Working on the Craft
It occurred to me, after I wrote my first column for the Space and Time site about markets, that some folks submitting to ST may be looking for (or need) a little more editorial guidance or craft.
Editorial staff, at any level, don’t have the time to perform this function, unless there is a strong possibility that revisions will help get the work in line with what the publisher is looking for. You may occasionally get feedback from some editors at ST and other places that is not related to a request for revision, but usually that’s not the case.
There are a few ways to get the help.
Clean, literate writing can be taught. It’s easier to fall into good habits while young (so teach your children well), and those habits will serve you well in just about any career choice. But even if you’re addressing writing issues later in life, you can learn if you want to and are willing to practice.
Storytelling is something else.
First off, read. Fiction, of course, and lots of it. Short, long, in and out of the genre. Pick the good books. There are lists. Year’s Best summaries. Stick to them. Even take a lit course or two. Keep reading.
While you’re doing that, pay attention to your favorites. Analyze them. Which characters speak to you? What kinds of journeys do they undertake? Where do they take place?
Read non-fiction, as well. Watch documentaries. Nature shows. These are not only sources of ideas, but provide the crucial details that will make your work unique.
You’ll seek out books on writing, of course. There’s a big industry counting on you to make multiple purchases. You might want to start in the bookstore Mythology section, with Campbell’s Hero With A Thousand Faces, a classic examination of the hero’s journey, and Carl Jung’s Man And His Symbols.
Then you could slide over to the Classics or Theater section and pick up Aristotle’s Poetics. If that’s a bit too intimidating, there’s a valuable little book by Michael Tierno, Aristotle’s Poetics for Screenwriters, that will fill the bill and help you along on the guiding principles. Robert McKee’s Story focuses on screenplays but the principles are sound for any kind of commercial writing, and he, too, leans heavily on the Poetics.
Over at Storytellersunplugged.com, the group has recommended a number of practical, hands-on type books: First Draft in 30 Days by Karen Wiesner; The Sell Your Novel Toolkit by Elizabeth Lyon; Writing the Breakout Novel Workbook by Donald Maas (successful literary agent – hint!). Of course, there’s storytellersunplugged, itself.
Work on the basics, like sentence structure and grammar, if you’ve received rejections pointing out errors. Learn from your mistakes; focus on them in your revisions. Nothing kills a story faster than bad grammar. You may have a storytelling gift, but it will be buried by poor language skills. Strunk and White’s The Elements of Style is the usual starting point.
And no, it’s not the editor’s job to “clean up” a story full of bad grammar.
Some professional writers use readers – friends, family, fans – who go over the material before it ever leaves the house. There are Big Name writers who credit their spouses as uncredited collaborators. Tread this road carefully. If you can’t see the dangers, don’t even try it.
Those are some of the tried and true, old fashioned methods.
Writing workshops are a new way of learning, relatively speaking. There are different types, and not all are suitable or convenient in terms of the type of experience you’re going to get.
In the early 70’s, I took a few in my college, taught by working literary writers rather than professional writing teachers or professors with a few writing credits. This was before the writing workshop industry as it stands today really took off.
I’ve used workshops at NYC’s New School a couple of times to re-boot the writing career (as have others I’ve met there), working with the likes of Shawna McCarthy and Terry Bisson.
As part of the writing group that was formed from one of those classes, I’ve also taken commissioned weekend retreat workshops by Nancy Kress.
I can say they were all helpful, both as a way of receiving concrete, storytelling advice directly related to my writing, and as a supportive experience that helped me define myself as a writer.
So writing workshops can work. Before you attend, you should understand how.
They function, at the very least, by providing critiques of written work provided by the teacher and other students. The feedback you receive, therefore, is only as good as the teacher and students, so some care should be shown before throwing yourself at the mercy of others.
The critiques should be positive, in the sense that they identify and isolate problem areas and offer solutions. Unlike editorial feedback you’re likely to get from certain famously cranky editors, they shouldn’t be personal attacks on your talent, skills, or general demeanor.
Structure should be provided by the instructor regarding feedback – what to look for, problem solving, etc. In short, the skills the teacher presents are then used in a lab situation to dissect the inner workings of a student writer.
You want feedback. You get feedback.
Overly self-critical writers should be careful. Some workshop modalities like the 6-week intensive Clarion experience can overwhelm and shut-down creative faculties. I’ve had friends who have gone through the course who needed a year to recover.
Personalities and styles emerge. Readers sometimes focus on character, or plot, or setting. There’s always at least one grammarian. Somebody else yearns for a sensory cue every page. Inevitably, other writers re-write your story into something they’d like to do, and you do the same for their work. There are times when one understands what you are talking about.
Here is where you run into a danger in workshopping: too much feedback. Sometimes this can be worse than wrong-headed feedback. There is a point of view (Heinlein’s, as a matter of fact, and probably a good number of the writers) that holds to the perspective that the only person worth listening to when it comes to revisions is the one signing the check.
Fine. But if you never run into anyone willing to sign a check, there might be a problem.
The strength of the writing workshop is in the guiding hand of the individual running it, and in the editorial voices you learn from, even adopt into your own problem-solving toolkit, your internal advisory board.
Workshops can also challenge assumptions, break unconscious and unhealthy habits. They can get writers out of ruts; inspire out-of-box thinking.
Consensus rules. A band of would-be writers and experienced readers get together to hone their analytical storytelling skills and prove their writing chops. A number of professional, award-winning writers belong to their own, semi-private writing circles. So there is value in the endeavor, if you’re willing to accept randomly incomprehensible critiques and the unexpected revelation that your brilliance is, alas, short a few watts. At least you’ll have an idea why a story failed, and suggestions for how to approach your creative efforts next time.
Some more advice regarding workshops.
In evaluating them, one of the first things I’d consider is who is teaching – writing and editing professionals who have experience teaching are probably ideal. Nancy Kress, for example, is an award-winning writer who was also a teacher and has written clear, concise books based on her workshop experiences.
Over at Storytellersunplugged, there are a number of teachers who have over the years participated. Mort Castle is legendary, teaching at Columbia College in Chicago and at various conventions – he’ll be running a workshop at the Horror Writers Association Stoker Awards Weekend in L.A., June 12-14, 2009.
Michael Arnzen, award winning writer and poet, is a professor at Seton Hill University and teaches writing, and frequently brings in other genre names.
Time limits for giving feedback are always good.
Sometimes, workshops function by having the writer read their work and then the rest of the group offers their feedback, but I never understood this kind of work. If you like the idea, go for it, but personally, I find a stack of manuscripts marked up by my peers much more valuable. And, in giving feedback, I really prefer the experience of reading to listening. The reader’s voice and dramatic intonations, or lack of them, can mask faults or strengths.
Ideally, a workshop group should comprise of a healthy mix of published and unpublished writers. Be wary of too many inexperienced students, or too many students with long workshop resumes and no publishing credits or even the scars of rejection slips.
You want to leave a workshop energized, inspired, motivated. You want to walk away thinking you’re closer to making a breakthrough sale, whether it’s the first or the 200th.
Ask questions about the business, marketing, and publishing.
If you’re interested in a specific genre, there’s bound to be a workshop/writing class somewhere catering your need. These kinds of workshops are particularly valuable in terms of marketing information – romance writers rule in their sphere.
Make friends. Build a network. You’re with professionals and would-be pros. You never know who is going to edit an anthology, or introduce you to an agent or editor.
Genre conventions often have workshops, so you can be sure writers who know the business inside and out are running them. There are distractions, perhaps, but also a bar full of other writers, editors, agents and publishers nearby, all brimming with tales of wonder and woe. Not a bad place to pick up a few tips, get some feedback, and listen very carefully to what is being said all around you.
Colleges almost always have writing workshops, though you should exercise care before registering to make sure what you want to write will be understood. Genre is not always welcome, everywhere. And if you don’t want to take a genre approach, be just as careful. With so many workshops available, not all teachers are equal.
One of the advantages of a college environment is that the coursework is spread over a period of time, giving you the opportunity to get to know both teacher and classmates. It was out of such an experience that I became involved in an ongoing writers workshop in NYC, founded in one of Shawna McCarthy’s classes.
Besides colleges and conventions, workshops pop up in libraries, adult education classes, even bookstores. They pop up independently, becoming on-going entities, like the Garden State Horror Writers, a highly organized and accomplished band of writers (http://www.gshw.net/) with workshops, guest speakers, field trips, etc.
In my bad old days, there were workshops through the mail, like the Science Fiction and Fantasy Workshop, with a newsletter and a manuscript exchange program by snail mail.
These days, there are a host of internet/email workshops, some of which I’ll list below.
Ongoing workshops can become lifestyles, with social activities taking precedence over the original goal of helping each other becoming published writers. Join what you need to join.
Another workshop experience is the weekend to weeks-long retreats. Again, they come in all flavors of genre and mode, and are advertised online and in magazines like Poets and Writers, Writers Digest, The Writer. Unlike college courses, where writing samples are not always required and people who want to write can sometimes be treated like a potential revenue stream, retreats often screen participants for basic skills and compatibility in terms of storytelling.
Depending on time, money, and your nature, they are useful options.
In terms of producing working professional genre writers over the course of decades, the original Clarion workshop can’t be beat.
The Odyssey fantasy workshop at http://www.sff.net/odyssey/ is a more recent addition, but the philosophy is similar.
Borderlands boot camp has evolved recently as an active force, particularly for the horror genre.
Links to online workshops can be found here:
Use your Google skills to find more. As always, investigate instructors and users.
Fees are usual for live courses and retreats, naturally. But be wary of critique services or, worse, agents who charge to evaluate your work for publication.
Real agents don’t charge.
There are professional writers who offer personal editorial services. As with any instructor, check for experience.
Don’t believe the hype. Writing is a noble endeavor, a worthy creative outlet, a hard profession. Making a living at the game is incredibly difficult. Writers frequently supplement their incomes with other business or jobs, or enjoy support from family. Freelance writing means just that – taking writing jobs wherever and whenever you can. It’s a hustle.
Know your goal when it comes to writing.
Be open to hearing about and understanding your weaknesses.
Explore. Take creative risks.
Be prepared to sacrifice to work on the craft.
Oh yeah, and do sit down and work on that craft.
ChiZine Fiction Editor, Stoker and International Horror Guild Award-winning horror, suspense and SF writer Michael Marano will be offering a new class on “Writing the Smart Page-Turner” at Grub Street, Inc., a non-profit creative writing center dedicated to nurturing writers and connecting readers with the wealth of writing talent in the Boston area. Grub’s mission is to support creative writers at all stages of their development so that they can achieve their goals of publication, social and professional networking, gainful employment in the field, and/or personal enrichment. For more information, contact Grub Street via their web site at http://www.grubstreet.org Even if the class is over, this is a good resource for local folks.