Posts Tagged ‘workshops’

Thoughts on Fiction and Story: Response to a Workshop Question Editorial Opinion


Saturday, September 7th, 2013
William H. Coles

Question submitted to workshop.

In a short story, is it NECESSARY to have the character on a mission trying to accomplish something? William Trevor and Alice Munro have so often been cited as masters of the short story form, and often I can't figure out what their characters are "up to." What are they trying "to do." It just feels like they show characters living their lives. Let me know what you think? (Submission anonymous)

Answer

I admit I come with a very narrow aesthetic sense at this. It’s story that makes me warm and fuzzy, stories where something happens and the characters are unique and fighting with often inadequate skills against insurmountable odds. The contemporary short story seems to have settled into character sketch with narrative description, or heavy dependence on event description based on a “real” “made-up” person or remembered happening supported by lyrical prose usually without action, seemingly without purpose, and very inconsistent on effective imagery.

For me, fiction is communication between two human beings, author and reader, and I believe successful connection is best achieved with the ability to please the reader with fiction techniques and purposeful thinking. The fictional story is created with a purpose—to engage, entertain, and enlighten. Characters need to have desires that fuel motives for action when the character is presented with a conflict and characters need to have the will to try to solve a problem and make change in some way. Do contemporary fiction writers create stories? It’s rare. They simply tell stories part-real or imagined. I’ve never had pleasure in reading Trevor or Munro; as you’ve pinpointed for yourself, I’m not fascinated by narrative description of past events and told emotions of characters as if a reader is forced to watch reality TV. But I feel it’s heretical to say so, and hasten to say my views are in a minority and probably archaic for modern reader and author temperaments.

I don’t believe fiction is a good medium for missions that imply “I’m going to tell you how to do something or believe in something,” and are usually authorial in source. I like characters, with the reader by their sides, solving problems so both reader and characters learn something, even if subliminal, about what it means to be human. They learn mainly by doing, feeling, discovering–in the story present mainly—and primarily in scene, not by an author telling of past events and lives described from the author’s present life and worldview.

It’s damn near impossible to write stories like Babel, de Maupassant, Flaubert, Conrad, O’Connor, or Chekhov. It’s not that they just lived in the past. They were able to create stories that built character and conveyed something interesting through action that a reader had not thought about before, or at least enjoyed exploring again.

I believe that every author ought to strive for exactly that past level of quality stories—for the sake of our generations’ stories surviving in the collective human consciousness. And I have a mission: to bring back great fiction techniques in contemporary stories that are created by authors whose talent thrives on knowledge of the human soul expressed through character-based dramatic plots. Deep down, humans in the near and distant future will thirst for knowledge of what folks were like in our lives and find out in the ways only creation through fiction can achieve. The fictional story is an art form, this creation through fiction to describe human soul in our time, and like singing opera or writing sonnets, it would be a shame if the art form is lost.



Workshops on the Novel: Rules for Teachers, Guidelines for Students Editorial Opinion


Monday, September 10th, 2012
William H. Coles

After prolonged in-depth analysis, it is clear that in contemporary fiction workshops that teach novel writing, the teaching of novel often competes unsuccessfully with short story, memoir, and creative nonfiction and teachers almost always fail to provide students with skills, attitudes, and direction to mount their best efforts to write a successful literary novel.  To improve the value of fiction novel workshops, teachers need to improve, and students' expectations and willingness to learn difficult and complex ideas needs to be upgraded.

PART ONE: RULES FOR IMPROVING TEACHING OF A WORKSHOP ON WRITING A NOVEL

1. Teachers should not teach novel writing if they haven't written a successful literary novel. 

2.  Never teach literary novel writing in cross-discipline workshops.  Novel writing is it's own challenge, requiring special skills.  It is unfair to suggest to students that they will receive what they need in workshops teaching other disciplines such as memoir, short story, journalism, or genre simultaneously with the novel.

3.   Teachers should critique only entire novels in any stage, or sections of novels where novel has been at least completely conceptualized.  It is no value to other students to hear teachers flounder around a student's beginning efforts.

4.  Do not use unsupervised and unrestricted verbal or written student critiques for teaching fellow students.  Student critiques are often based on value judgments not related to creation of a novel, and often the remedies suggested by students are wrong for the individual writer who may not be at the skill level to sort out or effectively use students’ dictums, edicts, and ultimatums.  As a teacher, remain in control of the workshop teaching.  Instruct students on the techniques and skills needed to write a novel.

5. Do not simply direct student discussions on what they feel, or like or dislike, as if the workshop is a book club in the suburbs.  Use students for assessing clarity of the prose, logic of plot progression, credibility of character traits, and assessment of writer achieving goals.  Allow students to be constructive with alternatives but not negative by pointing out perceived mistakes.  Only the teacher should present specific ways to improve writing and storytelling prioritized for the student's talent and progress in fiction writing.

6.   Teach how to structure a novel.   The concept of a writer not knowing where he or she is going in a novel is harmful to almost any writer.  Many academic teachers take pride in this concept, and, it is true, that in teaching short-story fiction writing, it may be useful to discover a story structure as the writing progresses . . . but not the novel.  Structure generates dramatization, consistent characterization, and writing with purpose to discover meaning in story.  Thinking and teaching structure is essential.

7.  Provide, in every workshop, didactic lectures on how to develop character and plot, to create momentum in a prose story, to instill conflict, motive, and desire in prose fiction, and to organize the writing process to be effective.  Lectures are preferably by the workshop leader independent of plenary lectures.

8.  Teach elements of fiction in every class: structure, narration, word choice, metaphor, humor, morality, syntax, punctuation, pacing, attribution, antecedents, logic, credibility, suspension of disbelief, titles, name choices, effective prose, and others.

9.  Teach about how to effectively chose, emphasize, and balance, modes of fiction for the story being effectively written: diction, plot, characterization, imagery, theme, POV and voice.

10.  Provide in every workshop a discussion of one or two classic novels, read before class as assigned, that demonstrate the skills of novel writing, and novel writing specifically, that you want to teach.

11.  Teach only those concepts to students that will bring out the unique and individual talent of the writer.  Do not teach how to change a student's writing and thinking to create what you feel is the great novel, the way you write, or what you've been taught is good.  Teach what will bring a writer to good story telling and effective prose with well thought out ideas and vibrant prose.

12.  Provide a detailed teacher's assessment of submitted work.

13.  Do not critique student's first chapter or segments of novel as you would teach a short story.  (A short story is a complete work of art, not a fragment.)

14.  Do not teach memoir writing disguised as fiction.  The wonders that fiction can produce for the receptive reader cannot be achieved by memoir or creative nonfiction.

15.  Provide individual conferences with students.

16.  Do not allow student opinion of other students' writing.  Keep discussions objective and not opinionated.    As a teacher, control every aspect of the teaching experience and keep that experience focused on craft and storytelling improvement for the writer, not on the student critquer's abilities or needs for attention.

19.  Teach to identify purpose for everything written.  Every element of writing and every idea expressed should have a considered, well thought out story-related purpose.

PART TWO: ADVICE TO STUDENTS ABOUT CHOOSING WORKSHOPS

Don't depend on academic credentials as a judge of teacher competency.  Being an English major or having an MFA rarely if ever provides what's needed to teach the complexities of writing–or the process of teaching–a successful literary novel, which must have the often arduous, pleasing, informative–and sometimes painful–experience of creating a successful literary novel.  Find teachers who are good writers, storytellers, and teachers.  There are very few active great teachers who are also accomplished novelists.  But if you're a serious novelist, find them.  (And they'll rarely be in academic settings.)

Attend novel-writing workshops to improve your writing and storytelling, not just to correct a fragment of a novel or other manuscript you've completed and submitted.  To present 5000 or less words of a novel you're working on does not provide even an experienced teacher enough to provide you with specific valuable learning of the skills of great novel writing.

Do not attend a workshop "in novel"  that teaches memoir, genre, journalism, creative nonfiction, essay, and/or short fiction.  Best learning is in workshops that teach fiction novel writing.  Workshops dedicated to the novel are becoming rare, primarily for teachers' needs to fill workshops for income.

Go only to workshops where the instructor provides: 1) didactic lectures on quality prose writing and craft of fiction with handouts, 2) individual student conferences on writing, at least one thirty minute conference, a conference that must be scheduled before arrival and not as catch can, and must focus on improving your writing, not publishing, nor on agent-getting.  3) avoid workshops that depend on student critiques that erode teaching of fiction novel writing..

Require teachers to teach prose skills, characterization, plot, and story.  That is their responsibility, not just to oversee and direct student discussion.

Do not go to workshops where socialization, publication success, and networking goals are placed above novel creation.  Evaluate, usually best by word of mouth, the goals that exist for teachers and students.  Many teachers are at workshops as a break in their daily lives.  Teachers may party in the evening, be proud of alcohol (and occasional drug) consumption, play poker or basketball to the wee hours, take side trips to tourist locations.  All when preparation for the next day's quality teaching session is, although time consuming, essential for good student learning.  Novel writing is hard to learn and takes time, and if you're serious, don't dilute the value of the time you spend in frivolous pursuits, even if enjoyable, or by studying with unenthusiastic, distracted teachers.

 



Student Critiquing in Workshops: Analysis and a Caution Editorial Opinion


Tuesday, October 11th, 2011
William H. Coles

While at lunch with a writer friend, and teacher of fiction writing, she confessed she rarely read contemporary fiction anymore.   It's not just lack of time; it's the poor quality of writing and the dearth of even rudimentary storytelling skills.  Why have good fiction writers become buried in the amazing proliferation of memoir and nonfiction, genre and therapeutic confessional stories?  More than a few would say writers are not being taught well.

In truth, the modern literary author with visions of creating memorable and lasting stories[1] has few resources for learning.  Workshops have become the predominant opportunity and most workshops rely–for a majority if not all of the teaching time–on students' critiquing their fellow students' work.  But student critiquing has a shaky foundation for learning: the inexperienced and unknowledgeable, and sometimes the untalented, teach each other.  Who could imagine eight to twelve wannabe neurosurgeons meeting to discuss the practice cases they've been doing alone, without guidance or supervision, in their garages, basements, or attics? 

What are the effects of workshops on writers?  The physiology of student critiquing in workshops was analyzed from eighty-six fiction-writing workshops taken over two decades.  The motivations for students attending sessions varied.  Almost all students wanted to be recognized as a writer  to be published and admired.  Few had developed, as a prime objective, the writing of literary fictional stories that would impact readers with a purpose, meaning, entertainment, memorability, and enlightenment.   It was apparent that dreams of publication and the successful writer's lifestyle were prominent with little desire to create excellence of a story art form.  

Almost all students believed that at their personal level of education, experience and intelligence, they were capable of writing great literature, although they would surely deny it if asked.  Almost all brought their work seeking reinforcement in their abilities and talent, and poised to reject a suggestion their writing was not up to the greatest literary achievement and creativity.  This prevalent attitude worked against learning, a clash between justification of my pride-in-my-work and a desire-to-do-better.   

One dominant effect of student-critiquing workshops was particularity, rather than entirety.  Teachers of workshops required student participation.  "I expect you to contribute."  A fair number of teachers methodically went from student to student when a student's work was considered so no required participant's comment was left out of the session.  In the atmosphere of required contribution, most general opinions and suggestions were stated by the first one or two critiquers.  As a result, many students–pressed by the need to respond with brilliance and uniqueness to meet there own need for admiration as a critiquer–descended into minutia rather than seeking ways to improve the fundamentals of storytelling and craft of the writer.  These students groped for edicts they'd read or learned to fill their need to respond.  Examples: Too many adjectives.  A misspelling.  A comma splice.  Don't use characters' names that start with the same letter or have the same number of syllables.  Show don't tell.  Never begin with dialogue.  Number your pages.  Write from what you know.  These were presented a maxims by those with varying degrees of ignorance.  This particularity without addressing entirety of a work resulted in insufficient learning about story and craft through insignificant and do-not-apply or dogmatic misdirected statements.

The imposed need to contribute also frequently caused student critiquers to default to useless  anecdotal "counter stories" or "global pronouncements."  I visited Paris once in winter and it wasn't cold at all, or, I don't think narcotics are necessary for sports injuries. or I taught sociology for twenty years, an enjoyable career.  Unacceptable in a serious, productive workshop.

Authors presented work with the often unconscious attitude that the work was finished and probably as perfect as they could get it.  Such thinking did not allow for improvement by the writer, but it also contributed to tensions and anger; the writer who believed he or she achieved perfection in their work, felt criticism was unfair and personal. They often smoldered into silence, or lashed out against the critiquer.  This type of response could be eliminated if students are screened for level of accomplishment and attitude toward their work, which should be focused on how to make the story better and improve the writing.

Emotion often dominated class sessions crowding out objective teaching.   A major contributor to this phenomenon related to class structure and ineffective teaching that inserted competition and tension into classroom settings.

Small cliques often formed within the class.  Surprisingly, some teachers were also members of these cliques.  These cliques served to reinforce a clique-member's imagined reason d'etre and generated unfair and often mean criticism of one or more fellow students work–with barely submerged derision–related not to writing but to certain personality features or ideas.  These cliques isolated nonclique students and targeted students the clique did not like by excluding or ignoring their participation.  At times, clique activity provoked anger and frustration with weeping, acid retorts, and in a few cases leaving the classroom not to return. These tension-filled, depressing classes were not necessary and could have been eliminated if workshop teachers would control  student responses related to personality and fortified with cliquish behavior. 

Because critiquing, especially by amateurs, was frequently hurtful to the writer under consideration, most teachers required positive critiques before more potentially-hurtful observations were allowed.[2]  These obligatory positive comments often were insincere and tangential and brought the writer to a false acceptance of worth of the writing, destructive because the required positive comments collectively dulled the author's perception of needed improvement.

Using student critiquing as a workshop norm required low requirements for teachers since ideas came from student amateurs.  Little preparation was necessary by teachers and few skills and little knowledge easily qualify a teacher for workshops even in MFA settings.  Reality confirmed this. 

The quality of teaching skills and knowledge in fiction workshops was not high.   Teachers might have MFA degrees, but many were not educators but writers adding to their incomes and seeking recognition for their work.  Many teachers, even with MFAs, had published work completed in school for degree requirements, but had written little or no fiction since graduation.  With only rare exceptions, teachers in workshops had never been educated as teachers and had no background in the teaching techniques of story and craft, or the evaluation of student progress, which is required in most effective academic disciplines.

Teachers without knowledge or training depended on an atmosphere of student critiquing, not teaching and learning assessment.  Less than five percent of teachers had skills necessary to direct and control what students said or wrote in their critiques.  The atmosphere of these classes tended to be that of book groups as social occasions.  Rare vetting for student knowledge and experience in critiques was so common that often a student might be critiquing as a rock-bottom beginner.

Workshops will only be valuable for writers when teachers teach how to form a story, how to learn craft to support your own unique style, how to support what each individual writer wants to achieve, and how to guide writer's thinking about the writing process and how it can provide enjoyment and meaning for the literary reader.

In general, developing serious writers should take writing workshops with caution.   A writer may leave with destroyed visions for improvement, and unclear understanding of individual potential.  Workshops with lectures and literature study included as well as craft-enhancement skills taught are better than student-critique dependent workshops.  And when a workshop is attended, it is essential to clarify reasonable and attainable personal expectations and goals for the workshop, and keep the focus on how to improve rather than seek confirmation of perceived excellence

 


[1] Stories created for the reader's pleasure by writing well crafted literary stories that reach levels of reader engagement, enlightenment, and entertainment.
[2] Hurt usually came from opinioned, incorrect, and often unfounded judgments intensified by a lack of skill in wording, syntax and tone in delivery; and an unclear, competitive purpose for presenting criticism.

 



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.

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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.

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Literary Fiction
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Newsletter published every other week
New: Graphic Novels

Graphic novels: Homunculus and Reddog
New Novel
McDowell
McDowell by William H. Coles Read a free sample!
Available in print and
eBook at:
Amazon,
(Kindle),
Barnes & Noble,
Authorhouse,
Smashwords
and select bookstores!
Story in Literary Fiction Art Gallery

 

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