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Advice for Fiction Writers Taking Creative-Writing Workshops Editorial Opinion

William H. Coles

Many writers attending workshops online and in classroom experience frustration with: 1) quality of teaching; 2) the experience, expertise and accomplishments of the instructors; and 3) the heavy reliance on student critiques delivered mostly unsupervised by instructors.

In the main, workshops, both academic and private, will not provide knowledge for students to achieve high levels of storytelling and writing.  And in the difficult skill of storytelling, incompetent instruction can lead a student in unhelpful directions that can derail talent. 

Students need to collect knowledge and develop skills and attitudes before attending writers' workshops, to prevent misdirection for career success and to deflect unjustified feelings of failure and inability.  Students can protect themselves from negative workshop experiences by developing skills and attitudes toward creating fiction before attending.  Here are few basic essentials frequently not well taught in workshops and that are best well understood before taking workshops: 1) Characterization, 2) Purpose, 3) Writing beyond self, 4) Drama, 5) Narration 6) Learning from admired masters 7) Storytelling modes.

1. Characterization.

Learn to build characters from story actions, emotions, and thoughts.  Particularization in descriptive narrative is important to help establish the character in the reader's mind but needs experienced modulation so as to not be overdone. 

On one hand, character building is a sculptor working in clay adding characteristics piece by piece, always aware of the whole.  One the other hand, the awareness of character as revelation by the student is also essential–like meeting a stranger at a cocktail party and discovering who she or he is sentence by sentence, idea by idea.  In many ways, revealing a character is like shelling a pecan to savor the nut. 

Building and revealing are the tools of the writer; good judgment and creative imagination are essential with tethered reliance on narrative description from reality alone, which is more intuitive to write.

2. Purpose.

Determine a purpose: what is it you want to do with your writing?  Most rewarding for literary writers is fiction that affects the reader–moves them and enlightens them in some way, usually about what it means to be human.  In literary fiction, characterization almost always supersedes plot to achieve literary excellence.  But  no matter what the storytelling goals, before writers start to write, they must know what they want to achieve . . . and whether it's genre, memoir, or literary, they should be in control.  Most workshops, mainly for financial reasons, teach creative writing as if there is no difference between fiction, memoir, nonfiction, and essay.  Students need to cull those skills that relate to fiction, or whatever their goal is for their writing.

3) Writing beyond self.

Learn to write from a broad view of the world.  Separate you, as the author, from the narrative telling of the story so that the characters and story you deliver are not just an author repeating his or her life and trying to make it significant, an error that leads to sentimentality and insignificance.  Significant literary characters and story need to come from more than the author, although the author, of course, is still creating this knowledge of the world and life experience.  Here's a common quote: Your character's have to be better and smarter than you (about story and the story world).  Don't put yourself, or your world exclusively, in your writing.  Reach out for ideas and actions.

4) Drama.

Write dramatic story and prose.  Fiction is drama.  Drama is conflict, action, and resolution that results in logical, meaningful reversals.  Therefore, focus as much on learning dramatic storytelling with meaningful lasting effects on readers as much as learning craft.  Learn to write prose with momentum and how to insert conflict and action into writing.  Learn judicious use of poetics so that immersion in lyricism does not swamp the effective clarity of prose and delivery of story, often not emphasized in workshops.   Drama is rarely given the intensity it deserves in workshops, a habit that tends to emphasize less effective techniques of storytelling by default.

5) Narration

Consider narration of literary stories as an art form.  Best stories have a strong narrator presence and provide narrator's perceptions.  It is more than conquering POV; it includes control of voice, attention to suspension of disbelief, addressing reliability, and effective use of psychic and physical distance.  Those who do master narration continue to refine it over the span of a career to apply techniques effectively and seamlessly.  In workshops, instructors frequently reveal inadequate knowledge of narrative control of a story, which results in dictums and ultimatums, usually about POV, that are wrong for student advancement. 

6) Learning from admired masters.

Determine what great authors you feel accomplished effects you admire in readers–enjoyment, enlightenment, emotion, memorability–and then dissect how you think they accomplished that to direct your leaning to be able to create for the reader effectively. 

Successful  authors learn and understand humanity and the metaphysical questions about life–they write from the world, not self–and they learn to create stories delivered with the unique and highly effective techniques of objective prose writing, learning to make all the thousands of effective decisions about craft, life, emotions, drama, and clarity in communication necessary to achieve authorial success.  This knowledge is rarely available in workshops, and students who do not have a solid understanding of what has gone before can be led by instructors to admire and imitate authors that work against a student achieving their individual, specific goals for writing.

7) Storytelling modes

Know thoroughly the essential modes of telling a story, and know how to identify what mode is predominant: diction, theme, POV, characterization, plot, imagery.  Workshop leaders tend to have experience and express prejudice for one mode, a deficiency that can direct a student away from mastering all modes of story delivery.


Should a writer take a workshop?  Of course, but only with realistic expectations of adding to their knowledge, and not expecting to carry away anything but suggestions for improvement that may or may not be beneficial for their careers.  Workshops should be an addition to a student's consistent practice, seeking quality mentors, learning storytelling, mastering craft and studying the literature to crystallize what style and type storytelling is desired.  And always consider that contemporary workshops do not teach basics well in a field where lack of knowledge and preparation by a teacher can default to dictums and ultimatums about writing that are not easy to interpret and can be dangerous to a writer's improvement.

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