The single most helpful thing

Some time ago I had a tough workshop. Individually I really liked all the people in there, but  together, we ended up with a pack mentality where they didn’t go after the weakest member but the weakest part of every story. No matter how many positive things there were to discuss, each story was like chum in the water.

I’ve always had the policy, as many writing teachers do, that we’d start with what we really thought was working in a story and then move to the points in the story where the writer might want to look again, but no matter how many times I said it, I always braced after the first comment in this workshop, usually negative, or that “token” nice thing someone says while the others sharpen their knives. I talked to some of the students individually and each agreed they were being a little on the harsh side, and I truly do believe it’s because they wanted to help the writer make the stories better. In class I tried to put the kibosh on hyperbolic comments like “There’s not one scene where X” or “You always use interiority” and talked about how couching those comments in softer terms might be more effective.

Eventually I decided to change the kinds of written responses I was getting in hopes that students would think in a more structured ways about the kinds of comments they were making and why, to think beyond “good” or “bad” to what they saw as the author’s intention based on how the story is put together. I decided to required responses in three parts based on, I think, Peter Turchi’s writing responses (and by god, I cannot find that link anywhere – sorry!) where, before we look at anything in terms of positives and/or negatives, we look at the story’s construction. I ask each student to describe the story to me in terms of craft–point-of-view, characterization, tense, scenes, etc, and I started doing this myself. What I found was that I paid more attention to the overall whole of the story as well as the individual parts. As I read, I jotted notes about what happened in each scene, and then when I typed those up for the students, I thought about them again in context to the whole. The climax scene only lasts two paragraphs, I’d realize, or we spend six pages in the opening scene, but no scene after that is over two pages. A major plot point is introduced on the first page and helps to set the tone. We don’t meet the protagonist until halfway through.

For each student story now I do a breakdown of scenes that looks something like this:

pgs 1-2: background, meet Victoria and Lacey – going on a trip. They have tension in their relationship.
Pgs 3-7: hotel is old, charming but V doesn’t like it. L gets to her room, loud noise, hears a noise while in shower. Talk to V who upgraded her room.
Pgs 8-10: back at hotel, separate, in room L takes pill, lights dim, kills a spider but it’s gone in morning.
Pgs 10-11: bonds w V at end of conference
Pgs 11-14: back at room, shower on, kid laughing. Calls front desk, sleeps, calls from desk again, gets back to sleep.
Pgs 14-15: next morning bumps into something and spills coffee. Glad to be leaving but decides hotel is a good setting for a story.

It’s just a quick sketch of the action, but is incredibly helpful. From here I look at what Les Edgerton calls the “surface problem” and the “story-worthy problem,” ie, the action/plot and why that action matters. Scene by scene I can look at how a story is coming together, whether scenes are moving too quickly or too slowly, pinpoint the climax (or lack there of), etc, and it moves us away from the “good” or “bad” in a story, which makes for a more helpful for discussion.

What’s the single most helpful thing you’ve done in workshops (or to prepare for them), or that you’ve had a teacher do?


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