Workshopping: Short Fiction

Second in a series about writing workshops.  The first article was about general workshop guidelines.  The third will focus on poetry, the fourth on scripts, and the fifth on workshopping and editing long fiction.

Some writing workshops are focused primarily on short fiction, which is generally considered to be greater than 1,000 words but shorter than 20,000 words in contemporary writing, though many science fiction magazines prefer less than 7,000 or 9,000 words for short fiction.  Others allow members to bring any mixture of fiction, poetry, scripts, and more.

Here, I offer a few guidelines about short fiction in workshops.

Part 1: What to Bring (and How to Bring It)

First off, we’ll talk about bringing fiction to workshops.  I have a few general guidelines based on my own personal preferences while workshopping others’ work as well as things I’ve noticed that others do that I like or that bother me as a critiquer.

When you bring a piece of short fiction, please format it correctly.  This is something particular to me, since I want to work in editing and value professionalism, but formatting it in standard manuscript format is also easier on the eyes for those reading your work.

Standard manuscript format for fiction means 8 1/2 inch by 11 inch paper (copy paper standard size) with 1-inch margins.  The font is usually Times New Roman (or another serif font like Georgia or Cambria) in size 12 and usually double-spaced.

Using a standard manuscript format makes your work easier to read.  It might look bigger and take up more space, but readers will be able to read quicker and easier.  It is also easier to write suggestions and corrections on a double-spaced page.

If you have qualms about the amount of paper you’ll use, print it as a double-sided paper and tell everyone to recycle – or collect and recycle yourself after making edits to your story.

Make sure you have finished the story – unfinished stories are difficult to critique because other workshop members won’t understand where you’re headed.  Also, make sure you edit once or twice – at the very least, make sure to check for spelling and punctuation errors, which can be so distracting that it’s hard to see the message.

Part 2: How to Read It and How to Critique It

Reading and critiquing a completed piece of short fiction is much different from critiquing a poem or a chapter from a novel.  You should look for different things than you might look for in a poem or novel.

First, it is important to judge whether or not the story can stand on its own.  Do you understand the characters? Can you imagine the story as its own small world?  Short fiction, as it would be accepted for publishing, is generally meant to stand alone, so the first thing you want to think of when critiquing short fiction is whether or not it stands alone.

Next, thinking about the roundness of the characters might be best.  Do the characters seem like real people?  Are they flat and one-dimensional, or do they seem like there are complex issues going on inside that sometimes scratch the surface?

You should also take into consideration whether or not the story has a clear point.  This seems very obvious – “of course there’s a point, Joe and Mia fall in love at the end” – but most publishers of short fiction are looking for stories from which readers can derive meaning.  Some magazines do buy short romances, but try to identify a meaning in the story and ask the author if that is what he or she wanted to show.  If that was the purpose, then they can rest easy.  If not, then it needs some work.

Finally, you should always-always-always give constructive criticism!  This is the most important part.  And by “constructive criticism,” I don’t mean fawning all over a story.  It’s good to actually say that things don’t work in the story because if they don’t, the author needs to fix and improve it.  Explain why that sentence is weak and offer a suggestion on how to strengthen it.  Let the author know that the secondary character is flat and give an example of what you wanted to see from that character.

Conclusion

In the end, the most important part of the workshop is helping another author.  Workshops are an important networking tool for many writers and also can help the rest of the workshop to become better critical readers.

Short fiction is one of the more marketable types of writing.  Through workshopping, authors can help themselves and one another become stronger, more marketable writers, so when you’re doing a workshop, take care of your friends!

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