The Compuserve Online Writer's Workshop

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A sort of a Memoir by Roger MacBride Allen

The CompuServe On-line Writer's Workshop isn't there anymore. It flourished back in the 1980s and 1990s, in pre-Internet days, when CompuServe operated as its own, closed entity with thousands, even millions, of users, who logged on to what amounted to a miniature proto-Internet, with areas dedicated to just about every area of interest. The CompuServe's science fiction sections were extremely active back then. But the Internet came along, and writers groups and critiquing circles and writer's web pages and who knows what all popped up -- and suddenly the people who had been part of the CompuServe Science Fiction Literature Forum were there less and less. We went from zillions of members to a mere handful, and it was time to fold up shop and go do something else.

I think it's worth saying a few words about the Workshop, even if time and the Internet have passed it (and the old idea of CompuServe) by.  We did some good work, and a few notes here might provide guidance for someone looking to run a critiquing group or an online workshop -- or even a workshop that met face to face.

The Workshop ran for years, and developed a good reputation as a place where beginning writers could get solid, professional notes on their stories and novel excerpts. A few -- a very few -- of the students who took the workshop went on to publish professionally. But in the world of science fiction and fantasy publishing, where perhaps one story or book is published for every thousand submitted, our level of success in getting students published was more than respectable.

At first, I was merely the "guest" second professional in the Workshop, but Sasha Miller (more on her in a moment) asked me back enough times in a row that I became a permanent fixture, and I stuck with the Workshop right until the wheels fell off, years and years later. I became one of the two permanent teachers of this workshop -- and very much the junior partner. Sasha Miller ran the show. Sasha downloaded the manuscripts, put them into the proper workshop format, and uploaded them again. She did all the management of the operation. All I did was help with the manuscript critiquing.

How the Workshop Worked

Very briefly, each month, the students at the top of the waiting list submitted their stories by uploading them. (Submissions were limited to about 25 standard pages. Complete stories and excerpts from longer works were equally acceptable.) Sasha put the manuscripts in a standard format that included page and line numbers. She then put them in the workshop's file library, and then the students and teachers downloaded all the stories.

Each student and teacher then did a critique of each story. (Obviously, the author of a given submission did not critique his or her own work -- just everyone else's.) Normally, this critiques were composed of two main sections -- an overall discussion of the story, and line-by-line notes on the story. These notes could be on anything from a misplaced comma to the author's failure to consider the consequences of time-dilation at relativistic velocities. Grammar, plot, character development, scientific accuracy, details of period costume, appropriate language -- just about anything was fair game. The idea, of course, was not merely to find fault, but to encourage improvement.

Aside from the two permanent teachers (Sasha and myself) there was normally a third "guest" teacher. Only students who actually submitted a story or novel excerpts and the teachers were allowed to participate in the workshop. No one was allowed to take potshots unless they were willing to be targets themselves. However, anyone was welcome to "shadow" the workshop -- reading the stories and the critiques and watching the after-critique discussion on-line. Many people found shadowing to be pretty educational all by itself.

The teachers, as professional writers, had all taken lots of flak themselves from real live editors, needless to say.  Sasha and I worked together long enough that each got to know what the other would say.  I'd spot an error and not bother to discuss it at length -- or even at all -- because I knew Sasha would pounce on it. Sometimes my note would just be something to the effect that "I predict Sasha is going to be all over you for this."

My own approach to the manuscripts was that I tried and give each one the sort of reaction a professional editor would if a professional editor had the time to do so. Real editors read until they come to something that makes them reject the piece. They then stop and send it back with a form rejection, because there are 999 other manuscripts waiting for the editor's attention. We in the workshop kept reading on to the bitter end, and tried to explain why a real editor would have stopped reading. Sometimes the job was not simply to point out the error, but to explain why it was an error, and to explain to the writer why he or she was making the mistake.

A Few of the Pitfalls

Often we saw manuscripts with errors -- unintended double or triple or quadruple entendres, for example -- that were awfully easy targets for humor, straight lines just sitting there waiting for a punchline. Generally, we went right for such juicy bait -- and felt justified in doing so. After all, as we often pointed out, better that we spot the accidental obscene second meaning, or point out what was actually written (as opposed to what was meant), rather than a paying editor. On more than one occasion, several of the critiquers, pro and student alike, would miss the intended meaning, zoom in on the unintended, and charge off on a lengthy analysis based on a really bad typo or grammatical mixup.

While the humor in the critiques could be a bit sharp, it was never intended to be mean-spirited.  And, when I say never, I mean hardly ever. Sometimes the level of pomposity, the seriousness with which something truly awful was treated, did draw a somewhat more pointed response -- but even then, we tried to play fair. Now and again, no doubt, we crossed the line. The temptation to get off a real zinger would get the better of us.

There were certain submissions -- frequently, but not always, very badly written ones -- where it was plain that the writer was expecting adulation, not editorial comment. We weren't supposed to note errors or make suggestions. We were supposed to drop to our knees and worship. We got pretty good at spotting the students who were going to rant against the Philistines (that's us) rather than consider the possibility that failing to name or describe any of the characters in the story (or whatever whacko stunt they pulled) was a mistake, not an artistic choice. In the exchange of comments after the Workshop, we'd usually adopt something like a three-strikes rule. We'd let them rant at our initial critiques, respond to the rant with at least some attempt at logic and civility, grit our teeth through the student's second reaction -- then reply one last time, though by that time we were not really expecting to get through the writer's ego and defense mechanisms. Usually, three strikes was about enough. If they weren't going to listen by then, they weren't going to listen.

However, it wasn't all grim. The vast majority of student-writers were there to learn, not to be worshipped. There were good writers, and good writers who got better because of the Workshop.

My description makes the workshop seem a lot more orderly and productive than it generally was. To be blunt about it, many of the manuscripts submitted to the workshop were dreadful. It was damned frustrating to try and apply professional standards to stories full of typographical errors, bad grammar, misspellings, mis-used words, wooden dialogue, implausible action, and characters that would barely qualify as non-entities. But some of the stories did rise above all that. There were good and productive conversations with the students, and moments when it was plain to see the lightbulb coming on. Those moments made all (well, nearly all) the bad writing and the big egos worthwhile. Every once in a while, we even encountered a story that really worked, and a writer who was ready, with a little guidance, to learn something, and move on to the next level of skill. Those were the moments of real satisfaction.

Until the last year or so of the workshops, the waiting list for the workshop was measured in months, and often stretched into the next year. In part as a response to that long wait, a group of wannabe writers set up a parallel system of student-run writing critiques that ran in the next section over from our "real" workshop.. For various reasons, I never spent much time there -- the key reason being that it was sort of a student hangout, where the teachers weren't supposed to venture much. It was a much clubbier atmosphere than the official workshop. In my opinion, at least, work presented there seems to be held to a somewhat less rigorous standard.

The pool of applicants for the Workshop started to dry up as the Internet kicked into high gear. Fewer and fewer people signed up, mainly because there were fewer and fewer in the Forum. We started to get more and more repeat students, coming back again and again, often with very slightly rewritten versions of what we had already seen, and the Workshop started to become something of a private critiquing service. Sasha and I realized that (a) we had said everything we had to say to these students and (b) a goodish number of them weren't listening anyway, but were simply submitting new stories with the same problems, or, worse, the same stories with the same old problems still in place. It was time to ring down the curtain.

On the bright side, the Workshop supplied a large amount of the wisdom that Sasha distilled down into MOTHER MILLER'S HOW TO WRITE GOOD BOOK, a sharp and funny guide to writing fiction. Click on the link to learn more.

The Workshop isn't there anymore, but we did some good -- and perhaps this essay, and Sasha's rules as listed below, might provide some sort of model for another online writer's workshop.

Herewith the official rules and regulations for the workshop, as set down by Sasha herself. Obviously, you needed to be a CompuServe member to get into a workshop.  


Go to a page describing the official RULES of the CompuServe Writer's Workshop.

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Updated February 26, 2002