This is the fourth post of a series I’m doing about the Oregon Coast Anthology Workshop, which is an 8-day immersion into the world of traditionally published short fiction. The first post in the series outlines the event and provides linkage to the entire series of posts. The workshop is intense and multi-faceted, so if you’re not familiar with it I suggest reading that post before proceeding.
That first post also notes that my daughter and I are editing Face the Strange, an anthology in the Fiction River series that comes out of the workshop. It may even spend a moment gushing about how amazing that collection is going to be. I could apologize for that, I suppose, but I won’t. I love these stories, and I’m not afraid to say it!
Today I’m going to focus on a module of the workshop that isn’t even on the syllabus or suggested by the instructors, and probably isn’t even done by most of the participants. It is, however, one of the most powerful things a writer can do to use the Anthology Workshop as a way to improve their craft.
I’ll call this section “Personal Workshopping.”
As noted before, each writer eventually receives all the stories written for the workshop—roughly 240 manuscripts or 1.2 million words.
The participants then act like editors and select stories that meet their own vision of the anthology in question. This is a great exercise for all the reasons I discussed in the last post. You put yourself in the shoes of an editor, and in the process hopefully build an emotional underpinning around how the editorial process works. That’s valuable because so much of building a long-term career in this world of traditional publishing is about maintaining your emotional core so you can continue through rejection.
But I’m selfish, you know? I want to translate this into something that helps my actual writing. I already understand how the editorial process works and, if you’ve been to the workshop or been working in the field for a long time like many of the participants have, you do too. I want something that hones my craft. In that light, the most important ingredient here comes in the form of those 240 manuscripts and 1.2 million words.
WHAT IS PERSONAL WORKSHOPPING?
Let’s be clear about something up front: The Anthology Workshop is not a critique thing. There is no Clarion-like sharing around the room. The workshop has several very firm rules that I’ll touch on in later segments of this series, but the one that’s important for this module is that no participant is allowed to talk to any writer about that writer’s story.
Nothing. No simple “hey, I liked that.” No “you should think about changing this.” Literally nothing. Instead, the workshop is arranged such that writers receive feedback from editors, and only editors. So, seriously, you are not allowed to critique any story with its author.
That said, there’s no reason you can’t break these stories down for yourself, and there’s no reason you can’t work with another writer (who may or may not be your daughter) to dig even deeper into them.
Bottom line: For at least the last five years of the workshop Brigid and I have read every word that’s been written for the workshop, then met on Skype to deconstruct it all. Every story. Except, of course, our own. That would be breaking the rules.
That’s what Personal Workshopping is.
PERSONAL WORKSHOPPING: WHY IT WORKS, ESPECIALLY HERE
Bear with me here a sec. I promise this is going to get someplace that’s about the workshop eventually, all right? But let me start this bit by saying that a lot of writers seem to join critique groups because they want people to tell them what’s wrong with their work. That’s an understandable, but—in my probably not particularly humble opinion—deeply flawed approach.
The whole idea is just wrong-minded to begin with.
I mean, you can find beta readers to do that without being required to reciprocate by spending time cutting into someone else’s work, right? So, no, joining a critique group so you can have someone tear into your work is the wrong way to go. There is only one reason to be in a critique group as far as learning is concerned, and that reason is so you can get your hands on and break down as many raw manuscripts as you can. That’s right: The ability to deconstruct stories is the real reason to be in a group. That’s it. Sure, there are social values, and its nice to have people you can lean on when things are down. But when done right the real learning of a critique group is in deconstructing other writer’s stories so you can get better at deconstructing your own.
The goal, then, is to find a group that creates manuscripts of a class you can use to get better. That’s the magic, really. The reason your critique group works better when all of its members are at a similar level is that these groups create manuscripts that are filled with the kinds of mistakes you make but are not manuscripts that you created.
* Aside: If you buy my take here, this is also why a real writer (as differentiated from a hobbyist) will “outgrow” a group. Or better stated, it’s why a writer will stop feeling that a group is helping them. A beginner can learn a lot from what I’ll politely call low-grade starters (hey, we’ve all been there, right?), but, at some point that will change. My view is that a writer who is truly working to get better will move on from a critique group when their learning gets stalled—and that learning process will get stalled when the group’s manuscripts don’t present enough of a challenge to them. That writer may not even be able to describe why they aren’t happy with the group, but they will leave rather than stagnate. In other words, if the group I’m in is submitting manuscripts I can learn from, I’ll stay, otherwise, I’m gone.
I’m spending time on this because the 240 manuscripts you’ll get by attending the Anthology Workshop provide you a unique opportunity.
To attend the workshop, you have to be pre-approved, after all. You have to be a working writer.
Don’t get me wrong here, though. Yes, you will find several unpublished writers among those who are published, but these are people who have proven to Kris and Dean that they are actively working hard. These are solid writers even if some are still early in their learning curve. They know the basics. They understand story structure even if they can’t always pick it out. They understand setting and plot. They’ve been working long enough to have at least some element of their voice developed. And, of course, most, are already full-blooded professionals who are working through their careers. So, these manuscripts are of a considerably higher quality than your average critique group. They hold together. They take chances. Some of them, as I noted in the first segment, are award quality.
But they are also 240 manuscripts that were created in a week and, as I also noted in that first segment, sometimes they get rushed, or sometimes the writer finds themselves out of time and crashes the end in ways that jar, or sometimes…well…sometimes they swing for the fences and just fail. It happens, you know? No shame in taking a chance and missing on a tight deadline. There are lots of reasons why stories get rejected, of course, and sometimes it actually is because of quality.
So, yes, the quality of these manuscripts is generally high, but not always so.
* Aside: Somewhere along the line of every 8-day Anthology Workshop, one or more of the editors on the panel will inevitably say something like “every one of these manuscripts could be published!” Please chalk this up to workshop fatigue. It is not true. Yes, a lot of these stories are fantastic, and many will go on to be published even if they are rejected from Fiction River. But, as a working writer who has attended this workshop often, I can tell you that not every manuscript I’ve written for it has sold—either to the workshop or afterward…though many have. The manuscripts at the workshop will be good, but not every manuscript will sell, and even the editor who inevitably says they will knows this truth. That’s all good, though. Editors are human. Having done it now, I report for sure that it’s hard to be in front of a group of writers every day for a week without coming out with some kind of encouragement that sounds like that.
The whole point here is that this environment is a tailormade learning environment for a self-motivated writer: A pile of 240 or so mostly well-done manuscripts that you can deconstruct to your heart’s content.
I mean, this is a freaking goldmine.
I used to think that the process of deconstructing a story and learning from it was so elemental that it didn’t need to be discussed. That was before I started listening to writers. Now I realize that as a collective, writers are like everyone else. We only go half way.
By that, I mean most writers seem to think about the process of breaking down a story as a Seek and Find thing where their primary goal is to pick out the flaws and hold them up to the light for all to see. That’s all good and well, but that’s stopping way too early. It’s not going to help your writing. Speaking for me, anyway, the process has three steps:
1) Identify flaws
2) Identify why the flaw is there…where was the flaw created, how does it manifest itself?
3) Determine how I would write the story to remove the flaws, and then actually envision the change.
It seems to me that most writers stop at #1, and a few go onto #2. But it seems like almost no one goes to step #3.
So, when Brigid and I talk about stories, our conversation will generally get broken into three segments:
First, what did we think? What did we love? What went clunk? What was our read? Did the writer achieve what they were trying to achieve? Second, we’ll talk about the guts of the manuscript, sometimes laying out the plot in 7-point structure or discussing the approach the writer took to their validation scenes, or occasionally even going down to specific phrases and words if we need to in order to see where a problem might be addressed. Then well talk about things we would do—sometimes noting specifically how her approach would be different from mine.
There are times—if I feel a manuscript is flawed in some way I get deeply interested in or the solution is tricky—I’ll even go as far as to rewrite big portions of it. That rewrite isn’t useful as actual work, of course. I can’t publish it, and don’t ever share it. Why would I? I’m not trying to help the writer in question at this point. At this point, the writer in question has no bearing in the conversation at all. Instead, I’m trying to answer the question of how I would write it. At this point it’s all about me and my learning. I’m being selfish here, right? Actually picturing or creating the change I’m thinking about brings the learning full circle.
The best times, of course, are when Brigid and I find stories where we wouldn’t change a thing. Even then, though, we’ll sometimes jump down into the manuscript to talk about why something really worked—especially those pieces that take great risks. How did they pull that off? Where did they set the hook? How did the writer use misdirection here to leave me totally delighted?
Remember, these are generally solid manuscripts written around great stories. (You noted the separate use of story and manuscript there, right?) This collection of manuscripts is going to give you a bunch of opportunities to explore things that worked and figure out why they did.
THE VALUE OF TWO:
Now, you can do this all by yourself of course. I did it myself the first year I went to the workshop.
But I admit it’s a big advantage to work on this part of the process with Brigid. Working with someone else makes my learning considerably better. First, merely being expected to have a deep conversation about every story means I can’t shirk my work. Without the accountability of talking to Brigid I would probably do a half-assed job of the analysis, but knowing I need to bring thoughts to the table means I need to be ready. And, of course, I learn a lot more by having a second point of view available to act as a sounding board. Sometimes I miss things, you know? Sometimes Brigid comes up with something that makes me think about a work differently than I originally did.
I’m not going to lie, though, this is a huge amount of work. At 40 stories per anthology, and 15 minutes per story, you’ve talking about 10 hours of conversation each anthology—or 60 hours for the whole workshop. And that’s on top of the actual reading. But to me, this is one of the biggest learning opportunities in the entire workshop.
I wouldn’t miss it for the world.
And, after all, you go to the workshop to learn. Why not go full-bore?
I hear you. “All right,” Ron, you’re saying. “This whole series of posts is titled ‘Adventures of a First-time Editor.’ How was this different as an editor than it was a participant?”
The main difference was in the quality of the notes I took and the thinking we did about what we each wanted to convey to the writer when we got to the workshop. As a participant you know you can’t talk to the writer at all, so it’s easy not to worry about saying the wrong thing. But when you know in advance you’re going to be conveying a point of view to the group, you want to be both prepared and professional, right?
Beyond that, this part of the process was naturally where the bulk of our conversations about story selection started. We added notes about stories we wanted for Face the Strange even if they weren’t submitted to us, or things we thought we would ask for from writers who we might accept.
Note, that this is very different from the bits I talked about a moment ago where I noted I do some rewriting. That’s a learning thing as a writer. This was an editor thing. When we were selecting stories, both Brigid and I were very cautious to avoid putting ourselves into the stories. Each time we discussed possible changes, we did a spot check on the request to ensure we were clear that the writer needed to keep their own vision on the page. I personally don’t like editors rewriting the fundamental nature of my work, so neither Brigid or I wanted to be doing that. Having a second voice to bounce these kinds of things off was helpful (for me, anyway).
So, there you go.
That’s my take on how what Personal Workshopping is in context of the Anthology Workshop, and how to think about taking advantage of it in a professional way. Next time I’ll begin talking about the event itself, focusing first on the workshop environment and the while idea of “eavesdropping” on editors.
Should be great fun!