Critiques and Discussions:
How to Get the Most out of the Workshop

As we prepare our notes for the upcoming workshop, here a few things to help make this the best possible experience for everyone. For those of you familiar with academia, think of this as a sort of syllabus - also guidelines for future workshops and professional submissions.

Prepping Your Story
Critiquing Stories
Live Workshopping
Closing Thoughts
McKitterick Bio

Some useful stuff to prepare for the Spec-Fic Writing Workshop:

Prepping Your Story

First off, to keep them organized for everyone, please title your files with your last (and first if you want) name; the title or a word or two from the title; and something that identifies whether this is the outline or the chapters. This is a good idea not just for our Workshop, but also helps editors when you submit for publication. An example might be McKitterick-Lutefisk-Monkey.doc. Please make them .doc (or .rtf if you're using some program that can't do .doc) so everyone can read them (note that new Word programs save as .docx, which can be a pain for some). Some people like .pdf files, but most of us can't mark those up, and many like to comment directly in the document file itself, so don't send .pdf files except on editorial request. And as much as you might appreciate the virtues of Scrivener or your 1997 copy of Word Perfect, avoid oddball document types.

Practice being a professional right away. Here's how you need to format your manuscripts so editors will take you seriously (and so we don't get bogged down with minutiae):

    Manuscript Preparation (pdf), by Vonda McIntyre

    Proper Manuscript Formatting, by William Shunn.

Also, to keep them organized, please title your files with your last (and first if you want) name and the title or a word or two from the title (when submitting books and such to editors, also use something that identifies if your submission is an outline or specific chapters). An example might be McKitterick-Lutefisk-Monkey.doc. Your best option is to save them as .doc files (or .docx, or .rtf if you're using some program that can't do .doc) so everyone can read them.

When submitting elsewhere, follow the instructions if a magazine is looking for a specific file format (a market I recently submitted to wanted only .rtf files) before you submit for publication. Following these guidelines makes you look more professional: When you practice being a professional, you'll soon become one.

Okay, let's get on with the process. 

Critiquing Stories

We'll use the process I've found most useful over the years: Everyone reads and critiques everyone else's stories, and then we discuss them in a round-robin format (more on that below). I prefer this over random discussion or lectures because a writer learns as much from critiquing others' stories as from hearing critiques of their own. It also makes for a much more interactive, lively, and involving discussion for all.

So first, some preparatory stuff:

How can you be the best critiquer possible? A few things. First, check out SF Grand Master James Gunn's short and excellent essay:

    "How to Be a Good Critiquer and Still Remain Friends." 

Go ahead and read it now. I'll wait.

Okay, now that you've mastered the theory, I recommend starting your critique with what you liked about the story and why. This might help improve this story if the author can enhance that element, but the primary value of starting like this is that it helps us recognize the things that work and encourages us do those things again in future writing. It's easy to miss our successes.

Then move on to address Goethe's recommendations for critics by framing these questions:

  1. What did the author intend to do?
  2. How well did she do it?
  3. (Last and least important) Was it a good, worthwhile, or interesting thing to do?

Let this guide your recommendations. Don't think about what you would do with this story; think about what the author was trying to say or do. This makes the critique sessions much more interesting and swifter, as we can focus on the important stuff and areas for general improvement, and finish before the night terrors begin their rounds.

Feel free to copyedit, mark typos and spelling and syntax issues, and whatever else comes up. mark up formatting issues, and make other such markups on the manuscripts (printed or e-doc format), as this helps authors improve their micro-writing and professional appearance - two things vital to publication success. But don't forget to make substantive recommendations about how to best improve the story, and in the larger sense how the writer can improve her next story. It's also important to create a written critique of the stories, too. Here are some thoughts that I share with my undergraduate writing classes - useful for experienced critiquers, as well: Critique Guidelines Sheet (.doc) and the "Critique Guidelines" section, below, as your guide.

To prepare for this, read these stories not only as a critiquer, and not only as a reader, but also as an acquisitions editor. These pages are all you know about this story. What works? What doesn't? Would you buy it or recommend that the Big Editor buy it? Why or why not? Does it work for you as a reader? Do you believe in the characters and their situation? Is this a solid, believable story? Does the language and the pacing pull you through? Are you in the presence of genius?

Your written critique need only be a page or two long for each story. What should it contain? Try to frame in your mind the "Platonic ideal" version of the story at hand. What is the author trying to say? If it's not apparent in the story itself, that suggests something the author might need to address. If it's a bunch of things that aren't really focused, that's something else. What gets in the way of the story's perfection? What does it need to attain its optimal state?

Identify all of these:

  • Strengths you notice. Areas to pay attention to include story, character, plot, details, setting, conflict, ideas, language, structure, theme, dialogue, or a hundred other elements that all need to work together to create great fiction - and why does it work well?
  • Issues or problems that you notice with those elements.
  • Questions that arise for you as you read the story.

Some people prefer to write by hand on a printed manuscript, some prefer to use the digital-editing tools in their word-processing software, while others prefer to create a separate document file with all their comments. However you want to handle it is fine - pay attention to what the writers requested, if they have a preference. But always provide a written critique.

Writing down your critique has two purposes: It forces you, as the reader and critiquer, to really solidify your thinking about a work before discussing it live; and it allows you, as the writer, to have a set of documents about your story, including things we maybe didn't get a chance to talk about. It also means many of us have a piece of paper on which to draw dragons and robots during the conversation. I do both, mark up a print copy and then add larger comments in the digital copy. Go ahead and mark typos, spelling or syntax comments, and whatever else comes up as you read.

Want more on the critique process? Check out "How to Give and Get Good Critique" (.doc), by Randy Henderson.

Live Workshopping

During our live critique and discussion sessions, we'll go round-robin (probably counter-clockwise) starting with the person next to the author, each of us speaking in turn without interrupting one another. Please don't use the discussion time for copyedit-level comments except, if you must, on the larger scale ("I noticed that your sentences use commas in a random fashion"), because you'll put those markups on the manuscript itself or comment about them in your critique. I'll likely discuss general micro-writing or other professionalization rules along with my specific story comments, so leave that to me.

The author remains silent until we've all had our say. Sometimes that's tough to do when everyone seems to be missing the point... this is a time to practice your Zen mastery and to learn from the experience of listening, rather than waste energy defending your work: Why has everyone read the story differently than you intended? How can you make it work in the way you meant? Why didn't your genius shine through to these pedestrian minds? When everyone's had their say, the author has a chance to talk if she or he wishes, or to ask questions. But hold your tongue until then! Same for the rest of y'all - respect the current critiquer who has the floor. Whether you post your work on a critique forum, or you ask someone for a critique privately, the etiquette is the same:

  • While your story is getting critiqued live, write down the comments that get you thinking - especially those that confuse you - whether or not you agree with them, because some of what's said aloud arises from other people's commentaries, and might not show up in the critiques you receive.
  • Say thank you as soon as possible. Sure, you can say you might want to ask questions later, but that's not the point. Someone has just spent hours - or days - reading and analyzing your work, and preparing a thoughtful reaction to it. Be polite.
  • Do not argue. Do not explain. Does this mean you have to agree with the feedback? Of course not. But arguing is pointless. Your story must stand on its own.

Does that mean you can't ask questions? Well, that depends. Don't do so during someone's critique, because that can lead down the rabbit hole. I'll leave time at the end for open discussion. Also, some critiquers don't want to answer questions. Or they don't have time. Or they've come across someone who confuses "conversation" with "OMG, here's how you were wrong to hate my story." However, most critiquers are happy to clarify what they meant. If they are, they will tell you. If they don't say, ask. Then abide by their answer.

When it comes around to my turn to talk (I'll go last, or just before our guest author when they're on hand), in addition to my own critique I'll use the story to discuss writing recommendations relevant not just to this story but to writing in general, things such as thoughts on character, plot, setting, senses, and more - kind of micro-lectures. I've put together a ton of documents about each of these things and will share those that the story and our discussions bring up - rather than flood you with a bunch of theory right away (you can find many of them here, and linked from there, if you feel like drinking from a fire-hose; I post things there mostly for reference after workshops).

While everyone is giving their critiques, you'll see me writing more notes about each story during the discussion. This is because hearing others' thoughts often stimulates more of my own, or responses to other people's thoughts. I find the discussions really useful for my own writing, and urge you to consider the same. Half the value of critiquing others' work is what we can learn from their successes and misses.

Last up is our guest author for the day. They'll provide their own unique perspective and expertise.

After each story critique's round-robin is done, I'll leave a little time for open discussion where we talk about the larger issues and awesomenesses of each piece. That's when the story's author can ask questions, when others can respond to those who went after them, when we talk craft and art theory relevant to the story at hand, and so forth. Let's cap this time at no more than 5-10 minutes per story, though it'll often be shorter - especially when the author is overwhelmed with feedback and has no questions yet. There's plenty of time to continue the conversation at dinner, in the evening, at tomorrow's lunch, or online.

"What if I hate my feedback?" Fair question. At least give your readers' comments careful consideration. Think about why they didn't like a character, why they got bored or lost with the plotting, why they felt your setting was uninteresting, or whatever else didn't work for them. Do that not because you need to placate them, but because it helps your writing. Your job is to listen, analyze why people didn't like things, and come up with solutions about how to address their comments. Likely some people will simply not get what you were trying to do. That can be on them or on you. If everyone misses the point or misreads your story, it's probably not their failure as readers....

Closing Thoughts

Informally, these writing discussions go on well past the scheduled times - pretty much day and night for the full two weeks, and you'll probably interact with folks in Kij's Novel Workshop or others, as well. Now is when you might, in fact, make writing connections that last a lifetime! Take advantage of this rare opportunity. There's time enough to sleep when we're done. Use our Google Group to stay in touch, continue critiquing, post publication news, and so forth. The most recent Workshop groups stay in touch at least once a month with writing updates, support, and other discussion. A writing group like that - people with shared drives and experience - is a hugely valuable resource.

Keep in mind that the most important thing you'll learn is not specifically how to revise these stories. You heard me right. Optimally, what you'll come away with from our sessions is how to write your best new work in the future based on what you learn over the two weeks of our workshop. Keep your mind open for the big picture, rather than narrowly focused on the individual story at hand - and not just for your own story, but for everyone else's, too. How can you learn from everyone else's successes? What can you learn from other people's misses? How can you avoid making the same mistakes again, or others' mistakes? How can you re-create your own or others' successes?

If you strive to do all of this during our time together, I guarantee that you'll get the most out of the experience, and your writing will vastly improve. Optimally, honing your critique skills on other people's work translates into self-critique mastery, and that leads to writing publishable work. My experience from participating in the SF Workshop since 1992 and leading it since 2010 shows that anyone - given enough practice, passion, effort, and an open mind - can eventually write publishable stories. You can, too.

Who's This Chris McKitterick Guy? Chris with one of his telescopes in Lawrence, KS

One-line bio:
Writer, educator, autodidact, public speaker, hot-rodder, astro-guy, and director of the Gunn Center for the Study of Science Fiction.

Short bio:
Since first seeing print in 1984, McKitterick's short work has appeared in markets including Abyss & Apex, Aftermaths, Analog, Argentus, Artemis, Captain Proton, Discovery Channel Magazine, E-Scape, Extrapolation, Foundation, Global Warming Aftermaths, James Gunn's Ad Astra, Libraries Unlimited, Locus, Mythic Circle, NOTA, Ruins: Extraterrestrial, Sentinels, Sense of Wonder, SFRA Review, Synergy, Tomorrow Speculative Fiction, Top Deck magazine, various TSR publications, Visual Journeys, Westward Weird, World Literature Today, a bowling poem anthology, and elsewhere. A poem of his was also set to music. His newest story is now out in Mission: Tomorrow.

His debut novel, Transcendence, is available in its second edition through booksellers everywhere, plus as a free download on his website. He recently finished a far-future novel, Empire Ship, and has several other projects on the burner, including The Galactic Adventures of Jack & Stella, and Stories From a Perilous Youth, a humorous memoir of surviving childhood and the Cold War. He wrote the introduction for a new nonfiction book about James Gunn (the first ever!), by Michael Page.

McKitterick speaks regularly about science fiction and writing for conferences, conventions, public events, schools, webcasts, and NPR. Some highlights include giving the keynote talk for the 2015 University of Iowa Medical Scientist Training Program's annual research event, "Positive Feedback Loops: Science and Science Fiction," and the UCO Liberal Arts Symposium XXIV, "Science Fiction: Mythologies for a Changing Age."

Taking a writing workshop with James Gunn launched his 25-year relationship with the Center. After years assistant-teaching in Gunn's summer program while working in astronomy, gaming, and high-tech, the University of Kansas recruited him to teach writing and SF full-time, and he succeeded Gunn as Center director. McKitterick also serves as juror and nominations director for the John W. Campbell Memorial Award for best SF novel.

Here's his long-version bio on the Center's website.

He's also on a bunch of social networks (links here). Probably the best place to get to know him is through his Tumblr account (where he also goes to great length to tag stuff, including useful writing tips - check out this curated writing-tips collection for his fiction-writing classes).

___

See you soon!

Best,
Chris

Updated 10/12/2017

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