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How To Make A Living Writing Short Fiction – can it be done? Yes.
Book Review: Lord of the Flies – all about Ralph and Piggy and Roger
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Sunday, April 25, 2010

The Care and Feeding of a Convention Writing Workshop Track

Right now, I'm in the process of putting together the writing workshop track for Context 23. The convention has grown considerably in the past four years, and all our data points to that being the result of expanding the writing programming.

A decade ago, Context had a writing workshop that was similar to the type of writing workshop offered at many conventions. It was a Milford-style critique workshop that went on Saturday and Sunday mornings of the convention, and it was often team-taught by Tim Waggoner and Gary Braunbeck. People would submit short story manuscripts in advance of the workshop (sometimes just a few days in advance, leaving instructors scrambling to get everything read in time). I helped Gary prepare for the workshop a couple of times, and it was a good, solid workshop that most students got a lot out of.

But it occurred to me that the convention could offer much more, if someone would just be willing to roll up sleeves and do some coordination and promotion. There's nothing at all wrong with a critique workshop; many beginning writers don't have access to writers' groups or critique partners, and they crave informed evaluation from a pro. But other writers do have access to critiques, or they're writing poetry or novels, or they're not interested in manuscript critique but possibly very interested in specialized writing topics.

Furthermore, it seemed to me that there's a gap between the casual convention critique workshop and expensive, high-intensity workshops like the Borderlands Boot Camp and Clarion. I was pretty sure that Context, with its focus on reading and writing speculative fiction, could fill that gap.

So, a couple of years ago, I volunteered to become the writing workshops coordinator for Context, and now the con's offering a buffet of workshops that I don't think any other science fiction/horror convention has matched. This year, we had topic workshops on flash fiction (taught by Mike Arnzen, who tackled horror poetry last year), creating plots, writing comic books, writing video games, creating character through dialog, writing openings, and world-building. On top of that, we had Gary Braunbeck leading a short story critique masterclass for published writers, and Tim Waggoner and Paula Guran offering individual critiques of short stories and novel packages. And we had regular writing panels on topics like effective blogging, self-editing and finding agents to supplement the topics offered in the workshops. We offered over a dozen formal workshops and at least twice that many writing panels; you can see a listing of everything on the Context Writing Workshops page.

I'm still recovering from the weekend, but soon I'll start putting together the workshops for next year.

Most any convention could do what I have done; the only catch is that it's a lot of work pretty much year-round, and requires a moderate level of organization. As to who should be put in charge of a workshops track, it helps to have someone familiar with writing workshops and the needs of both writers and instructors. Some convention workshops have failed because the organizers just didn't get that workshops involve a lot of hard work and expertise, leading to instructors becoming frustrated over late submissions and delayed payment.

So, here's my advice to anyone who wants to establish a workshop track like the one we've got at Context:

  1. Figure out what students want to see. This is your first, basic step to figure out what you'll be offering. Do this early as possible; nine months before the convention starts isn't too early (like any baby, a good workshop takes time to gestate). The easiest way is to poll people who've been to your convention in the past; brain-storm some workshop ideas (popular panels can often become workshops) and see which ones people like most. I've found Livejournal polls fairly useful for this. Once you have a list of popular workshop topics, look around to see if you know instructors who could competently teach those topics.
  2. Recognize that your instructors are crucial. A workshop is smooth sailing if you're working with professionals who know how to put on a good workshop. I have an advantage in that my husband, Gary Braunbeck, is a skilled teacher who knows other skilled teachers via the Seton Hill University Writing Popular Fiction program. All the instructors we've had from Seton Hill - Diana Botsford, Mike Arnzen, Tobias Buckell, Timons Esaias - has been great to work with.

    \Once you've recruited good instructors, treat 'em right. Get them the equipment they need to hold a good workshop, and answer their questions promptly. Make sure they're being paid fairly for their work, and get them paid promptly after the convention is over.
  3. Yes, you should charge extra for the workshops. You don't have to (and probably shouldn't) charge a lot, but make sure you're charging enough to ensure that the instructors are being fairly paid for their time and work and that the dedicated space that you've rented from the hotel or convention center is being paid for. Furthermore, a small additional fee helps weed out people who are less than serious and who might be disruptive. Conversely, charging too much will limit the number of people willing to sign up, and will make students much more critical of the workshop they've paid for. If you have a dynamite instructor who wants to limit the workshop size, sure, charge more; otherwise, seek the happy medium. We've found $20 per person for a 2- or 3-hour topic workshop works well.
  4. Keep a close eye on your numbers. Make sure you're not over-selling a workshop, and make sure you always know who's signed up for what. And make sure you know what each instructor should be paid. This basic type of organization is crucial.
  5. Keep students informed. Regular updates keep students excited about the upcoming workshops. If people have questions, make sure you respond to their concerns quickly and professionally. Even if you think they're being overly demanding or unreasonable, it's important to maintain an attitude of good customer service.
  6. Pay attention to your facilities. Make sure that the room dedicated to the workshop will physically hold the number of people in the class, and that the room will be set up to accommodate them. Also, make sure your instructors will have access to the necessary multimedia equipment (laptops, projectors, TVs, DVD players, etc.) and make sure to test the equipment before the workshop starts to avoid awkward delays while you run home to find a TV remote because you didn't realize the channel buttons on the TV are broken. (Sorry about that, Gary.)
  7. Promote, promote, promote. Students won't sign up if they don't know the workshop exists, or if they don't know what they'll get out of it. We've had good luck posting at writers' message boards and sending flyers to local universities. Start early, and keep at it; the economy isn't good, so good promotion is crucial.

If all that sounds like a lot of work ... well, it is! But there's nothing like seeing a good workshop come together.

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Wednesday, April 12, 2006

Should you take a creative writing class?

by Tim Waggoner

Have you ever thought about taking a creative writing class? Working writer or rank amateur, you can benefit from a good course in creative writing -- provided you know what to look for.

Teachers and writers have long debated the value of creative writing classes. Opinions vary, sometimes wildly. Some believe that writing can't be taught and taking such classes is at best a waste of students' time and at worst damaging to a nascent writer's development. Others believe that creative writing classes can provide a valuable educational experience, perhaps dramatically decreasing the learning curve on the way to a literary career.

So which is it?

The truth is, both views are accurate. The outcome depends on a number of factors: the instructor, the focus of the class, your fellow students and -- most of all -- you.

First, let's examine the reasons not to take a creative writing class.

Despite what you might think, instructors don't need any specific credentials to teach creative writing; though large universities generally insist upon both teaching and relevant publication credentials, many small universities and junior/community colleges only require one or the other. I've taught college courses for eleven years, and I've seen English instructors take on creative writing classes only because they thought teaching such courses would be a fun outlet for their own creativity, an outlet sorely needed after teaching endless sections of basic composition. But these instructors had no qualifications to teach creative writing -- no publications, sometimes no experience writing at all.

Other instructors have experience, but it's limited, often to poetry. Since verse is so poorly compensated in our country, poets are forced to find other avenues of making a living. And those avenues tend to be found in higher education. If you're an aspiring poet, this works in your favor. If, however, you desire to write fiction or creative nonfiction, this can be a problem. Instructors believe (or have been led to believe by the university system which spawned them) that having read and studied fiction in pursuit of their degree is somehow a substitute for actually writing the stuff.

(In all fairness, the same holds true for fiction writers who've never written poetry or creative nonfiction.)

One of my creative writing instructors in college was a published poet who readily admitted that his expertise didn't extend to fiction. But that didn't stop him from dispensing advice on how to write it.

Another problem with instructors is that they're often prejudiced against genre or commercial writing. They see anything other than literary writing as inferior hackwork. So not only aren't they as open as they could be to students who wish to write mystery, romance, science fiction, fantasy or horror, they usually aren't well read (if read at all) in these genres. And even if they are broad-minded enough to accept genre writing in their classes, they don't have the knowledge and experience to help students with the specialized demands of genre writing.

Sometimes instructors are hired to teach creative writing classes on the basis of their publishing credentials, which can seem quite impressive, especially to beginning writers (not to mention a naive administration). But a long list of credits doesn't automatically translate into an ability to teach. Often, professional writers can't articulate why and how they do what they do. They see the process of creativity as something mysterious and ultimately impenetrable. These sort of instructors can tell when a student's poem or story isn't working, but they have difficulty suggesting specific revision strategies.

The workshop method is still the primary technique used in creative writing courses, and this means that the success of a particular class depends heavily on the students involved, perhaps even more so than on the instructor him or herself.

Students don't come to creative writing classes automatically skilled at giving feedback. They need to be trained. I've had students tell me that since creative writing is supposed to be completely free-form expression (or so they believe) no one can possibly criticize someone else's work. It's all creative and therefore equally valid. If students aren't taught how to effectively critique one another's work, several varieties of bad, even damaging feedback can occur.

A good creative writing class should be a supportive environment, but taken to extremes, this can result in a class where every story and poem is great and wonderful, and nothing ever needs to be revised. These mutual admiration societies might be warm and fuzzy, but they do nothing whatsoever to help a writer grow.

The other extreme is when all a class does is point out flaws, sometimes quite bluntly and harshly. Classes like this, where students struggle to outdo one another in ripping each other's work to shreds, aren't just unpleasant experiences, they can be downright poisonous.

Then there are critiques which are too nitpicky, leading to a half-hour debate on whether or not someone should have used a comma or a period to end a certain line of poetry. And given that the class contains creative people, it's no surprise that there are critiques which focus not on how you can improve your work, but rather on how the responder would take your idea and write a different story or poem (something I was guilty of back in my college days).

Critics of the workshop technique argue that student feedback leads to group think, to writing by committee, and that it produces generic, bloodless work. You're better off, they say, staying home and writing on your own.

I currently have one student who, despite my urgings, has continually revised the first chapter of her young adult novel after receiving feedback from myself and the class, as well as editors and agents at a writing conference. And each time the writing becomes more labored and less interesting. She's trying to incorporate every suggestion and forgetting what it is that she wants to say. It's not uncommon at all to have individual students with this tendency, but an instructor has to be careful not to allow the workshop process to take over the class so completely that all people are doing is washing garbage instead of moving on to the next story, the next poem.

Yet another problem with workshopping is that some students become addicted to it. They ultimately end up never finishing pieces, perhaps never starting them in the first place. Giving and getting feedback has become their primary creative outlet. This can also happen with creative writing instructors who've taught for a while. The result is a class full of people who don't actually do anything except provide feedback on drafts that will never be anything but drafts.

The final problem with creative writing classes comes from how they are evaluated. Properly, such classes should be graded on a pass/fail basis. If you meet the course requirements -- completed all assignments, participated in feedback sessions, demonstrated improvement -- you pass. However, some classes, usually due to school policy, are graded A through F. But creative writing is difficult to evaluate in this fashion. Assigning a grade of D (poor) or F (failure) isn't too tough, but just how does one rank a story or poem objectively as excellent, good or fair (A, B or C)? In the professional world, critics can't always agree on a work's merits, so how can a single set of faculty at one school arrive at a codified set of guidelines for determining the quality of student work?

The answer is they can't, and grading is often left up to the subjective tastes of the individual instructor. Work is deemed excellent -- or good or average -- for no other reason than because the instructor says it is. If you don't care about grades, then this doesn't matter. But if you do care about them (and most students do), then this can create a class where students try to figure out what the instructor thinks an A story or poem is, and then attempt to write such a story solely to get the grade. You can argue that this situation approximates writing for a specific audience's tastes, and therefore might be a valuable learning experience in and of itself. But such a situation discourages students from experimenting and self-exploration, both vital aspects of education.

After all that, you might well be wondering why anyone in his or her right mind would ever think about taking a creative writing class. But despite the potential pitfalls, there are still plenty of good reasons to enroll, because when a creative writing class is conducted properly, it can be an extremely effective learning experience.

If the instructor is a working professional -- someone who consistently writes and publishes -- students can gain a great deal. The workshop method is partially based on the apprentice model, and apprenticeship has been one of the primary methods our race has used to pass on knowledge throughout history. Together, a skilled master and an eager, willing apprentice can work educational wonders.

The guidance students receive from an experienced writer-teacher can be invaluable. And this guidance isn't limited to feedback on written work. It can take the form of advice on publishing, networking and marketing. Often, professional writers are able to use their contacts to help advanced students who are ready to begin publishing.

The feedback from fellow students who've been trained to respond properly to each other's work can also be quite helpful. Several years ago, a fellow instructor of mine decided to audit my creative writing class in order to get feedback on his poetry. He came incognito, and it wasn't until the end of the course that the other students had any idea he was an instructor. So many people write in isolation that having a group of like-minded individuals to share their work with is a godsend.

Are you someone who's always wanted to write -- or used to -- but aren't able to any more because between work, family and the house you just can't find the time? A creative writing class can provide you with a structured environment and make you write. You'll have specific deadlines to meet and by the time the class is over, you should have several polished pieces ready to send out. So crunched for time that you can't make regular class meetings? Many schools now offer creative writing courses online. Assignments are emailed to instructors and fellow students for feedback and classes sometimes meet virtually in chat rooms for lecture or Q&A. You'll miss out on some of the intangibles of face-to-face feedback, and you probably won't have the same sense of community as you would in a physical classroom, but for many busy students, online courses are proving to be effective alternatives to the traditional classroom experience.

If you're already a professional writer, you can still benefit from creative writing classes.

A class can be a good way for you to stretch your creative muscles. Are you primarily a nonfiction writer? Then focus on short stories or poetry. Even if you don't switch specialties or pick up a second career, the creative techniques you learn will make your nonfiction that much better.

Are you a fiction writer? Then concentrate on poetry. The emphasis on economy and a heightened sense of language can improve your stories on a sentence level, and the focus on communicating profound experience can give your fiction more depth.

Are you a poet? Try creative nonfiction or fiction. Both can provide opportunities for a broader exploration of experience and meaning, plus the narrative techniques you'll learn can be plugged right back into your poetry, giving you a greater range of literary tools to draw on.

The workshop setting can also expose working professionals to other ways of approaching and solving writing problems. Too often writers become set in their ways, used to working with a limited number of well-used (and well-worn) techniques. Beginning writers haven't had a chance to settle into creative ruts yet, and they come up with all sorts of interesting (to say the least!) ways of telling their stories. It's this fresh perspective that can energize a world-weary (and perhaps word-weary) pro.

Suffering from writer's block? A creative writing class could be just the thing to help you break through it. The deadlines, along with feedback and encouragement from others, might well be just the thing to get you going again.

Ever thought about teaching or conducting workshops? There's an old saying that the best way to learn something is to teach it. The opposite also holds true: one of the best ways to learn how to teach a thing is to first be a student of it. Take a creative writing class and pay attention to how the instructor teaches. You can pick up a wealth of information on various teaching techniques and exercises (which you can swipe for your own classes), but it can also teach you about classroom management, and how to effectively -- and often tactfully -- give feedback to students. Plus, your instructor can become a resource for you to consult when you start teaching your own classes.

So what should you look for in a creative writing class? How can you tell a good one from a bad one?

First, check out the instructor's credentials, both publishing and teaching experience. Ask for a bibliography of the instructor's work and try to read some of it before signing up for the class. If the instructor is a published author, has had at least some teaching experience, and you like what you read, then it's time to take the next step.

Meet with the instructor if you can, or speak with him or her on the phone. Ask to see a sample syllabus for the course and the textbooks, if any. Find out what sort of methods the instructor uses to teach creative writing and what sort of goals the instructor has set for the course. Find out what you should get out of the course -- what sort of knowledge and skills -- by the time it's over. During this conversation, ask about the instructor's writing and teaching philosophy, and try to get a sense of your prospective teacher as a person. Is this someone who you think you could work with and learn from? Someone you can see apprenticing yourself to for the next several weeks?

And if you're a working writer yourself, find out whether the instructor is going to feel threatened by having you in the class. Some teachers -- especially if they've had little training or limited experience -- might not be able to handle what they see as a challenge to their expertise and authority. And you definitely don't want to spend a semester locking horns with your instructor in order to determine who's the alpha-writer.

As with anything in life, there are no guarantees. The creative writing course you sign up for might turn out to be a frustrating waste of time or it could be one of the best educational experiences of your life. But if you take care in selecting the right course and instructor, you'll have done a great deal to ensure that the creative writing class you take will be the best one for you.

This article was originally published as "How to be Class Conscious" in WRITERS' Journal, July/August 1998.

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Tuesday, May 03, 2005

Finding or Creating a Writer's Workshop Group

You've reached a certain level in your writing and you realize that you need feedback from people other than your friends in order to improve your work. Perhaps you've been taking creative writing classes, and you sense that your well-meaning classmates just don't "get" the genre fiction you've been writing; you yearn for constructive feedback. Or maybe you've been in workshops before, but you've just moved to a new city and you're not familiar with what the city has to offer.

How do you go about finding -- or creating -- a workshop that will serve your needs?

While there are plenty of online writers' groups that can be a big help to writers (for instance, Critters and the Online Writing Workshops), I've found that in-person writing workshops can be even more helpful because they provide more in-depth discussions. And, since many of us writer-types tend to be hermits, the regular social contact can be a real boost.

Finding an Existing Group

Finding an existing group is easier than creating a group. Your first step would be to hit various search engines like AltaVista, Google and Yahoo!. Let's say you're hunting for a group in the Columbus, OH area. You'd input searches like Columbus, OH writers group or writing workshop Columbus, OH. Most active groups with members under the age of 40 will have some sort of online presence, and by combing through the results of your search you should be able to at least find some good leads (if you are looking for a group in Columbus whose members focus on science fiction, fantasy, or horror, please visit the Writeshop page for more information).

You should also post queries at writers' bulletin boards. Your best bets are to post at boards associated with writers' guilds and associations. If you write genre fiction, posts to the boards at places like Critters and SFF.net.

Offline, you should check around at your local libraries and bookstores, as they may be hosting meetings for writers' groups, and at local colleges. If you write genre fiction, checking at the English departments may or may not yield good results, as many literary writers are unreceptive at best to the work of those of us who write science fiction, fantasy, horror, mystery or romance.

Once you find a likely group, contact the group leader and chat with him or her. Find out what sorts of things the group members write, when and where the group meets, etc. Also find out if prospective members must submit materials for group evaluation before they can join. Don't be surprised or offended if they want to see your stuff before they let you in -- this is a widely practiced method of ensuring that new members are compatible with the group's goals.

If all seems well, your next step is to go to a group meeting with a piece ready to be shared and worked on in more detail. Watch how the other members behave and interact. If you feel comfortable with these folks and they seem to be giving good feedback, congratulations! You've found a good group.

Creating a Writers' Group

Sometimes, you just can't find a compatible local group, or maybe the group you joined has died because the members have moved away or lost interest. If this is the case, then you'll have to avail yourself of online groups or create a new group.

To create a new group, the first thing you have to do is to recruit members. Go to the same places mentioned in the previous section to advertise your new group: libraries, online bulletin boards, colleges, bookstores, etc. Make your flyers/posts as interesting as possible while being brief and informative. Know what you want your group to accomplish, and convey your vision in your ads. If you want to include genre writers, be sure to say so. If you wish to exclude writers of particular works, don't insult their genres.

If you already have some people committed to being in the group who are also published writers, say so. Include a sentence along the lines of Our members have been published in Strange Horizons, Flesh & Bone, Chiaroscuro, etc. Having (and advertising) members with publishing credits will attract other published writers who might fear they would be getting into a group made up of nothing but dilettantes.

Once you've got a critical mass of people who've responded (say, 10 people or so), chat with them a bit to make sure that they seem serious and able to work with other people. It's far better to head personality problems off at the pass than to have to deal with blowups and arguments within the group.

The next step is to figure out a time when most everyone could meet. If all your respondees have email accounts, so much the better; at this stage you'll want to set up a mailing list and maybe a Yahoo! Group or similar site so that you and the others can more easily communicate and share files and other information.

Once you've got a time, you need to find a place to meet. You need to find a place that is comfortable, provides adequate sitting space, and is reasonably well-lit and distraction-free. It also needs to be in a location that provides adequate parking and is otherwise readily accessible to group members. These requirements can make meeting at a member's home difficult if you have a sizeable group.

Unless you and the group are willing to pay dues, you should seek a place that doesn't require rental fees (unfortunately, many community centers charge per-hour fees for the use of their facilities). If one of your members is affiliated with a college or university, see if he or she can secure a regular space in an unused classroom or at the student union. Alternately, if one of your members works at a company that supports the arts, he or she may be able to find space after hours in a company training room or cafeteria. Failing that, many public libraries, bookstores, and coffee houses may have suitable spaces available. If absolutely everything else fails, you might be able to secure space at a local church (though this can create some strange cognitive dissonance if you end up working on an erotica tale beneath a giant crucifix).

Maintaining a Writers' Group

The key to keeping people in your group is to make sure it's worth their time. And, ultimately, it needs to be enjoyable. Read about The Milford System for advice on how to run a workshop. Try to keep things on track; get to the business of workshopping first, and save chit-chat for later. Some socializing is important, but you don't want the group to turn into a coffee klatch where no one really gets any work done. If people in your group are inclined to be long-winded, consider bringing a timer to meetings.

If a member's critiques seem needlessly (and disruptively) vicious or derogatory, chat with him or her privately; he or she may be having personal problems, or may not realize the negative effect he/she is having. If the member seems resentful of your concern/advice, you may have to ask them to leave the group. There's no easy way to handle such a situation; try to be as calm and non-judgmental as you can. But realize that just one member acting obnoxiously can make people stop showing up; inappropriate behavior needs to be addressed discreetly before it becomes a problem.

Between meeting times, try to keep people enthusiastic and involved; this is where having an email list can come in handy (charisma also comes in handy here, but if you haven't got it, personal enthusiasm and staying on top of things will go a long way). Members will be able to share market information, advice and success stories between meetings.

Once your group gets going, continue to advertise for new members. Set up some kind of a web presence so that people will be able to find your Group via Internet searches. Take the time to request a listing for your group at relevant meta directories. For instance, local arts councils will often list writing-related groups on their sites.

Once you start getting inquiries, you and the other members may decide to request that prospective members submit work for appraisal before they're admitted to the group.

Workshop groups can get too big; if you have an active group of more than 18 people who all regularly come to meetings, you might want to consider breaking the group into smaller sub-groups that meet at Different times. The ideal group size (from the standpoint of generating stories for critique and providing adequate feedback) is about 6 to 15 people per meeting. With fewer than 6 members, the group tends to run short on work for critique and the feedback can tend to run stale after a while.

If you start a group, you'll be the leader unless you pass the torch to someone else. I recommend trying to be as democratic as possible, but other people have had success with a benign dictatorship. It's up to you and what seems to work for the group. Keeping a good group running will be work, but it will be more than worth it.

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I'm Lucy Snyder. I'm a Worthington, Ohio author and former magazine editor; on this site you'll find my writing as well as features from my husband, novelist Gary A. Braunbeck.

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