How we workshop fiction

While I was in Seattle recently (scroll down for photos in the navbar to your right), my friend Jerry took me to lunch at the Wild Wheat Bakery Café & Restaurant in the south end. (I ate a delightful salmon tostada salad, then walked out with a squishably soft loaf of garlic rosemary bread and a tiny gift-sized creme brulee.) While there, Jerry’s friend Kascha asked me how my workshop works. She, like many writers, has had nasty experiences with workshops in the past. But she knew that mine had helped me a great deal, and wanted to know how it worked.

How it works is this:

  1. One of us emails the listserv with a manuscript. If it’s a short story, we take one week to read it and write up comments. If it’s a novel partial, we take two weeks.
  2. The night of the workshop, we all arrive on time. When all are assembled, we agree on who will start the critiquing. Usually, it’s the person whose manuscript was up last. So if my story was critiqued last week, I start the critiques this week.
  3. Critiques are individual. No one else speaks while I or anyone else critiques the story. There is no piping up, chiming in, or other interruption. Wait your turn.
  4. Similarly, the author does not speak unless spoken to in the form of a direct question. Answers are brief, to the point, and usually in the form of a “yes” or “no.”
  5. When all members have offered a critique (or begged forgiveness for having not read the story yet, and offered a promise of doing so in short order), then the author has a chance to respond to or rebut the critiques.
  6. Following the rebuttal, conversation usually turns to disagreements on what was right or wrong with the story, how to fix the issues that have come up (or whether to do so), and which bottle of wine we should open first.

Commonly, this is known as the Milford Model. It’s also the same method my workshop has been using since Judith Merril started it over twenty years ago during her writer-in-residence tenure at the Toronto Public Library. It’s an old method, and it still works for us.

However, there is another method that has worked for me in the past, in a classroom setting. I think it might also work for writers who are in a workshop with strangers, in a writing class, or with people who are trying to replicate this process online.

  1. One central administrator collects and distributes stories. He or she decides what to workshop and in what order.
  2. The central administrator does not tell the members who wrote what story.
  3. When a story comes out, the group meets at a designated time.
  4. The central administrator asks questions and moderates discussion regarding the story.
  5. The writer of the story attends this meeting, but need not participate in the discussion. He or she can vanish into the background, and no one knows who wrote the story.
  6. The meeting ends at the agreed-upon time.

Granted, there are some ground rules that make both of these systems work. You can’t be an asshole, for one. You can’t turn story critiques into personal attacks. You can’t treat story attacks as personal attacks, either, when you’re the one in the hot seat. You can’t cry, you can’t shout, you can’t hide your face or interrupt or leave the room while someone is talking. If you do any of those things, you’re gone for good. It’s that simple. This is the most basic rule, and it is important that it be enforced swiftly and with extreme prejudice. Otherwise, there can be no trust or security among the members, and there’s a chilling effect that ruins the output.

These rules can also be surprisingly hard to follow. My first time out, I chewed a pen to avoid talking. I remember this vividly. Halfway through the evening I came to the sudden and terrifying realization that I was basically fellating the pen in front of a bunch of strangers. Then I remembered that it was my pen and I could coat it in my saliva if I wanted to. Besides, if these people were going to reject my position in their workshop based on how I handled a pen and not how I handled words, I probably didn’t want to be part of the group anyway. Over time, I got better at sitting quietly and taking notes with the pen, rather than chewing on it. I still nod fairly aggressively, though, and I don’t put a stop to my laughter when someone makes a funny observation about a story. I just don’t use any words until it’s my turn.

There is no guarantee that enduring this process will make you into a better writer. I found that hearing about the same problems over and over again (in others’ stories as well as my own) helped me avoid them later. It can also be a great space for receiving recommendations about just plain good stories, positive examples rather than negative ones. But what this process trains you for is listening carefully, and developing a thick skin. In itself, these are useful traits: I breezed through my first Master’s thesis defense simply because my workshop sessions were tougher and more frequent. I’ve handled job interviews better as a result. And I’ve since been able to give better advice to my friends on their academic and professional work because I know how to separate the work from the person. I could not act as a consultant now if I hadn’t first acted as a critic.

So as with most settings, workshops have certain rules that make everyone safe. If you’re looking around for one, or hoping to start one, keep that in mind. The rules aren’t there to limit your beautiful or unique snowflake self, they’re there to protect everyone else from your defensive, irritable self. And you do have one. Really. You’ll find out soon enough, once you start.

Invest in some pens.

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