Workshop Wisdom

Okay, “wisdom” might be an overstatement.  But at Penguicon this year, it occurred to me that I’ve been doing writing workshops for a long time.  As a participant, I’ve done creative writing class discussions, the Writers of the Future workshop in ’99, Critters, and then several years with a local group until they dissolved.  Eventually, I started cofacilitating workshops, helping to run them at ConFusion, ConClave, and now Penguicon, among others.

That’s a lot of fiction feedback, and after a while, you start to notice patterns.  I figured it might be helpful to list some of the more common feedback I’ve given and received over the years.  Like all “rules,” some of these can be bent.  Others can be broken.  Our job is to learn them well enough to know when and how.

Begin at the beginning.  I don’t know how many times I’ve read a story, and it takes several pages or chapters before things start moving.  As a writer, my first drafts often include a lot of brainstorming at the beginning.  I’m laying down backstory, trying to figure everything out, but the story doesn’t get moving until later.  As a general rule, your story doesn’t start with your hero getting up, making breakfast, and brushing his teeth.  It starts with the werejaguar that carjacks him on the way to work.

Your protagonist must protag.  Your protagonist wants something.  The story is about how she tries to accomplish that goal, struggling and eventually failing or succeeding.  If your protagonist sits around, passively describing what’s happening while never taking part in the action, you might want to consider either making her an active participant in her own story or else switching to another protagonist.

Who are you? Why am I against this wall? Why won’t my arms move? Where’s Buttercup?  It’s one thing to toss your readers into a scene, but you also need to orient them.  Where are we, and why should readers care?  I’ve learned that at the start of any scene, chapter, or story, I need to answer most or all of the following questions: Who is the POV character?  Who else is here?  Where are we?  How much time has passed since the last scene?  What’s going on?

Meet the twins, Bweryang and Bob.  Names are important.  Make sure yours are culturally consistent.  Unless you’re deliberately going for humor, your ogres named Grok, Flargh, and Kandi are going to throw me right out of the story.  Also make sure your names aren’t going to resonate with other culturally popular names.  Your story about OB/GYN medical droids where the head ‘bot is named O.B.1?  Yeah, that’s not gonna work.

The mysterious man and his mysterious quest.  As authors, we want to build suspense.  What better way than by keeping secrets from the reader?  Hide everyone’s horrible pasts, their true motivations, even their names!  You’d be amazed how many workshop stories don’t give the character’s name until well into the tale.  The problem is, it’s hard to care about someone we know nothing about (not to mention the convolutions the writer had to go through to keep things hidden).  I still find myself hiding too much in my early drafts.  But the more I share, the more the reader can empathize and get invested in the story.

I think I took a wrong turn at Albuquerque.  A lot of early drafts meander, until the reader starts to wonder if the author knows where the story’s going.  One character is on a quest to rescue his cat, but then it turns into a story about the veterinarian, and suddenly we’re preaching about animal rights, and in the end the vet’s kid wrecks the truck.  Lots of action, but totally disconnected.  For me, what’s helped is to boil each book, story, chapter, or scene into a single sentence to help me focus.

A certain point of view?  I’d say at least half the workshop stories I read have point of view trouble.  Sometimes it’s minor.  We’re in third person limited PoV, staying strictly within the mind of our protagonist, and then there’s a paragraph that tells us what some random character is thinking.  Other times it’s messier, jumping from one person’s head to another with no rhyme or reason, and no indication of when or why we’ve switched perspectives.

Prologues.  Prologues are not a requirement of fantasy novels.  The fantasy police will not break down your door and taser you if you fail to include one.  If you do decide to use a prologue, know why.  What does the prologue accomplish that you couldn’t do with a regular old chapter?  I’d say less than 20% of the prologues I read in workshops really help the stories.  Is this the most effective way to give your readers whatever info you want them to have?  If you want to give the full history of your world, great.  But you might be better off waiting until it’s relevant to the story rather than opening with 8 pages of infodumping.  (See also Begin at the beginning.)

That’s what I was able to come up with off the top of my head.  I hope it’s helpful.  I’m sure there are more, and I’m happy to hear other tidbits from folks.