Posts Tagged ‘workshop’

Summer Workshops: Tips for Learning Literary Fiction Editorial Opinion

Wednesday, April 20th, 2011
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

Rapping on the Teaching of Creative Writing Editorial Opinion

Wednesday, February 3rd, 2010
William H. Coles

The backbone of writer failure may well be the inability to learn and/or the lack of opportunities for beneficial study.  This may not be the fault of the writer.  There are few resources to learn fictional prose story telling that is memorable and significant.  Consider these learning sources:

1) Learning in writing groups is the blind leading the blind through a maze of bear traps and landmines.  No one would believe a group of briefly educated humans who wanted to be neurosurgeons would get together weekly to discuss the experimental surgery they have been practicing in their garages and basements.  Yet, both surgery and writing require study with experts as well as knowledge learned from many intellectual and skilled disciplines over many years.  Writing groups, plump with inexperience and discordant ideas, are almost never of any useful value to the serious writer.

2) Learning in organized workshops is the carpenter teaching musicians with hammers and saws to play Beethoven’s Archduke piano trio.  Even in high profile traditional workshops, teachers are rarely capable of developing the special talents of an individual writer to achieve creation of an art form (a fictional literary story).  Fundamentally, there is no right way that is applicable to all.  As a result, many teachers use the wrong tools for the wrong job, and their teaching is little more than useless for the dedicated fiction writer.  At worst, the incompetent teacher can, and does, inappropriately humiliate and discourage a talented writer in the workshop setting.  And these incompetents often descend into dogmatic pronouncements that stifle understanding and creativity.

(3) Learning from popular textbooks on fiction writing, which–with a few significant exceptions–are often writing efforts of poor writers with teaching appointments or responsibilities who write the learning of fiction as Lego instruction, with rigid rules and inflexible actions, like assembling a bicycle from parts while reading a fold-over slip of paper with fine-print instructions–and a diagram–on Christmas morning.  Some of these authors write texts composed of famous authors' stories with personal, short, subjective-value comments, but with little to no insight into a writer's process.

(4) Learning in MFA programs is not of guaranteed quality, and may not just be mediocre, but detrimental to a writer's improvement.  MFA programs, many hastily formed by universities, colleges and organizations to maintain relevance and solvency, often hire teachers untrained as educators, and untalented as writers, to teach creative writing. This practice  results in suppressing understanding of the complexities of the art of fiction and the vibrant essence of great story telling.  More than a few traditional programs are so inbred by tired, untalented teachers choosing and supporting unimaginative writers like themselves that the writing from these programs takes on a clone-like mediocrity that brands its origin.  By default, these educators promote teaching of scholarly nonfiction and pop-culture memoir as fiction, without the quality of story writing equal to that of imaginative fiction.

Creative writing programs labeled as "academic" emphasize lyricism over drama, often prefer obscure to clear prose, and mistakenly believe that a lack of understanding by a reader is the desired result of their own "writer-intellectual" superiority.  They teach revision as grammar and syntax, metaphor and oxymoron-excessive prose, rather than the dynamic and suspenseful expression of the desires and conflicts of characters about whom the reader has come to care, like, or at least respect through the story. Some academic workshops digress in education by students sitting around a table with eyes closed and holding hands for long silent periods in the hope that images and words will float up from the unconscious to write about, like images sought in a Victorian séance to communicate with the dead.  Some highly acclaimed academic workshops spend a week policing manuscripts for point of view inconsistencies, while the needs that should be addressed are imagining effective story structure and learning how to build memorable characters through meticulously crafted, interrelated, character actions in dramatic scenes.  In some workshops, a teacher presents a personal memoir story, and then details how to turn it into fiction by shifting the time line and changing the prose emphasis of certain events, teaching that might well derail a student's progress in learning to write their own great fiction.

Academic workshops and courses also fail to demand a writer have a thoroughly understood purpose for writing a story as well as, on a construction level, all the prose elements of that story.  This results in picking at prose when the writer hasn’t decided what  he or she is really writing about, and how  he/she will achieve a story purpose.  It is almost unarguable: Failure to find and build purpose in storytelling makes coherency of a prose fictional story with effective characters, plots or emotional arcs, unlikely.  And it is not uncommon that the poorly educated, poorly trained teachers who are allowed the privilege to teach creative writing are guilty of:

(1) Ignoring emotional character development for the ease of plotting from life experience.

(2) Accentuating the cute, the bizarre, and the shocking (which have only temporary effects on value in story telling).

(3) Failing to develop author understanding of the human soul, its flaws, and what really is responsible for its strengths.

(4) Ignoring the value of sophisticated narration.

(5) Thinking that lyricism alone can sustain great story effectiveness.

Quality fiction as an art form has especially suffered from the high-profile, traditional MFA programs where graduation almost guarantees publication of the work generated in the program.  The published work is rarely quality writing or storytelling.  Once published, eager, unaware readers perceive literary fiction as obtuse in meaning, boring, and with pseudo-intellectual ideation.  Many dedicated readers have turned away from reading literary fiction for enjoyment (and agents refuse to try to sell it),  while the authors from these programs read to fellow graduates or a small group of readers who admire writing credentials and rationalize that the quality is better than it is.  The detriment to fiction as an art form has been significant, and for the writer seeking to achieve their personal best, MFA programs can permanently derail that possibility.

With so few valuable or easily-accessed resources for learning available to the fiction writer, only one reliable way to learn emerges.  Each writer must discover from those authors who have gone before, what it is about the writing of a successful literary art form that will be useful for their own careers as contemporary writers.  It's not just copying a favorite author's style, either.  It's mastering understanding of knowledge, intellect, the environment and opinions (and attitudes) of the author's times; the emotional complexities of the author that affected the writing; the associations with other writers (Examples: Bloomsbury group, Shelley’s Swiss mountain writing buddies), and the effects of societies' mores (Examples: Austen, James, Charlotte and Emily Bronte, Forester, Chekhov, Flaubert).

Authors need to be curious.  How did they do it?  Then, what can I learn from them so I can do it?  How can I, based on what I've learned from others, create fiction that engages, entertains and stimulates thoughtful responses about human existence?  One key question has to be addressed repeatedly with each work studied: What were these authors' purposes in writing?  One dominant purpose persistently stands out for all:  to tell a story where something happens that is meaningful and entertaining to the reader.  And without exception, successful fiction writers write to please a reader, not all readers, but specific readers seeking enjoyment through reading.  Now, the beginning writer must learn, not only how to construct sentences and paragraphs, but how stories and the creation of stories in the prose medium can be best crafted to please a reader.  It's the way they imaginatively form and narrate a story.  The craft of prose, although vitally important, is secondary.

This is an excerpt from the essay, "Anatomy of a Wannabe Literary Fiction Writer," by William H. Coles

Reevaluating Student Critiques in Creative-Writing Workshops Editorial Opinion

Wednesday, August 19th, 2009
William H. Coles

Students are not experts in how to write literary fictional stories, yet student critiques are, to different degrees, a major part of almost all creative-writing workshop experiences.    In these workshops, students are given the opportunity to act as experts making comments about quality of writing and what is needed for excellence.   Some might argue that critiquing is essential for learning, but for unaccomplished critiquers to critique beginning writers in workshop settings is not a valuable activity for anyone.

There are many reasons to avoid student-critique based workshops.  To start, student critiques may have detrimental effects.  Students often give vague or wrong advice about how to master the difficult art of creating a great literary story.  Frequently, students judge work on what they like or dislike about a story.  This approach can easily be perceived as personal criticism of the author, rather than the manuscript, that is hurtful.  This is so common that many writers dread in-class evaluation of their manuscripts.  (The valuable critique is whether the author achieved what he or she was trying to achieve, why or why not, and how should his or her goals be adjusted.  This requires objective evaluation by experts, not students.)

Over the last few years, another negative aspect of student critiques has developed.  Some  students attend workshops for the opportunity of a forum for their ideas and opinions about writing.  These students have little desire, talent, or passion to become good writers, and they  find joy in being allowed to enter a student-teacher relationship without qualifications.  These critiquers are often wrong about facts on the page, often fail to read the works of others carefully, and are often poor writers.  Yet, they frequently express destructive comments about subject matter and process – particularly narration, POV and drama.

To make matters worse, there is the natural tendency for students to form cliques that bolster confidence in speaking out, but this increased confidence often results in unjustified and inaccurate observations about a student’s writing that are rarely effective, and, at times, are hurtful.  These cliques can be subtle, but are quickly established as friendships and attractions develop in workshops.


Coppin' a'tude About Poetry Contests and Fees and a severe caution issued Guest View

Monday, March 2nd, 2009

Thanks for cc'ing me on the issue of entry fees for writing contests. I'm letting Doug Rutledge in on this as well because he and I have had some substantial conversation on the issue of contests and fees as well. Both of us simply exploring the subject and attempting to give thoughtful consideration to both sides of any debate. Doug is the current President of the OPA (Ohio Poetry Association). You probably know that. I'm going to make some simple statements that might seem a bit contrary to each other–some of them. I mean "If I think this, well, then, why do I think that?" I do more arguing with myself than I do with others. But I don't wear religious brooches on a chain, I wear the question mark.

Pudding House charges $15 for the entry fee for our chapbook competition each year. It feels right-on. It's the lowest amount of money I'm willing to do that work for. And at Pudding House an imperfect poem can even win. I’m not looking for perfect, I’m looking for artful. I am one who ends sentences with prepositions.

We make enough to publish the winner's chapbook, give the winner prize money, and to publish additional authors' chapbooks that got notice, some years as many as 25 or 30 of the manuscripts get published. Last year only three or four. Some of it might pay me for a bit of my time SOME YEARS and there is nothing at all wrong with that. This IS my job, my business, and they who write against the entry fees for competitions I suppose would rather see the competitions or the press fold? What else could the opponent possibly want? Editors, judges, and publishers have to get paid somehow. Pudding House is a sole proprietorship, not a nonprofit organization. We aren't a charity and nowhere is it written that a literary venture SHOULD be. (more…)

Top-Ten Rules for Fiction Workshops Article About Writing Better

Friday, January 9th, 2009
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.


The Devil in Literary Contests Editorial Opinion

Thursday, January 8th, 2009
William H. Coles

Writers desperate for recognition need to face the reality of contests as an increasingly common source of income for magazine publishers. For an active writer, yearly costs to submit work to contests – rapidly becoming the main way for new writers to get published – can mount to hundreds of dollars. No writer knows the value of this expense:  there is a disturbing lack of transparent disclosure of contest motives that seem more profit oriented than a means to attract good authors. The contests have an aura of lotteries, and writers are forced to gamble with buried, fixed odds. There is no reliable way to determine the chances of winning or getting published. This will discourage writers, and threaten prose as an important, but beleaguered, resource of great fictional stories.



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