Thursday, January 31, 2008

I Eat Pancakes

Did the workshop on "Colburn Men" yesterday. Luckily I had re-read it before going in and knew what I was in for. It was a first draft of an idea that didn't read all that well through the majority. I was aware of as much, so I expected to get thrown to the lions, and thrown I was.

Although there were some helpful comments, the majority of the people in there seemed to think that a workshop is a place for them to just pepper the air with negative comments. The session consisted of 20-30 minutes of nothing but the same complaints over again, contradicting each other, and very little of anything constructive said. I pity the writer that attempts to use something like this as a place to get suggestions on how to improve their work. The air in the room was quite literally "I am a better writer than you, and I know this because my mother/teacher/brother/girlfriend/imaginary friend tells me so every night. Therefore, it is my solemn duty to tear at you for as a long as possible and as much as possible."

This would have bothered me a lot more had I not known that, as much as I enjoyed working on it, "Colburn Men" was a schlock piece that was very flat and linear, and was written on a tight deadline. There was no defense for the truly horrendous parts of the tale (overly wordy description, linear plot, cliched devices), but I was aware of that and ready to nod in agreement with that criticism. I was even vaguely aware that the distance of the narrator shifted a lot and was pretty disconcerting. I was open to comments and suggestions. What I got instead were the true gems of these workshops.

For example, the guy who prefaced everything with "I had a writing class last semester where we talked about..." This guy has never said a single positive thing about any piece that has been critiqued in the workshop. I don't like him mainly for that. I personally think the point of these things is to help others become better writers, not to tout your own brilliance. This isn't to say negative comments have no place, but they should have some reason other than to show off your own 'knowledge' of English. It is from guys like this that future critics are born.

Or my other favorite, "It was too long". It was 25 pages of double-spaced text. You can read 25-pages of double-spaced text. My 8 year old nephew can read 25 pages of double-spaced text. Stop complaining, you're in college.

The other ones that got my goat were the completely positive ones. The people who did nohting but give me a literary handjob in an attempt to be the nicest person ever. I appreciate the stroking of my ego, but I didn't want to hear how great you think the story is. I've already admitted its schlock. PLEASE give me something constructive on how I can better my work, or don't bother speaking up.

There were others, and I wish I could say they were in the majority, who gave me honest criticism with suggestions. I was windy in the descriptions, and several people brought it up, then turned around to offer a thought on how they thought it could be bettered. Others commented that the dialogue could stand on its own to an extent and be used to fill those descriptions. Some thought the ending was abrupt and unnatural (I agree. I thought that when I wrote it two days before handing the manuscript over). Others thought the story itself was way too linear (once again, no argument here), or that the narrator was telling the reader how they should feel (Common problem with my first drafts, so I was glad someone picked up on it who wasn't me). The narrator's distance from the main character is problematic for me with this piece, as it had a bit of personal experience in there. Something, once again, to be looked at in the rewrites.

Overall, I wasn't offended or disappointed. It was a first draft of an extremely quickly written piece. I normally do two or three rewrites before handing something over to anyone else to read, so this was a new experience for me. When I read it myself, I commented "Man, that kinda sucks" before heading into the workshop. I don't want to give the impression that the workshop was completely negative. Several people, including Griner, commented on the writing style and the strength of the writer, just not on the strengths of this particular piece. Others commented on the strength of certain scenes. And, of course, some of them offered genuinely helpful suggestions.

Still, I went home and divided the critiques I received into three piles. One was "Useless", consisting of the literary handjobs of nothing but positive stuff and the intellectual septic tank that was nothing but negatives, neither one with any true criticism to help. The second pile was "Out There", consisting of people who either a) expressed an opinion contradictory to the majority opinion in what they did not like/liked/would change OR b) simply parroted, with less skill or clarity, the suggestions/criticisms of others. The final pile is known as "Help With Rewrite", and consists of the well thought out critiques, both positive and negative, that offer suggestions or point out problems in a way that will be useful to me during the rewrite of "Colburn Men" next month. There are only about four of these.

"Colburn Men" is going to be a long time in the rewrite bin. I like the idea, but the arc is horrible as it doesn't truly exist. As one critique, a helpful one, put it "it's like being set on train tracks when you already know the destination". The plot will remain the same, but David's character needs some tweaks, descriptions need to be toned down, and a little more conflict needs to be brought up. I would start on it now, but last night I set aside the Doll story to start work on something else centered on minimal narration and a lot of well as being the first truly first-person piece I've ever worked on.

Anyhow, my suggestion is that writing workshops are a wonderful thing that can help a person improve their craft. I don't even think this particular workshop is bad. I just think it's early enough in the semester that a lot of people haven't come under the gun themselves, yet. As such, they tend to write their opinions, not their critiques or suggestions, about pieces. Plus, it can be hard to be positive or helpful when you're reviewing someone else's work. But, the fact is, I'm done now with my critique and can go back to my regular set of reviewers for opinions on my work. They may not like it anymore than anyone else, but hey, at least they'll buy me a drink when they tell me it sucks.

J.C. Tabler

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