This was the first writers’ workshop I’ve ever been to, and the first time I had my writing critiqued. I was hooked! I left wanting more of this experience! And not because the critiquers said positive things about my work. They mostly did not. Nor did I expect them to.
I’m very aware of the flaws in my writing. But it was so interesting to have other people read — really read — my work and analyze it in detail, and tell me what they did and didn’t like. This was so much better than reader comments I received on some of my stories that were published in fanzines and on the internet. Those were limited to “it sucked” or “I didn’t get it”. This was a whole new dimension of critique.
Due to size restrictions I could only submit half a story. Because of that, I did not expect to get helpful critique, but what I got exceeded my expectations. To summarize the readers’ comments: my ideas were interesting and BIIG. But the story wasn’t so much a story as an outline… for a novel.
Some comments were of a nature “this sentence needs to be a chapter”, or “I really want to know how this or that happened”. I guess that’s not too different from the ole “show, not tell”. There were infodumps in some places. Several reviewers commented that the story was completely devoid of setting and the action was totally internal — and that’s very true. All the reviewers asked me to put in more images, some sensory stuff, to help them see the characters. That’s an entirely valid comment. My characters are devoid of external descriptions. Not just because descriptions are desperately difficult for me to come up with. I don’t see my characters as 3-dimensional people — or even 1-dimensional ones. They are just moving points in space that draw trajectories connecting my ideas.
The most fascinating thing for me was to see how people saw different things in my story than what I’ve put in there. A topic I thought was secondary, they perceived as primary. And they had very few comments on the topic I myself perceived as primary — perhaps because the primary topic does not reveal itself in earnest until the second half of the story, which they didn’t have a chance to read.
A curious fact: based on the text alone, only 2 of 6 critiquers figured out English isn’t my first language. That’s not to say they didn’t find flaws in my writing style; they did. The most common criticism was repetitiveness.
In any case, the workshop experience was rich beyond my expectations. I still haven’t had a chance to absorb all the comments. What I said here is just scratching the surface. What saddens me is that the aspects of the story that require fixing are probably beyond my skills right now… and may be for a long time.
ArmadilloCon is a speculative fiction convention that takes place every year in Austin, Texas. In 2007 the Guest Of Honor was the author Louise Marley. She was also in my critique group. Every critique group had up to 5 students (people who submitted their manuscripts to be critiqued) and 2 pros (usually, published writers or editors).
Below: authors Chris Roberson and Julie Kenner at the ArmadilloCon 2007 writers’ workshop (they were teachers). It’s amazing how chipper some people can be at 9 a.m. in the morning. Me, I had to get up at 5:30 after just 2 hours of sleep (insomnia).
Writers’ workshop teachers, left to right: Steve Wilson, Patrice Sarath (who was also the coordinator), Matthew Bey
The writers’ workshop started out with 3 hours of lectures by the pros, and then, after lunch, the participants broke out into their critique groups, where everybody — students and pros — critiqued each student’s manuscript. Among the people in my writers’ workshop group were Urania Fung (left), a student, and Louise Marley, instructor. Louise Marley was also the Guest of Honor at that year’s ArmadilloCon.
Left to right: author Louise Marley, who was one of the two pros in our critique group, and students Sarah and Chuck