Notes from New Sodom

... rantings, ravings and ramblings of strange fiction writer, THE.... Sodomite Hal Duncan!!

Friday, November 14, 2008


One of the neat things at Utopiales was hanging out with a handful of writers based in Switzerland who had a workshop thing going and were curious about the GSFWC, how exactly it works, how often it meets, and so on. Cons being cons, those conversations can be fairly disjointed and easily lost in the blur of beer and wine, so one of the chaps, Lucas Moreno, emailed me afterwards to ask if there was any website where the GSFWC system was laid out. The GSFWC (Glasgow SF Writer's Circle) does indeed have a site here which lays out the basics, but I thought some more detail on the whys and hows might be useful.

Me being me, that "more detail" sort of grew into an big-ass pile of blather -- part experience and part opinion -- that might or might not be useful to someone with a fledgling workshop group. And afterwards I though, well, it might make a vaguely interesting blog entry for that type of a someone. So, why not fire it up onto the interwebs. It's a pretty personal view; I'm sure there are members of the GSFWC who'd disagree with my opinionations on how workshops do or should work -- never mind members of other styles of writing group. But if nothing else, I reckon the following ramble makes it clear why I prefer this particular workshopping system, the coping mechanisms it offers for some of the things that can go wrong in workshops.


To give you a little context, the GSFWC (or its current incarnation at least) was born out of a ten-week (one evening a week) writing class run by Duncan Lunan back in the late 80s / early 90s. At that time, Duncan was judging an SF short story run by the local newspaper every year. He'd send out invites to his class to entrants who showed promise, and get maybe five to ten people coming along. The class started off as a taught course, but Duncan structured it to change after a few weeks into a workshop set-up, with members critiquing each others' stories on the Milford Rules, rather than him being the expert dispensing wisdom. At the end of the first year of the class, there were about five or so members who wanted to carry on, so they set up the GSFWC as a weekly workshop. It's since shifted to a fortnightly session, with members meeting for an evening, once every two weeks, each meeting running for a bit over an hour usually -- kicking off somewhere between 8.00 and 8.30 and ending somewhere between 9.00 and 9.30. After which we all go off to the pub. :)

So how does it work? We have a Yahoo group, and members submit stories they want critiqued by uploading them to the file section and posting a message to say, basically, "here's a story for whenever". The stories get scheduled pretty much on a first-come, first-served basis -- with flexibility obviously to allow for folks being on holiday or whatever. Or if the work to be critiqued is a novel -- then you need to set the critique date somewhere down the line, to give people a month or two to read it. There's nobody really in charge (there's no official organisation, no secretary, no treasurer, none of that bollocks), but one of the more long-standing members, Neil Williamson, does tend to be the one who sends out the messages saying, "OK, we have X's story for the 14th and Y's story for 28th. Does that sound fair?" It helps, in this sort of anarchist collective, to have someone willing to step up and poke people into action as and when required. Anyhoo, it all seems to work out without too much hassle.

The workshop itself is run by the Milford Rules. Members are expected to download the story from the files section of the Yahoo group and read it before the workshop. There's no reading aloud at the circle itself, none of that nonsense. Most stories are way too long for that shit; you're just wasting valuable time that could be spent actually critiquing the motherfucker. A nine thousand word story? Shit, that would take 45 minutes to an hour to read. And from practical experience of readings, after even 10 minutes people's attention starts to drift. Ultimately, a lot of stories that work well as performance pieces simply don't work so well on the page, and vice versa. So you could have a great story (on the page) that you just spent half the workshop boring people to tears by reading aloud. And you could have a crappy piece of fluff that makes for a neat spoken word piece, and everyone ends up talking about how much fun it is, but it doesn't really work on the page because it's a monologue to be acted rather than a story to be read.

Worse still, reading aloud tends to lead to bad critique, I think, because it makes the whole dynamic more personal, emphasises the fact that the work is being *presented* by X. It turns the whole thing into a personal performance, at the end of which everyone pats the performer on the back and tells them why they enjoyed it. A story presented in that way is less distanced from the writer, so members are less ruthless; they don't want to hurt the feelings of the person who just offered up their precious story to them in person by tearing that personal offering to shreds. They're also less *able* to critique it at any depth if they haven't read it beforehand. You read through a story and hit a section that jars. You read it again to see what the problem is. You flick back a page to see that, yes, this section entirely contradicts the previous scene. And so on. Plot, background, character, prose, everything that actually matters in the story -- problems with any of that shit can be missed entirely because you're only half-reading that text, or reading it at a very superficial level, not focusing in on it tightly. Your attention is split because you're listening to the author read it through at the same time, and it's locked on whatever part the reader is reading as they read it.

Thing is, every workshop critique is, or can be, the the equivalent of feedback from a dozen editors, but to get that level of critique, the workshopper needs to spend the same time and effort on a story that an editor would, and for that they need the written text. Bottom line: when you submit a story to an editor, you're not going to be there in person, reading it to him.

Anyhoo... yes...

So, someone kicks off, gives their critique of the piece. Then the person next to them gives their critique. And so on, round the circle. Importantly, at this point, the writer whose work is being critiqued has to Shut The Fuck Up. They're allowed to answer a direct question, but otherwise they have to keep their big mouth shut. No interruptions. No justifications. No explanations. They're not even allowed to butt in with a request for clarification. If they don't understand what you're saying, tough shit. They can work it out later. Or just keep their trap shut and *wait*, because it's quite likely someone else will say the exact same thing but worded in a way that they *do* understand. On a purely practical level, this is simply about time. Let each workshopper do their thing without interruption, and they'll go through their points, one by one. It'll take five, ten, maybe fifteen minutes max, and then you can move on. This gets you round the circle one step at a time, giving everyone a fair chance to say their piece.

We don't set time limits on critiques. The possibility *has* been raised at times, and I think we've had a fifteen-minute cut-off brought in once or twice, when some members have tended to go on interminably, nitpicking every last spelling mistake and comma splice, or saying the same thing over and over again in different ways. (I freely admit to my own tendency towards the latter.) But we've generally opted for self-governance, and that's generally worked out OK. Without interruption it's very obvious if someone is going on for longer than they need to, bogarting the critique, so to speak. Sometimes a very long critique is acceptable, I think (personal opinion), because that person may well be going into the work at greater depth. If they're just being a windbag, the frowns and fiddling of other members is usually enough to tell them it's time to wrap up. (It is for me, anyway.) At the end of the day, everyone knows that you need to leave time for those after you to say their piece and for the writer to make their rebuttal, so they know that talking too long is bad form.

The no-interruption rule is also important because the vast majority of interjections are going to be utterly irrelevant. If you say that you felt confused about a character's motivation, you don't want to hear from me, right then and there, that the character was doing X because of Y and Z. So fucking what? The point is not the character's motivation. The point is that you were fucking confused about it, that the story doesn't convey it. *I* know the character was doing X because of Y and Z. *You* know it now because I just fucking told you. That doesn't mean shit, because the story still doesn't make it clear. It's not about the story that the writer imagined they were telling, the story they were *trying* to tell, the story they have in their head, or in notes written on napkins in their house. It's about what's on the page. If you tell me you felt confused about a character's motivation, that means that, as far as you're concerned, it's not been put down on the page properly. Me telling you what I meant to write doesn't change that fact.

Point is, if you let the writer start throwing in these explanations and justifications here, you can almost guarantee that as the critique goes on they'll do it at every possible opportunity. This will bog the workshop down, break the flow, and risks turning it into a completely open discussion. Worst case scenario is that the whole system completely disintegrates. The writer spends so much time answering each point as its raised, that people speaking later end up having to rush their critique, or feel that there's little reason to make a point that's already been argued over. Suppose the majority of people were going to say they didn't get the character's motivation. But when you say it first, I give my explanation. We talk it back and forth and finally move on. Nobody else bothers bringing it up because it's already been argued exhaustively. I come away from the critique not realising just how much of a problem it is because, hey, only one person brought it up, and they "got it" after I explained it.

The more a writer tries to do this, in fact, the more evidence it is that they're not really interested in the critique. They don't want feedback. They don't really think your critique is valuable. Really, they think the problem is *yours*, that *you* just haven't got it, that all they need to do is point out the "obvious", show you what you missed in your apparently superficial reading (that the character was doing X because of Y and Z), and that's your point dealt with. What they're doing is dismissing that critique. At best, it's a defensive tactic, a symptom of denial; they hear the criticism but they're not strong enough to bite the pillow and take it like a man, so they can't stop themselves from reacting there and then. It's useful, in such circumstances, to have the Bad Man of the group, someone who is quite happy to tell that writer to Shut The Fuck Up. The time issue is generally a good justification in such cases; if they keep interrupting it'll eat up time and other people won't get a chance to speak; if you want to explain yourself, hold off till the end.

So... After the critique is done, the writer of the work gets a chance to give their rebuttal at the end, to address the points raised. This is when they get to explain and justify their work, or ask for clarification and thereby open up the discussion. Or just to say, "I hate you all and hope you die!" The rebuttal at the end is way more efficient in terms of time, but it's also better from a writer's point of view, I think. Sitting and just listening to all the critiques, taking notes as you go, you take more in, and it becomes more obvious what points are important, where you've got real problems and where it's just this reader or that being an idiot, not paying enough attention, or simply not getting what you're doing because the two of you have entirely different approaches. Doing it that way, I think, you find the rebuttal becomes a way of summing up to *yourself* as much as to the circle what the key issues are. So, OK, everyone said they didn't get this character's motivation. As I see it, they do X because of Y and Z, but I guess that doesn't come through. I'm thinking maybe I need to do A, B or C to fix that. And so on.

After which, as I say, we all go to the pub, and we make sure that the person whose story has just been workshopped gets bought a drink. It may sound daft, but I think this is also quite an important part of the process. It makes the person feel a wee bit better about having their story ripped apart in front of them. It gives the person who may well have been the most vicious critic a chance to make it clear that it's nothing personal. Fundamentally, in fact, it's a way to separate the social aspect of the workshop from the practical, literary aspect, a way to demarcate the two worlds. The workshop can be so much more professional, downright ruthless even, because that's what that time and space is for. It helps people take a more professional attitude to their own work, I think, not take criticism too personally, because they're separating themselves as social individuals from the work as a text they ultimately want to sell.

So, lastly, in terms of membership...

In the early years, Duncan's class tended to work as a feeder for the circle. You'd get maybe two or three people from each year of the class going on to join the circle, which balanced out the drop-outs from the circle as people lost interest or moved away. After a while, actually, the circle built up to a steady membership of about a dozen or more, with maybe half of them coming every week and the other half coming a bit less regularly. So what we ended up with was about 8 to 10 people at any session, which seems to be a good number for the workshop set-up, allowing for five to ten minutes each and a rebuttal by the writer. Since the class stopped (a good while back) the influx of new members has waxed and waned. And every now and then someone drops out but that tends to be balanced by those who find out about us and come along to try it out. Some only come along to one meeting and never come back, but you get those that stick around to become core members.

In terms of actively *seeking out* new members...

We don't advertise, but we have the website, with a contact email, and I think there's a register of local writing groups that we're on. For a while we were meeting in the local Borders, and being advertised on the events program, so we had people finding out about us through that. Also, there's simple word-of-mouth, with people finding out about the group from mutual friends, the network of fandom, etc.. Sometimes you meet someone who's interested and invite them along. We have a completely open door policy in that regard. Some workshops I know are "closed" and take a very selective approach about who they let in. That does keep out the nut-jobs that we tend to get every so often, the complete crazies who have zero literary skills, even less social skills, and who are basically writing out their fucked-up fantasies as some sort of personal therapy. But those crazies tend not to last anyway. You just have to critique them in the exact same way you would anyone else, with the same rigour and ruthlessness, and sooner or later they realise that you're not the support group they were looking for.

This seems to work out to keep the membership at a healthy number. We could maybe use a couple more members at the moment, because there's always people who can't make it this week or that, people going off on holiday or business, or folks like meself who've drifted away for a while because they're busy with the rest of their life but are kinda sorta drifting back, trying to make it along but not always succeeding. So every so often you'll get a turn-out that's lower than you really want. But on the whole it's working out OK.

Anyway, that's my view on it all. I'd have to say, I think the GSFWC has been invaluable for me, a hugely important part of my development as a writer. I know a lot of writers scorn the whole workshop system, and I've seen some set-ups that I suspect are more of a hindrance than anything else, but this system has worked for me and a good few others. There are three other full-time pros who've come out of the GSFWC -- Bill King, Mike Cobley and Gary Gibson -- and there are a whole host of writers working at a professional standard but sensible enough not to throw themselves upon the mercy of the muse. And what's especially cool is when you see writers who've come along as hobbyists initially suddenly start to find their voice and jack their writing up towards that standard.

So, yeah, that's my two cents worth.


OpenID jimsteel said...

Yup, that's pretty much it.

About the only thing that I could add is that after a while you start to get to know the other members' strengths and weaknesses, which adds to the value of the critique. Y, for example, doesn't like first-person narratives so you might take his views on your first-person narrative with a pinch of sodium. X, on the other hand, knows his astronomy so if he starts pulling the astrophysics in your first-person narrative apart, then you'd better fix it. And all that sort of stuff.

10:17 pm  
Blogger theefer said...

Hey Hal!

Thanks for the further (& public) clarifications! Damn your workshop looks fun, I wish I could join!

I won't go into details as to how the local workshop I attended to ("CREP") differs from yours, because we went over it live, and we agree on all the Milton Rules anyway.

I think the only main difference is in the goal of the workshop; by requiring people to submit 20K signs each months and a full story every quarter, the CREP is also a personal commitment to write on a regular basis (i.e. fight procrastination). Lucas mapped this from the Clarion workshops, but extending the 6 weeks over, well "all your free time". :-)

Otherwise, I fully agree that both critiquing other people's work and getting one's own work critiqued is an essential part of learning how to write better stuff! Might sound obvious to you people, but it isn't necessarily what you first hear when talking to French authors...

I wish I had heard of more genre writing workshops in the French-speaking world. Incidentally, we met two girls in Nantes who were just starting their own workshop in Rennes (North of Nantes) — I need to get back in touch with them!

Anyway, nice blog post!
Take care and see you around soon I hope!

— Séb, AKA one of the hobbyist "writers based in Switzerland"

PS: Tony was kind enough to get a flash fiction of mine narrated on Aural Delight n°50 of Starship Sofa, in case you want a tiny bite of Swiss SF ;-)

1:12 am  
Blogger AbbotOfUnreason said...

As an outside observer (I consider myself a member of the GSFWC Ladies' Auxiliary), I have to say that the attitude of the members doing the critiquing was critical to it working. The comments were rarely at the nit-picky or personal level. From what I saw, meeting time wasn't wasted talking about punctuation -- you could give that on paper form directly.

On top of that and related, the group as a whole was extraordinarily supportive. Comments were generally in the form of "I liked this, but..." rather than "This sucked." (Especially when critiquing the newer members.)

I also don't think you can over-estimate the value of having a group conscience -- not necessarily someone in charge, but someone who looks out for the people who aren't being heard or aren't being included in some way. Neil was very careful and valuable in that role.

And, yeah, getting a pint together at the Counting House or Mother Hubbard's was a vital part of reinforcing the civility, I think.

Anyway, the point was that Hal's reading of the rules is right, but the soul helped.

8:23 pm  

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