Storyville: How to Survive a Creative Writing Workshop

So, you want to be in a creative writing workshop, huh? Are you ready? Maybe you are, and maybe you’re not. But whether you’re just getting together a few friends and peers or studying at a college or university (including getting your MFA), here are a few tips, some things I’ve learned from my own time in a variety of workshops.

THICKEN UP THAT SKIN

No matter what anybody says, right or wrong, kind or cruel, you have to be prepared for comments and criticism on your work. Some will be fair, and some will not. In some instances, yeah, you really did screw up the plot, leave out setting entirely, pull a deus ex machina out of your ass. So, take your lumps and go fix it. Other times, you may be totally right, and your peers just won’t get it. The whole point of a workshop is to help you make your writing better, stronger, and deeper—not to blow smoke and fluff you up. Although kind words are nice, too. Just prepare yourself for some harsh criticism—and be ready to listen and edit your work, or ignore it.

Here’s an example from my MFA. Not only did my thesis director tell me he thought my novel wasn’t thesis material (i.e., not good enough), on the first day of class we read the opening to my novel, and he asked the other students to raise their hands if they’d keep reading after the first page. Do you know how many students raised their hands? That’s right, ZERO. What the hell? My people! I did not agree. In fact, I’ll post the first page right here and YOU tell me whether you’d keep reading:

INTRODUCTION

There is no past. My heart was ripped from me in a rush of flashing lights and sticky, yellow tape. There is no future. Vision would require hope, and that stealthy whore eludes me at every turn. So I float in the ether, pasty skin crawling with regret, eyes gouged out by my own shaking hands.

CHAPTER ONE

The manila envelope slides under my apartment door like the wrinkled skin of a snake, shed in a hurry. I don’t even turn to look, though my clenched fists are shaking, my eyes pressed shut. Sitting in the living room, darkness around me like a flea-infested blanket, my forearms rest on the mahogany table, my hands trembling in the high-backed leather chair. I am full again, about to overflow, and I’ve been waiting for that envelope for hours.

Days.

Weeks.

I don’t know. I don’t know what day it is. I grit my teeth and take a deep breath. The muscles in my lower back are tightly coiled springs, ropes with knots tied that I’ll never get undone.

I know the plastic bottles sit in the medicine cabinet. I know those tiny black bottles are sitting there. Much like Vlad slides the envelope under my door, my next assignment, much like he provides me with this luxurious squalor within which to disintegrate, he is also my pusher. He provides my escape. Or maintenance, depending on how you look at it. Two very average, very normal bottles. They could be aspirin, or acetaminophen, or naproxen. But they are not. They are two dark tunnels, bottomless pits, and I stand at the openings breathing in the musty air, rich with soil and rotting bones.

The masking tape he rubbed on them with his filthy thumb and forefinger is slowly losing its tack. With a black Sharpie he wrote two words, and every time I look at them I see Alice dropping down the rabbit hole. And I want to join her.

One says: Happy.

The other: Sad.

It’s time for a bus ride. Soon.

I stand up slowly and open my eyes. The streetlights outside push in pale light, the blinds glowing as if the desert sun waits just outside then. My bare feet on the hardwood floor ground me again. It’s why I keep them clean—the floor, not my feet. A faint whiff of lemon and orange, oils that reek of naked flesh and release. I need to touch things sometimes. I breathe again, brushing the wrinkles out of my jeans, running my hands down my thighs, again and again. It relaxes me. Shirtless, I run my hands over my bare, hairless chest, back and forth, to make the blood flow again.

There are only three choices: the French doors to my bedroom; the manila envelope that rests by the door, a door that leads out to the hallway of this six-flat; and the opening to the kitchen. The lone window in the kitchen is cracked open and a soft, cool breeze pushes the blinds aside. A flash and bare tree branches. A glimmer and the telephone lines. A gust and wrought iron, green feline eyes and a blur of fur. My stalker. She won’t stay, I know that much. I will myself forward to the open space of the kitchen. A sawhorse sits in the middle of the room. A two-by-four lies on top of it, secured to it by tall, gray nails. I pick up the hammer, an old friend from a different life, and the weight in my hands is comforting. A dozen metal heads poke out of the mangled piece of wood, riddled with holes, and dents. In quick succession I pound them flat.

Yes, this ended up being Disintegration, my second novel, a book that Irvine Welsh called, “A stunning and vital piece of work.” Did I listen to my professor and my peers? No. I did go back and read the opening, and made a few edits, but overall I liked it. But I had to convince myself that I was right and they were wrong. And that’s not always easy.

WHAT ADVICE TO TAKE

Speaking of advice, how do you know what advice to take? I ended up setting that book aside for a year, to focus on short stories in my MFA, half done, and kind of pissed off. BUT, in the end, it was a great decision, and I learned a lot. But as far as the advice you get from your professors and peers, who do you listen to? Who do you ignore? It’s not easy.

Work hard, be open to suggestions, ignore the drama...You are there to write. You are there to learn.

I try to listen to my professors first. They are the ones who have been writing for a long time, have advanced degrees, and your best interests at heart. Hopefully. My professor who didn’t like my book? When I graduated, and he introduced me, for my final reading in front of my classmates, he said such nice things, made me cry, actually, saying that if anybody in this program would break out and be a success, it would be me. He called me the next Stephen King. In others words, he shocked the hell out of me. I thought he hated me. Turns out he really did believe in me, which is why he pushed me so hard. His advice on what stories to read? I took that advice every time. I learned so much, read so many awesome stories because of him, authors I might not have turned to. About horror and neo-noir? I tended to ignore him.

As far as my peers, in my MFA program, and in a private workshop I did for a number of years called Write Club, how did I decide THERE? It was tough, especially at first. What I tried to do was look at THEIR writing, and see what they did really well. If they were great at dialogue, then I tried to listen to their advice about dialogue. If they wrote great fight scenes or sex scenes, I made sure to pay close attention to their responses when my work went there. If they worked as a farmer or cop or scientist or forest ranger—I sought out their input in any area where they were experts. And, as far as the parts of their work that I thought was weak? Yeah, I tended to ignore that advice. When they didn’t “get it,” I just nodded and moved on. When they wanted my style to be their style, I smiled, and ignored them.

CONSENSUS

One way you can look to your peers and teachers for advice is in any consensus that happens to develop. Now, this isn’t a 100%, die-hard, foolproof method. BUT, if all of your classmates think the ending is flat, it might be flat. If nobody understands that your protagonist is dead, you might need to be more clear. If everybody hates your main character, and you need them to be sympathetic, then you might have screwed up. You have to be open, and listen, especially when they are all saying the same thing.

BUT, and this is a big but, sometimes the small sample size just won’t get your work. Maybe they don’t know the authors you are studying, your reference points. Maybe they don’t get the particular genre you are writing in, at all. Maybe the work is going over their heads because…well, because they just aren’t smart enough to understand what you’re doing. Now, that may come off as a bit conceited, but if you’re writing edgy stories, if you’re working hard to innovate, this may not be a mainstream project that your peers get. In many academic environments genre fiction in ANY form is frowned upon. So, keep that all in mind. Then again, William Burroughs, Cormac McCarthy, and Mary Gaitskill are not for every reader. You are not these authors. You are probably still developing. Maybe you don’t have it all figured out yet. So, listen, be open, but also fight for the work you believe in.

Quick story about consensus. I had a story, “Stillness,” that I sold to Cemetery Dance, which ended up in Shivers VI, my first big sale (and breakthrough) alongside Stephen King, Peter Straub, and others. When I wrote it in an online class, many of the students didn’t get it. They wanted more clues, more hints, more clarity. So, I did that. I put in more information, dropping bread crumbs, so that the ending wasn’t such a shock. And you know what happened when I worked with my editors on this story at Cemetery Dance? You got it, they asked me dial it back, to cut OUT some of that material, to be less obvious about it. I questioned them, and they said their readers were smart, they’d get it, they’d figure it out. I smiled and cut a few lines. And in the end, that’s the version I wanted anyway.

JERKS AND HATERS

Oh yes, they will be in your little clique of “friends,” they will be in your undergraduate classes, and especially in your MFA. SO much hate. Why? Well, I have my theories. I think there is a lot of uncertainty in the world, and a lot of unfair practices. Some people are given breaks, and some aren’t. There are invite only anthologies, there are people who know each other, and for the rest of the world, sometimes it seems cruel. I see it, it does happen, but I think that’s really just a small part of the experience. So, some people will hate you for having success, for doing well, because they think you’ve been given the inside track, that you don’t work hard. I’ve had people tell me that I was “born with a silver spoon in my mouth,” that I “had things handed to me,” and “didn’t work hard and earn my place.” That, my friends, is a lot of bullshit. I’ve busted my ass for the past nine years. Every bit of success I’ve had has come from working hard, reading a ton (some years as many as 50+ books), writing a lot, failing all the time, and hopefully learning, evolving, and finding my voice along the way. Have I gotten invited into anthologies? Yes, I have. That’s part of sending out your work, getting noticed, and creating relationships with editors. That’s part of the process. If you work hard enough, and get published, and do good work—people will come knocking. Guess how many stories I’ve had rejected in the past nine years? Almost 800. That’s right, 800. And it’s only been in the past 3-5 years that my work has almost entirely been professional pay. I published work for no pay, just like you probably have. I struggle, blow deadlines, get rejected, and fail all the time. So when you’re in your workshop, keep an eye out for people that are critical of not only your work, but your process, your success, and you in general. If their criticism is cruel and way off? Yep, you’ve got yourself a hater. I didn’t blurb a peer's novel, somebody in my MFA, and he unfriended and blocked me on social media, and I haven’t spoken to him since. I had a peer in class throw my story down and yell, “Why are we even reading this story,” when we revealed that it had been accepted for a magazine. My professors wanted me to keep the story in class, to walk them through my process, and to talk about what my editors liked and changed, and how it all went down. They thought it would be a fascinating part of the whole experience. In the end, focus on your work, and ignore the haters. They’re most likely dealing with their own insecurities, failures, and impatience, and it rarely has anything to do with you.

GIVE AS GOOD AS YOU GET

One way to endear yourself to your peers, is to put in the work! Not your writing, but in your criticism and feedback. An important part of workshops is editing and commenting on the OTHER stories. Saying that you liked it or didn’t like it? That’s empty, there is no constructive criticism there, it doesn’t help. Talk about what you liked, and why you liked it, and frame it in the context of the essential elements of fiction. What do I mean by that? Let me elaborate.

When I edit and critique the stories my students turn in, I comment and mark up the story in several different ways. The first is in trying to catch any typos or grammatical errors. Did they spell a word wrong, not capitalize a brand name, forget dialogue tags, screw up punctuation, or formatting? I note it. Second, I look at what I call the mechanics, the framework: narrative hook, inciting incident, tension, conflict (internal and external), climax, resolution and denouement (Freytag’s Triangle, essentially); as well as the other crucial components—plot, character, setting, dialogue, mood/theme, etc. I try to address as many of these as is possible in my feedback. And third, I look at the big picture—what was my overall experience, how did I feel when I was done, did I care about the characters, did I believe the plot, did I buy it, was there a strong emotional response? For me, the story has to work on three levels: intellectually, physically, and emotionally; OR body, mind, and heart. You have to move the story in the real world, have things happen, using setting and action and conflict; you have to get to me emotionally, make me feel something, have a visceral response; and you have to stimulate my brain with thought, insight, and other broad ideas. So, I’m looking for all of that. If you can touch on MOST of these things in your criticism, then you’ll find gratitude and excitement in the responses of your peers. And hopefully, they’ll do the same for you. There is nothing worse than spending time, energy, and emotion on a story and that author gives you a paragraph on YOUR story saying they liked it! It was good! It was scary! That doesn’t help.

ROUGH DRAFTS

Understand that a rough draft, or first draft, will probably be a mess. It’s okay. That’s why you’re doing this, why you’re in school, or in a workshop. You had an idea, you’re working on it, but it’s still in development. Don’t sweat it, man. It’s crap. It’s a start. There will be cuts, there will be expansion, you will fix plot holes, you’ll change the hook and opening, you’ll fix the ending, it’s fine. That’s the process. When the day comes that you don’t need to workshop, and you’ve become your harshest critic, MAYBE your first drafts won’t suck. But even then, they probably will. I worked on Disintegration for six months, put it aside, came back to it a year later, wrote half in a week, workshopped the whole thing for a year, and THEN started shopping it. 40 small press rejections later, I sought an agent. A year, and 100 rejections later, I got an agent. She made some changes. We sent it out to dozens of presses that were under the umbrella of the “big six” (or whatever it is now) and eventually signed with Random House Alibi. And guess what? That’s when the work really started. FUCK. Right? I worked with my editor, Dana Isaacson, and he was brilliant. We changed several big picture things, including removing a rape scene, and changing the ending, entirely (after I’d already written five different endings) and other things along the way. THEN, it went into copy editing where five people tore it apart and we made at least another SIX rounds of edits—typos and grammar; style edits; continuity edits; misplaced modifiers and dangling participles, edits for clarity, repetitions, etc. Wow. But I’ll tell you this much, I felt great about that book when it went out into the world.

IN CONCLUSION

In the end, the best way to not only survive, but flourish, in a creative writing workshop is to work hard, be open to suggestions, understand what gifts each student has to offer you, and ignore the drama and mind games. You are there to write. You are there to learn. You are there to evolve. So, read the assignments, read the stories, and put your blood, sweat, and tears on the page. Never hold back, spill your guts, and write the best story you can, filled with heart, emotion, and intensity.

Richard Thomas

Column by Richard Thomas

Richard Thomas is the author of three books—Transubstantiate, Herniated Roots and Staring Into the Abyss. His over 75 publications include Shivers VI (Cemetery Dance) with Stephen King and Peter Straub, PANK, Gargoyle, Weird Fiction Review, Midwestern Gothic, Arcadia, and Pear Noir. He is also the editor of two anthologies, both out in 2014: The Lineup (Black Lawrence Press) and Burnt Tongues (Medallion Press) with Chuck Palahniuk. In his spare time he writes for The Nervous Breakdown, LitReactor, and is Editor-in-Chief at Dark House Press. For more information visit www.whatdoesnotkillme.com or contact Paula Munier at Talcott Notch.

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Comments

BrianAsman's picture
BrianAsman from San Diego, CA is reading The Great and Secret Show by Clive Barker February 22, 2017 - 2:40pm

Great article, and on a topic that I don't see covered very often. So many articles about writing cover things like story mechanics or writing habits, but not so much workshopping. Having participated in both online and in-person workshops, I've found usually every third or fourth comment, at most, is actually 1. useful and 2. actionable. And I think this is because when most people consume art, they aren't thinking about why they like the things they like, or dislike the things they don't (I wish I could remember where I'm getting this from, but I once read the key difference between a critic and a fan is awareness of why they react the way they do). 

You also get people misapplying writing advice they've read but not adequately internalized, or as you state kind of missing the point. I like your advice about thinking about the strengths of a given person's work, although there's always a chance they might be better at critiquing than execution. Not every coach can throw a football. 

"There is nothing worse than spending time, energy, and emotion on a story and that author gives you a paragraph on YOUR story saying they liked it" This really resonated with me, as I've had so many experiences where I put a ton of time into someone's piece, multiple reads, LBL, etc., then gotten a "nice job" type critique of my own.

Just gave this article a plug with one of my writing groups. Hope that doesn't come across passive-aggressive AF haha. 

Richard's picture
Richard from St. Louis is reading various anthologies February 22, 2017 - 2:53pm

thanks so much! appreciate it, brian.

Ian Brown's picture
Ian Brown from Northampton, UK is reading Cold Comfort Farm February 22, 2017 - 3:53pm

OK - In the last term of a Creative Writing Degree and NOW you tell me! Sheesh!
Have to say that all of the above resonated with my experience of the last two and a half years. As a mature student, with a previous history in personnel management, I was a lot more confident in giving feedback to the group than the rest of my cohort. However, my confidence was viewed by some as aggressiveness relative to the other comments being given, and this coloured the way a lot of feedback was received. Got a fair bit of adverse criticism myself that was obviously born from hurt feelings. I reverted back to the old management trick of "The Shit Sandwich" method of feedback (it was literally called that in management training). Think of something good to say about a piece first, then deliver any negative criticism, but always finish with another positive point. It may sound like elementary level manipulation, but it always worked and made the dirty filling more palatable.
 

Thanks for the article, real food for thought (for the rest of the term!).

Richard's picture
Richard from St. Louis is reading various anthologies February 22, 2017 - 9:38pm

I love that shit sandwhich. Good approach. Hope the column helps.

The Dark Lord's picture
The Dark Lord from Zaliak is reading The Last Wish February 23, 2017 - 11:48am

Reading what happened to you with your MFA has somehow managed to make me further disillusioned with education in this country. I’ve thought on and off about pursuing a degree in creative writing, but this article certainly don’t encourage me to jump in any time soon. I suppose one could argue your reaction to double down, resulting in a published novel, maybe had the desired, if unintended, effect? Ultimately I suspect your professor and peers had just decided to get bent beforehand, unbeknownst to you. 

I always think I've developed a thick skin until I get negative feedback, only to realize I've got the self defense mechanisms of an 11 year old. I also liked the part about learning that sometimes people offer bad advice; I’ve really gone down a rabbit hole after getting lousy advice before, something that’s easy to do when you’re a novice and cant tell which way is up.

And as for haters, some of the best advice I’ve been told about perusing something you love (in the beginning especially) is to keep it close and hidden, only sharing it with a few trusted friends. Ironically the biggest haters in my life have been my family, who have actively discouraged me from perusing writing (and like a fool I listened to them), only finally getting the balls to do it anyway at age 37, despite their misgivings. And you can bet I haven’t even mentioned it to them. I’ve gotten enough of their brow beating over my other "poor" choices in life, thank you very much.

Richard this was a great article, as usual. I think it applies to more than just workshops. I've never attended one but keep edging closer and closer to the idea. I suppose life is about sifting through shit to find the tiny, occasionally nuggets of joy, so when I do finally brave a workshop I’ll approach it with that mentality.

Richard's picture
Richard from St. Louis is reading various anthologies February 23, 2017 - 12:11pm

Awesome, thanks for all of this. If it helps, I didn't start until I was 40.