Workshopping: Long Fiction

Fifth in a series about writing workshops.  The first article was about general workshop guidelines, the second about short fiction, the third about poetry and the fourth on scripts.

Finally, we’ve reached the pinnacle of writing workshop guides: a guide to workshopping long fiction, which means a novella or a novel.  Many writers want to focus on these forms, and for good reason: novellas and novels are highly likely to be profitable for the writer, much more so than poetry and even short stories.

For the purposes of this article, we will discuss novellas and novels separately, as they are very distinct and are workshopped differently.  We’ll discuss the difference between the forms and the different ways to bring them in or workshop them.

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

When bringing long fiction, make sure you have it in the most basic manuscript format.  This means 8.5″ by 11″ paper – most often single-sided, but double-sided is okay too – in 12pt. and double-spaced font.  Typically, you should use Times, Times New Roman, or Courier/Courier New, since those fonts are easiest to read in long format.

If you want to bring in a novella, keep in mind that novella format is somewhat different from that of a novel.  It is more similar in format to that of a short story: typically, novellas have higher word counts – over 7,000 or over 10,000 words – but are not as lengthy as a novel, which is typically over 40,000 or over 60,000 words depending on the type of novel.

You can also think of a novella as an extended short story: while there are typically section breaks, there are no “chapters,” and each section should transition fairly smoothly into the next without the harsh break a chapter would provide.  In that way, it is more similar to a short story, which transitions between section breaks in a very similar way.

When you bring in a novel, you are bringing in a piece of writing intended to be over 40,000 or over 60,000 words as a single completed piece with one plot running throughout it.  Novels are the most common and easily recognizable form of writing, since most well-known authors are primarily novelists.

The best way to give out your novella for a workshop is to give them the novella beforehand, as it might take a longer period for them to read it.  If you are bringing in an entire novel, you DEFINITELY need to give it out beforehand; bringing in more than one chapter – or if the chapter is longer than about 10 pages in manuscript format – may also require handing out the story beforehand.

Long format can be a real tree-killer, so if you’re giving it out beforehand, try e-mailing a PDF to all of your workshop friends so they can either print it out on their own time or use their eReader or computer to get at it.  If the critiquers also bring their laptops to the workshop, you can even completely avoid printing out any copy other than your own.

And don’t forget to give them the copies as soon as possible!  They’ll need at least a week to get through it.

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

When a friend from workshop e-mails you a novella or novel, it’s time to hunker down with a pot of coffee or a cup of tea and get reading!  In either case, your biggest hurdle will be finishing the thing.  From there, it’s all downhill coasting.

Of course, that doesn’t mean there are no guidelines to reading and critiquing.   Don’t forget to look for a few specific things in each of the two.

Novellas

Novellas are generally thought of as “short novels,” and the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America consider a novella to be between 17,500 words and 40,000 words.  Others count anything from 10,000 words to about 60,000 words, depending on who you ask.  Two well-known novella examples: Steinbeck’s Of Mice and Men and Orwell’s Animal Farm.

When you read the novella, consider whether or not it can or should be read in one sitting.  The intent of a novella, like a short story, is that it should be read all at once: it should be treated like a short story in that it should have a continuous flow, though they do often contain sections.

Warren Cariou, a Canadian professor of literature, has a good summary of what a novella aims for:

The novella is generally not as formally experimental as the long story and the novel can be, and it usually lacks the subplots, the multiple points of view, and the generic adaptability that are common in the novel. It is most often concerned with personal and emotional development rather than with the larger social sphere. The novella generally retains something of the unity of impression that is a hallmark of the short story, but it also contains more highly developed characterization and more luxuriant description.

From this description, it is easy to create a small checklist of things to look out for.  Does the novella focus on the personal and emotional development of the character?  Keep the other characteristics in mind, as well.

Novels

We can divide the critique of novel chapters into three primary groups, which should all be examined differently.  Please note that these examinations should and will differ based on genre and other factors, which may be discussed inf urther depth in another series of posts.

When examining individual chapters, focus on the characterization and development.  Can this chapter almost stand alone as a short story?  Each chapter, if brought in individually, should be understood on its own without the support of other chapters.  Bringing in a single chapter works best for the first chapter, but if the entire group is familiar with the novel, subsequent chapters will also work.

When critiquing multiple chapters, shift your focus slightly to examine the interaction between the chapters.  Is there a flow?  Do the chapters work together cohesively, if not chronologically, to tell a story?

If the writer has brought in an entire novel, I apologize.  After feeling my condolences warmly enough and reading the novel at least once all the way through, you should start by examining each chapter individually to look for characterization.  Each character, especially the narrator, should be distinctive and interesting.  You should also get a feel for inter-chapter flow and whether or not it works.  If not, you have a duty to inform the writer – and explain why.

Most importantly, you should examine the overarching plot and the subplots of the novel.  Are they believable within the context of the story?  Do they work?  The plot, being one of the most important parts of the novel, should be treated carefully.

Conclusion

Giving a fair and in-depth critique for long fiction can be challenging.  The first challenge is looking at sentence structure to confirm that it is correct and well-written.  You also need to look at characterization and plot development to see if it has been appropriately done for a novel.

One more thing you may want to keep in mind is whether or not the characters and the plot are likable.  As the most marketed form of writing – and potentially the most successful – it’s important for the writer to know if he or she is creating something an agent or editor would be interested in picking up.  Provided that the point of your workshop is to help writers get published, this is extremely important.

With that, the series on writing workshops concludes.  Do you bring long fiction to a workshop?  Has it helped you at all?

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