Session 2 in Cat Rambo’s F&SF Workshop

Session 2 was a heady one for me. Story workshopping takes a lot of effort and time when summed together across all the members, even when they’re critiquing as short a short story as mine. But that’s one of the main points of the workshop, alongside the exercises and the (now relatively short) lecture periods.

First came showing our homework, three paragraphs of another short story we’ll eventually end up workshopping as well. For each person, we read them out loud after pasting them to the chat room, then Cat gave a light critique, incorporating the concepts we’d covered in the previous class. Everyone’s first three were pretty good at setting up character, setting, and some even managed to get in hints of the main conflict. Something maybe half of us, including myself, did was long paragraphs, which we must remember are much slower than shorter paragraphs, and don’t necessarily draw in the reader. Continuing with long paragraphs are going to result in a slowly-paced story that the reader will be more inclined to put down.

We then workshopped two stories out of the group of us. (These aren’t the stories we were writing first paragraphs for.) I was one of them. In a way, I wish I wasn’t, because maybe I could have written a better story than an older one I felt was my weakest work, and an older one to boot—but on the other hand, finding out why I consider it my weakest would be a good thing. And so it turned out to be.

I figured the experience was going to be a bit embarrassing, so I refrained entirely from talking, even avoiding typing anything into the chat window until nearly the end, which I then realized I should stop. You’re supposed to let the other writers critique without interruption, possibly even in chat, which makes sense. I just hugged the Overcow and kept quiet. No, the critiques did not traumatize me. Everyone balanced the right amount of good to bad crit, and no one was harsh.

For those who are curious about which story I workshopped, here it is.

Let me tell you: the workshop experience, even on an older story, was immensely valuable. I’d always known the story had rotten aspects, but couldn’t pick them out. Things picked out by my fellow classmates:

  • Most glaring and embarrassing: Japanese names, wrong. Japanese setting, wrong. Bacon treats don’t exist in Japan. Japanese demons? Wrong. Jade Emperor? WRONG SETTING ENTIRELY OMG. This was before I picked up Nisi Shawl’s Writing the Other. RESEARCH IT IS A GOOD THING.

  • I skimp on setting and description. (In this respect, in fact, I am the polar opposite of the other person who had a story to workshop this week.) This leads to readers being lost with where things were happening. Including where one of the main characters was wounded. Oops.

  • Not enough explanation of motive—as I said in another G+ post, this is an anti-pattern: to have a vengeance plot where you don’t explain what, exactly, is being avenged. Irony.

  • Which character is the focus of the story? It likely should have been the younger of the two kitsune. I didn’t have a clear focus on either one. Pretty awful attempt at limited omniscient, although I didn’t know at the time that this was what I attempted.

  • The story is too, too lean, and suffers from structural, character, and other weaknesses as a result. Likely it could be twice as long and make up for that.

  • Logic gaps in the plot. (Couldn’t the mother warn her daughter about the legendary character’s insanity, so she’d be prepared?)

  • An appropriate title could have been found in the last paragraphs of the story. Even the very last words. A title sets up so much. I never really thought about them that way.

People liked the world and wanted to find out more about it (!), which surprises me, for that was one of the things I hated the most about the story. Ironically, now I’m writing a world where that story would fit in, after being fixed.

Omniscient is going to be difficult to get the hang of. Can’t perch inside people’s heads. I’m going to need to review, in much more depth, Hal Duncan’s Rule 4 for New Writers. If I can’t figure out that post, I have no business writing omniscient. A quote from there I managed to miss, emphasis mine, which may be the key to the whole thing:

The advantages of an omnisicient narrator barely need explaining. This is an all-seeing God who may weave into the story anything and everything that’s happening in the fictive world. It should be borne in mind, however, that this capacity may be offset by a degree of detachment, and by the difficulty of maintaining omniscience if one is not cognisant of the distinction between this approach and multiple third person limited.

Naturally I had to waste everyone’s time by asking for help on omniscient POV when I myself had posted that link, which contains all the answers I could ever want. Sorry about that, guys.

Moving onto the rest of the class, after tons of workshopping, we got on with Cat’s lecture.

So Cat talked about character: what makes for a good character, even what makes for a good villain; getting to know characters, and ways to imbue them with, ah, character. From names to history, whether with an RPG character sheet approach or with writings from your character (that’ll be weird), and even psychological analysis like the Myers-Brigg tests, you need to get to know your character, because story comes from character.

A significant thing I’ll note here about character that Cat talked about: likeable characters have problems that can be identified with, and are active, rather than passive. They must want something, and care about something; even an otherwise despicable character must care about something.

Our new homework, should we choose to accept it (well, of course we gotta): write 250-500 words about one of the characters in our story going to bed or getting up, preparing or eating a meal, earning a living or spending a sizable sum of money. And of course, read and critique up two more stories. Thankfully I’ve already gone!

Workshop, you are a lot of work.

I do wish now that the workshop were longer. If we continue like this, there will not be much class discussion about concepts, which is one of the things I really want. On the other hand, workshopping is probably the main point, so what can I say?

Anyways, what to do with the story I workshopped? Do I drop it down a deep hole and never think about it again? There’s merit in that idea. I want to learn my lessons, remember them, and leave the story to quietly gather dust. It’s three years old.

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4 thoughts on “Session 2 in Cat Rambo’s F&SF Workshop

  1. well i thought you were brave to go first. thanks for sharing your story. i, too, wish we had more time to workshop. i think that in the end might be more valuable than discussing story concepts. i feel like i kind of know the concepts, i just have to figure out how to apply them. and i think that’s where the workshops are super valuable.

    I, too, go back and forth on whether to revise workshopped stories or just let them lie. I think if it still calls to you, it might be worth working on. But I also think that if there are themes or characters that resonate with you, they’ll show up again in another story, and this time, you’ll be better equipped to write their stories.

    Anyway, next week it’ll be me hugging something for comfort. Maybe I’ll convince my cat to sit with me!

    • Thanks for stopping by, Anne!

      The theme certainly does resonate and is sticking around, at least a certain sense of a hierarchy of gods, demi-gods, and mortals, their lives and existences at cross-purposes.

      Nothing is truly lost.

      Thought occurred to me: critiques are like a trust-building exercise. We all fall, yes, but we catch each other.

  2. I’m also hoping we’ll have time to do some learning outside of workshopping, though I know how valuable that is. I’m really interested in learning to structure short stories, since I feel that’s one of my weaknesses.

    And again, if you want some help with the Japanese names, words, setting, etc., let me know and I can give you an idea of WHY and WHERE you went wrong with it, so you have a place to start researching from! :) It was weird for me to get two stories where I have some expertise in the field: I speak Japanese and lived in Japan, and have an idea of Japanese mythology on yours, and I was a classics major with a focus in Ancient Greek literature…which was where I connected with Susannhah!

    I hope I didn’t come across as too much of a know-it-all! I really am just trying to help! :)
    Scribe

    • Don’t worry about being a know-it-all, you’re just fine. ^.^ I know you’re trying to be helpful, and to tell the truth I was expecting that particular line of critique—I knew I couldn’t get certain aspects past folks who had lived in Japan. I just didn’t know the depths to which I’d gotten it wrong, haha.

      If you don’t mind, if you could drop an email to me (arachne.jericho@gmail.com) I would be grateful. Thanks for the consideration!

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