In college fiction writing classes, there’s one thing you’ll do a lot, and that’s workshopping short stories. I’ve written a lot of short stories and read a lot of short stories in classes and writers’ groups. In college, short stories are used for creative writing education because they’re short.
Short stories are short. That makes sense.
The reason creative writing professors need the stories they use to be short is because you spend most of your time in creative writing classes workshopping your fellow students’ short stories. In return, they workshop yours. Workshopping short stories can be a very helpful tool, not only when you’re starting out with creative writing, but throughout your creative writing life.
Here’s the thing about me and workshops:
People who let me workshop their stories don’t like me after I give back their story. I scratch things out on the page if they’re boring, if they do something that pulls me out of the story, or if I know that the sentence could be better. I scratch things out a lot more if what I’m reading is a short story. Short stories don’t linger.
There’s no room to waste space.
I write and work a certain way when it comes to my own short stories; I scratch stuff out. Word by word, I scratch out everything I don’t like or that I’ve decided doesn’t work. If something’s not working for me, I scratch it out. When I catch the words telling me something I could have gathered without those words, I scratch them out. If the story’s lingering too much, I scratch it out. When I just want to see what a wonderful paragraph would be like with some stuff scratched out of it, I scratch it out.
If I like something, I don’t scratch it out. I do the same thing when I’m workshopping someone else’s story.
People don’t like it when I scratch out their words in their stories.
I’ve tried workshopping stories without scratching things out. I’ve tried just putting words out to the side about things, or above sentences, or at the end of the story. When I do that, my feedback is just kind of shitty. Well, a lot shitty. When someone gives me one of their stories to workshop, they’re trusting me to treat their stories with the same scrutiny that I give mine. I guess people don’t like that.
I found out recently that a lot of my fellow classmates didn’t like my feedback because I scratched stuff out in their manuscript. I’m sorry, but what’s the point of a workshop?
The point of a creative writing workshop is to workshop creative writing.
If I can’t workshop creative writing the way I workshop creative writing, then I simply don’t need to be in creative writing workshops. I could say that I’ll try to get better at giving criticism, but honestly I probably won’t. It’s a bit of sore subject for me now. I enjoy those rare opportunities I have to hang out with fellow writers and talk about our stories, our ideas, our goals for book 2 or story 3, but I just don’t think workshopping is really for me.
I should say that I’m going to try to break the habit of scratching things out, but I honestly probably won’t.
I’m fine with that, I think. It’s how I work and it works for me and I like the results it gives my stories. While I’ll probably have to deal with it somehow if I decide to go get my MFA later, for now I think I’m just fine not workshopping. Creative writing pizza party? Sure. Fiction writer group cocktails? I’m there. Short story writer cruise? Sign me up. I just don’t want to workshop anyone’s story, because then we won’t be friends and then I’ll be sad.
Workshopping isn’t for everyone.
You hear many writers say it, but they all seem to still try to push you to do them. I definitely don’t. I’ll definitely recommend it at first. If you don’t have any issues doing them, you should probably continue to do them. But if you don’t like them for whatever reason, you don’t have to continue to do them. There’s value in being able to make decisions about your story yourself, too.
There are books that can help you.
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There are SO MANY books about creative writing, some more well known, and others not so much. The best book about writing that I’ve ever read is Ron Carlson Writes A Story.
It’s not about workshopping so the advice won’t replace anything you’d get from a workshop, but after reading his theory about “inventory”, I can make a lot of decisions about my own writing with more confidence. His comments on how dialogue works in a story are also extremely helpful if you’re struggling with dialogue. Carlson walks you through the process of writing his own short story, “The Governor’s Ball”, which appeared in The New Yorker.
You get the details of why every sentence is in the story. There are also some short exercises for you to try. One of my college professors assigned this book in one of my advanced fiction writing classes. This book stays within grabbing distance of my desk. I refer back to it constantly. It goes without saying that his story, “The Governor’s Ball”, is a really good story as well.
But Ron Carlson’s book isn’t the only one I’d recommend. It’s not the most skimmable book, and you occasionally just need something to refer back to quickly when you want to try something new.
There’s also The Portable MFA In Creative Writing. While this book is more of a reference book for creative writers and less of a ground-breaking theory, the advice in it more or less the advice you would get in a MFA program or an advanced creative writing class as an undergraduate. It doesn’t replace workshopping, but it helps you be more confident in your own decisions as a writer.
This book comes out of The New York Writer’s Workshop. It wasn’t assigned to me by any professors, but one did recommend it once, years before I picked up a copy. it’s my current substitute for an MFA program while I get finish my BA. It has chapters on writing fiction, poetry, essays, magazines, and plays. I’ve read the fiction section twice, and skimmed the others. Whatever your craft is, you should give it a look, especially if you haven’t gone through an MFA program yet, and also especially if you don’t plan to get a traditional MFA.
If you’ve read either of these, please let me know what you think!
If there are other creative writing books, please share them. I love hearing about what other tools writers use. I just don’t want to workshop your story, unless you’re going to pay me for my editing services. Feel free to contact me with your questions. Hope you can take criticism!
Update: since writing this post forever ago, I’ve since then founded an online literary magazine, Likely Red. This doesn’t really change much about this post, since I do very little editing on the pieces I accept for the lit mag. In fact, if a piece needs too much work, it’s probably not ready for being accepted in a lit mag, anyway. However, I do think that my initial social anxieties over workshopping have decreased, and I’m starting to go to more workshops again, kinda.