2004-10-11

My Workshop Philosophy

1000+ words today as I continued re-working the graveyard scene. Will finish with this chapter tomorrow -- I only have a small two-paragraphs-ish change left, and then it's on to the next.

Sunday Group was productive, and I've decided to bring them "Dirty Diane" after I rework it to Wednesday Group's notes, seeing as the other story I'm working on just gets huger and huger the more I think about it and will by no stretch of the imagination have enough shape to it to bring it in by next week, when I'm slated to workshop.

Which brings me to my Workshop Philosophy:

I don't think it's helpful to bring pieces of things into workshop if they don't have a beginning, middle, and end. For instance, just bringing in the beginning of a story makes it impossible to critique anything but sentence-level concerns, and notes to plot/structure are not only meaningless, since you have no real idea of writer-intent and direction, but can also be very confusing to the writer, who may think she knows where she's going but be waylaid by her readers' best-intentions but generally useless ideas, given what little they have to work with.

That said, I believe beginning-middle-end drafts of short stories are best suited to the workshop format. Novel excerpts are a bit more problematic. Chapters with beginnings, middles, and ends, can be talked about as stand-alone pieces, obviously, but the bigger and often more useful question for the writer of "how this piece functions among the rest" can not be addressed in isolation. This is why so often I hear writers of novels in workshop say "but this DOES work, despite all your notes, BECAUSE OF WHAT COMES NEXT." We clearly can't verify that, because we don't have what comes next.

Of course, if you're not concerned yet with how one chapter functions in context, and just want stand-alone critique -- which is very useful for shaping chapters to stand alone for publication, for instance--then all the power to the novel-writer who wants to workshop chapters. I have been such a novel-writer. However, I have often suffered from workshopping chapters mid-draft because of the problem mentioned in the first paragraph of this "Philosophy" in regards to workshopping "pieces" of short stories: readers in workshop can not help but suggest to you where they think your novel is going, or where they want it to go. This is pretty standard workshop analysis, and I believe it is useful when working with a beginning-middle-end piece like a "complete" story or chapter because it functions as a gut-check: "I thought you were going one way because you set up XYZ, but then you went ABC and it didn't ring true for me." However, when you are workshopping chapters, if you don't know how your story plays out on the very last page of your book, and in fact, if you haven't already WRITTEN that very last page, often the "this is where I think you're going" notes taken in workshop on early chapters sneak into your work on new and later chapters and pretty well fuck you up, either because you spend your whole life RE-WORKING the early chapters so they don't "mislead," and therefore never move forward, or without noticing you're doing it, you write your new, later chapters in a direction you hadn't meant to go.

I have experienced all of this many many times because sometimes the thrill of finishing a chapter in isolation alone in your room makes you want to print it out and bring it around and find out what's working and what's not, WAY TOO EARLY. I have decided after doing this so many times you'd think I was as bull-headed and stupid as Shrub that I will no longer workshop chapters when I am mid-novel draft. I don't want "suggestions" to end up in my novel until it's finished to MY specs, and can stand a little "gut-checking" with everybody else's ideas.

So, my novel will not appear at workshop again until this draft it is complete, sometime in February, if all goes according to plan. This of course means I need to spend a little time drafting stories to workshop, because the process of being critiqued is hugely useful to writing life and energizing and necessary. Actually, I like doing the critiquing just as much being critiqued, and find that damn close to equally useful. But either way, I like the thought of birthing a bunch of short stories in the months to come.

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