Posts Tagged ‘writing workshops’

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.


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.


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.


Advice for Fiction Writers Taking Creative-Writing Workshops Editorial Opinion

Wednesday, January 25th, 2012
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.

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


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