200 Proof Storytelling, Weeks 3-4

I’m always busy and over-scheduled, so time always flies by, but since the beginning of February I’ve been extra busy due to the online writing workshop I mentioned in my last post here. I won’t recap what it was all about, so just read the prior post if you don’t know what I’m talking about.

High Desert, Starless Sky

In weeks 1-2 I derived quite a bit from the lectures and used the assignments to write the first two scenes of a quiet but horrific post-apocalypze story which I’m just now finishing up. The first two scenes were the first half of the story, roughly, and I received some good feedback and felt very motivated to work on finishing the story even while I was busy with the next two weeks of lessons, assignments and critiques.

Invisible Mystic and the Alien-in-a-Jar

Speaking of those, for week 3 I started an entirely new story. Due to the nature of the assignment it didn’t seem like a great “fit” for writing the next part of the earlier story, so I started a new story about a traveling freakshow that is unusual even by the standards of traveling freakshows. Again I received very nice feedback and I’m using that momentum to finish up that story this week.

Devotion

The week 4 assignment involved revising, and while most of the other participants in the workshop just revised what they had written earlier in the workshop, I went back to the last story I’d drafted just prior to the workshop. This piece involved a strange religious community and the feedback I received, including that from workshop leader Craig Clevenger, was extremely positive and encouraging. I’ve since polished the story to completion (not too hard since it’s only 1,300 words) and started submitting it to magazines.

By the end of the workshop I could see some other participants were discouraged and ready to give up. Four of the sixteen participants never submitted their fourth assignment, and many of us who did submit didn’t receive critiques from all members of our groups. I actually felt more motivated and energized by the process, despite the fatigue and hard work. Writing is usually such solitary work. It can be easy to find yourself in an endless, lonely feedback loop of “write story, submit story, get story repeatedly rejected.” This was a nice change and a boost to my confidence and skill level. I enjoyed both the challenges that took me out of my comfort zone (and I believe that’s the only way one can grow), and also the positive feedback about my writing.

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.