Today’s incendiary guest post comes from Tracy McCusker, former editor, published poet, and avowed pottymouth.
There’s a certain kind of story that can be found hanging around self-published short story collections and small-press slush piles. This kind of story has a certain whiff about it. It’s verbose. It’s stylized. It’s littered with impossibly academic sentences. It steps you through a scene without understanding how to frame it–noodly verbs and weak adjectives strewn across the page like chewed-up toys.
Oh yes. I know them well. I’ve read hundreds of these per year for four years.
It’s a workshop story.
When I was working as an editorial intern at Faultline, I read hundreds of short story first-pages. We churned 3,000 submissions. We published 30. It was easy to pick out the stories that wouldn’t make it into the second round of consideration.
There were the usual assortment that never made it in. The prison stories with no self-addressed stamped envelop to return a note to San Quentin. A paranoid city-dwelling protag ranting against the machine. Manuscripts typed out on yellowed paper (the same submission we received the year before). Novel-length stories jammed into fifty pages of tiny print.
But there was a second class of story that caught my eye as I perused the accompanying query letters: the workshop story. These were from the undergrad who’d been told by their adviser that their writing was super-ready for publication, despite numerous red flags that cried “amateur author!” Workshop stories were never rejected out of hand. They were sent dutifully on for consideration. None ever made it to round two. With thousands of submissions for an (unpaid) reading staff of five, workshop stories from aspiring writers didn’t get more than a form rejection slip.
This is not a case of gatekeeping, that’s such a drag. Many of the stories that did get published weren’t the most scintillating pieces of fiction. A certain roughness in quality is par for course for small press stories. A normalizing aesthetic can make a lot of these stories predictable and dull. And we’re talking about the published work. But many of these published stories had their charms: a good head for prose; an interesting character; an interesting voice. The small press was usually the first step on the ladder of the MFA/BFA to build up an reputation. To get in with the lowest rung on the publishing world.
I never grudged the submitters their aspirations.
But the workshop stories, man. They were usually shit.
True Tales of Horror: I was a undergrad workshopper
When I say these workshop stories were shit, I wasn’t sneering at these writers from an ivory tower of publication. I was in my second year of workshop, plugging away at my keyboard by night. Usually I was writing critiques. Once in a while, I pounded out a story. A couple nights before deadline. Or the night of. Day of? You bet.
It was college. Everything was due yesterday, and the pressure was on.
I wrote shit stories. This odoriferous patina clung to everything I did. I thought I wrote pretty sentences, and would preen over my clever turns of phrase. Poet-by-training, prose monkeys couldn’t compete with my 150+ word sentences that drilled down into the very essence of societal manners merely from a protagonist entering a room.
But those sentences, too, were shit. No one could follow along. The beasts were eating their own tails. Communication was confused with obfuscation. I was making the strokes of art. But they were wild marks. I wasn’t in control of my craft. Not enough to make a unified work that conveyed what was in my brain.
And that was a good thing. Workshop gave me the room to experiment; my peers would pick apart these experiments and give me feedback on what worked and what didn’t. I look back fondly on my workshop stories. They were important stepping-stones in my creative development. But just as life-drawing studies aren’t meant to be published (unless you are that damn famous already), workshop stories are meant to be crammed in a tiny little desk drawer.
1. Workshop stories are written in the haze of actual workshop.
You bang out a story. Maybe you have one stored up for just such an occasion. You’re writing down to the deadline. Or you smile as you pass around an object that you’ve been coaxing for weeks. If you’re a novice at craft when you make this object under duress or at your leisure, the object will always retain a hue of those novice brush-strokes.
Just like you don’t put your first still life up for sale, your first stories will always retain that youthful hue of partly-successful, partly-unsuccessful experimentation. The worst that can happen is a reader discovers you, reads your work, and forms a prematurely negative opinion about your work. Eventually, you may have an audience for these kinds of stories. The best you can do with this story is release it into the wild for free (or as a bundled freebie). But just as I keep my first drawings from art workshop under lock & key, you might not want readers to see just how bad you were when you started to get serious about craft until you’ve established a name for yourself as a writer.
2. Workshop stories are written for a specific audience.
Workshop stories are written and the around the embryotic fluid of their context: a group that meets weekly to read published authors and stories written for the workshop. This specific audience is at first foreign to you. You all speak different prose languages. If you’re new enough to writing, the stories have the tendency to read the same. Pop culture influence and pop literary influence is palpable.
Over the course of the workshop, this audience is primed by reading the same material, sharing a discussion on craft, reaching a consensus (or at least greater understanding) of the basic rules of writing. By the end of a good workshop, you know who your peers are. You’ve heard them critique you, you’ve heard them praise you. You know in a sense what this audience wants.
Good! You can now write for that audience. The problem is that audience is both super-literate (from having read a bunch of classic authors back-to-back) and familiar with each other (and understanding of particular readers’ wants/dislikes). This audience in no way reflects the reading public. That clever pun on The Death of Ivan Ilyich you made on page 5 that turned the key to the entire plot? Not such a big hit to someone who hasn’t read Tolstoy. Drag.
This can be a good thing. Workshops can be super-critical, influenced by stylistic concerns that your reading public won’t be. Did you eschew writing a first-person narrative about a young woman’s difficulty in a turbid relationship because that’s just so Sylvia Plath? Was your workshop genre-hostile, or even selectively genre hostile (science-fiction is the literary equivalent of gold, noir is hackneyed and artless)? Were the workshoppers just out of sync with your style/concerns/interests? All of these concerns can warp a starting writer’s sense of what they should be writing. Writing workshops can be insular; the bubble of a 12 to 15 person setting doesn’t always carry through to the outside world.
The reading public isn’t privy to workshop concerns, much in the same way that arguments about counters and stem-height will make a non-typographer’s eyes glaze over. Your actual, non-workshop audience will get ticked off when it senses that you aren’t writing for them.
3. Even worse, some workshop stories are written for no audience.
One of the essential skills that workshop attempts to instill in its writers is how to write stories for an audience. It does this two ways: by showing a writer how their expectations match up to audience reactions; and introducing writers to the audience-community of other writers.
A writer can be led to an audience, but you can’t etc etc. Sometimes a writer will present a first story culled from their life, diary-style, replete with self-referential quirks that make no sense outside of the author’s head. Impenetrable stories are unpleasant reads. (Heaven help us if the author decides to help us out by footnoting it.) Workshop stories–especially early ones–tend to be wrapped up in what the author thinks is meaningful. Workshop authors are novices to prose that bridge the gap between what’s in their head and what’s in the audience’s head. This kind of meaning-making can take years of craft to hone, steady readers, and steady feedback.
Sometimes a writer will self-justify any criticism of their work as being “it’s not for you, it’s for me.” I am never sure how much of this statement covers a bruised ego, and how much of it is an actual writer’s belief that their writing is for themselves. Writing is meant to say something to someone who isn’t yourself. If a writer is adamant on this point–wonderful! Start a journal.
This phenomenon is not limited to writing workshops. Look for this excuse to crop up approximately everywhere. The impetus to make art that is for oneself is fantastic; but then why insist on exhibiting work meant solely for yourself?
4. Workshop stories lack awareness of style’s function.
The function of style is not to do something stylistic. Style ain’t like clothes, worn and discarded at whim. Style communicates to your readers something essential. If you choose to write in a style that’s outside the norms, you need to make sure it is introduced early, often, and the reader is taught how to “read” the style you’ve chosen. Then you do something awesome with that style to justify its choice.
An example: switching “person” is one of the hardest things to pull off in fiction. If you write a story in third person, we expect it to stay there. James Clavell, however, gave that advice the finger. In Shogun, he would drill down from his omniscient third-person narrator into a close third, where the character’s thoughts, fears, and perceptions would bleed into our consciousness… until in a moment of supreme vulnerability, a character would begin to speak with an I-voice. Then he’d reign in the voice and pull us away from that intimacy. The breech would feel tragic. The tale of the rise of the Tokagawa Shogunate was full of such tragic breeches. Theme and style came together to create an atmosphere of vulnerability and loss that one or the other wouldn’t have achieved.
And that is awesome.
Workshop stories generally operate on the level of experimentation. There’s the workshop story that plays around with second person (a perennial feature), but doesn’t quite know how to pull along the reader like Maile Meloy does in “Ranch Girl”. Or the workshop story that’s trying out an unreliable narrator, but by withholding too much information, the reader is simply frustrated by the multiplicity of readings rather than reveling in the possibilities Emily Carroll presents us in her supernatural fiction.
Within workshop, dabbling is important; outside of it, you need a more developed sense of just what the hell it is you are doing, and if it’s actually doing it.
5. Workshop stories generally know jack about the camera lens effect.
The camera lens guides what we seen on screen when we’re watching a film or TV show. We’re so inundated with visual culture now that there’s nary a word that can describe the effect that I notice in novice fiction. This is a failure of knowing how to pan, zoom, cut, and focus on information that’s important to the story.
Take a gander at this as an opening paragraph:
Daniel swung his legs over the side of the bed. He was groggy from the night of bad coffee, worse sleep. He got up and moved around his bedroom. He picked up his socks that he’d cast off onto the lamp in a fit of supreme nonchalance. Banging his head into the open drawer that he’d forgotten to close last night, he grumbled. He put the socks in the drawer. He closed it, walked across the room, and trudged out into the living room to make himself some coffee.
Aside from the fact that nothing remotely interesting happened in this paragraph (we learned nothing about the narrator, nothing about his state now aside from some cliched groggy-morning blues), the paragraph shows an extreme failure of the camera lens of the narrative. What about this scene is important? The coffee? The socks? Banging his head? Something that hasn’t even happened in the narrative yet? No matter your genre, every word counts and every second you need to be selling your story to your reader.
I’ll save an extended discussion about the camera lens effect for another post. Suffice to say, the camera lens effect is not a failure of editing (editing would likely clean the sentences up, or remove some of them without addressing the underlying problem). It’s a failure of the writer to choose important details with their camera lens. Instead they’ve focused on what they see the character doing in their head with their internal camera lens. They see it spool past their mind’s eye, so they write it.
Fiction is not about the details, it’s about the story. When a story is overwhelmed with finicky details (and our narrator is not a borderline autistic who needs to put those socks away or his world will be shattered), the scene becomes a waste of time.
It’s a pity (and a pain) that some workshop pieces are montages of scenes just like this one, strung together into a “story” that tells us nothing about its characters.
6. Workshop stories are pretentious, bland, cliched, or some toxic combination of the three.
It’s true. I’ve even written a story that was all three. It was about a young girl being smuggled up to Canada by her father and step-mother with the help of an ex-Vietnam vet. The short story read like a turn-of-the-century novel of manners.
The only cure for this ill is to read more, to read extensively, and to get some damn life experience that can break you out of regurgitating pop culture.
7. Workshop stories are not revised, or barely revised.
Writers everywhere say a story needs to be “edited.” What they actually mean is “revised.” Workshop stories are often not revised before they hit the workshop. The drafts that cause published writers to vomit in their mouth a little when they think back on their first novels? We read those.
If you revise it once, or even twice after workshop, most likely you are still revising without a strong idea about how to fix all of the problems with your work because workshop critique was based on a first draft, maybe even an “ideas draft”. Not a finished product. What you need to do is workshop the story again (maybe even again) to receive feedback on a story that’s finally ready to be published. Most of us don’t get the chance to have a workshop story read more than once.
8. The best thing you can do with a workshop story is to forget about it until you can cannibalize it for later work.
I had seven advisers give me feedback on my workshop story! It’s totally my thesis! I’m a special snowflake!
Here’s the Low-down Diddly Flump about writing programs. Feedback from your advisers is always aimed at the level of writer that you currently are. Feedback will attempt to push you to the next level. But if you’re at the bottom of the rope, you can only claw your way up so fast.
I have received amazing instruction from my writing teachers. Had dozens of them (been one of them), and most of them have been amazing. Yet I have a dim view of writing advice at the university level. I know how many students an adviser/instructor has to wrangle with. There is only so much you can do or say for each student before they’re pushed along to the next juncture. Even feedback on multiple drafts can only do/say so much.
I like to receive feedback from several different sources. A writing group outside the pay bubble. A writing partner who I exchange work with. Dan. A particular reader who I know likes the genre. Another reader who knows diddly-squat about the genre, but is game to give their feedback.
9. How do you know when a work is ready to be published?
If you don’t have reliable feedback of how good a work is (by producing work, sending it out, getting responses/sales), then you can only rely on a host of beta readers. Would they buy your work? Or at least read it without begrudging you the time they spent with it?
If you cannot judge how good your work is, then you need to put it away in a drawer until you have the clarity to evaluate it.
The best technique you can have in your toolkit is this: set aside three short stories, poems, whatever. One a classic from a respected author. Another a piece by a favorite author written in the past ten years. One a piece you can’t believe was published (preferably also recent). After you have set aside your short story / novella / novel / epic poem for a few months (or years), take it out from that drawer. Read your piece side-by-side with these writers. Maybe your piece isn’t going to be world literature, but are you at least as good as your favorite author? Are you maybe half as good? One-tenth as good?
How about the piece you can’t believe was published? If you’re better than that–go ahead and throw your story into the great blue.
But if you’re not… stuff it back into the drawer.
Because polishing shit just gives you shiny shit.
Writers, what do you do with your workshop stories?