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Philip K. Dick on realism, consistency, and fiction

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Aside

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Fiction as a controlled experiment

On Literature by J. Hillis MillerNot too long ago I finished reading J. Hillis Miller’s On Literature, a slim and thoughtful consideration of the role of the written word at the end of the 20th century. Born from a lecture at UC Irvine in 2001, Miller expanded his talk into six chapters and 160 pages of conversational prose asking the simple but still-unanswered questions of literary theory: What is literature? Why read it? And how does it “work”?

I almost didn’t finish the book, however, or even start it. Standing at the bookstore stacks pondering whether or not to purchase it, I almost returned On Literature to its place on the shelf after noticing the word “deconstruction” in its table of contents. Like a home cook who dabbles in books on nutrition, I enjoy reading how and why fiction works, but my patience runs low when I encounter the thick postmodern language of the deconstructionists and post-structuralists. As far as I’m concerned, literary theory veered into the weeds after the 1950s, becoming circular, reactive, insular, and insulated.

J. Hillis Miller

J. Hillis Miller

Miller’s On Literature does venture into deconstruction, but only briefly and at the end, and in the most surprising way. Miller proposes C. S. Lewis’ Alice books were inadvertently deconstructing Robinson Crusoe, in the sense that Alice offers an unnatural world of random occurrence and contradictory logic. This pushes against the grain of Defoe’s orderly world, a world of British conquest over nature and British uplift of the “savage.” Connecting these two unrelated works typifies the kind of thoughtful playfulness that makes On Literature something much more refreshing than the dry lit theory of graduate studies.

As Wikipedia notes, Miller is an English professor specializing in deconstruction, and his academic work suggests the kind of dry examination of literature that most so-called average readers would not identify with. In On Literature, Miller loosens the knot in his tie to reveal a lifelong love of reading and all its pleasures.

But what’s most surprising is Miller confessing to seeing literature as a kind of virtual reality or “secular dream vision.” Miller argues fiction

Myst linking book

Myst linking book

is not, as many people may assume, an imitation in words of some pre-existing reality but, on the contrary, it is the creation or discovery of a new, supplementary world, a metaworld, a hyper-reality. … A book is a pocket or portable dreamweaver. [Emphasis mine.]

This is not a fashionable approach in academia today. It’s far more common to dissect literature with the scalpels of Marxism, feminism, post-colonialism, and gender and sexuality—in other words, to view fiction through the lenses of power dynamics and identity politics. And Miller goes farther than viewing books as portable virtual worlds. He proposes these hyper-realities are not merely witnessed by the reader, they’re discovered, magically, when the book is opened and the first words begin to settle in his or her mind. Like the linking books in the video game Myst, a novel is a device that not only opens a door to an alternate reality, it allows us to dwell within its world, briefly.

Dealing in Futures by Joe HaldemanThe problem with talking about fiction as a hyper-reality or virtual world is that those terms suggest science fiction. When I was young, one of my favorites books was Joe Haldeman’s science-fiction story collection Dealing in Futures. Its title instantly suggests that the book will generate for you any number of alternate worlds of a future time—that it’s “a pocket or portable dreamweaver.” Miller doesn’t limit this idea to science fiction, however. He sees all fiction as generators of virtual worlds.

Miller admits that this view of fiction has long been out of fashion in the academic world. He sometimes sounds a touch embarrassed admitting it, which is why I say the book reads more like a confessional than a treatise.

Over the years I’ve met writers who’ve told me they have little interest or use for books on how fiction “works.” To study literature is to kill the magic and pleasure of book-reading, the thinking goes—a notion that conveniently plays right into Miller’s “secular dream vision.”

On Literature recharged a personal theory I’ve been tossing around in my head for some time now. I don’t claim it’s original, but if I picked it up from somewhere, I couldn’t name the source. I also don’t claim it’s an earthshaking theory either, but it has changed how I view books and my own writing. The theory is simply this: Fiction is a controlled experiment being run by its author (or authors).

By “experiment” I mean something closer to trial-and-error than a formal scientific process. Books are not beakers of liquids bubbling over open flame. I also don’t mean the experimentalism of avant garde literature, the breaking of rules to create distance between the work and its reader, such as the mathematical formalism of the Oulipo. By “experiment” I mean an author asking “what if…?” or “what would it be like if…?”. The author imagines a world not their own to answer that question, and then, by writing the story, plays out that experiment to its conclusion.

Charlotte Brontë

Charlotte Brontë

The “what if?” doesn’t have to be particularly daring or fantastical. “What would it be like if a young governess fell in love with her married employer?” could describe the experiment of Jane Eyre. In it, Charlotte Brontë constructed an experiment in experience—an experiment in the human condition, and from the point of view not commonly told up to that point in British literature. The experiment’s result is a document of 19th century countryside England, a world fairly foreign to us today but recognizable as a landscape of the human psyche. And thanks to Brontë’s experiment, we can visit that world without a time machine or other exotic technology.

When I say a “controlled experiment,” I mean controlled by the kind of restrictions Brontë imposed on herself throughout the creative process. Fiction is a plastic form. Brontë could’ve introduced any number of outlandish plot devices or characters. Instead, Brontë kept the novel’s details and events near to the world she knew and let the characters push through the complications themselves. Jane Eyre‘s ending is not clean and crisp, but it was under Brontë’s control. These decisions are guided by the hand of the author, controlling (but perhaps not dictating) the experiment’s outcome.

For an example of an experiment with a different set of controls, there’s Lewis’ Alice books. “What if my little friend Alice was transported to a world of playful illogic and word games?” Lewis gave himself the freedom to veer wildly from the known world. For one, the Alice in the books isn’t even the real Alice Liddell. And if gravity suddenly reversed itself the Alice books, we wouldn’t be surprised at all. On the other hand, gravity reversing itself would utterly destroy the experiment called Jane Eyre. Alice and Jane Eyre were written in the same time period by authors living a few hundred miles apart, but they ran very different experiments in what it means to be human.

Just as in science, not every experiment is a success. Some are duds. And Brontë did produce a dud of sorts: an experiment called The Professor, a novel about a male teacher at a Belgian all-girls school. The manuscript was rejected by every publisher she offered it to. Years later she tweaked the parameters of that experiment—tweaked the parameters of the experience—and wrote Villette, a novel about a female teacher at a Belgian all-girls school. Of Brontë’s works, The Professor is considered for completists and not widely read. Villette is thought by some to be Brontë’s true masterpiece.

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

From three acts to trilogies: The fall of “tight, gapless” writing

John August. (Mai Le)

John August. (Mai Le)

Over at Grantland, Kevin Lincoln makes a deft observation about the current (sorry) state of Hollywood’s output, which has gone from “tight, gapless screenwriting” to scripts focused on world-building, sequels, expansion, rebooting—in other words, franchising.

Lincoln quotes screenwriter John August:

Most screenwriters are essentially world-builders, and the nature of screenwriting is to create a universe in which these characters live, so that’s really exciting for screenwriters … it’s this weird blend of wanting to create the best two-hour movie you possibly can and having to sort of function as a TV showrunner, charting out the whole series, even though as a screenwriter, you’re only going to get paid for that one movie.

I have some interest in how Hollywood screenplays are crafted. (Truth be told, I’m more interested in how three-act scripts are structured, Hollywood or otherwise.) What concerns me with Lincoln’s article—beyond the ouroboros death-spiral that is the quality of Hollywood filmmaking today—is how this world-building dynamic is present in fiction too, particularly ebooks, a universe I’ve been wading into over the past twelve months.

If you search Amazon for independently-published novels labeled “contemporary” or “literary fiction,” you’ll discover your options are limited. (Or, if you’re like me, you might say “the field is wide open.”) Genre fiction is a another story. Science fiction, mystery, fantasy, dystopian YA, romance (and so on) are well-represented in the world of independently-published ebooks. Over-represented, maybe.

Some see that as a knock on the quality of independent electronic-only publishing, but the same situation is found across the publishing spectrum. Hardbound, paperback, big name New York publishers, small press publishers, even vanity presses—genre outnumbers the contemporary/literary world by an order of magnitude. (At least in the realm of books. By my reckoning, literary magazines outnumber genre magazines by two orders of magnitude.)

Someday I’ll write up my thoughts on genre fiction, but for now I’ll say that I don’t see the above situation as a problem in particular. I would like to see contemporary and literary fiction better-represented in the world of independent publishing, but I’m just one voice in a sea of many.

Three acts? Or three (or more) books?

My problem is where August’s observation about screenwriting intersects with independent publishing. Having spent a bit of time searching blogs and so forth for tips on breaking into the world of ebooks, I’ve again and again seen two connected strategies emphasized: world-building and sequels.

Group photo.

Group photo.

What’s that mean? Build a world, a big world, and explore it over the course of several books. This strategy has been the cornerstone of comic books (“the Marvel Universe“) and genre fiction (“A Lt. Detective Malone Mystery”) for decades now. Hollywood is finally waking up to the possibilities. And so are ebooks.

The ebook marketing wonkthink goes something like this: Write a catchy, addictive first novel that introduces your main character, builds the world, and stocks it with complementary secondary characters to be developed later. Give the first ebook away for free. Then write sequels that continue the story and develop your pantheon. Progressively increase the price of your ebooks as the series grows. When you’ve published the last ebook in the series—or reached a natural breathing point—package them together as a “boxed set” (there’s no box, just bits) and price it higher still.

Done right, the individual ebooks may be priced from free to, say, $4.99. The boxed sets can be sold as high as $19.99—the cover price of a physical book in a physical bookstore. With Amazon’s KDP Select, the author pockets 70% of that $20 purchase price. Not bad.

That’s the theory, but are sequels and world-building producing great reads? I’m not a connoisseur of modern genre fiction so I can’t say. I’m curious what hardcore genre fans think. Personally, I recall in my teenage years picking up Book One of various science fiction series only to discover its entire purpose was to introduce characters and describe the world’s physics and technology—in other words, sell me on buying the rest of the series. No thanks.

I know this: I haven’t gone to a movie theater in years simply because I can’t stomach what Hollywood is shoveling out the door these days. (This comes from a guy who grew up collecting Avengers comics and praying for a movie version.) They’ve rebooted Spiderman three times. “With great power comes great responsibility.” Yeah, got it.

Does it work?

Looking over Amazon’s Kindle Top 100 (paid ebooks, not free) and mentally discarding editions released by major publishers (and therefore available in paper form), I do see a number of independent ebooks that are part of a series. However, they’re all the first volume in the series (save for one boxed set selling for $0.99). I estimate two possibilities, and they’re not exclusive:

  1. The authors are selling the first book but failing to maintain readership throughout the series.
  2. The authors are big enough names they can sell the first volume rather than give it away for free.

In other words, I can’t tell from this limited data set what to make of this situation. I will say it’s tough as hell to crack the Kindle Top 100, so kudos to the authors. Also, this exercise of mine is rife with problems, so don’t let it stand as the final word on anything.

Note that I’m not terribly interested in the profitability of this world-building strategy. I’m more curious how other writers attract—and keep—the attention of readers. Do you really have to write a multi-volume genre series to succeed? I hope not.

I love the idea of tight, gapless screenwriting. I love even more the idea of tight, gapless fiction. For whatever it’s worth, that’s what I’m trying to do here.

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