200 Proof Storytelling, Weeks 1-2

I recently mentioned that I’d signed up for an online writing workshop led by Craig Clevenger, author of Dermaphoria and The Contortionist’s Handbook, and run through Chuck Palahniuk’s web forum, The Cult. It’s a 4-week intensive, and the info page is here, though it’s obviously too late to sign up.

I was a bit worried about this demanding too much of my time and attention, not because I’m not willing to work hard, but because I already have so many demands on my time and I was worried I might not be able to displace enough of those other things to make room for this workshop. As things turned out, I needn’t have worried. I’ve been able to keep up easily, have met all the deadlines, and I’ve put plenty of time into all the critiques I’ve written.

The way it works, in case anybody reading this might be interested in doing one of these in the future, is fairly straightforward. Each week Craig posts a “lesson” or lecture on a part of the Cult forums visible only to participants. In that lesson he talks at length, and with plenty of examples from outside text, about whatever concept is the focus of each week. In week one, the lesson used a bunch of dialog from the film Sexy Beast to make a point, and I found it instructive to watch the DVD as a supplement to the lesson. Craig answers any questions people may have about the lesson, then the next day he posts a writing assignment having to do with the subject of that week’s lesson. Participants have until the end of the week to finish the assignment and post it, and they can ask more questions along the way if they like. In addition to the lessons and assignments Craig gives the participants, and the questions we feed back to him, there’s also a fair bit of discussion and chit-chat among the students which is kind of fun. As I said, by the end of the week we post our assignments (in both cases it’s been about 1,500 words of fiction, a scene or a story fragment or whatever, utilizing the technique or approach from that week’s lesson.

We’re divided into four peer groups of four individuals each, and we have to read and critique the work of other members of our peer group. We’re also welcome to read and critique work outside our peer group, but most people seem to have kept within their group. In addition to these peer groups, for each assignment Craig chooses a selection (it appears to be two of the four peer groups, or half the participants, chosen at random) for inclusion in the “Hot Seat” where he critiques those assignments for everyone to see.

As with my last workshop experience, I’ve found at least as much value in critiquing the work of others as in receiving their suggestions. I can really see how reading slush would teach a writer to catch mistakes or shortcomings in written fiction, and it makes a lot of sense to me why fiction writers offer to read slush for various periodicals, often without compensation.

I won’t give any more “behind the curtain” details because obviously there is a charge for the workshop and it wouldn’t be fair to give away any of the content. I will say that so far I’ve received some real value from the critiques, learned a lot more from the critiques I’ve given, and above all have gained a lot of value from Craig’s suggestions just in the first two lessons. I’ll report more later, probably after the end, but so far I’d consider this to be very worthwhile. My first two assignments ended up being scene 1 and scene 2 of the same story, so if nothing else I’ve got the bulk of a story that I feel has some real strengths. As well, I’ve made some good new contacts, all kinds of people from beginners to more experienced, publication-worthy writers.

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