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?

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?


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.


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.

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: Part Five, Now do 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.


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.