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Top-Ten Rules for Fiction Workshops Article About Writing Better

William H. Coles

Although creative-writing fiction-workshops vary greatly, the general format is a student manuscript critiqued by fellow students under the direction of a leader. Exercises generated from prompts may be added (at times, workshops may focus exclusively on exercises and omit manuscript review). Required reading of famous authors may be discussed, but this is surprisingly infrequent. Lectures are rare:  didactic teaching is replaced by a loose Socratic method where questions to students may be abstract – "What did you think of this?" – or based on personal preference rather than writer improvement – "Did you think the serial killer was a sympathetic character?” Student readings may be allowed for short periods, typically around five minutes. Readings by faculty and known authors are common, but rarely do they present effective fictional stories.

The predominance of workshops for teaching creative writing has not improved the learning opportunities for students seeking to write imagined, significant stories that provide enlightenment and a very special enjoyment for the reader. Improvement is needed in how workshops are structured and how they are marketed, to assure students of a valuable education. Presented below are principles and rationale that need to be adopted and advertised to better train the serious writer of literary fiction.

1. No student critiques.

Students critiquing manuscripts rarely contribute to improving the skills of the writer whose manuscript is under scrutiny. Personal taste in topics, character types or settings frequently is the source for comments generated from students and is not helpful. Many students cannot create a well-written work of fiction, and they will grab one rule they think is the key to improvement and apply it relentlessly to their critiques. This results in comments such as, “Outrageous deviation from point of view here,” or “Narrator intrusion! Delete!” In other words, students tend to apply a cherished, self-satisfying rule without understanding the complicated process of writing fiction.

Invariably, students’ critiques make the writer feel bad and inadequate because students (untrained and often unsuccessful in writing) tend to be inaccurate and unfair in their perception of why they think a story doesn’t work for them.

Students also tend to be competitive; they want to succeed in being the “best critiquer” (perceived as harsh) and compete by comparing the manuscript under discussion to their own writing and dissing anything that does meet what they are creating – an attitude that justifies (and they think glorifies) their own work. This often results in meanness, which is never helpful.

Student contributions to fellow writers are most valuable as alternative ways to accomplish a clear purpose to the writing, and to improve and assure pleasant and positive effects on the reader. Leaders must direct comments to be constructive without condemnation, and should be experienced, and trained, in conducting a workshop. There should never be, even implied, a this-is-wrong attitude to teaching that is so common in today’s workshops.

Careful vetting of student’s work and experience is essential before being accepted for admission. Alternates should be selected to fill in if a student must cancel his or her attendance.

Workshop participants need to be diverse in thinking, age, education, background and gender.

2. Emphasize fictional story.

Workshops must emphasize writing story and creating fiction (imagined) rather than encouraging descriptive prose of personal life experiences or opinions. Emphasize story structure, emotional arcs, core character desire and character driven plots – plus, and most importantly – effects on the reader. Instructors should deemphasize right voice and consistent tone, while stressing the difference between sentiment and sentimentality, and suppressing the latter. The curriculum should also systematically present major skills of fiction writing:  clarity, momentum, conflict, dialogue, transition, timeline, pacing, objectivity, narration, and others.

3. Eliminate ineffective gimmicks and prompts.

Gimmicks and prompts are rarely effective as techniques for initiating and sustaining the writing of great stories. Fiction must thrive on discovering something to say, then using the written story to create emotions and intellectual enlightenment in the reader. Prompts and gimmicks do not do this well. Almost always, prompts call for descriptions of characters and events from experience, which results in telling, not showing, and supplants fiction with memoir. Of course, reality can, and often does, stimulate the best-imagined fiction. But reality should not be the source of a fictional story; a fictional story has the imagined elements that provide the dramatization so important in successful fiction. Writing from experience alone hinders drama, blunts conflict and restricts meaningful resolution; so prompts that depend on personal events should not be encouraged. Instead, seek emotional motivational elements and core desires that are at work in a personal experience, discover what these elements and desires might contribute to a story with significance and meaning, and then learn how to structure the story from the imagination for maximum effects on the reader.

4. Temper the importance of the craft of prose.

The craft (skill in doing something) of prose should be an essential part of workshop experience, but should not override the importance of structure (story, scenes and prose elements). Leaders must strive to teach easy-to-read, momentum-packed prose, and always tie prose into a definitive story-purpose for everything that goes on the page.

5. Study only structured stories.

Students should consider only a prose story with a beginning, middle and end – and meaning – that seeks to provide enlightenment and change in our human existence in both characters and readers. In a fiction workshop, it is inappropriate to teach the prose techniques of memoir, creative nonfiction or essay. Most especially, instructors should not confuse a student of fiction with praise and analysis of prose that does not fall within the definition of fiction (imagination) and story (a dramatic series of events imagined for logical and significant reader effect).

At the end of the workshop, students should take home a new draft of the submitted story, one that they have restructured with new awareness of character effectiveness and plot momentum (rather than prose adjustment comments in the margins). For each writer, instructors should clearly identify alternatives generated by leaders and students for story improvement.

6. Teach action and drama, not just description and telling.

Workshops should be structured to eliminate the idea that great stories arise from a writer telling a reader how the significance of an event made the writer think and feel. Instead, the instruction and exercises should encourage writers to be objective, and to find the action in the story that will create change in the reader’s mind and heart. Great writing affects readers; it should not strive to convince them.

7. Don’t promote and charge for free-time for writing.

The teaching experience should be continuous. Leaders should not believe that structuring writing time into the workshop – something students can do on their own time for free – is as valuable as instruction in the art of creating fictional stories. Workshops have the responsibility to teach, not provide protected time away from family and work. (Students should not pay for protected-time workshop experience. It has little value.)

8. Make readings an educational part of workshop experience.

Workshop organizers should include readings by successful writers of fictional stories (not poets, memoirists, or essayists.) Presenters should be invited for their skills; promotion of a poor presenter’s new work should not be allowed.

Organizers should promote student readings, but only as practice in instruction of performance skills, and not as a way to read random, isolated segments of work in progress. Student readings promote effective presentation skills and help fledgling writers learn to interest and entertain an audience (a goal rarely, if ever, achieved in most contemporary workshops).

9. Do not promote vacation and fun as part of workshop.

Optimal learning is the goal of  the workshop, and it should be conducted to provide that. It should be an opportunity to work pleasurably, not party. A workshop poolside on the deck of a cruise ship in the Bahamas does not support good learning. Workshops should be comfortable, with a single large table and comfortable chairs. Refreshments should be available in the room. Lavatories should be close to the classroom. Copiers and internet access should be available in the room, or an adjacent room. Blackboards that are easily erased and projection facilities (especially for film examples of story) should be available. Dining and accommodations should be comfortable and close to classroom, at least within walking distance. A responsible administrator who is not a workshop leader should be available at all times to assist students. Side trips to tourist highlights should not be a part of the experience, and, although friendships should be encouraged by meals together and acceptable accommodations in the same building, only one party or gala event should be provided, always late in the workshop experience. An introductory social event is often useful.

10. Limit number of students.

Workshops should be limited to six to eight participants for one to two leaders. This allows detailed alternatives and suggestions for each student’s submitted manuscript, and reasonable time to address each student’s progress. This is not profit-oriented thinking. If more students are needed to cover expenses, auditors who do not submit manuscripts and do not contribute (but have manuscripts and discussion materials) should be considered. The classroom should be arranged so auditors can comfortably sit around the periphery of the class of core-students.

The idea of including auditors makes workshops more effective. Participants can be limited to one level of career advancement, preferably experienced so sufficient craft skills are established, and non-participating students who may still be developing basic skills can learn more advanced techniques.

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5 Responses to “Top-Ten Rules for Fiction Workshops”

  1. Nancy Zafris Says:

    Bill says some good as well as provocative things about writing workshops. As someone who teaches each year at the Kenyon Review workshop, I am always trying to figure out a way to make the workshop dynamic rather than static. Having the participants generate new work rather than discussing already completed work keeps the workshop going forward in a productive way. To that end, I do use prompts, so I am in somewhat of a disagreement with Bill over that. I use prompts that are far afield of the writer's experience, and I have found that they help the writers find a conduit to express the stories they have been longing to tell. Bill's emphasis on story structure, on the one hand, might seem to value plot over character. I'm not sure that's what he's saying; if so, I disagree with that. On the other hand, I've always found that in workshops stories tend toward less happening than more. There is usually already a deep commitment to character and description. To bring that even more alive, the story usually benefits from structuring and plotting. I've had only a few students who were mainly plot, and that's a whole other issue. As a teacher of fiction, the one area I have not been able to address satisfactorily is the novel. I've been wondering for years how to do a novel workshop. I'm going to test one out this September with a friend of mine who runs a writing retreat in Virginia called The Porches. We're going to do three writers at a time for three intensive days. I'm not sure how to do it otherwise. I don't think a regular workshop would work. All the students would read everybody else's novel? That's a lot of reading. And here, in the novel case, I do concur here with Bill's comment about student critiques. Having everybody critique could create havoc when it comes to novels. Has anybody had experience with this? Agreement? Disagreement?

  2. William Coles Says:

    Nancy,

    Thanks for comment. Your prompts are more exercises than gimmicks, and the value of the prompts you present at the Kenyon workshops is one of the many reasons I’ve come back to Kenyon and your teaching for so many years. My concern is that writers encouraged by gimmicky prompts often generate the search for finding their inner self and the stories that created inner selves; this is often a misdirection that doesn’t help the writing. Anything that suggests an experience that produced a feeling in the writer will be recreated and valuable to a reader when described on the page is detrimental, I believe. Prompts are useful, I think, when they identify areas to explore human motivations and desires–and the human spirit in conflict–that will contribute to a story. You taught me that.

    I know you think I list toward plot, but my belief is character is everything in the great literary fictional story. Only when well developed, interesting, (a little heroic, inherently amusing, consistent in their moral applications to life, and active), can characters drive the action-dramatic plot necessary for memorable literary fiction. Is is essential, that characters, I think, need to be developed through action and conflict, in addition to descriptive narrative. All this means something needs to happen—a lot, but does not mean plot dominates. In literary fiction, I believe plot is characters forced to make decisions that cause plot changes and progress. In genre fiction, circumstances and environment drive plot, and characters are actors on a stage often preset with a plot contrivance.

    I’ve always admired your top-story/bottom-story concepts, and your insistence that your class is a fiction class and not a memoir class. Thanks for all you’ve given me over the years in the understanding of what writing should be.

    Best,

    BILL

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  5. Chez Says:

    The writing/ info on this site is pure gold.
    My story was sneaked out of the pile in a supposedly random selection and given to her writers group friend, who read it, mis-pronouncing common words and ignoring all punctuation. It is the worse feeling I ever had – I was stripped raw & naked in a crowd. And then – everyone critiquing it & everyone else's and what did anybody know!!? It got worse but that's enough! Never ever ever

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