Storyville: Advanced Writing Workshop Tips, Tricks, and Techniques
So, if you saw my previous column on Surviving a Workshop, then you have already digested my thoughts on having thick skin, what advice to take, dealing with a consensus, jerks and haters, giving feedback as good as you get, and allowing yourself to create a rough draft without freaking out. That column was written back in 2017, so let’s see what I’ve learned since then, and what advanced advice I can give you here.
Students often ask me how to apply the notes/edits they get. Not just who to listen to, but literally–how do I do it? For me, I tend to start with the best advice—usually from my professor, if I’m taking a class, or the best student in my workshop—whoever aligns with my genre best, who understands me better than anyone else, and who does the strongest work. Start there—the document/file with that person's comments, whether hand-written or tracked via Word (or a similar program). If their notes are handwritten you can work from that physical document, or make a copy of your original file to work from and type said notes into that. Let's call either of these the "master edit." But before you start physically making changes, look over the other feedback you've received—and then add those notes to the master edit as well. Read through the edits of Joseph and Victoria and Susan and Ray and add those to your ongoing file or document.
How does that look?
Well, if everyone catches the typo on page four, then you don’t need to note it multiple times. As I go through these additional edits, I either make the edit right there (typo, grammar, mistake, etc.) or make a note in the margin to myself. Run through the whole story. Then do it again and again for each person. Then, when you have all of the notes, edits, and comments in that one document, dig in and start making the edits, if you haven’t already.
For bigger edits such as, “You should make this character more likable,” I like to keep a page of notes somewhere. Then when I’m done with the simple edits, I read over ALL of the broad comments to see if there is a consensus, and if I agree with the comments. If I agree, that’s a more substantial edit. I may save another version now.
Then, if you agree, go back and add more likable traits. Read through and look for those opportunities. Plot or story detail not clear? Add more detail. Do all of that.
By now, you should be getting pretty close. At this point, you should have applied all of the workshop edits, and can decide what else you want to do with the story. I’d read through again and see where I was. Keep going—adding, cutting, going deeper, etc. Do whatever you feel you still need to do.
Then set it aside.
Come back a few hours, days, or weeks later and read it again. Make edits.
If you’re good now? Send it out, and fight for it, until it lands somewhere great.
Now that you’ve been workshopping for a few years, you should have a pretty good sense of who you are as an author—your strengths and weaknesses, your genres, and the kind of story you generally like to tell. Good. That’s important. But now that you’ve written a few stories, maybe a few dozen, and are hopefully sending out your work and publishing, what next?
I’m lucky that the students in my workshops tend to really take chances on the page. I try to create an environment where they can write transgressive and taboo material, where they can conjure up just about any emotion, where they can handle sex and violence in a way that is earned and essential to the story.
I tell my students to take chances, to swing for the fences, to really let their freak flag fly. Why? Because nobody wants to read the same old story, the same plot, the same characters, the same monsters.
If you aren’t writing a story that scares you, that makes you hesitate, that leaves you a little sweaty and sick to your stomach, then you may not be going far enough.
Now I’m not talking about sweet literary fiction or cozies, I’m talking about leaning into fantasy, science fiction, and horror. Build that world, but go deep, go wide, be original, and make it immersive. Sell us on the technology you invented, or the weird juxtaposition you’ve created, blending telepathy and computer chips and demons. Write the horror story that has you looking over your shoulder, has you glancing at shadows when you go to bed, has you looking deeper in the mirror than you should.
I think of Perdido Street Station and the way that New Crobuzon is a backdrop, a tapestry, upon which China Mieville paints his tragedy. I think of the concept of a crisis engine, and how putting something into that state kind of blew my mind, but wasn’t so insanely detailed and scientific that I checked out. I think of the horror of the Slake Moths, the Ambassador to Hell, and the Weaver—in all of their wonder, violence, and originality.
In my own work, I think about the world I built in “The Caged Bird Sings in a Darkness of Its Own Creation,” starting with an old clown, a forest, something in the shadows, and then the ways that some ancient god created life and then flung it into the universe. I think about the concept of the “100th monkey” that was in my novelette, “Ring of Fire,” and how that concept of spontaneous evolution was the catalyst for change that I needed for my protagonist. I think about the ending to my story, “Battle Not With Monsters,” and what we see when the veil is dropped and the horror unfolds, the violence and tragedy that had been there all along.
Push yourself. And then trust that your teacher and peers will pull you back if you go too far.
WRITING TO A MARKET
A more advanced technique is being able to write to a certain market. Now, you can certainly write broad horror, or epic fantasy, or soft science fiction, but it is very handy to be able to not only write to a certain length (which you should already be able to do) but for a certain publication, editor, or genre.
I’ve been lucky that every time I’ve sent something to Cemetery Dance they’ve said yes. Crazy odds. My first pro sale, “Stillness,” in Shivers VI; my story, “Chasing Ghosts” in CD#72; Tribulations, my third collection, as an ebook; and the aforementioned “Battle Not With Monsters” out soon in CD#78 (I think) out later this summer. What I learned, if you look at the cover of CD, is that they are a magazine of horror and suspense. Those stories are tales that I didn’t think they’d take at first, but I learned what they liked, and have submitted every time they have opened up.
I think about what my editors like, when I send in work to Doug Murano, David Ward, Michael Bailey, and others. What has worked in the past, what about those stories stood out, and how can I tap into that vibe and atmosphere without writing the same story again? It’s not easy.
So, if you’ve had success with a market, be sure to note what worked. If you are trying to break into a market, pay attention to any personal feedback you get, and then keep reading the magazine or anthologies to see what is getting published.
I have a list of white whales—Nightmare, F&SF, Clarkesworld, The Dark, Black Static, Strange Horizons, and others. New places like Augur and Vastarien are on my mind as well. When I sit down to write, of course I want to write the best “Richard Thomas story” I can. But I do also think of those elite markets, and what might work for them.
At this point in your career, you should have had some success, should know what kind of story you want to write, and then go for the markets that are exciting for you. At the end of the day, just write the best story you can, and let the chips fall where they may. But, that doesn’t mean you can’t apply edits and ideas from your instructors and peers; that you can’t push yourself to stand out, take chances, and really grab the reader by the throat; that you can’t write with a handful of elite publications in mind. Go get it! I believe in you—it’s all possible. As long as you leave it all on the page—your blood, sweat, and tears—and work hard to craft an original, emotional, impactful story. Good luck!
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