Sunday, August 23, 2009

First Workshop Experience

On August 15th I attended a sci-fi/fantasy/horror (speculative fiction, in general) writing workshop at Armadillocon 31 (their server seems to be having trouble, hence the indirect link) in Austin, Texas.

The pros:
  • If you attend the convention itself for both days, the additional cost for the workshop cost is quite minimal. I got my convention pass as a birthday present, but I believe it works out to an extra $10 for the workshop, which is quite cheap.
  • There are professional writers and editors participating in the workshop, so you can get their insight into your work. You can also talk to them as individuals about the craft of writing in general.
  • A lot of published speculative fiction writers in particular seem to have gone through the workshop experience at some point, so it is probably something you should try out.
  • The general approach of these workshops seems to be "kinder and gentler" than the brutal-by-reputation experience of something like the Turkey City workshop. Plus, you don't have to be a professional writer to attend.
  • It is interesting to read the work of other aspiring writers, especially if you perceive them to be at or above your level of ability.
The cons:
  • The actual time spent critiquing your particular submission is not all that long. I was the last person in my group to get critiqued and everyone--four other amateur writers, a recently published author, and a longtime sci-fi editor for Tor books--sort of rushed their way through commenting on my piece in about half a hour, which is not long given that six people were voicing opinions.
  • Regardless of how civil the experience may be, it is still very uncomfortable to sit silently listening to other people find flaws in your submission until everyone has finished and you get a chance to respond (the so-called Milford Method).
  • It can be hard to tell if people are criticizing aspects of your writing that they genuinely don't like, are trying to knock you down a peg to be competitive, or are just grasping at points to criticize. I think my group was pretty honest and fair.
  • If you're like me, it will feel very much like you spent more time critiquing other people's work with specific suggestions and questions than they did critiquing your own. This probably stems from my background as an editor and someone who gets called in to do rewrites of "broken" textbook material.
Was it a good experience for me? Upon reflection, which has taken me a week or so, I can offer a guarded YES. Was it an enjoyable experience? No, not really.
  • I was very disappointed in how people reacted to the chapter I wrote. It seems that there were a few more positives in the written comments on the chapter than in the verbal ones, but it took me a couple days to be willing to look at the written comments after the many perceived flaws in my chapter were enumerated out loud and in person.
  • Several things that people complained about regarding the chapter seemed to arise from either not reading carefully (such as missing a paragraph of dialogue discussing a character's motivation) or on odd personal biases (the word "Elf" just turned one person off, though there were no Elves in the chapter itself).
  • Nobody commented at all on certain framing aspects of the story that I was proud of and that other readers had enjoyed.
  • Everyone in my workshop noted a couple of clear mistakes in the chapter that needed to be addressed; one of which I had already tackled in a rewrite. This was criticism I needed to hear.
  • All but one person in my workshop also disliked the pacing of the chapter, a criticism I'm still struggling to evaluate. These readers thought the chapter opened too slowly and the main character took too long to spring into action. I wanted to work against the standard fantasy scenario of "protagonist leaping into conflict without weighing the consequences" by having my lead think about whether it was worth it to get involved. But this moral conundrum failed utterly to draw people in.
So the most useful lessons I got from the workshop were:
  • The workshop experience makes me personally uncomfortable. I don't mind critiquing other people, and the feedback I received suggested that I did so in the specific, positive and constructive way that I was aiming for--but this took a lot of work on my part to think through ahead of time. Being on the receiving end of blunter and more sweeping criticism from others was really unpleasant. I'd much prefer it in a situation that wasn't face-to-face.
  • It is far better to submit a complete short story to a workshop than a chapter of a longer work, because the entire story can be evaluated and the reader has to guess less at motivations and conclusions.
  • You can't introduce moral dilemnas for a character that the readers haven't invested themselves in yet.
  • You have to establish the sense of place and atmosphere in a speculative piece very early and continue to build upon it.
  • Subtle hints about events apparently require a defter touch than I currently possess, at least for openings. Establish clear motivations and provide clear explanations right off the bat.
  • I probably need to be more concise about internal motivations and less concise about external descriptions.
  • In general, if readers don't see the key information that you've provided to help them navigate a scene, then you've buried or poorly worded that information. Just because it is there doesn't make you right if a majority of the readers don't see it.
So on the one hand I learned from the workshop. On the other hand it did not inspire me to write and in fact made me question my motivations at length. I can't imagine what something like the Turkey City workshop experience would be like; it sounds awful.

In general I don't like the "tear someone down and see if they can survive it" or "toss them in to see if they can swim" training scenarios. A lot of people call this "tough love" or "brutal honesty." I think it's an approach supported primarily by socially inept people obsessed with a pseudo-Darwinian idea of natural selection or by people who don't actually want to teach anything, just to weed out the weak.

I prefer the "establish someone's limits, then encourage them to surpass those limits by offering encouragement and incremental goals that they can achieve." This is probably a mindset I got from physical fitness training, where you clearly get better physical and psychological results by guiding people to succeed at repeated, incrementally greater challenges rather than by pushing them to repeated failure. So in this case, try to guide the writer of a weak story toward improving the piece that they were trying to write so that it does a better job of doing what they wanted it to do. Then push/encourage them to do MORE than they originally wanted.

I do think the Armadillocon workshop was built somewhat along the latter lines, but it was too short to accomplish a great deal. That's just a fact of life and not intended a dig at the organizers. Limited time and money get you limited results.

I can't say that the experience made me eager to try to seek out a local workshop group. I have doubts that I could find many speculative fiction writers in my area in the first place and even more doubts that such a group would be constructive.

1 comment:

Aaron DaMommio said...

"You can't introduce moral dilemnas for a character that the readers haven't invested themselves in yet."

This is profound and bears thinking about. Hey, good analysis here.

I noticed in _The Lies of Locke Lamora_ that the author threw in more exposition in chunks in the second half. It felt right: like he'd spent plenty of time establishing relationships and making us like the characters, and then we were interested in farther-afield details of the gov't etc and ready to hear those later; also he might have been using those to delay the ending a bit, create some tension.