapter or a paragraph of your story, go ahead, but resist the temptation to jump in and write with abandon. It’s important to let your creative juices stew.

If you can get your head away from your nascent story for a period of time, you might discover later you’re surprised by what you wrote. That’s a good sign. You also might find yourself bored by what you wrote. What seemed exciting or fresh when answering these questions may become boring or predictable later. That’s important too.

You might discover that, out of the blue, new ideas arrive in this interim to supplement or replace your old direction. The plane crash on the nightly news might turn into an auto pile-up happening before your protagonist’s eyes. The widow who arrives in town with shocking revelations might become a widower with a long-lost will. And so on.

Be open to fresh inspiration and new ideas. Don’t dismiss new directions that don’t neatly fit into your initial notions of what the story is about. Receive them warmly—they may lead you in surprising directions.

Second, write another treatment

That’s right, after a brief period of time, sit down and write another treatment. Don’t look at the old one. Don’t revise the old one either. Write a fresh treatment, answering all the questions I listed above.

If you find yourself answering questions more-or-less the same as before, that’s fine. That likely indicates you’re happy with the answer and should continue pressing forward. (It may indicate you’ve run out of ideas on the topic—be sensitive to that as well, it may portend trouble ahead.)

As before, you’re not committing to this second treatment, but by externalizing your ideas, you’re putting a stake in the ground.

Rinse & repeat

There’s a third, perhaps obvious, step: Do this all again. Yes, wait a bit of time to ponder and consider—and then write another treatment.

Once you’ve done a few treatments, they shouldn’t take more than fifteen or twenty minutes to produce. (Be thoughtful. Don’t rush through it.) That strikes me as a pretty good bargain considering the novel I write might take years to complete.

Next: A case study in writing treatments

Computer programming & writing fiction: Is coding art?

Girl with an 8-bit EarringIn my last post comparing writing programming and writing fiction, I concluded both were similar because of their relationship with their practitioners. “Art is a kind of recruiting poster for itself,” I wrote. “An art attracts its own artists.”

Wait—is computer programming art? It’s accepted to call fiction art, but can computer programming really be considered

the conscious use of the imagination in the production of objects intended to be contemplated or appreciated as beautiful, as in the arrangement of forms, sounds, or words. (The Free Dictionary)

Think of what programming a computer really boils down to: Ordering and organizing a series of mathematical instructions followed precisely by the machine. The computer is allowed no imagination in its interpretation of those instructions (if it possessed an imagination, which it doesn’t, at least not today). If there’s an art in computer programming, it stands in the purview of the programmer, not the machine. That’s how it should be. The art of painting is not in the tubes or cans of paint, but in the painter.

But is the arrangement of those computer instructions somehow “beautiful”?

It’s important to discern a difference between a computer program being art and the act of programming as an artistic form. Let’s start with the latter.

I believe programming is an art form, at least by modern notions of the term. Writing fiction and writing code requires continuous subjective decision-making during the entire process (a “conscious use of the imagination”). A personal fervor is vital for quality results. When a writer lacks that fervor, it shows in the end result, both for fiction and computer programs.

Programming is not a rote process of memorization and recall. There is no “correct” way to write a computer program but, like writing a novel or a short story, there are many wrong ways.

Bill Atkinson, creator of the original MacPaint, painted in MacPaint. (Daniel Rehn, CC BY 2.0)

Bill Atkinson, creator of the original MacPaint, painted in MacPaint. (Daniel Rehn, CC BY 2.0)

Coding requires taste, aesthetics, and an eye for detail. Programmers develop deeply personal philosophies. Some coders prefer verbosity (like Henry James in his later years) while others prefer economy (like Hemingway or Cain’s early work).

There’s a scene in August Wilson’s Fences that is one of the most distilled scenes I’ve ever read: The father and son debate buying a TV to watch the World Series. On the surface a mundane domestic moment, the scene is actually Fences in-miniature. The beauty of this scene mirrors brilliant software design, where each piece of the program is intimately connected to the entire application.

Years ago, I could always tell when I was working with a programmer who started coding on the Macintosh versus a programmer weaned on Microsoft Windows—the two companies have distinct programming styles and philosophies. Programmers who learned to code on those operating systems carried those styles and philosophies with them to other platforms and projects.

A computer program can be functional, operating, and seemingly free of bugs, and a programmer may still read the code and say it doesn’t “look” right. (The trendy term for this is “code smell.”) What’s more, two programmers may say a program doesn’t “look” right for entirely different reasons. This reminds me a great deal of the world of poetry, where poets may agree a poem is poorly executed and then squabble over the reasons why. (There’s similar disagreements in the world of fiction, but I find them to be less…doctrinaire.)

Writing and programming both involve elements of discovery and improvisation. Even though I’m writing a series of blog posts advocating outlining stories before writing them, I don’t believe an outline can—or should—contain every detail present in the final story. An outline should not be so rigid as to prohibit discovery during the writing process.

For a long time, there was a big push to eliminate discovery and improvisation in the world of software development, as “discovery” and “improvisation” seem undesirable in a field of proper engineering. (In the 1960s, IBM famously discovered that the number of bugs a programmer produced was proportional to the amount of code he or she wrote. Their solution: limit the lines of code a programmer could write per day, a logic straight from the pages of Catch-22.) Newer software philosophies, notably Extreme Programming and Agile development practices, have flipped that thinking and embraced discovery and improvisation as healthy and necessary.

Suspicion of programming as an art form probably springs from a general lack of understanding of how programs are written. Programmers share an arcane terminology among themselves. They build and manipulate mysterious machines that have come to play a powerful, sometimes menacing, role in our lives.

<cite>Ex Machina</cite>, a 2015 film about a computer programmer who falls in love with an artificially intelligent android.

Ex Machina, a 2015 film about a computer programmer who falls in love with an artificially intelligent android.

That suspicion probably also arises from stereotypes. Programmers don’t look like artists. In popular culture, programmers are portrayed as geeks more comfortable around machines than humans. Sometimes they even fall in romantic love with a computer. (Never mind that this trope originated in antiquity and regards an artist and not a bricklayer or farmer or soldier.)

Another reason people question programming as an art is that computer programs “do” things. There’s an academic suspicion of pure art having any sort of utility, probably due to fears of commodification and commercialization. We don’t think of Vermeer’s Girl with a Pearl Earring as “doing” anything other than hanging on a wall in some drafty museum, but it must be doing something to cause people to stand in line for hours to view it. It’s funny, this idea that pure art doesn’t “do” anything when it so plainly does. If art didn’t do anything, why would we care about it?

And this rolls back to the distinction I made earlier: Is computer software itself art? I’ll challenge the question with a question in return. We regard skyscrapers and bridges and automobiles and colanders as kinds of art. We laud architects, automotive designers, and commercial illustrators as artists. Why treat computer programs and their creators differently?

Colander, c. 1600 - 1650, Museum Boijmans Van Beuningen

Colander, c. 1600 – 1650, Museum Boijmans Van Beuningen

Computer programming & writing fiction: Art as a recruiting poster

IBM SelectricHow is computer programming like writing fiction? Is writing code anything like writing stories?

When I was young, perhaps seven or eight, I banged out my first short story on a second-hand IBM Selectric typewriter my mother brought home from her office. Powered on, the Selectric vibrated the whole desk and emanated a low mechanical hum, some unseen engine in the contraption idling. I still recall the tang of the ink in the typewriter ribbon and the satisfying, officious schock as the typeball jumped from its perch and tapped lettering onto the crisp onion paper I’d fed into the roller.

The story I wrote was a retelling of Richard Connell’s “The Most Dangerous Game” transplanted to a science-fiction setting. (In fact, I think I creatively titled it “The Most Dangerous Game in Space”.) My determination to spend hours coping with that unforgiving contraption went beyond an affinity for the classic short story. As an avid young reader, I’d come to wonder if I could pen my own fiction. My aspirations weren’t so bold as to imagine being published, only to see if I could write my own, but later that dream crept in too.

The Most Dangerous GameAround the same time (this would’ve been 1979), I cajoled my parents into buying a home computer. Silicon Valley was marketing home computers as personal productivity assistants, devices to balance one’s checkbook, manage a home mortgage, track stocks, and so on. Home computers were also being pitched as tools to give students an edge in school. I couldn’t care less about schoolwork—and I’ll be damned if that computer ever balanced my parents’ checkbook—but with a home computer I could play video games, my only real motive for wanting one.

Innumerable hours playing videos games led me to try to write my own. It was a natural progression, just as reading I, Robot set me to thinking of my own robot stories.

I never did write a video game, at least not one that anyone would want to play, but software development did become my career path, one I’m still following over 35 years later.

Likewise, although I didn’t finish that short story, writing fiction remains an important passion in my life, even more important than programming.

Walking these paths, I’m sometimes asked if writing software and writing stories are the same. Or, at least, if they bear any similarities. And my answer is, yes, there are commonalities between the two.

I’ll explore more parallels in the future, but already I’ve alluded to one thing they have in common. I’ve never met a good writer who wasn’t first an avid reader, and I’ve never met a good programmer who wasn’t first an avid computer hobbyist.

Art is a kind of recruiting poster for itself. An art attracts its own artists.

Next: Is coding art?

Quote

Greatest rejection letter of all-time

Galaxy Science Fiction, March 1953Recently I picked up Robert Silverberg’s superb Science Fiction 101: Exploring the Craft of Science Fiction, an unfortunate title for a remarkably sturdy book. Part memoir, part writing guide, part anthology, I’d recommend it to every writer whether or not they’re interested in science fiction as a genre or pursuit.

Silverberg mingles his breezy autobiography of struggling to get published as a young man in the 1950s with nuggets of practical writing advice he picked up along the way. All of this package is humbly offered to the reader. Even when penning the book in 1987, Silverberg remains in awe of Asimov, Bradbury, and Heinlein (“our Great Exception in almost everything”), although by that time Silverberg’s name was mentioned in the same breath as those masters, and more.

Galaxy Science Fiction, August 1951Science Fiction 101 also reprints thirteen classic science fiction stories from authors like Damon Knight, Philip K. Dick, Robert Scheckly, Vance, Pohl, Aldiss…the table of contents reads like the short list of first-round inductees to The Science Fiction & Fantasy Hall of Fame. Alongside each story, Silverberg comments on why it impressed him and what he gleaned, offering hard, complete examples to his writing wisdom that so many other guides lack.

It’s fair to compare Science Fiction 101 to Stephen King’s On Writing. Both books are a bit more practical and pragmatic in their advice than loftier musings on the craft, such as John Gardner’s The Art of Fiction. I suspect Gardner would peer down his nose at writing advice from Silverberg or King, which is too bad. Anyone who can forge a lifetime career with pen in hand deserves to be listened to and considered.

As a young man, while sweating over a typewriter struggling to earn publication credits in the science fiction magazines of yore, Silverberg also earned a degree in English Literature at Columbia University. He applies some of that study here, coming up with incisive observations about storytelling I’ve not seen made before. Offering advice on how to build a story, Silverberg does something wonderful and avoids the conflict word. I’ve discovered “conflict” is off-putting to some young writers, possibly because it suggests violence or supercharged stakes or overwrought emotions. Instead, looking back to the ancient Greeks, he frames story as propelled by dissonance:

Find a situation of dissonance growing out of a striking idea or some combination of striking ideas, find the characters affected by that dissonance, write clearly and directly using dialog that moves each scene along and avoiding any clumsiness of style and awkward shifts of viewpoint, and bring matters in the end to a point where the harmony of the universe is restored and Zeus is satisfied.

It’s not the final word on how to write a story, but it’s a surprisingly serviceable start.

Galaxy Science Fiction, November 1951Silverberg’s candor and generosity to the reader is so no-nonsense, he even reprints the rejection notes he received while canvassing science fiction magazines with his early work. Big-name writers usually dip into their rejection stack for the wrong reasons: to settle a score, or thumb their nose at those who stood in their way years past. Here, Silverberg reprints rejection slips that served to make him a better writer, admitting how he deserved them, and how he was often too young to take their advice at face-value.

My favorite rejection letter comes from H. L. Gold, editor of Galaxy Science Fiction. Galaxy was a bit before my time (I grew up reading Analog, Asimov’s Science Fiction, and The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction). but Galaxy was well-known to me merely by its reputation. Galaxy was a “serious” science fiction magazine, known for avoiding the lewd subject matter and titillating covers the other science fiction magazines lured in readers with. (I’ve included a few of Galaxy‘s best covers here. The Internet Archive has a remarkable collection of back issues, covers and inside matter, that’s well worth perusing if you have any interest in science fiction’s past.)

Galaxy editor H.L. Gold sent Silverberg this rejection in 1956, when Silverberg had already broken into the field and was padding the back pages of science fiction magazines:

You’re selling more than you’re learning. The fact that you sell is tricking you into believing that your technique is adequate. It is—for now. But project your career twenty years into the future and see where you’ll stand if you don’t sweat over improving your style, handling of character and conflict, resourcefulness in story development. You’ll simply be more facile at what you’re doing right now, more glib, more skilled at invariably taking the easiest way out.

If I didn’t see a talent there—a potential one, a good way from being fully realized—I wouldn’t take the time to point out the greased skidway you’re standing on. I wouldn’t give a damn. But I’m risking your professional friendship for the sake of a better one.

Robert Silverberg was 21 when he received this remarkable letter, perhaps the greatest rejection letter of all-time.

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

Syd Field

Syd Field

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

Last post I explained the fiction writer’s treatment (and how it’s different than a film treatment) as part of this series on how to use Syd Field’s three-act screenplay structure for writing stories and novels.

To recap, the first four questions you should ask yourself for the treatment are:

  • Protagonist: Who is the main character of this story?
  • Setup: What is the minimum of backstory, history, setting, or exposition that must be presented before the main story begins?
  • Inciting Incident: What event disrupts the rhythms and rituals of the main character’s daily life?
  • Plot Point #1: What reverses the main character’s daily life such that there is no easy return to normalcy? (Sometimes this is the Inciting Incident, but often it is not.)

Answering those four questions puts you at the halfway mark for writing your story’s treatment. Now I’ll go over the treatment’s final four questions.

Conflict: What is the primary or core conflict the main character faces?
Your answer to the prior two questions (Inciting Incident and Plot Point #1) should suggest an answer to this question. You might find yourself going back to re-answer this question later, when the story is firmer in your mind and the characters’ conflict better defined. For example, although Raisin in the Sun‘s core conflict would appear to be racism, a close reading of the play suggests the conflict is the family’s response to racism—will they keep their heads’ down or will they walk proud?

Assessment: What does the main character do to immediately resolve Plot point #1?
So far, the main character has experienced some kind of disruption (the Inciting Incident) and then an event that ensures they cannot walk away from that disruption (Plot Point #1). Whatever your character’s desires or motivations, they will still want to resolve their situation as quickly as possible. What action would they take?

I’ve learned that, in many ways, this is a crucial hinge to the success of a story. The Inciting Incident is often—almost always—out of the main character’s control. The no-going-back event (Plot Point #1) may be of their device, but it often is not. The Assessment is the main character locking into a course of action. This decision often determines the trajectory, shape, and flavor of the rest of the story.

Midpoint: What revelation or reversal of fortune occurs that permanently shifts the story trajectory?
As the name implies, this is an event which occurs approximately halfway through your story. Depending on the type of story you’re writing, this is often where the main character’s true antagonist is revealed or discovered, but that’s not a requirement. The purpose of this question is, in many ways, to keep the plates spinning—to prevent the character from getting too comfortable in this new situation, and to prevent you, the author, from digressing too far from the core conflict (which is terribly easy to do with longer forms, such as the novel).

Syd Field (the creator of the paradigm I’m riffing off of) explained in The Screenwriter’s Workbook that he “discovered” the Midpoint while analyzing Robert Towne’s screenplay for Chinatown. Field recognized that in Chinatown (and many other movies), something significant was happening around the middle of the film, but he couldn’t quite put his finger on what the event was, or why it was significant. In Chinatown, after much analysis, he realized the Midpoint was when the protagonist (private detective J. J. Gittes) discovers that the head of Los Angeles’ water company is married to the daughter of the founder of the water company.

At this Midpoint moment, almost all the questions and complications in the film have been introduced: an unsolved murder, the taint of corruption in Southern California’s water politics, and the detective himself being setup to unwittingly smear an innocent man in the press. At the Midpoint, we think we’re watching a murder mystery against the backdrop of 1930s city politics. J. J. Gittes discovery of the true relationship of the three central characters transforms Chinatown into a drama of a highly dysfunctional family. That’s what Syd Field (and this process) is asking for you to consider for your own story’s Midpoint. It’s the moment when you’ve laid all your cards out for the reader, the moment when the reader now recognizes what’s really at stake for your main character.

The Midpoint is more than a new complication. It’s a chance for you, the writer, to reveal that the story so far is not the whole story. Jim Thompson said there was only one kind of story: “Things are not what they seem.” The Midpoint is where you introduce revelations and reversals that open up the story in larger ways.

Plot Point #2: What dramatic or defining reversal occurs that leads toward a confrontation with the core conflict?

This part of the treatment is the furthest removed from the beginning of your story, and therefore one of the hardest to commit to paper.

Often when I’m writing I have a crystal-clear view of the story’s opening and a hazy idea how I want it to conclude. Finding the path between those two moments is what the process of writing is about. Plot Point #2 is where you make a statement about the final actions and decisions before the end of the story.

To make this easier, go back to what you wrote for Conflict (above) and re-read it closely. Then ask yourself how you think the story will end. You don’t have to commit to this, just get it down to see the words staring up at you from the page. But remember: this isn’t Plot Point #2. It’s where Plot Point #2 is leading toward.

Between those two points—the Conflict and your idea for an ending, however sharp or hazy—lies Plot Point #2. Like the reversal in the Midpoint, a story rarely arouses the reader when it’s predictable. Look for another reversal here: an unexpected shift that leads your protagonist from the middle of your story (Act Two) into the third act, where the final confrontation lies.

An illustration might help here. (Warning: spoiler alert.) Kurt Vonnegut’s Cat’s Cradle has many unexpected twists and turns—it’s easily Vonnegut’s most unpredictable novel—but the reversal that sets up the novel’s conclusion is when the protagonist is declared the San Lorenzo’s next Presidente by the dying dictator. This is not the conclusion of the novel, it’s the final complication in the character’s dramatic journey. (It’s important to realize that some complications are welcome by the protagonist, even though they might come back to bite him or her later.) With the protagonist’s ascension to El Presidente, all the bowling pins are in place, ready to be knocked down with godlike force in the novel’s stunning final chapters. This final complication is Plot Point #2.

Don’t worry if you currently lack Vonnegut’s clarity in your own character’s journey. Like the rest of this treatment, the goal here is to get ideas on paper and begin organizing the whirlwind of inspiration now circling your as-yet-unwritten story.

Take a breather

It looks like a lot, but you can craft a treatment in less than an hour. Give yourself time and space to do it. Don’t rush yourself, and don’t do it while distracted—no Internet, no television, no kids. Most importantly, write your treatment down. Like writing a contract, putting pen to paper forces hard decisions, engagement, and thoughtfulness.

When you’re finished, set your pen down and take a deep breath. When I write a treatment I often feel much like I feel after a sustained time writing prose: a bit exhausted, a bit lost, and more than a little exhilarated.

Remember, writing a treatment is writing. Don’t mistake this as an academic exercise. Organizing your thoughts on paper is as important as writing, editing, and polishing the final prose—it’s just a preliminary to those important steps. Writing a treatment is writing.

Next: Now write it again

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.

Three alternatives to the Iowa writing workshop format

Liz Lerman

Liz Lerman

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Liz Lerman

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Transfer magazine

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

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

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

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

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

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

Playwriting

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Next: A fourth alternative to the Iowa writing workshop format