The following resources have been compiled by Peter Turchi. All content this page is copyright of the author.
Books to Keep by Your Desk or Bed (Valuable References) »
Reading Like a Writer »
A discussion of how any writer at any level can use his or reading to develop his or her writing.
This was originally created as part of a discussion of a form of critical writing at the core of the Warren Wilson MFA Program.
Making the Most of a Writing Workshop; or, Out of the Workshop, Into the Laboratory »
Also written for a presentation at a Warren Wilson MFA residency, this is meant to help any writer make a workshop—of any size, in or outside of a degree program—productive and beneficial.
Valuable References for Fiction Writers
This list includes a basic handbook (Burroway’s), practical guides (the Lodge and Forster), and informative, provocative writing about writing
• Donald Barthelme’s Not Knowing
• Charles Baxter’s Burning Down the House
• Charles Baxter’s The Art of Subtext
• Bringing the Devil to His Knees: The Craft of Fiction and the Writing Life
• Robert Boswell, The Half Known World: On Writing Fiction
• Catherine Brady’s Story Logic and the Craft of Fiction
• Janet Burroway’s Writing Fiction
• Italo Calvino’s Six Memos for the Next Millennium
• Anton Chekhov’s letters (available in several editions)
• Stephen Dobyns’ Best Words, Best Order
• Stephen Dobyns’ Next Word, Better Word: The Craft of Writing Poetry
• E. M. Forster’s Aspects of the Novel
• John Gardner’s The Art of Fiction
• A Kite in the Wind: Fiction Writers on Their Craft
• David Lodge’s The Art of Fiction: Illustrated From Classic and Modern Texts
• Vladimir Nabokov’s Lectures on Literature and Strong Opinions
• Frank O’Connor’s The Lonely Voice: A Study of the Short Story
• Flannery O’Connor’s Mystery and Manners
• Francine Prose’s Reading Like a Writer: A Guide for People Who Love Books and for Those Who Want to Write Them
• Raymond Queneau’s Exercises in Style
• Joan Silber’s The Art of Time
• Debra Spark’s Curious Attractions: Essays on Fiction Writing
• Sarah Stone and Ron Nyren’s Deepening Fiction: A Practical Guide for Intermediate and Advanced Writers
• The Story Behind the Story: 26 Stories by Contemporary Writers and How They Work
• Peter Turchi’s Maps of the Imagination: The Writer as Cartographer
• James Wood’s The Broken Estate
• Virginia Woolf’s A Writer’s Diary
• The Paris Review interviews
Valuable References for Poets
• Marianne Boruch’s In the Blue Pharmacy: Essays on Poetry and Other Transformations
• Stephen Dobyns’ Best Words, Best Order
• Carl Dennis’ Poetry as Persuasion
• Tony Hoagland’s Real Sofistikation: Essays on Poetry and Craft
Tony Hoagland’s Twenty Poems that Could Save America and Other Essays
• Poets Teaching Poets
• Poet’s Work, Poet’s Play: Essays on the Practice and the Art
• Michael Ryan’s A Difficult Grace: On Poets, Poetry, and Writing
• Ellen Bryant Voigt’s The Flexible Lyric
• Alan Williamson’s Eloquence and Mere Life: Essays on the Art of Poetry
Reading Like a Writer: A Guide to Annotations
By Peter Turchi
One of the best ways to learn the craft of writing is to study the work you admire. The key is to truly study it, rather than simply admire it. To put it another way, the key is to read like a writer, not (merely) like a reader. To truly understand how a piece of writing works, or even how one small part of it works, it’s important to articulate your observations and understanding carefully, in writing.
An annotation is a brief analysis of a piece of writing intended to help the writer learn about some aspect of craft. Annotations are meant to be practical; they should be written from a writer’s perspective, and they should directly serve the development of your own work. This Guide focuses on annotating fiction, but the same approach can be applied to poetry, nonfiction, plays, screenplays, etc.
Where to Start
Start with a craft topic suggested by the work, such as
An element, technique, device, or choice obviously essential to the story* (*used throughout to mean short story, novella, novel, chapter, excerpt, etc.)
An element, technique, device, or choice that is unusual in some way, or
An element, technique, device, choice, or effect that is either puzzling or for some other reason interesting to you
Start with a craft topic suggested by your own work, and look to see how that element, technique, device, etc. is used in the story you’ve read. This can be
Something you’ve been working on in your own fiction or having trouble with,
Something you’ve been hesitant to try, but feel you should attempt
Something you’ve been using almost out of habit, to the point that you worry you’ve neglected to examine all its possibilities
Something that came up in a discussion of your fiction and seems important to pursue
Start with a craft topic suggested by a class or lecture or by an essay about writing (or even about something analogous to writing), and work to understand how the story you’ve read illustrates or demonstrates what the lecturer/author said.
1a) You’ve read John Updike’s “A & P.” You realize that one of the story’s strengths is the way that it is grounded in setting—not just in a grocery store, but in an A&P near the beach as seen through the eyes of the teenaged narrator. So you ask, “How does Updike use concrete detail to convey setting and atmosphere—and, simultaneously, to characterize the narrator?”
1b) You’ve read Alice Munro’s “Monsieur les Deux Chapeau.” You notice that the sections of the story are not in chronological order. Upon closer examination, you notice that the first and last sections aren’t simply a frame for a story set in the past, and you can’t see a simple pattern to her movement through time. You ask, “What is the effect of Alice Munro’s manipulation of time in this story? Specifically, how does it influence our understanding of the main characters and their dilemma?” Or you ask, “How does Alice Munro move so nimbly and unpredictably through time without confusing her readers? Specifically, how does she use transitions, repetition, and temporal markers to help the reader?”
1c) You’ve read Robert Coover’s “The Babysitter.” You notice that there are several different story lines, that they all involve the same characters, they’re all set on the same night, and they contradict one another—that is, they can’t possibly all be happening, but none of them are presented as dreams or imagined actions. You say to yourself, “This is puzzling; it’s also interesting.” You begin your annotation by asking, “How does Robert Coover effectively orient the reader and guide her through multiple competing story lines?” or “How does Coover make sure we notice that his story’s many story lines are explicitly contradicting one another?” or “How does Coover use sex and humor to guide us through what could be a perplexing mess?”
2a) You’ve written a story about a man who loves his wife and children, who is good at his work, volunteers at a literacy center, and is much admired by everyone, including your readers. In your story, a co-worker gradually persuades the man to betray his wife and children, embezzle from his employer, and steal the wheelchair out from under the elderly woman who has struggled to finish reading The Bridges of Madison County with his assistance. The problem: your readers don’t believe that the good man on the first page has become the deeply flawed man on the final page. Happily, you’ve read Anton Chekhov’s “Lady with a Pet Dog,” a story about a married man who enjoys adulterous flings, but who discovers true love when he meets Anna, the lady with the pet dog. You realize that one of the great challenges for that story is to persuade readers that Gurov, an apparent cynic, can in fact be moved by relatively naïve Anna. So you ask, “How is Gurov’s character established, and how does Chekhov persuade the reader that he is vulnerable to change?” Or you ask, “What are the significant steps in Gurov’s transformation? Where do they occur?” Or, more specifically, “How is Gurov’s transformation played out over each section of the story?” Or you ask, “How are narrative commentary and access to Gurov’s thoughts combined to create our understanding of him?” (For an even more direct analog, you might examine Chekhov’s “Misfortune.”)
2b) You feel limited by the first person/second person/limited third person/omniscient point of view. You know other writers have used it masterfully, but you feel you’re forced to stay too close to the main character/too far from the main character; you feel you can’t create complex and dynamic secondary characters. You annotate an appropriate story to focus on its masterful use of that point of view.
2c) You’ve become oddly obsessed with the way you account for the passing of time. You feel you’re constantly writing sentences that begin, “Later the same day…,” “The very next morning…,” “Wednesday of that same week…,” etc. You ask yourself, “What other ways are there to account for the passage of time?” You search through the story you’ve read, looking for alternatives.
While everyone tells you that “said” is “invisible” in passages of dialogue, you can see it in yours, and it bothers you. You wonder how other writers attribute dialogue—what verbs they use and where they place them. You also wonder what some of the options are for indicating the identity of a speaker without providing an attributive. You go back through the story you’ve read to see how the speakers of dialogue are identified.
2d) A teacher, editor, or fellow writer suggests that you tend to explain too much in your stories—that you provide more information than is necessary, so the stories lack tension, suspense, and provocative mystery. He quotes Chekhov: “The art of boring people is in telling them everything.” He says something about the Modernists, then something about omission and mystery in Hemingway. You hunt down “The Killers,” and find the story—in which two men enter a diner and say they intend to kill one of the regular customers when he arrives, the customer never arrives, and the men leave without killing anyone—strangely satisfying. You wonder, “When can a story successfully fail to resolve its apparent plot?” You ask, “When and how do the terms of ‘The Killers’ change?” You ask, “How does this story get away with omitting so much of the information about plot and character that we typically provide?” You pore over the story again and again, searching for clues, documenting your investigation.
3) You recall hearing someone say that dialect conveyed through misspelling is irritating to read, and should be avoided. You recall this because you’re reading The March, a novel by the very famous E. L. Doctorow, and you notice that he uses misspelling to convey dialect, particularly for the character Pearl. But as you continue reading, you notice that as Pearl moves among other characters, her voice changes, as does Doctorow’s representation of her dialogue. Beginning with the general advice you heard, you write an annotation investigating how Doctorow uses diction, sentence structure, and yes, even misspelling, to convey Pearl’s speech and its changes over the course of The March. To do so, you select three distinct, contrasting passages of dialogue from the novel.
You read Susan Neville’s essay “Where’s Iago?” (in Bringing the Devil to His Knees) in which she discusses the usefulness of a villain in stories. She writes, “Iago is the character or force whose function in the plot is to see or at least to sense [the] fault line, to insert himself within it…to become like water finding a fissure in stone and settling in, causing the stone to crack.” Reading this, you recall someone saying that your characters tend to be nice people, and that you seem to want to protect them. To see for yourself how Iago characters work, you examine Mark Twain’s “The Man That Corrupted Hadleyburg” and John Cheever’s “The Five Forty-Eight.”
You’ve read James Wood’s essay in The Broken Estate in which he says that a successful piece of fiction must allow itself to be brought to completion by the reader, and it reminds you of Chekhov’s famous statement to a friend that “You are right to demand that an artist take a conscious attitude to his work, but you confuse two concepts: resolving a question and posing a question correctly. Only the second is required of the artist.” You examine Chekhov’s “A Doctor’s Visit” to see how that belief is put into practice.
You read something in
Francine Prose’s Reading Like a Writer: A Guide for People Who Love Books and for Those Who Want to Write Them or
Janet Burroway’s Writing Fiction or
E. M. Forster’s Aspects of the Novel or
Flannery O’Connor’s Mystery and Manners or
Frank O’Connor’s The Lonely Voice: A Study of the Short Story or
Bringing the Devil to His Knees: The Craft of Fiction and the Writing Life or
The Story Behind the Story or
Anton Chekhov’s letters or
Donald Barthelme’s Not Knowing or
John Gardner’s The Art of Fiction or
David Lodge’s The Art of Fiction: Illustrated From Classic and Modern Texts or
Italo Calvino’s Six Memos for the Next Millennium or
Peter Turchi’s Maps of the Imagination: The Writer as Cartographer or
Raymond Queneau’s Exercises in Style or
Charles Baxter’s Burning Down the House or
Debra Spark’s Curious Attractions: Essays on Fiction Writing or
Virginia Wolff’s diaries or
an interview in the Paris Review or
one of Vladimir Nabokov’s lectures on literature
that seems enlightening, insightful, provocative, surprising and—the bottom line—potentially useful, and you look to see how that craft-related insight might be applied to a specific story in order to further your own understanding.
Once You Have the Topic and the Text
Read the story at least three times.
The first time, you’re simply reading for content and first impressions.
The second time, you should read more narrowly, focusing on those passages—words, phrases, sentences, paragraphs, scenes—that seem most directly relevant to your topic, and most likely to illuminate it. You’re looking for passages that illustrate your topic. In many cases, you’ll want to demonstrate either progression or variety; this requires carefully selecting enough illustrative passages to demonstrate the progression or variety, without turning the annotation into an enormous list, or repeating yourself. In most cases, three or four passages will be sufficient; in some cases, one is sufficient (if, for example, you’re examining how the terms of a story are established in its opening paragraph, or how plot, meaning, and character are resolved in its final paragraph). You might underline or highlight the most apparently useful passages, but it can be even more useful to write or type them out.
At this point you have a topic and relevant excerpts from the text. The next step is to analyze—to attempt to understand and explain—those passages. Keep in mind that an annotation can record the act of exploration, or the process of moving toward understanding. You need not assert knowledge you don’t have; you should feel free to pose questions, so long as you try to answer them.
It may be easiest to think of analysis in terms of a few simple steps:
• Describe what you see.
• Explain the local effect of what you see.
• Explain how that local effect serves one or more of the story’s larger goals.
If the passage you’re analyzing is difficult or complex, or if you’re studying a small scale aspect of craft (say, the rhythm of the prose in the closing paragraphs of The Great Gatsby), it may be useful to devote much of your time to the description (the diction, syntax, sentence length, placement of clauses, dominant sounds, etc., of those closing lines). If the local effect is fairly explicit, it may be more useful to spend most of your time considering how the author’s choices serve the larger story. When in doubt, looking at less material more carefully will always be beneficial.
As you analyze the chosen passages, relationships among them will emerge. You’ll become aware of different levels of distinction. An analysis of one passage might refer to another; and by being aware of these relationships and by consciously creating transitions, you can discover the best order for your examples. A common mistake is to simply track an aspect of craft—say, description of setting—from the beginning of the story to the end, when a more illuminating organization would emphasize the most significant descriptions, or the changes in setting, or the story’s repeated use of certain descriptive words or phrases.
Before you consider the annotation complete, you should read the story a third time, both to see if you’ve overlooked anything and to see if the conclusions you’ve drawn still seem to be in harmony with the actual text.
Varieties of Annotations
None of this is meant to be restrictive; you might very well discover other effective approaches to generating topics and to composing annotations.
Annotations can be formal—written in the third person, with formal diction, for a larger, unidentified audience of Interested Others—or less formal—written in the first person, more conversationally, essentially for yourself. A wide range of approaches is acceptable. If your annotations tend to be informal to the point of imprecision, or if they turn into reviews, you might need to steer toward formality; and if your annotations start to become academic papers, literary criticism, or something else not clearly linked to your concerns for your own work, you may need to try a less formal approach, possibly even explicitly discussing the relevance of the annotation to your own current fiction.
On some occasions, it may be appropriate to write an annotation that is largely descriptive, or one that looks something like a list, or catalog—say, a discussion of various types of surprise, from syntax to plot, in Flannery O’Connor’s “Revelation.” On other occasions, it may be appropriate for an annotation to be an argument. An “argument” in this context is (most often) not an attack against a certain choice or strategy in a particular story, but a reasoned defense of a thesis (for instance, “In One Hundred Years of Solitude, Gabriel Garcia Marquez writes expository paragraphs that have the vividness and emotional impact of scenes,” or “John Updike’s Rabbit is Rich is built on a handful of carefully paced extended scenes that allow him to convey unusual amounts of exposition”). If your annotations tend to be general, or superficial, or if you tend to make sweeping judgments, you may need to attempt to suspend judgment entirely and concentrate on looking at the text more closely, describing what you observe more precisely. If your annotations are merely descriptive, or if you simply ask questions, you may need to turn your questions into thesis statements and to support your theses.
In the great majority of cases, your annotations will focus on a single craft topic in a single short story, novella, or novel. In some cases it may be appropriate to examine a craft topic in two stories, or at greater length in a novella or novel.
At some point you might try annotating one of your own stories, to help you become a more objective reader of your own drafts.
Some of the most common errors in annotations are:
• The craft topic is not clearly stated or defined.
• The craft focus is not sufficiently narrow.
• The annotation does not investigate its stated topic in sufficient detail.
• The annotation does not cite specific passages/examples from the text.
• The annotation consists largely of plot summary.
• The annotation is primarily about theme or meaning.
• The annotation lists examples, but does not provide analysis or comment.
• The analysis is not clearly expressed.
• The annotation emphasizes opinion, or the passing of judgment, without sufficient supporting analysis.
• The annotation is not clearly organized.
• The annotation contains numerous mechanical or grammatical errors.
If you find each annotation is taking you many hours, keep in mind that:
1) Annotations do not need to have, and in most cases will not have, secondary sources. You have no responsibility to read other work by the same author, to acquaint yourself with the author’s life, to read reviews or criticism. While all of that can be interesting, and even useful, an annotation is based on your own close reading. (If, however, you find yourself uncertain how to frame your topic or thesis sentence—if you’re unsure how to define the element of craft you’re examining—you might refer to a handbook, or to an essay on fiction writing, in order to adopt another writer’s definition of “structure” or “unreliability.”)
2) It doesn’t matter if other people already understand the thing that you’re trying to understand. Your job is not to add to the world’s collective knowledge, or to think of an annotation topic no one else has ever written about. Your sole responsibility is to add to your understanding of how to write a story, and to articulate your discovery.
3) Annotations should be narrowly focused. While the story you’re discussing may be fascinating for many reasons, you need to examine only the single craft topic you’ve selected.
4) You do not need to summarize the story, or to pass judgment on it.
5) While each annotation should be effectively organized and clearly expressed, there is no need to revise it dozens of times, the way you would a piece of fiction. Annotations are meant to be functional. Save your hard-earned prose for the fiction. That said, keep in mind that imprecision, abstraction, and vagueness can be contagious, and could spread to your fiction.
A Very Limited Beginning of a List of Possible Annotation Topics
Keep in mind that the best topics are the ones that you feel directly address issues for your own work, and that address significant, even masterful exemplary texts.
• The effect of point of view in X.
• The use of interior monolog in X.
• Shifts between point of view characters in X.
• Shifts in narrative distance in X.
• The distinctions between the narrative’s perspective and the first person narrator’s
• (or third person pov character’s) perspective in X.
• Narrative intrusions in X.
• Dramatic irony in X.
• The balance of scene and exposition in X.
• The effects of active verbs in X.
• Diction in X.
• The effects of sentence structure/sentence rhythm in X.
• Effective repetition in X.
• Parallel structure in X.
• Tension and surprise in the syntax of X.
• Compression in X.
• The effects of sentence variety in X.
• The use of intentional clichés in X.
• Wordplay in X.
• The effects of adjectives and adverbs in X.
• Irregular punctuation in X.
• Lyrical flights in X.
• The use of figurative speech in X.
• The absence of figurative speech in X.
• Modulation of tone in X.
• The evolution of characters in X.
• The gradual revealing of character in X.
• The influences of secondary characters on the main character in X.
• The influence of minor characters on plot in X.
• Counterpointed characters in X.
• Consistent inconsistency and surprise in characters in X.
• Multiple perspectives of the main character provided in X.
• Variation on stereotype in X.
• The effectiveness of character names in X.
• Surprise in characters in X.
• Plot twists in X.
• Multiple plotlines in X.
• Unresolved plotlines in X.
• Effective variation on a familiar plot in X.
• Linearity in X.
• Foreshadowing in X.
• Tension and suspense in X.
• The control of mystery in X.
• The controlled release of information in X.
• Effective use of scenes in X.
• The use of space breaks in X.
• Omitted scenes in X.
• Effective use of extended dialogue in X.
• The use of half-scenes in X.
• The relationship between setting and character in X.
• Effective use of epiphany in X.
• Characterization through dialogue in X.
• Tension between the said and unsaid in X.
• Conflict conveyed by characters saying “no” in X.
• Jargon, slang, and technical vocabulary in X.
• The use of foreign words and phrases in X.
• Conveying foreign-ness in English dialogue in X.
• Descriptions of faces in X.
• Physical descriptions of characters in X.
• The creation of atmosphere in X.
• Description of setting in X.
• Description filtered through POV character in X.
• Conflicting descriptions in X.
• Generic settings in X.
• Accumulating descriptions in X.
• Energized description in X.
• Use of a dominant image in X.
• Patterns of imagery in X.
Making the Most of a Writing Workshop; or,
Out of the Workshop, Into the Laboratory
By Peter Turchi
Just about everyone who has participated in a writing workshop has horror stories to tell: stories about rude behavior, harsh comments, savage “advice,” someone trying to dictate how someone else should write, writers in tears, writers enraged, or friends who feel obliged to “defend” each other’s work. Several decades ago, Flannery O’Connor—a survivor of the Iowa Writer’s Workshop—wrote,
“I don’t believe in classes where students criticize each other’s
manuscripts. Such criticism is generally composed in equal parts
of ignorance, flattery, and spite. It’s the blind leading the blind,
and it can be dangerous. A teacher who tries to impose a way of
writing on you can be dangerous too. Fortunately, most teachers
I’ve known have been too lazy to do this. In any case, you should
beware of those who appear overenergetic.
In the last twenty years the colleges have been emphasizing creative
writing to such an extent that you almost feel any idiot with a
nickel’s worth of talent can emerge from a writing class able to write
a competent story. In fact, so many people can now write competent
stories that the short story as a medium is in danger of dying of
competence. We want competence, but competence by itself is deadly.
What is needed is the vision to go with it, and you do not get this
from a writing class.”
More recently, in his book Narrative Design, Madison Smartt Bell wrote,
“Fiction workshops are inherently almost incapable of recognizing
success. The fiction workshop is designed to be a fault-finding
mechanism; its purpose is to diagnose and prescribe. The inert
force of this proposition works on all the members…Whenever I pick
up a few pages without defect, I start to get very nervous. Because
my job is to find those flaws. If I don’t find flaws, I will have failed.
As for the other students, they are just as influenced by the factors
above as the teacher, and on top of that, there’s the probability
that in confronting a successfully realized piece of fiction, the classmate
has to cope with a certain amount of conscious or unconscious envy…
Take that to its logical extreme and you see that the student as
writer has been assigned the task of Sisyphus. There is no way to
ever finish anything….”
The challenge facing every writing workshop, then, is to serve the writers involved, and to somehow avoid the serious dangers and common flaws of group discussions of art-in-progress. A workshop should be as useful as possible to as many of its participants as possible as often as possible. Ideally, everyone will leave the room each day more excited about writing than they entered it, with new ideas to apply to their writing. Those ideas might be ideas for a particular story, but they might also be ways to think about fiction—lenses that can be useful when looking at drafts.
Writing workshops are, as anyone who has experienced one quickly realizes, curious. Participants are often encouraged to see the workshop as, well, a workshop—a place where things are made. But if Santa ran his workshop like a writing workshop, nobody would get any toys, ever. None that worked, anyway. And the elves would not be singing. Stories do not get written in workshop.
The writing workshop is sometimes presented as a place where you can bring a draft of a story, or an excerpt, to a group of fellow writers who will read it carefully and help you see where it’s working effectively, where it isn’t, yet, and how you might improve it. It’s a time-saver, and a way to get new ideas when you’re stalled, or at a dead end. That’s the idea.
That assumes a story is a like a car and the workshop is your friendly neighborhood service station. But this analogy is deeply flawed. When you take your car to a service station, the assumption is that the car was working just fine, then it wasn’t, and that it can be repaired, or returned to the state it was in. But the story you submit to workshop wasn’t working just fine; if it had been, you wouldn’t have submitted it. Also: when you take your car to a service station, while different mechanics may offer different diagnoses, they aren’t likely to tell you that your Honda Civic should be a tractor, or that it would be more interesting with fewer windows. (“Spare me,” your mechanic says. “Four doors, steering wheel on the left, rubber tires—have we not all seen this a million times before?”) You and the mechanic share an understanding of what a Honda Civic is, what it can be, and what it isn’t. The writing workshop is less like a service station than it is like a place to bring cars that fell off the assembly line, or, more accurately, cars that are still being designed. For all you know, the 12-page story you bring to workshop might turn into a novella, or a chapter for a novel, or you might end up using a few of the characters in something altogether different. And even if it remains a 12-page story, it will change in ways that are by no objective standard “right,” the way a Honda Civic can be made right; your 12-page story means to be unique. So the writing workshop is not a place for repair, or correction.
The writing workshop might more accurately be likened to a laboratory, a place where hypotheses are tested, where experiments are carried out, where there are sometimes explosions, where fruit fly colonies hatch unexpectedly, where people stand around, staring intently at experiments in various stages, rubbing their chins, saying things like “Hmmm,” and “I don’t know,” and “What if we try this,” and, “Now that’s interesting.”
In many writing programs the workshop takes the place of classes, so the work submitted serves largely to trigger discussion and instruction regarding various aspects of craft. That tends to make the workshop like a medical theater, where the would-be doctors are intent on procedure and technique but not, particularly, on the patient. This use of the workshop to prompt lessons on craft may be one reason that, as many people have noted, workshops often seem intent on finding fault. It’s also worth noting that finding fault is relatively easy; if nothing else, we can always see what a story—even a great story—might have done, but didn’t. Madison Smartt Bell says that when we prepare for a workshop discussion, we feel obliged to find something wrong, and if we don’t, we feel we aren’t doing our job. Once we find something wrong, we’re relieved; we can tick off a draft’s shortcomings, then move on to the next one. We approach preparing for workshop as a task to be completed. And that’s why it’s possible for workshops to feel redundant, and tedious, even depressing, when instead they should inspire us.
Workshops depart from the ideal in other ways. Because the work is evolving, it can be tempting to mistake its most effective passages or elements for its most important ones. But we’ve all written stories that had wonderful moments early on that had to be cut from the final draft, appealing characters who turned out to be distractions, clever sentences that turned out to be too clever and, we later realized, stolen from someone else. Conversely, a draft’s “failures”—inconsistency in voice or point of view, an unaccountable leap in time, an overly-long scene, extended attention to a minor character—may be the very things in the story that are most promising. You’ve probably written drafts with one goal in mind, only to discover something much more interesting that you hadn’t foreseen, hadn’t predicted. A draft’s apparent “failures,” or ruptures, might indicate where the story is breaking free from your misguided plan. A good workshop, rather than “fixing” the “problem,” will help you see that you’ve stumbled onto something worth exploring.
If a workshop seems to be, with the exception of “your” time, for the benefit of others, and if preparation for workshop seems like an obligation you have to fulfill so that, in “your” time, the rest of the group will give you something—which is to say, if the preparation for workshop and the group discussion don’t somehow serve the development of your fiction, something is wrong. So the question to keep in mind, always, is “What can I learn from this draft?”
I don’t mean to imply that every draft is a jewel in the rough. Some drafts, we all know from experience, are a mess. Some trees in the forest need to die, fall, and rot, to nurture the others. But somewhere in the combination of recognizing what the work is, considering what it could be, assessing what’s effective, determining what isn’t yet effective, and posing possibilities for the work’s evolution, we should be able to learn something. Like those laboratory scientists, we should study and contemplate, rather than rush to judgment.
How do we do this?
Like scientists in the lab, we work to identify what we’ve been given, then we work to identify its parts and how they function. Our particular interest is in what’s functioning effectively and why and what is functioning less effectively and why. We need to exercise judgment, even as we recognize that our judgment may be flawed and that the evaluation of art is subjective. There are bound to be differences of opinion, differences of interpretation; that’s why it’s especially important that we base our statements on the evidence in front of us. Our goal is to consider how the piece in front of us might serve its intention most effectively—not to “fix” the story or chapter, but to suggest possibilities for it based on what the author has set into motion. If this goes well, we all leave the room with new ideas.
When you look at your own drafts, it’s best not to say, in any narrow, limiting sense, “How can I fix this?” but instead to say, “How can I improve this?” or “How can I build on this?” That’s the attitude to bring to a workshop: What is this? What’s most interesting about it? What are some exciting possibilities it suggests for the next draft? You can’t expect anyone else to tell you how to finish your story; but you can expect others to offer ways you might further investigate what you’ve set into motion.
In preparing to discuss work in progress by others, you might reflect on your own answers to the following questions:
1. What do you hope to achieve when you commit a first draft to paper?
2. What sorts of goals do you set yourself for a second or third draft, or whenever you approach revision?
3. How do you know when a story is finished? (Do you tend to think of stories in terms of plot resolution? Character exploration? Theme? Making a statement?)
These are important questions not just for the obvious reasons—that they help us to define our own practice—but because they can help to guide our analysis, including the sort of analysis we do for workshops, our responses to work in progress. If we ourselves don’t tend to write stories to Send Messages, and if we don’t tend to think of a story of our own primarily as an expression of a theme, maybe we shouldn’t assume that everyone else in the room does. On the other hand, if we’re interested in more than plot, we might consider that our fellow writers aren’t simply concerned with plot, either. And if we sometimes write drafts not knowing where they’re headed, we should allow that other writers work the same way. The draft we’re examining is likely to be one step in a path of discovery. Before we can hope to describe the intention of a story we read, we need to be aware of our own intentions—at least, our conscious intentions—for the work we write.
The first step in preparing to discuss another writer’s draft is to try to identify the work’s intention. This is much more challenging than it might sound. It’s difficult to truly suspend our own tastes; it’s also difficult to identify with any confidence the intention of a work that isn’t fully realized (especially since the author might not have a clear intention, yet). But we need to try; and we need to be patient in doing that before we start talking about any specific scene or character or line of dialogue or description. (Far too often, workshop discussions are devoted to a few details at the expense of the whole.)
It’s often best to begin by describing the work. That description has to move beyond the obvious; it should be craft oriented; and it should help you recognize the work’s intention. In some cases, a summary of action might be called for—if the action is complex or unclear. Sometimes the group can avoid long stretches of confusion by clarifying a few simple things at the start. But the description must also be analytical—a recognition of the whole, and an identification of its most significant parts.
One of the most useful things a workshop can do for the writer is to reflect the intention of the work back to her. It is of course helpful to give the writer suggestions for developing the work; and it’s useful for every writer to learn to diagnose the ailments of a draft that falls short. But falls short of what? If the conversation doesn’t begin by trying to recognize the work’s intention, there’s a great risk that the suggestions offered will be suggestions for ways to make the story what the speaker thinks it should be, or could be, or might be.
When we talk about describing a draft’s intentions, we aren’t trying to read the writer’s mind, or guess what she was thinking. Rather, we’re describing what the pages we’ve been given appear to be trying to do—and we should support that conclusion with evidence from the text. Because unless this articulation of the work’s intention is done carefully, thoroughly, any criticism—or praise—of specific parts is irrelevant. While readers might agree that a particular description is “hysterically funny,” a particular scene “shocking,” a particular character “familiar,” it’s impossible to say whether that’s a good thing or a bad thing without having considered the work’s intention. For example: “So we beat on, boats against the current, born back ceaselessly into the past” is a world-class last line—for The Great Gatsby. It would be an awkward last line for Moby Dick, and it would be an absurd last line for The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. The margin comment “Great line!” is not useful without consideration of the context—which is to say, the work’s intentions.
Perhaps it goes without saying, but another reason it’s useful for readers to articulate the apparent intention of the work is so that the author can hear it. Ideally, the majority of readers will describe something like the intention the author had in mind. But often, due to the fact that work in progress is either insufficiently focused or not fully considered, different readers will have very different understandings of a work’s intention. This is good for the writer to know. And then there are the times when readers will be affected by the work in a way the writer hadn’t anticipated, but which seems worth pursuing. Our intention for a piece of writing isn’t stable; in fact, when we set out to write a first draft, we may have no clear intention in mind. As we revise, our intention may become more clear, but it is also likely to change, even drastically. Your goal in a workshop, then, should be to help the writer understand what a thoughtful reader sees on the page. This is why it’s important for everyone to prepare for workshop by describing the intention of each piece, and it’s important for the author and for the group to hear multiple expressions of a work’s intention.
Sometimes, in preparing for discussion, you may find yourself with questions you can’t answer. That’s perfectly fine. Other readers may have answers; or, perhaps even more profitably, the entire group may need to grapple with difficult questions.
After identifying what the work seems intent to do, it is valuable to discuss how it goes about doing that. Eagerness to get to specific examples sometimes leads the group to discuss the writer’s formal choices too hastily. It’s both important and useful to identify the formal means of the work in front of us, the aspects which seem to have been emphasized or which seem most important. Some of these aspects of craft in fiction are:
Structure, Action (events, story, plot), Character, Setting, Imagery, Point of view, Form, and Language. A discussion of intention may eventually include theme, or meaning, but that isn’t usually the best place to begin the discussion.
Not all aspects of craft are equally important in every story; so it’s our job to identify and focus our attention on those aspects that seem most important to the particular piece.
We can say the story is in the limited third person, that it opens with exposition and is built around two long scenes, we can say that the events are strictly chronological but the character’s thoughts include flashbacks, we can say that the writing is colloquial and seems to represent the character’s voice, we can say that the setting is a generic suburb in an unnamed part of the United States, and so on. But the crucial thing to get at in discussion is the relationship between those “formal choices” and the work’s intention. So it may turn out that the fact that the story is essentially chronological is of no particular consequence, and neither is the fact that we don’t know what state we’re in. Alternately, you might decide the fact that you don’t know what state the characters are in is essential. If we were discussing Shirley Jackson’s “The Lottery,” we might decide that ambiguity of setting, among many other ambiguities, is a crucial choice, one that clarifies the work’s intention.
Because so many group discussions of drafts turn into fault-finding missions, the next step should be to consider passages, devices, and choices that seem most effective in pursuit of the work’s intent, or “core.” Many workshops do this only hastily, even as an afterthought. There are several reasons for this. When we talk about what’s working, we tend to identify very specific details—a sentence, a line of dialogue or description, a character’s gesture—rather than an aspect of the work. The tendency is to praise the sentence or line or description (“I loved that!”) and then move on. But it is important to recognize general choices that are serving a story well—say, it’s modular structure, or its internal clock—even if that aspect of the story isn’t working perfectly in every detail. Recognizing effective passages or choices can also be difficult because it’s harder to explain why something that works works than it is to discuss why something that fails fails. “I know my Honda Civic isn’t working because when I turn the key the engine won’t start. I have gas in it, so I suspect the problem is the ignition, the battery, or the alternator.” The problem is easy to investigate, even if it turns out not to be easy to solve. It’s harder to explain why your Honda Civic is running; it just is. It’s running because it’s running. It’s supposed to run. When your car is working well, you don’t think about it. Somewhere, though, designers, engineers, and mechanics gave a lot of thought to making your car run well. As writers, when some part of a work in progress is working well, we must consider why.
Our obligation to identify and discuss those passages, devices, and/or choices that seem most effective in pursuit of the work’s intent should not be confused with the social urge to “say something nice.” There is no need in workshop to “say something nice,” and sometimes the gratuitous “nice” comment is more condescending and disrespectful than thoughtful consideration. There is, of course, also no need or reason to say something not nice. We’re scientists in the laboratory; we’re trying to learn. While we should be courteous and respectful toward one another, our assessment of the work should be as objective as possible.
Now we come to the point where far too many workshop discussions begin (and, in the worst cases, end): identifying passages, devices, or choices that seem at cross-purposes with the rest of the work, or not as fully realized, clear, detailed, or graceful as they need to be. Identifying those aspects of the work that are not functioning clearly or effectively or persuasively is absolutely useful, but it is only one of many parts of the conversation; and because it is the easiest part to indulge, we must be wary of allowing it to dominate, at the expense of our other responsibilities. When discussing a draft’s shortcomings, contradictions, missed opportunities, etc., it is important to keep in mind that we aren’t passing judgment on a final draft; our goal, always, is to be constructive.
With that in mind, we can speculate about changes or additions—again, though, not to satisfy our own taste or preference, but in light of the work’s deepest purposes. We may be tentative about this, for fear of being “prescriptive.” But if we remember that our task is not to “fix” the story, or to tell the writer what to do—that our job, now, is to generate ideas and options—we won’t “prescribe” but suggest. For ourselves, we can generate all sorts of possibilities from the story in front of us; for the writer and the group discussion, though, we should restrict our suggestions to those which seem most clearly related to the work’s apparent intention.
So. Prepare for discussion by
1. Describing the work, with the goal of identifying its intention
2. Identifying its parts or aspects and how they function with relation to the whole
3. Assessing the effectiveness of the parts (concentrating first on strengths, then on weaknesses)
4. Proposing new possibilities, keeping in mind the work’s apparent intention and concerns
At one point in the film Rivers and Tides, landscape sculptor Andy Goldsworthy says, “When something
collapses it is intensely disappointing…each time [the sculpture collapsed], I got to know the stone a little bit more. [The sculpture] got higher each time, so it grew in proportion to my understanding of the stone. And that is really one of the things my art is trying to do, it’s trying to understand the stone. I obviously don’t understand it well enough, yet.”
The purpose of a writing workshop is to work together, as a group, to pursue our understanding of the craft of writing.