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Summer Workshops: Tips for Learning Literary Fiction Editorial Opinion

William H. Coles


If you'll be attending a workshop this summer, here are a few ideas to consider.

1. Try to attend workshops where the purpose is to learn to write a literary fictional story (serious-purpose, character-based, and structured story creation). Many creative-writing workshops also teach memoir, creative nonfiction, some historical fiction and genre, in addition to literary fiction.   Classes with multipurpose agendas are a disadvantage to the serious literary fiction writer.

2. Take notes on every idea expressed in class sessions.  Review these in a private review later.  Categorize ideas for practice, further reading or consideration, and discussion.  Based on your notes and actions, write a daily summary  of your learning from a session as a permanent record for future reference.

3. Student  comments are required on most manuscripts and in-class exercises.   Don't let your own subjective likes and dislikes swamp your critiquing or your learning, and don't respond to subjective responses of others with your own subjective approval or disapproval.  Value judgments based on personal taste are not useful for learning.  Avoid comments like: "I don't like stories about fishing.", or "I don't care for priests as characters,", or "I'm tired of dysfunction families or abused children." or "Who cares if the gray wolf is on the endangered species list?"

Instead, look to the core of great literary stories.   Ask: What is purpose of the writer ?  Did something happen?  Did the major character change in some significant way?  Identify ways to improve:  story structure, characterization, prose craft, plotting, clarifying ideas and images.   (For a learning resource, click here).

4.  Don't think in terms of good and bad writing.  Think in terms of effective or not effective writing for what you think the writer was trying to do.  Then determine if improvement is dependent on improved storytelling (thinking), better characterization (imagining), better focus on story (ideation and information delivery), or more precise prose (craft).

5.  Ask the question when evaluating stories whether in scene action or narrative description suit the purpose of the scene to develop story and character.

6.  When your own prose story or fiction writing is critiqued, never be defensive.  Don't say things like: "Well, I worked on that for two weeks." "That's not what I read on the Internet." or "It really happened (implying, therefore, any criticism is unjust). "   Remember, good fiction is not described truth.

There are more than a few classmates who will be attending class more for the joy they receive in critiquing others rather  than for learning writing–it seems to boost their self-perceived qualities of their works and talents–and who will take self-important attitudes that can be distracting and useless, will irritate you, and be unhelpful for your improvement.  Ignore these critiques.   Never succumb to action based on unreasonable or unfounded critiques specifically; it is dangerous for your career as a writer.

For the most part, sort out objective helpful comments unfettered with thoughtless value judgments.  Don't be discouraged if you find less than 20% of student comments useful.   Instead of depending on student comments, encourage and direct the instructors to reflect and teach.

Good luck!  Keep focused.  Don't let socialization and networking-to-advance-your-reputation swamp your goals to improve your writing and storytelling.  Meticulously summarize and record every positive idea you captured during the sessions for future, frequent reference.  And if you have an unsatisfactory experience, share it with other writer-friends so they will not waste their time and money.


For further thoughts about workshops, you might be interested in these essays and articles:

Why Contemporary Literary Fiction Fails to Achieve Excellence

Exposing the Dark Side of Academic Fiction Workshops

Workshops: I. Making the Right Choice

Workshops: II. Making the Experience Valuable

Workshops: III. How to Critique a Manuscript

Workshops: V. Top-Ten Rules for Fiction Workshops

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2 Responses to “Summer Workshops: Tips for Learning Literary Fiction”

  1. Jarvis Says:

    I agree the concept of more eyes on a piece of writing is beneficial, but there is such a thing as too many tips. Smaller focus groups of 2-3 would be ideal.

  2. William Coles Says:

    Agree. Thanks for comment. WHC

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