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
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
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
Go to a page describing the official RULES of
the CompuServe Writer's Workshop.
Return to Roger's home page.
Updated February 26, 2002