Category Archives: Professional Editing

The Workshop Model: 5 Reasons Why It’s Ruining Writers

Right now it’s all we’ve got whether we like it or not: sitting around a room together under the watchful gaze of some Published Elder, reading snippets of each others’ work, critiquing word use, sentence structure, character peccadilloes, scene quality and, if you’re lucky (or very unlucky if you’re the reader) an entire chapter.

… followed by crushing self-doubt, anger, calling your judges, jury, and executioners idiots, then doing your own thing anyhow.

More and more, the public discourse on the proliferation of workshops (and courses based on the model) are pointing out the same thing: it’s not making us better writers, and it’s not making our output better.

In fact, it’s possible the Workshop Model (thanks, Iowa) is the most destructive component of the writer’s development.

That’s because the model is not only flawed, but flawed in the worst ways possible. It’s not just one thing, but any combination of some or all the flaws that ruins it for developing writers.

1. The Mentorship Factor

Oh, she’s up there at the front of the group. So is he. You might have once heard the name. Somewhere. At least you think so – no, you’re positive. Maybe. Well, at least they’ve reached that Pinnacle that is the brass ring for all writers: Being Published.

Because Being Published must mean you know what you’re doing, right?

It’s possible your Published Elder is even famous or better still a Somebody, all capitalized and everything. Just meeting them makes you suddenly inarticulate and gushing. Your ability to make direct eye contact lowers proportionately with the heights of their accomplishments, but by the end at least you can brag about being on a first-name basis with a Somebody.

So you crack your knuckles, ready to get all smartified by osmosis. Or something like that.

Except 

There are real dangers in letting this unquestioned dominant-submissive interplay take charge of your writing and your development as a writer:

  1. Bias – We are biased, and therefore they are biased. Biased opinions can snuff out your individuality and your voice – the very qualities you’ll most need to develop as a writer to differentiate your work from everyone else’s. The group mentor might hate genre, hate everything but social realism, hate lyrical prose and linear execution. Guess what? Do you think you’ll actually get as fair a shake as s/he believes will be delivered? Do you think s/he’ll give you the wide berth you’ll need to develop your own voice and style, or will you be judged against some personal template and found wanting? Chances are, you will be funneled and pushed in an approved direction. Chances are with every comment and well-meaning critique you will be driven farther and farther from the story you were meant to write, and the farther away you get the harder it will be to come around to your own center again. That’s if your center isn’t completely obliterated by then.
  2. Lack of perspective -There is no way your mentor can understand your project holistically from bits and pieces of sample submissions or from its raw stage of development at that particular moment. How can anyone help you reach something they don’t know about or can’t share, especially if they don’t understand narrative development to begin with?
  3. Blind spots – Not everyone who has been published is smart enough or deep enough or perceptive enough or intuitive enough to achieve full and clear cognizance (in fact, that number is realistically zero). If aspects of your work meet your mentor’s blind spot, there is no way they can help you in a way that won’t be compromised by that blind spot.
  4. Perceptual limitations – A short leash intellectually, artistically, emotionally, psychologically, experientially means they just won’t get it because they don’t have the mind to deal with where you’re going, and they don’t have enough (or the right) tools in their toolbox to overcome their own limitations sufficiently to make your work shine. What it took to get them somewhere is not what it will take to get you anywhere.

2. The Trusted Person Factor

A little secret: as a rule, first rate writers wouldn’t attend writer’s groups or workshops if their lives depended on it, graduate work being an exception that mercifully only lasts a year or two.

(Oh, but they’ll teach them all right.)

They know something you don’t know, and that’s how dangerous it is to have many valueless voices interfering with a work-in-progress. Anyone allowed to have a hand in the unfinished project of a truly powerful writer has to be a Trusted Person offering the writer uncompromising vision as well as reason, someone who won’t undermine the writer’s voice or developing narrative, but who will call them on their BS.

Finding that Trusted Person is about as likely as finding a gram of astatine in your back yard, and in fact many of the finest writers have no one to whom they can vet their work at all except the editor who will see them through the publishing process at the end.

That we would ever find more than one Trusted Person to play that role in our writerly lives is tempting the bounty of the gods. To expect that the Published Elder will volunteer to be your Trusted Person when s/he can’t, by virtue of a vested interest in their own work and development, care about you or your work enough to also invest themselves in you in any way that matters, is unrealistic at best.

But a room full of rank amateurs with fragile overblown egos, all Trusted Persons? That’s not just tempting the gods but strutting across the divine stage and delivering atomic wedgies.

Bounty will not be had.

 3. The Sampling Factor

Really? Five or ten static pages here and there, and we really think we’re going to understand the dynamism necessary to tell a story anyone cares about? Five or ten pages to represent the entire project vision, and if that sample happens to be the worst – or the best – of what we can do, how can anyone see the full truth we’re trying to reveal, much less help us reveal it?

The Workshop Model lives and breathes on samples that can’t possibly impart the breadth or depth or vitality of what a story will or can or should be, nor can samples adequately represent the whole picture or the movement of narrative.

So what exactly will our workshop critics be helping us with? How will they ever be able to sink their teeth into anything that matters long enough to help us sink our teeth into what matters in the story?

Of course, this point is far worse for long projects like novels and novellas, not so bad with short fiction. But still …

4. The Ignorance Factor

Ay. What do these people know? Really, what do they bring to the table that matters, that isn’t wrapped up in their own egos, their own ideas, their agendas, their  resentment toward you for being a slightly less terrible writer than they are or for having their time and energy wasted by so many writers so much worse than they are?

Does anyone in that room actually know how to help you? And if they did, what do you think might get in the way of even their most noble motives for enlightening you? (Hint: return to beginning of post and re-read).

The Workshop Model might be therapeutic and a mutual support venue that allows writers to feel better about their dreams and the very real struggles of trying to be a writer, but putting together a group of people who don’t know enough about the creation and development of a work of narrative is not the way to make better writers.

Or better writing.

The Workshop Model should be like group therapy where you talk about your frustration and fear and hopes and dreams and trials and errors.

It should not be allowed to touch anyone’s literary junk.

5. The Limitation Factor

What we really need to understand about narrative – where story begins, how it develops, and how we can attract and sustain reader interest from beginning to end – can’t be provided by the Workshop Model.

How do you reach the reader? Do we ask the workshop’s Publishing Elder, who once sold maybe a whopping 1, 287 copies to friends, relatives, colleagues, and a few curious strangers, or do we read about it from Stephen King who admits to being so stoned throughout most of his career that he can barely remember actually writing many of his works?

(Although his output does make being a junkie seem pretty darned attractive …)

Stephen King and writers like him have a lot of important things to say about writing, and we should all pay attention.

As a generality. Like that stuff about adjectives and adverbs and purple prose, all good. All industry boilerplate. It just feels better coming from someone who has accomplished a heck of a lot more than we have.

What you will hear from your Published Elder and even a Somebody is – well, nothing you can’t get for free on the internet. From anyone. Anyone at all. Your Published Elder will point out your purple prose and weak character development (whatever that means, since they have no way of knowing where you’re going with it), your lack of focus, your misdirected blathering, your pathos, the same advice you’d get from anyone anywhere online. Likely, there is even software out there that will take care of some of these pesky problems with the same efficiency offered in a workshop.

To specifically understand your own work through someone else’s filters, it’s just not going to happen (for more information, return to top of post and re-read).

Most people teaching writing workshops are not exactly (how can I put this delicately?) Stephen King or Tolstoy material. How can any writer who can’t reach readers teach other writers how to reach readers?

It’s by studying fiction that has succeeded in reaching readers, all kinds of it from literary to straight genre, rather than the writer’s opinion of their own work that writers learn what they need to know about themselves and their projects.

Your work is not special to anyone but you – until it hits the marketplace and you find out the hard way whether or not you’ve made it special to anyone beyond yourself.

Unless you understand first how to make the story born in your imagination come to life in the reader’s imagination.

The only chance you’ll have at figuring that out is if you learn how narrative develops from its very DNA on until you have a perfectly articulated, functioning, vital story instead of some patchwork monstrosity you’ve stitched together and set lumbering into the world.

I’m not saying writers shouldn’t participate in workshops ever or that you can’t gain anything of value if you do participate in them, but if you do please go with an understanding that it’s not a venue built to help you develop the voice or the individuality you’ll need to create a meaningful, unique, original narrative from the inside out from beginning to end, which is something writers need to do more and more in order to stand head and shoulders above what’s become an ocean of published books that will never be read.

The workshop is there to criticize your literary hair and clothes, sometimes in the nicest way possible like your friend’s good-hearted mom who shows you how to use a scarf to deal with that turkey-wattle neck of yours, or sometimes like your own mom (“You’re not going out dressed like that, are you?”); other times it won’t be so nice or benign, like a group of guys Snapchatting (did I get that right?) your most vulnerable moments because berating you makes them feel better about their own failures.

Well, at least you might have a shot at telling your kids you once knew a Somebody. That’s pretty cool.


After over 20 years spent deconstructing and analyzing the best fiction ever written, Sandra is now developing a course specifically to help writers understand where story begins within themselves, how to develop narrative infrastructure organically so the story establishes and sustains its natural strength, dynamism, and power, and finally how to maximize the potential for reader engagement.

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The One Fatal Mistake Writers Make And How To Fix It

Is there really only one?

Mistake? No.

Fatal – ? You tell me.

(full text here)

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January 31, 2015 · 9:30 pm

The “Because” of Storytelling

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Years ago a client came to me with a massive unpublished coming-of-age manuscript set in an era rife with racial tensions. She had a magical way with description. During a workshop a brief excerpt had even been given tons of praise and attention by an award-winning internationally renowned author, who saw great potential in the writing and in the bones of the story. This author even gave the writer her agent’s name and contact info, with express consent to name drop to the agent.

Take a moment to let that kind of opportunity sink in.

Yes sir!

Yes sir!

It’s almost hard not to picture said author giving said writer a little chuck under the chin and a knowing wink.

So the writer came to me to help her get the story into a publishable state. About 600 pages later the character had passed through all the epic horror and beauty you’d expect from that era and place, including a brutal act of violence experienced by the protagonist.

It was never published. All the lush description in the world could not save this manuscript or this writer. The world-class author could not have known how problematic this manuscript was based on the first few pages – which can be the best pages in a m/s, or the worst. Upon completing my analysis I informed the writer that unless she followed my advice it would never be published. She didn’t – or couldn’t – do it, and what might have been an important story likely became bird-cage liner.

So, what went wrong?

There’s some advice that’s been around forever about the narrative “and” versus “and then”. This happens, and this happens. Or this happens, and then that happens. One is supposed to be better than the other, but let’s break that down and see what kind of value it really has in storytelling.

Beginning writers often take a character and drop them into a successive string of events, with the idea that as long as the the protagonist’s the center of action and an end is reached they’ve succeeded. This is the simple addition of narrative. Event + Event. Scene + Scene. This happens, and this happens, and this happens, the end.

Now, these stories might be really well written but it’s not storytelling, and often this approach results in a sprawling, disjointed, pointless, tedious product. Yes, in the case of this manuscript the protagonist went from childhood to womanhood and even found inner peace, but only because the writer said so. The story proved nothing of the kind. The protagonist moved through a succession of scenes typified by the era – in fact, one might argue, the equivalent of a tour-book cliche of it. The end.

Let me repeat that. The protagonist moved through a succession of scenes.

The protagonist did not experience the events. She didn’t even witness them or offer reportage. She merely passed through them like an inert bubble. In them, but not of them. The placement of the protagonist into guidebook attractions only compromised any hope for authenticity, as though the writer had wanted to touch upon all the touristy things that absolutely must be experienced in this locale in order for it to be recognized by readers. In truth, she did not trust that she could tell a story about place without them. This lack of any real agency and authority would give any story all the earnestness of a Paris Hilton driving through Jim Crow South in the back of a Hummer with a Condé Nast Traveller, then trying to write To Kill A Mockingbird.

Nope.

Nope.

The damage this additive approach – scene+scene – causes to a story is endless (see sprawling, pointless, tedious, disjointed above), but the chief failure in this case was that the writer seemed unable to give the protagonist any kind of emotional or psychological functionality. Part of that was a consistent urge to tell rather than show.

Say a serial killer broke into your kitchen and slaughtered your beloved Ma. I just made that up to drive home a point. There you are, standing at the door looking in on this scene, a plate of hamburger and fries slathered in ketchup in your hand, and you think OMG, I’m s-o-o-o terrified. Police arrive, you tell them you were s-o-o-o terrified, then you leave the scene and … never think about it again? And if you passed in and out of that kitchen regularly for the next few years, would you just go right ahead and squeeze that blob of ketchup out, lick a dab off your thumb, and never even get a twitch?

I was so terrified. Meaningless. What does terror feel like? How can you make the reader experience terror by proxy? In our manuscript example, the worst was when the protagonist as a young woman was gang-raped, then went on for the rest of the story exactly the same way she had since page one.

Terror has an aftermath too, so this client put her character through some unspeakable events whose effects had exactly zero impact on anything once that scene was over.

No emotional/psychological functionality. Not good. Not in fiction, not in life. Not in a writer.

Now, if you’re writing about sociopaths or particular psychological states where the protagonist regresses or detaches, that’s one thing. The writer did not appear to know how to offer the reader anything but descriptions of things and places, or understand how to write growth or development into a character, which is hard to miss in a coming-of-age story.

If you look at the most hardcore non-linear literary works they are never merely strings of events out of order. Even epistolary and picaresque novels give the appearance of this simple narrative addition, but are far more complex and carefully orchestrated.

Writers then tend to go from the additive approach to writing into the realm of narrative algebra. This happens, and then that happens takes the scene+scene idea up a notch, suggesting a movement that simple narrative addition lacks. Here order matters. To even get this far our promising writer needed to make each scene serve a purpose to the story that went beyond describing what everything looked like, or as mere breadcrumbs between beginning and end.

In mathematics, addition is a basic operative function. Order doesn’t matter. In storytelling, this would be the equivalent of one scene having no more or less value than any other. You can keep adding scenes but it will not give the outcome any more weight. You can have 2+1+1 or you can have 1 + 1+ 2. Writers who are just stringing scenes together get the same outcome, with nothing else making any difference. No particular scene changes the character much, or the plot points.

Algebra (al-jebr: the reunion of broken parts) involves mathematical systems of representation (letters for unknown quantities). After approaching the writing process as additive, writers might begin to put some weight on the events and scenes to end up with something more like this:

(Scene a + Event b) x X = novel

This can work just fine for very formulaic stories or genres. The whodunnit, the bodice-ripper. But there’s still something missing. It’s the connectedness and reflexivity between the events. Breadcrumbs lead somewhere, but they are only discrete placeholders.  Picking up a narrative thread and following it to wherever it leads is better but almost as limiting. You still don’ t know where you are in the grand scheme of things. You’re just going from here to there.

Story is more: because this happened, that happens. Now we’re getting into a more complex kind of narrative calculus:

(Event 1 + Scene 1 ) +  Purpose Y  x  ∑  (Δ emotional state/Δ psychological state ) +  time X + Event 2 = Scene 2

Now, all that’s just a bunch of fancy looking nonsense to demonstrate the complexity of storytelling, but the truth is that everything beautiful in mathematics is what makes storytelling rich. Calculus is the mathematics of change. Calculus deals with differentiation, integration, function, and symbolic reasoning. Wow, that’s beautiful for writers. The pros know it deep in their solar plexus.

One of my suggestions to the client was to take the rape out and rewrite it as a children’s story. Certainly the makings of an excellent children’s story were there. In fact, it was too naively written to be anything else. If she could not develop the character maturely, or could not see the story through the filter of cynicism needed to create the kind of emotional and psychological ugliness the events demanded, children’s writing was the only realistic option.

My guess is that she promptly made a beeline for the agent’s open door, cashed in the secret handshake given by the famous author, then …

Mary Poppins Inappropriate Story

Um – maybe urban violence isn’t the right fit for this story …?

Nothing. Good description can’t save bad storytelling.

If a writer’s lucky there’ll be some generous hints from an agent or a publisher about how to fix what’s broken. Most just get rejected, no specified reason. What happens when a manuscript is fixable but the writer can’t or won’t do what the story requires? Back then I’m sure the client continued trying to find a publisher or agent, obviously without success. Today she might go straight to self-publishing, then wonder why only close family and friends and a handful of strangers interested in the subject have bought a copy. The despair of rejection or the inability to understand storytelling will make most writers give up. I’m sure she did.

Any time I’ve worked with beginners the mistakes are the same. They’re stuck at the narrative addition stage. Or they go in the opposite direction and the characters’ emotional and psychological states are gut-spattered all over the pages until none of it has any value. There isn’t enough internal value carried through the story. Dropped threads. Meagre or nonexistent internal lives. Events and experiences that pop up with little  or no continuity or connection to each other or to the characters’ internal lives. There’s no sense of because.

This happens because that happened, and because that happened, there is change.

If you’re not getting anywhere with your stories, or if you’ve self-published and have sold poorly, ask yourself whether your writing is too additive, or too algebraic. Are your characters’ emotional and psychological states carried over across the entire story, expanded and contracted by joy and trauma in the same way they would if real people had those same experiences? Does the calculus of you narrative account for change?

Have you looked for and developed the “because” in storytelling?

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“Word Crimes” – Great Fun For All You Wordmeisters Out There

As only Weird Al could do it, and the only version of this song worth listening to:

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Writing Mistakes 101: Storybombing

SCEW - WordPress embedded icon - glass lookSay you’re watching The Walking Dead and the scene turns to everybody’s beloved bad boy Daryl.

So you’re all geared up for some more eye-popping, cringe-worthy gore and storytelling wizardry and – as always – delicious character development. The tension is positively aching. You’re ready for the jump-out-of-your-socks moment.

Photo courtesy of www.examiner.com

Walking Dead? Walking POET: “You take that stupid hat and go back to ‘On Golden Pond'”

Then Daryl swings his crossbow over his shoulders, leans back on his Harley, looks up into a cloudless Tiffany-blue sky – and starts talking about the music of solitude and how the weight of one empty heart is greater than weight of the world.

Photo courtesy of www.tiffany.com

“Azure” was taken.

Whuut?

I know. I mean, he might have all that in him but that ain’t Darryl’s voice. That ain’t even his character.

Writers do this all the time. Even published writers. In an industry where in-house editing is still smoking from the seemingly endless economic slash-and-burn, these mistakes slip by more and more.

So what’s going on? Well, likely the writer is the one who thinks about the music of solitude and the weight of the empty heart. And Tiffany-blue skies. Probably there’s even a notebook with this very phrasing scribbled out in woke-up-at-3am-giggling-over-this-idea handwriting. The writer has been dying to use it somewhere for quite some time, and when the protagonist is placed into a position where solitude and empty hearts become a focal point – BAM! There it is.

Don’t get me wrong. I’m not talking about the kind of earned wisdom that comes from working the land or an embattled life. Some of the most powerful words have come from the least powerful people.

photo courtesy of torgo10.tumblr.com

Poor kid. Wait till he gets a mortgage.

The writer wants to philosophize and wax poetic to show off his or her ideas and some writing tricks, and uses a character to do something the story will otherwise  not allow.

Don’t count on publishing houses to catch this for you. One editor might be juggling the whole list for a season where there used to be a whole team. Or you might get someone who isn’t experienced enough, awake enough, or interested enough in fighting over it. But, you might say, if it doesn’t bother them, then what’s the big deal?

Well, buttercup, once the book’s out there, readers will care. Sure, if you’re a good enough writer they will enjoy your novel or story but those weird inconsistencies will irritate like a sesame seed under dentures. In a hyper-competitive book environment, can you afford to lose credibility and authority? What about your next time out? Word of mouth is still the greatest form of promotion, so when talking (or posting) about your book, readers are more likely to feel less positively than they would have if you hadn’t barged into the story.

Awwk-waard!

Let’s put it this way: The Walking Dead is the powerhouse that it is because the writers know their characters. Even when they do something out of character, it is consistent with the circumstances. It all makes sense together. There is more going on under the storytelling surface than meets the eye, but it is within the narrative scaffolding and not the writers’ whims.

But just watch. As soon as they forget what their story is about, and as soon as their characters go off the map without circumstances that make sense, the viewership will drop like a bird having a heart attack in mid-air. When the writers start intruding on the storytelling to say something they’be been dying to add for a long time, to make the story about something other than what it’s about, to play with the underlying driving factors, this show is done.

It’ll be Lost all over again.

Is that what you want for your writing career?

Know you characters. Know your purpose. Know what drives the whole. Stay the aitch-ee-double-toothpicks out of your own story.

Then you will be less likely to storybomb your own writing.

Want to know how to prevent storybombing through structure? Read my post about an exciting one-of-a-kind writing tool soon to be launched that will change the way you write. Subscribe to this blog for updates on this never-before seen product, and be among the first to get hold of a copy. In the meantime, download my free fiction-timeline-worksheet-3-0-sandrachmara to get your plotting on the right track.

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Pete And Repeat Were Writing A Novel …

SCEW - WordPress embedded icon - glass lookThe answer is repeat. Always.

In an earlier post about the compositional qualities writing shares with musical scoring, I introduced the idea that writers must think about force and momentum, tempo and pacing, and not only the mix of components and voices, but when to best use them for maximum effect. Well, there’s something else that writers share with composers but don’t seem to understand as well, and that is the way repetition of a motif/riff  or symbol or theme holds everything together.

What makes Beethoven’s Symphony No. 5 so timeless is not the whole, but how poignantly repetition interacts with the listener to render familiarity and recognition into reciprocal qualities. The repeated motif, in this case, is the part you hum. Sometimes its the only part of any song you can remember. Repetition does so not randomly or trivially, but with a significance that helps the composer’s message connect with the listener’s sensory impressions of the world. Through tone and timbre, key and pitch, Beethoven manipulates repetition to make us feel something impending and tempestuous, the fugue of power and fragility. In that familiar motif all listeners gather together from our remote, private experiences to stand on the same page as the composer, an invitation into the rest of his story, which somehow is (and becomes) our own story. It’s as though he taps into something on a quantum level that goes beyond culture and experience, revealing a moment where we can all recognize our commonality.

But notice: repetition is not static. Every time he plays with key or timbre, or any other element of composition, he is pulling us forward into narrative, letting repetition act as a guide into a symphonic landscape, gently providing cues about what’s going on around us.

Writers can use motival, symbolic, and thematic repetition for very specific pertinent details, and with purpose. Jack Torrance’s continually wiped mouth, Miss Haversham’s decaying wedding gown, Fabritius’ painting of a goldfinch, the gardens in Candide.

However, repetition just for the sake of hammering an image into a reader’s head is counterproductive. It can stand out like a tic or bad habit and can lend an impression of poor writing skills or lack of imagination. Each instance must come alive through changes in the mood, presentation, or placement to draw the reader, with the subtlety of a sixth sense, deeper into the story. The more unique and essential to the particular story (as opposed to storytelling in general ), and the more it keys into human experience by bridging the gap between the universal and the personal, the greater the chance of making an impact on the reader. The best writers make repeated themes, symbols, and motifs seem like such an organic part of the story that the absorbed reader will not consciously pick up on it, yet it is this device by which our  emotional, psychological, and intellectual participation with the story has been most profoundly enriched.

Even if we have no desire to emulate the masters, even if we’re writing the most basic fanfic, the goal of every writer is to connect with the reader, or else what’s the point? The way repetition is used throughout narrative is just one of the many important tools writers have to help them succeed, and there are no better teachers than the best that storytelling has to offer.

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NEW! Fiction Timeline Worksheet – Improved: Now Including Structural Template

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As mentioned in the original Fiction Timeline Worksheet Post, this spreadsheet (in MS Excel) is always open to improvement according to suggestions and experimentation. So here it is, distilled and ready to help writers organize and make better sense of their stories.

Click to downloadfiction-timeline-worksheet-3-0-sandrachmara

Follow this blog for updates on the upcoming launch of a game-changing story development tool that can do what no existing writing management system can – turn writing into storytelling so writers can finally understand how to engage readers to improve the chance of getting read and getting published.

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