April 6/2022: Are Writers Workshops useful?
I speak from a moderate amount of experience: four years of University of British Columbia creative writing department workshops in the late 1970s, I forget how many years involvement in B.C. SF Association writers workshops in the 1990s, and at least twenty years organizing and moderating writers workshops at the annual VCON SF convention until just recently.
I would be remiss if I were to fail to mention my only professional sale to date is the script for a “spontaneous” Q&A lecture on SF films I gave on CBC FM radio decades ago. I did publish several of my SF stories in Polar Borealis but since I didn’t pay myself they don’t count. Amazing Stories (online) Magazine has published about 240 review columns of mine since 2014, but that’s strictly volunteer work. To sum up, I attended several hundred writers workshops over the past half century and have nothing to show for it in my bank records and tax returns. Is that not an indictment of writers workshops? Proof they don’t do any bloody good?
Let me make the following clear: Under NO circumstances do writers workshops GUARANTEE your writing will be accepted for publication by book or magazine publishers. But what they CAN do is IMPROVE the quality of your writing. So, lower your expectations and focus on the genuine advantages of workshop participation.
First of all, through critiquing others you will learn how to think outside the box (of your skull) and critique your own work from a more objective viewpoint passably resembling that of editors and potential readers. In that sense you won’t be writing alone anymore. There will be all sorts of extra voices in your head nagging you about apparent flaws. Mind you, this implies that writers are technically crazy but of course we already know that and take it for granted. All part of being creative.
Still, there’s a steep learning curve. I recall growing frustrated in a third-year novel-writing course at UBC with the weekly chapter submissions of one of my classmates. Finally I could stand it no longer and stood up to denounce his magnum opus.
“it’s not a novel,” I thundered. “There’s no plot! just a series of unconnected random events! No characters! Just shallow icons lacking motivation, desires, and for that matter, any self-awareness at all! Literally nothing has happened in the ten chapters you’ve presented so far. There’s nothing for the reader to care about! Nothing to relate to! Why, it’s almost as if… as if… as if you’re writing an existentialist novel!”
Came a quiet voice, “It is an existentialist novel. My intention all along.”
Long moment of silence on my part. Finally I spoke. “In that case, it’s perfect.” and shutup and sat down. Lesson learned.
Secondly, workshops will teach you to rise above your amateur mode of thinking. So many beginners, having so much painful effort invested in their manuscript, think it is carved in stone, perfect as is, and nothing short of blasphemy to insist on any changes or alterations. If that is your permanent state of belief in regard to your writing, workshops won’t do you any good at all. You’re creative. That means you can be flexible, should be flexible.
As editor for Polar Borealis, I sometimes see submissions which are not quite at the final draft stage. I like the concept, I want to publish the story, but it is apparent the author is still struggling to put down exactly what is they mean to convey. It’s clear in their head, but not on paper. At such times I negotiate with the writer in search of greater clarity. So far negotiations have always proven fruitful. I’m lucky that way.
In my humble opinion the biggest problem with submissions is that they often tend to be works-in-progress rather than final drafts. The single greatest virtue of a good writers workshop is that it will teach you to self-critique to the point where sheer craftsmanship will allow you to write exactly and precisely what it is you want the readers to read (as opposed to the mere gist of what it is you think you’re thinking about). Readers love this kind of writing. So do editors. Your chances of “selling” your works are immeasurably improved if participation in workshops elevate your writing skills to that professional a standard.
However, there are two perils to avoid. Always keep them in mind.
First, not every critique is valid. Case in point, my attack on the “existentialist novel.” There are basic flaws an objective-minded observer can point out. But, in reality, every critique represents the critiquer’s individual point of view and this means critiques can reach astonishing levels of subjectivity that have nothing to do with what you have written, or, indeed, with the current material universe.
Point is to get true value from the workshop you absolutely must develop an ability to weigh and assess each critique in terms of what is useful to your purpose. Discard the rest. Treat it as mere bafflegab best ignored. Therein lies sanity.
Second, there is an ever-present danger the workshop will transform into an eternal limbo, especially if you take every critique dead seriously and fall into the rut of constantly rewriting to match the other participants continually-evolving opinions. It’s a form of living hell. Some people, trapped in this manner, partake of workshops for years and years without ever feeling confident or competant enough to submit a manucript to any market. It’s like buying lottery tickets and never checking to see if you’ve won. Don’t do that! It’s a dead end. As dead as dead can be.
In short, approach each workshop from a purely selfish viewpoint, namely, concentrating on what you can get out of it. Don’t accept everything at face value. Learn to think for yourself, learn to think about your writing. It’s not rote learning. It’s not about compiling a checklist of things to automatically avoid. It’s all about gaining enough critiquing experience to be able to intelligently examine your work and cut out anything that hinders or sabotages your creative intentions. If your workshop accomplishes that much of a transformation in you, it is worth it’s weight in gold.
April 5, 2022: On editing a journal.
In 1967 I took up the habit of keeping a diary or journal. A product of Hutchings & Patrick Limited, Ottawa, it offered a full page for each daily entry. Into each 5.5 by 4.25-inchs page I poured an average of 400 words, or 40 lines of ten words, in writing so small I needed a magnifying glass even then to reread what I had written. That’s a lot of material to sift through looking for appropriate excerpts to quote in my upcoming personal fanzine “Great Galloping Ghu.”
Essentially a stream-of-consciousness outburst of teenage angst (I was15/16 years-of-age), its value today lies in the contemporay ambience of life in the year of “flower power” and Canada’s centennial as perceived by a shy, self-conscious, rather inexperienced nerd keen on science fiction movies and books, ancient literature, and archaeology. I had few friends and had yet to muster the courage to ask a girl out for a date. Much of life was a mystery to me. At times I despaired, sometimes I ranted with rage, mostly against myself. Call it self-therapy.
Needless to say, much of what I wrote can be dismissed as immature rubbish. I do quote a tiny bit of that if only to prove that the diary was indeed written by a teenager. Mostly I quote items representing what interested me enough to write about them. My ideas for SF novels, for example. Often I went on and on for an entiire page, “and then this will happen… and then this will happen…”, etc. It all seemed so gloriously creative back in the day. I quote enough to convey my enthusiasm and capture the mood of the awakening of my life-long ambition to become a published author.
My experience in high school receives mention. Odd things happened from time to time. I was good in some classes, poor in others, and didn’t really hang about with anybody, and yet I survived. I’m keen on quoting references to anything that flies in the face of the kind of stereotypes one finds in movies about teens in the 1960s. Life was more complicated than that, even for one as relatively event-free as mine.
I was a news junkie. Watched Walter Cronkite describe the Vietnam war while I ate supper every weekday, and always watched the Canadian news at 11:00 p.m. Much of what was common knowledge and seemed important at the time is now forgotten. So I choose references that may startle modern readers. History-in-the-making is always more complex than later documentaries indicate. Not that I offer any profund insights, merely unfamiliar glimpses and mentions of obscure and minor moments in time that are nevertheless representative of what was going on.
I lived in “Toronto the Good” as it was called then. In my view, it primarily consisted of book stores and movie theatres. Not very exciting. The reader may well come away believing I had the observation powers of a lump of concrete, and that my diary ws a wasted opportunity to record significant “happenings” and social progress. One problem being that I took so much for granted I felt it unworthy of notice. Besides, how could I record the “sexual revolution” when I was still trying to figure out how to lose my virginity? And yet, and yet, occasionally I jotted down something or other pertaining to the changing times.
I kept this journal more than half a century ago. Fair to say most of the adults and many of the teenagers mentioned are now dead. But it’s a personal diary full of personal opinions. I want to conjure up visions of an era, not remind people of experiences they’d rather forget. Consequently, in my published excerpts, I take the precaution of referring to people by a letter rather than their name in full. Makes sense to me.
The ultimate secret to editing a diary is to cherry-pick. Be selective. Find the interesting nuggets and quote just enough to get the point of each across. Plan the final result as a series of “vignettes” offering glimpses into the past. Don’t be afraid to cut out unnecessary words or repetition. Not a question of adding anything, but of tightening the impact. Improve without dismantling the “flavour.” Reduce each entry to the essence of the original vision. Be faithful to that. Don’t rewrite. Edit.
To sum up, cut out all the boring bits and make sure what’s left is interesting and, if at all possible, amusing. I wonder if I’ll be able to do that. You’ll find out when I publish the first issue of “Great Galloping Ghu!” later this month.
April 4, 2022: Latest circulation stats on Polar Borealis and Polar Starlight.
Yesterday I posted the following on Facebook:
For those morbidly fascinated with the trials and tribulations of markets, I note that the 5 issues of Polar Starlight and the 20 issues of Polar Borealis I have published to date have been collectively downloaded 26,227 times, or an average of 1,049 times each. Polar Borealis #6 is the leader of the pack, with 2,576 downloads.
They are read in 101 countries. The top 4 download nations are: United States = 10,081 downloads, Canada = 4,332 downloads, Germany = 2,587 downloads, and France = 1,372 downloads.
Not bad for 2 online semi-professional magazines that cost nothing to download but pay their contributors. I feel quite chuffed about this.
Robert Runté very kindly offered his reaction:
It occurs to me, given that you only publish Canadians, that the 20,000+ nonCanadian downloads speaks to the broad appeal of Canadian SF&F and the excellence of your & Rhea’s editing. If it were only Canadian subscribers, then one might think it was about filling a national niche and of no broader significance; if you published beginning authors from around the world, then one might think it was about authors looking for a market to sell to. But 20000+ foreign downloads must mean that folks just like reading it. So that’s great!
Thank you Robert! I hadn’t thought of the circulation in those terms before. Adds greatly to my sense of accomplishment. Makes my day.
Robert makes reference to Rhea Rose, who edits Polar Starlight, my SF&F poetry magazine. All I do is lay it out and publish it. Rhea choses the poems and plans their themed sequence within each issue. She also selects the cover art. The quality and sophistication of the magazine is entirely due to her and her contributors.
I, on the other hand, alone edit and publish Polar Borealis, which features poetry and short stories. I am happy to accept kudos for that, but all praise for Polar Starlight should be directed at Rhea whose skill and sensitivity as a poet and editor is solely responsible for what I think is a very fine poetry magazine indeed.
April 4, 2022: Herein be my random thoughts on sundry topics.
Don’t know yet what I have in mind. Could be daily smatterings of this or that, or a monthly article, or somewhere in between. I will probably want to reserve considered and semi-coherant reasonings for my perzine “Great Galloping Ghu!” Outbursts of isolated thoughts and observations are probably best left for Facebook postings. So, “inbetweeners” it is, probably in the form of a journal. I’ll feel my way into my policy of self-expression. (Hmm, sounds a bit pervy. Not quite what I mean.)
On what topics? Writing, mostly. Editing. And publishing. State of the industry. Followed by favourite literature, then movies. Beside that, who knows?
I’ll try to keep things light. Having a BFA I can pontificate on subjects like war, sex, and politics in the finest tradition of armchair strategists wallowing in ignorance, but why be boring on subjects everybody thinks they know more about than I do? Especially when they’re probably right?
No, I’ll reveal my ignorance and share my misinformation on topics I am passionate about. That way there’s a faint chance my “beardmutterings” (to use an old fannish phrase) will be interesting and maybe even amusing. Worth trying, I figure.
Cheers! The Graeme