Columns > Published on May 15th, 2018

13 Solid Pieces Of Advice From LitReactor's Writers Workshop

One of the great, unsung aspects of any writers' workshop is what you learn from reading the critiques of someone else's story. 

You get to see the entire process, from story to critique, and you get to exist outside of that process. You can have an emotional detachment that's hard to come by when it's your own work. 

If you start to listen to critique, really listen, you'll always catch things that help you with your own writing. You might even catch more from the critique of someone else's story than you do from critique of your own. 

The downside here is that this listening/watching process isn't easy to replicate on your own if you don't have a solid writing group. Which is why I wanted to take a moment and share some advice from LitReactor's Writers Workshop.

What goes down in The Workshop is basically a perpetual, asynchronous writing group. Someone submits a story, others read it and critique. And, more importantly, you see everyone's critiques of every other story. Which means you've got an incredible opportunity to learn. You can follow your favorite reviewers, see what they've said to others. You can find stories that have problems similar to ones you're having in your WIP. 

I don't expect my explaining to convince you. Let's take a look at some of the best pieces of criticism from other users like you. 

1. Kedzie on “This Is Normal” and Willingness to Change

If you want to keep your start point where it is, that's fine. But find a way to make the prose less confusing. You don't want any potential for confusion in the first paragraph. I realize the paragraph is not confusing to you. I had a line of dialogue in one of my stories that some readers mentioned stumbling over. To me, and to the readers who did not stumble, the line could not have been more clear. Still, I changed it.

One of Flannery O’Connor’s strengths as a writer was her strength as a student, which came with a willingness to change. When she got feedback that something needed to change, she took it more often than not.

Like Kedzie says, sometimes a line, an idea, a piece of dialogue works great in your head, seems flawless on the page, and you don’t want to get rid of it. But if you’re writing for anyone other than yourself, listen for the opportunities to change for the better. It takes a big person to toss out something they like, but writing is an act of humility. 

2. NicoBell on “In Camera” and Unsympathetic Characters

I think it's perfectly possible to have an unsympathetic protagonist, but I do think the reader still needs to have some sort of connection to her. She needs to have some sort of arc, even if in the end, she doesn't change to become a better person. It's like that movie Young Adult. She starts off awful, some stuff happens and she learns what life could be like if she changes, and then she doesn't. We, as viewers, don't like her, but we understand her decision.

Yes, yes, and yes. Some characters are unsympathetic, but some characters are just baffling. It’s completely okay, and encouraged by me in a big way, to have unlikable, fuck-up characters. And it’s okay if they don’t go through a big change. But I do need to at least understand why, for them, their choices seem right.

3. mark william mills on "Arnold’s First Real Job" and Putting Inner Thoughts on the Page

One point on depicting a character's thoughts: Like you, I also italicize those passages. But the design of your document needs to be clear to the reader, so structurally you should address this. I'd advise keeping all of those moments contained within their own, single paragraphs. You may even want to change the spacing to 1.5. Memories and all else that happens upstairs usually comes as a wash and is rarely as narrative as speech. Go ahead and drop some of the punctuation too. Let the sentences drift into each other. Faulkner is a great resource for learning how to do that well.

Not only a reference pointing someone towards a good example, but suggestions that encompass formatting and style to create different textures between thoughts and actions.

4. Rose Kimura on "The Agents of Mass Distraction" and At-Stakeness

I found myself wondering about Malarkey and Thompson's motives and personalities. I had a great visual of them, but I was not sure why they are doing this job, what they want from it, and how their values are in conflict with those of Brattigan. It seemed that things mostly happened to them and the two guys were trying to survive, but I have a feeling like this may have been meant about being something more—like personal power and growth, or bringing justice and fighting evil...Whatever that drive is, how can we understand it better from the plot?

A critique many of us hear at some point is that the characters lack agency, and it's tricky to give agency to a character who may be in a situation that's out of control. But at-stakeness is one angle to work. What’s at stake? Why are these characters doing what they're doing, why now, and what’s the plan in their heads? Demonstrating clear stakes is a great way to give the characters agency without ceding control to them.

5. walterstc on "Lena’s Ghost" and dialog

I do not think it is bad to reveal exposition through dialogue, sometimes it is the only way, but I think if every piece of information is revealed through dialogue then it takes away a lot of the fun of reading. Readers love to figure out what is happening in a story, to get wrapped up in the characters and situations and interject our own thoughts on just what it is that might be happening... Let the characters talk and let the readers guess a little as to what is going on.

One opinion on dialog, which is different from the typical opinion. This is one huge advantage to workshopping a piece, you get some different perspectives on a single issue. watlterstc does a great job explaining the deflating feel of having things laid out just a little too directly.

6. J.L. With a Differing Opinion on Dialogue in "Lena’s Ghost"

The dialogue was generally written well. In particular, I liked your use of gesture and facial expression to convey the emotions and unconscious non-verbal reactions of the characters. However, certain lines were highly expository, giving them a sense of being contrived. Some of these details are things that Lena and her mother would not need to say to one another because they are so intimately familiar with these events. Particularly in the beginning, there were several lines that were clearly being used to convey information. Perhaps this information could have been included as expository narration outside of the dialogue or as part of a flashback or memory that Lena has? The writing outside of the dialogue was very clear, clean, and direct.

This is closer to my personal opinion, that exposition shouldn’t come through dialog, and it does a great job of unpacking that idea, saying that characters wouldn’t talk about certain things with which they’re both already intimately familiar. It's not just "Don't do it!" It's an explanation of how it breaks the reality for this reader.

7. Hugh Dufour on “Ghost Story” and the Power of Objects in a Story

I'd also work a bit on the object under the wiper: feels like you would get more out of a weirder object, and something that ties in more evocatively with the rest of the story would definitively create more tension.

Objects can carry a lot of weight in a story. You’ll have to read more of this story to find out the specifics, but this piece of advice is a good one to apply to everything you write. What are the objects in your story, what are they doing, and can you wring more life from them? Can the objects stand for more? If you're going to put an object on the paper, why not craft it as one that can pull a little more weight? It's a great, great reminder for all of us, objects can be more than just stuff. 

8. StephAustin on “Stems” and Increasing Tension in a Scene

I think your characters could benefit from some attention. Again, why are these particular people in this particular place? Why is it Janine? How does she add tension? Is she essential?  This could play out in dialogue. There's a discussion about how many tables are left, which didn't feel super interesting for the moment, not when we're about to see a guy cut open his hand. How many tables are left is straight forward dialogue. How many tables are left when, say, Janine is his ex-girlfriend and the dishwasher is her new boyfriend is super tense. (Obviously, that's just an example of how to increase conflict. Maybe the dishwasher is an ex-boyfriend. Maybe Janine is a federal agent, haha, just kidding, but so on and so forth.

Each scene should do something. That’s broad advice, but what I mean is, and what this critique asks, is whether everything in a scene is essential because it advances the narrative, advances the conflict, or raises the tension. Can something extraneous be filled in or altered so there's nothing extra in your story?

9. Nathan Scalia on “Getting Back To You” and Putting Down Roots

I think the best way to clean this up involves adding a bit of imagery, like you had in the first paragraph. You talk about the hot, steaming bathroom contrasting with the cold porcelain, which is neat. From that point on, you sort of abandon all interesting descriptors, and focus entirely on this stream of consciousness, which is where things get confusing. I think you could grow some roots and keep the reader on the ground by sprinkling a lot more of that imagery throughout. What do these people look like? What about the bathroom (haven't we all spent at least one, terrible extended occasion in the bathroom so vivid that we could describe that bathroom in horrific detail)?

At some point, lots of writers will write something that ends up very image-heavy. It’s a constant balance, but sometimes we'll tip into a world of all language, stuff that's lacking a concreteness, a grounding in reality that will make it easier to understand and a more pleasurable experience for the reader. Nathan provides some very specific examples of places where the writer is already grounding the story well. It's just a matter of spreading it out. 

10. chris_diplacito on “The Reverend's Exaggerated Casualness as He Settles in His Chair“ and Giving Good Compliments

You have a great use of tone. There is an ominous blanket of fear that hangs over the entire story. There is no gore or outright horror (ok maybe the cat) but I was some paragraphs in when I suddenly realised I had a sense of dread growing within me. It is a talent to be able to evoke this in a reader.

It’s not all “you suck!” in the workshop. Not by a long stretch. There are lots of props, and they’re often well-earned. Readers in The Workshop really have a knack for picking up on the issues, but they’re also great at giving a story its due.

11. curiousgcc on “Ed and Pene” and Finding the Story in the Story 

I sense overall this is a pretty fresh draft and have noted several places in the attached LBL where you could zoom in possibly and create a level of depth in the story, either by cutting away some of the more mundane moments and focusing on the more interesting ones (like the couple hiding out in the pickup while the rest of the guests celebrate the wedding. An interesting scene in itself may be worthy of an entire story).

Sometimes you finish a story and it turns out you wrote the wrong story. Sometimes a side piece is a little more interesting, has people engaged and asking questions. Workshops are great for uncovering those moments that you miss in your own work. Maybe you wrote a story about somebody, but maybe the story you should've been writing was happening in a pickup off to the side. 

12. Hue M Flex on "Imaginary Friend" and LBL's

There were a few places where I thought things should be deleted or moved around and they are identified in the LBL.

Okay, okay. Not a mind-blowing piece of advice. Just a reminder, one of the great things is you, as a lurker, can also see the LBL (line-by-line) critiques readers make on stories. Some of the reviewers in the workshop do incredible, detailed LBL's. This is the kind of close reading you don't get everywhere. 

13. Hugh Dufour on "Bruno" and Touch

The physical scenes are hot and never icky—but they sometimes veer into the abstract and the overly philosophical. I noted some lines that could be cut or rewritten, making it more specific, more tangible.

Anything sexy, sensual, or touch-based can be really tough to write alone. These things can be tough to workshop too. It takes a lot of guts to put out something meant to be sexy, wondering whether it'll work and you'll be Britney Spears dancing with a snake or if it'll flop and you'll be Miley Cyrus twerking on Alan Thicke's son. Reading critiques of the sexy bits other people put into their work is a great way to get some pointers.

Look, it’s part of my gig here at LitReactor to talk about The Community, The Workshop, The Classes, The Craft Essays, and all the perks that come from getting a little more involved.

Here’s my advice to you: Maybe you aren’t ready to submit a story, and maybe you’re not ready to give feedback. That’s fine. But do yourself a favor and start looking at the submissions and the feedback they’re getting. I’ve been in a number of creative writing classes in college, and this is much, much better. You’ll only have to read a couple pieces of feedback to figure that out for yourself.

Take advantage of The Workshop. Use it not just to review and submit, but to see what other people are writing and what readers are saying about it. Apply that stuff to your own work and you’ll be way ahead of the game.

Oh, and as a final note, seek out some of the readers quoted above in The Workshop and in The Community, and thanks to them for their great advice. You all truly power things around here. 

About the author

Peter Derk lives, writes, and works in Colorado. Buy him a drink and he'll talk books all day.  Buy him two and he'll be happy to tell you about the horrors of being responsible for a public restroom.

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