Writing a first novel or first few stories is tricky, maybe terrifying. The process is messy. Obstacles can seem both insurmountable and inscrutable. Work-in-progress can be tentative, experimental or vague, even to the author. The quality of what has already been written can be difficult to gauge.
Workshops exist to make the editorial process easier, even enjoyable. Guidance from an experienced tutor and writer, as well as the company of fellow sufferers should provide a useful safety net and sounding board. A good workshop offers support and understanding, as well as a first readership. There are all sorts of secondary reasons for joining a workshop – to provide a structure or writing timetable, or to socialise with new people – but at the very least a workshop should supply a sense of how the writing transmits and where it succeeds or needs revision.
However, there is as much to learn from responding to the work of others as there is from their and the tutor’s comments on your work. Everyone goes through a similar process, after all. Every experienced writer started out naive and learned from mistakes. Every writer needs an editor and some sort of group.
In a workshop, we realise that the experience of our peers matches our own, that we can learn from them as much as from our own efforts. To be creative writers we also need to be creative readers. This doesn’t require that everyone is an expert in creative writing, only that we learn to assess what we’re reading and how to talk intelligently and helpfully about it.
In beginner’s fiction classes, like our Norwich-based Introduction to Writing Fiction or our online course Becoming A Writer, we often start by building up a series of skills, techniques that contribute to the success or the reality of a story. Can we build a similar palette for reading the work of others?
Building a Critical Palette
What draft is it?
This should be made clear by discussion or preamble, really, but it is important whether the story was only started yesterday or is the fourth draft of a long-developed project. Early work is often loose and hesitant. Late work should be realised and readable. As such, with new work we should be reacting more to the dynamics and attractiveness of the story’s basic idea. There is little point applying critical rigour to the minutia of a passage that may be edited out later. Too much close editing too soon can be off-putting, even alienating to the writer. If the work is new, look out for elements that seem active, that ask questions and note what is interesting to you. The main question here is: would I like to read on? If not, why not? What could be added or redirected?
What genre is it?
Workshop feedback should take into account what the writer is trying to do. Again, discussion and preamble is helpful here. We should know beforehand if the work under discussion is a noir-crime novel, a cosmic horror, semi-autobiographical sequence of stories, literary meditation or an I-simply-don’t-know-yet. Genres have rules, or they don’t. At the very least, they create reader expectation. You expect the crime to be solved in a noir-crime. You don’t expect anything to be solved in cosmic horror. So, what is this story like to you? Does it deliver on its genre expectations? In a romance, do you care about the divided lovers, for example? What isn’t the story like?
If these lovers in a romance are obnoxious, then either the lovers need rounding or the genre description adjusted. Some writers can be sniffy about genre fiction or simply don’t read genre fiction. If so, there are useful discussions to be had about what we can learn from genre structures. Whatever we’re writing, concepts of ghost, investigation and romantic obstacle are extremely useful and help a story focus. Overall, it’s important here not to be too subjective and go beyond personal taste. And a good workshop should expose you to stories you wouldn’t usually read or think about.
Is it fluent?
A good passage of prose makes you want to read it and read on. It doesn’t snag. There should be no phrases that pull us up short or seem unclear even after rereading. All the elements in the passage (plot, setting, dialogue, characterisation, persona) should be integrated into a whole: the scene. As such, is the voice right for the piece? Too formal? Too flippant? Wrong point of view? Can you read this passage without becoming aware of the writing itself, does it take you with it?
Is the pace right?
A good story should always be moving forwards; even it’s going backwards, if you see what I mean. Problems in a story, whatever they are, whether with the content or the style, often cause pace and tension to absent themselves. A story can seem boring, or it can have too many interesting things going on that are given insufficient attention. Are there moments or developments in a passage that could be lingered upon? In first-draft work, there can be sentences that need to be paragraphs, and paragraphs that could be pages. Alternatively, are there passages of slack here, longueurs, needless digressions that slow things up? Writers can need to include all of the background in a story to be sure of it, only to take it out later. Character context, research or routine material can often get left in when they should be left behind. For example, it’s very common in beginner’s work for the scene or story to start with someone waking up without having been transformed into an insect. Such scenes can often be cut until something less stable or static happens later on.
When to read closely
Above, I’ve kind of suggested that in a workshop we should be attending to the larger sweeps of a novel or story, perhaps by giving the writer opportunity to discuss his or her intentions, and asking the readers to consider the work within the context of invisible, unwritten further developments. Long-term workshop experience certainly helps develop these skills and ways of discussing work-in-progress, as does wide reading and writing generally. Even so, it is important and highly useful to think about the writing on a sentence-by-sentence level, especially with more developed, drafted work.
There is a kind of critical consensus about what sort of phrasing works or doesn’t work in fiction, the most accessible example being Stephen King’s Toolkit’ in On Writing. Adjectives and adverbs are problematic (though they can be surprising and sensuous). The passive voice slows the flow (though it can be funny). Concrete language is preferable to abstract. Nouns and verbs provide the muscles of prose. Workshopping is an opportunity to test and apply these ideas specific to an unfinished piece of writing.
- Are there examples of syntax or word-use that seem awkward, that could be honed or rethought?
- Is there language that seems too familiar or cliched? Is there a more distinct way of saying or describing something?
- Are there moments where the writer could get closer to the action or further inside the firsthand experience of the point-of-view character? Does the writing seem dramatic or explained?
- Is narrative point of view coherent and consistent? For example, is switching between heads in the third person thinning out the characters?
- Is there so much description that the movements in the passage become obscure; or is there so little that the story seems to exist in a bland or abstracted place?
- Does the prose reflect or enact the persona of the point-of-view character; or is there too much author?
- Can we see the characters? Can we see too much of the characters?
- Do metaphors and similes add a dimension to the writing; or are they distracting or strain?
- Does dialogue sound natural? Does it move the story or deepen our sense of the characters? Is there too much of it, or not enough?
- Can you see paragraphs or part of paragraphs that could be cut? Writers often mistrust the reader and overcompensate by over-emphasising what is already present or apparent in the story.
- Don’t be a pedant about typos.
After the workshop
There is always a lot to take in when critiquing any passage of prose. It may well be that we don’t take it all in at once, especially if the work is read out rather than posted online. It’s a good idea, then, to reread after the initial workshop discussion and forward any additional thoughts to the writer. Writers should take feedback as fuel and even negative feedback can inform us as to what type of reader we most appeal to (you can’t please all of the people all of the time).
We are all in it together
A workshop should create solidarity between new writers and a sense of everyone moving slowly and steadily towards the completion of an exciting and heartfelt story or project. At the Unthank School of Writing we try to respond in our workshops to what writers want to do, and do not enforce a party line or house style (as happens in a lot of MA courses). Broader discussions about ‘how fiction works’ or ‘how fiction can work’ are all part of the experience. As is the opportunity to meet people you might not have met otherwise and to hear stories that would otherwise have gone unheard. Creative reading is very much part of this process, a stream of the learning curve that takes us from a glimpse or an impulse to a jumble of notes and onwards to a realized and hopefully publishable story.
We are now taking enrolments for the Online Fiction Workshop and the Advanced Fiction Workshop in Norwich with Ashley Stokes, and all other Unthank School evening and online creative writing courses for May 2016.