Writers’ Workshops

by James Patrick Kelly

© 1988 by James Patrick Kelly, First published in The Bulletin of The Science Fiction Writers of America

You don’t believe in writers’ workshops — never have. Maybe you had a bad experience in college. Some reedy creative writing type sneered at sci-fi and said you probably ought to think about a career in plumbing. Or perhaps it was that incestuous little workshop in your home town, one of those adult education courses filled with achingly sincere poets and would-be Joyces who responded to criticism by saying silly things like “I only write for myself.”

You swear by writers’ workshops. You went to Clarion — lots of us did — and it changed your life. Or maybe you were one of the lucky ones, because you lived in Boston or Austin or Minneapolis or Denver or Eugene — someplace where there was an established professional workshop. Somehow you wangled an invitation and, mirabile dictu, they took your work seriously. After a while, you did too. And the rest is literary history.

There are probably thousands of writers’ workshops in the United States. The vast majority live down to their reputation, noisily proving the cliche that you can’t teach writing. About the only good they do is to provide an incentive for the neophyte to write regularly. There are a precious few, however, that work. What you learn in a good workshop is not how to write, but rather what your audience makes of what you’ve written. Forget about silver-haired authority figures handing down the ten commandments of good writing. There’s no shock quite so instructive as listening to a roomful of astute readers misconstrue your intentions, no pleasure quite so memorable as hearing a stranger speak of your work with understanding and appreciation.

How to recognize the good workshop? Almost all of the sf variety are based on the Milford model, for which the legends credit Damon Knight. This was the way Milford worked when it was the national workshop (and works today; a scaled-down Milford continues as one of the most outstanding of our many regional workshops.) This is the way Clarion works — with a few minor variations. This is the format of Sycamore Hill, the current national workshop. The problem is that most of the Milford-format workshops are either too far away or else are filled and have waiting lists. If you’re really interested, what you may need to do is start your own.

Here’s how.

The Milford model works best with between five and seventeen members. Too few and the workshop loses its necessary diversity, too many and the critique of each story drags on to excruciating lengths. The group usually gathers together in one place for some length of time: a single day or maybe a weekend for the smaller, regional workshops, five days to a week for a national workshop like the old Milford or Sycamore Hill. Clarion takes six weeks. Both Sycamore Hill and Clarion are annual events, while many of the regional workshops meet on a monthly or bimonthly schedule. Only writers with manuscripts in the workshop take part in the critique; no audience is allowed. While the furnishing of the workshop room is a matter of circumstance and taste, the optimal arrangement is for the group to sit around a large table or otherwise gather the wagons into a circle. The stories are read beforehand; the more conscientious critics read more than once. Each critic holds forth in turn, most referring to notes they’ve taken. The custom is to pass these notes to the writer at the end of the session. During critiques the writer may not respond to comments unless asked a direct “yes or no” question. No one is supposed interrupt another’s critique, although there’s often some — usually trifling — cross talk. Repetition is inevitable, although wistful sighs and vacant stares can sometimes prod repeaters to pass when they have nothing new to add. After everyone else has spoken, the writer gets the opportunity to give thanks, explain, rebut or say nothing. A free-form discussion occasionally ensues; otherwise it’s on to the next story. Some workshops enforce these simple rules as a group or the organizers may act as semi-official referees.

Describing the model doesn’t really give the sense of what a workshop is like. There’s a misapprehension that the criticism is unremittingly harsh, that the critiques are subject to personal feud and ideological debate, that some people recklessly rewrite perfectly good stories, while others offer conflicting opinions which can reduce the poor writer to total confusion. You’ve probably heard some of the horror stories, tales of crushed egos and burnt manuscripts. Well, there are no guarantees. Once in a great while, workshops stray. Nevertheless, two points need to be made.

The first is that the workshop provides the writer with a range of opinion. Unanimity is rare; it’s a big genre, folks. The reality is that some people simply hate elves, others resent metafiction, many think vampires are silly and hardware puts more than a few to sleep. It’s hardly surprising that the critics around the table tend to respond most intelligently to stories which are like the ones they themselves enjoy. While the feminist might legitimately comment that she never reads sword and sorcery and would not have finished the story under consideration had it not been in the workshop, the cyberpunk might confess a secret love of heroic fantasy and offer a connoisseur’s insight. Yet even allowing for a diversity of tastes, a consensus usually emerges. This consensus may not always solve a story’s problems or fully appreciate masterwork, but it will not settle for cliched situations, cardboard characters, off-the-shelf concepts and stale emotion, and it can easily recognize narrative drive, believable dialogue, fresh ideas and deft characterization.

The second point is that there’s no criticism quite as blunt as a fistful of rejection slips. Workshopping offers a more humane way to receive bad news — if indeed the news is bad. Not only that, but the process can give writers a new perspective on how decisions to reject or accept are made. For in a sense writers play at being editors during a workshop. They get to read for the mythical Adequate Science Fiction Magazine or the anthology Wicked New Visions, edited by (your name here). They are not, however, allowed to hide their opinions behind the cryptic “This material is not suitable for us at the present time.” They must face the writer and explain specifically and at length why the story does not suit. They must justify their readings, rationalize their aesthetic prejudices. It’s a difficult role to play, but it can be invaluable both for the writer and the editor-for-a-day. Admittedly, some people do get carried away. Sweeping rewrite syndrome is an example. Yet even this excess is much more likely to spring from enthusiasm than malice; people want more than just publishable stories, they want the writer to do his very best, every time, and no excuses, please. What’s the harm in this? The writer is free to ignore meddlesome advice, and in almost every session some particularly sympathetic critic will make at least one suggestion which can help focus or improve the story.

It’s clear, however, that some writers are uncomfortable with this notion of colleagues helping to write their stories. (Some writers are also uncomfortable with the notion of editing.) Whose story is it if you use that killer ending Kate Wilhelm suggested? Will peer pressure homogenize your work? These are fair questions, to which there are no universal answers.

Which brings us to an important caveat: workshops are not for everyone. They are definitely not for the thin-skinned; people who have difficulty separating criticism of the work from personal criticism are well advised to stay away. Nor are workshops for followers of Heinlein’s Third Rule for Success in Writing: “You must refrain from rewriting except to editorial order.” There’s no point in workshopping non-negotiable stories. Of course, what you expect is a standing “O” from your colleagues, immediate sale to a top market followed by a raft of award nominations and multiple Best of the Year appearances. That’s only natural. But it’s dishonest to decide beforehand that no matter what transpires during the critique, your story is perfectly salable and you’re not changing a goddamned word. Beware as well if you have a truly idiosyncratic writing voice; the process seems to work best for stories in the mainstream of the genre — so to speak. It’s also difficult, although not impossible, to get a satisfactory critique of a novel. Especially at national workshops like Sycamore Hill, where even the strong stagger under the reading burden, there are limits placed on manuscript length. No one has time to read an entire novel. Fragments, unfortunately, tend to get fragmentary criticism. Novels-in-progress are better suited to the more frequent regional workshops where over time, chapter by chapter, the book at least has a chance to considered in its entirety. To restate: workshops are not for everyone. Some of our most gifted writers abstain for reasons of temperament and practicality. It’s simply a matter of what works for you. Some of us write in longhand, others compose at the keyboard. Some are morning people, others can’t count to three before lunch.

One workshop secret — admittedly not very well kept — is that the critiques are not, in and of themselves, sufficient justification for shelling out plane fare from San Francisco to Raleigh, North Carolina, or for leaving home and your paying job for six weeks at Clarion. There are other benefits, intangible and yet undeniable, to the attending a writers’ workshop.

Validation, for example. One bane of the beginning writers’ life is fluctuating confidence. Workshops have helped resolve many, many more confidence problems than they have caused. You know you have some talent, otherwise they wouldn’t have accepted you at Clarion. And even though you haven’t had a sale since Labor Day, the other writers in the workshop still read your latest manuscript with care and enthusiasm. A multiple award winner sits next to you; across the room is a writer who sold her first story when you were still struggling with The Cat in the Hat. They believe in you, therefore you are a writer, even if all the editors haven’t tumbled to it yet.

Community. It’s a lonely business, okay? Most people you meet have no idea what you do. You try to tell a neighbor about the magazines and he asks if you know Stephen King. At the workshop, everyone understands. When you’re making a point in casual conversation, you don’t have to explain about relativity or narrative lumps or royalties. Your colleagues have the same problems and maybe even some solutions. It’s comforting to know that you’re not necessarily crazy for writing this stuff, or at least if you are, then there are other lunatics loose too.

Influence. Sometimes you learn things at a workshop that have nothing to do with the story you brought. Since writers tend to get prickly about this, perhaps the less said the better. Nevertheless, it’s impossible to critique a manuscript without discovering both clever solutions and poor decisions. The careful writer can emulate the former and eschew the latter without violating his artistic integrity. All of us learn from our reading or we ought to. Moreover, some writers attend workshops with the announced intention of influencing their colleagues. Which leads us to …

Controversy. The genre keeps changing and people keep arguing about it at workshops — oh, how they argue! It’s fascinating to watch ideologies and styles contend in real time, as opposed to the maddeningly slow pace of publishing and the USPS. What is surprising about this clash of ideas is not that arguments occasionally get out of hand; it’s how often they remain civil and useful. People who talk to each other find common ground. Or they come to understand exactly why they disagree instead of relying on what he said she said she thought she read in a fanzine somewhere. Even for those who are not direct parties to the debate, workshop controversies provide an incentive to self-examination. The great controversialist Plato used to argue that the unexamined life is not worth living.

Ultimately, what sends writers off to workshops is ambition. It’s easier to stay home and keep plugging away, certainly cheaper. But you want something more. You want to get better. Maybe a workshop will help, maybe not. Lots of people say it’s worth a try.