I didn’t go very far; only about twenty minutes down the road. But those few miles plunged me into a world more foreign than familiar: Creative Writing MFA-land. It was an interesting place; artsy and angsty. Random overheard comments included things like, “What’s your favorite Linda Holt poem?” Readings were by turn moving, insightful, compelling, funny, and at least once, an interesting cross between sensual and scatological. The food was delicious.
I had signed up for the week-long session, specifically for a workshop called Novel Fundamentals. Because I had never before been part of such an endeavor, I had no concrete idea of what to expect. I was even too dense to begin suspecting what was in store when we were told ahead of time to print out the 5,000 word submissions of all ten participants. I quickly discovered that “workshop” is also a transitive verb.
The instructor was a soft-spoken Midwestern Patrick Stewart doppelganger. Participants’ ages spanned more than a generation. We gelled almost immediately.
To be brutally truthful, I confess that going into this experience, my feeling about my own writing was that it was awesome. Maybe not perfect, but damn close. An outrageous conceit, of course, of which I was gently but definitively disabused. (An example: this paragraph has three too many adverbs.)
Over the course of the week, our three-hour afternoon sessions centered on intensive analysis of each participant’s writing submission. Most of us brought the beginnings of our novels, with some exceptions. One began with Chapter 2; another at Chapter 14. As we went through each one, I was awestruck at the insight and generosity of the group as they collectively probed each text. I say “they” instead of “we”, as I felt woefully unprepared for this level of critique. Some of the writing seemed so rough (to me) that I felt if I started intensive line editing, I’d never finish. Yet everyone else was able to cut through to the heart of the story, and put nothing but positive spin on their comments. I was awestruck.
I had submitted the first three chapters of my current novel, of which I’ve already written 25,000 words. I also wrote a synopsis and distributed it to the workshop in advance of my critique, because I’d observed that sometimes we got bogged down a bit discussing where we’d like to see the story go, as several of them hadn’t yet been fully plotted, whereas mine had.
My turn came on Thursday. Heart pounding, I listened without responding as discussion swirled around me. Questions were asked that I knew would be answered later in the text. Plot points were questioned. Worldbuilding was found to be lacking in places. Shortcomings of characterization were pointed out over and over again. On the one hand, I wanted to shout, “That’s in the next chapter!” or, “You’ll find out later.” On the other, we all understood the limitations and pitfalls of analyzing such a small piece of the work.
Once the session was over and I’d had a chance to catch my breath, I realized I could synthesize the feedback into a few salient points that I could incorporate immediately as I continued writing. Specifically:
- One main character wasn’t coming across the way I wanted him to. I added a chapter showing his vulnerability sooner rather than the one later where the material already appears, and will keep in mind as I continue that this point needs emphasis.
- Because several people were confused about where the characters were physically at various points, I revised to clarify, illustrating the principle of “If several people say the same thing, pay attention.”
- I also learned how to ignore stuff. Several points were made with which I disagreed, though who said them, I’ll never say. I learned to appreciate the intention.
I also discovered (again) that less specific feedback (“This doesn’t work”) can be more useful than pages of helpful suggestions. Here’s what I’ve come to realize about feedback on my writing (YMMV):
- Good feedback tells me WHAT is or isn’t working
- Great feedback tells me WHY it does or doesn’t work
- Less helpful feedback tries to tell me HOW to make it work or work better. That’s the part I need to figure out for myself. (I also need to learn to give less of this kind of feedback myself!)
I’ve come away from this experience with an inch-thick folder of marginalia (not to mention having fallen in love with the neologism “marginalia”), a signed copy of Back in the Game by Charles Holdefer, and an email list of nearly a dozen wonderful new friends. Thank you all so much for everything.