Science Fiction Writers Workshop:
The Writing Workshop Glossary

By Amy Klein

Most writers, at some point in their lives, join a writers' workshop, a weekly gathering of a dozen or so scribes who read one another's work and offer constructive criticism in a group setting. They hope that by sharing their material and receiving feedback they will improve their craft. But take it from me, putting your work out there for critique can be a difficult - and even mysterious - process. Here is a glossary that can help you understand the terms you may hear in a workshop:

Find Your Own Voice

Your voice is your writing style: your own unique way of putting words together to create a rhythm, a persona, that is distinct from any other writer's.

Jack Kerouac did it by writing jazzy sentences like, "...the only people for me are the mad ones, the ones who are mad to live, mad to talk, mad to be saved..." E.L. James did it in "50 Shades of Grey" by writing "Oh my" a lot and talking about the thread count of the bedsheets to which Mr. Grey binds Anastasia.

The best way to find your own voice is to do nothing else but read great writers. But writer beware: if your peers tell you to "find your own voice," they mean your writing is "derivative," which is a fancy way of saying that you copied someone else - and did a bad job of it.

I Don't Find the Character Sympathetic

When people talk about the "character," they are referring to the protagonist in your piece. If that piece is a memoir, the "character" they refer to is actually "you" and "you" must sit silently while they pick "the character" (you) apart. ("You" are usually not allowed to "speak.")

Readers identify with, root for or admire sympathetic characters, who can be murderers, rapists or even dentists, as long as they have sympathetic qualities: Thomas Harris's Hannibal Lecter might be a serial killer but he was so empathetic to Clarice Starling that the reader can't help but like him, especially because he had a sense of humor: "A census taker tried to quantify me once. I ate his liver with some fava beans and a big Amarone." (The film line was changed to have the mesmerizing Anthony Hopkins say "and a nice Chianti.")

Another way of phrasing this critique is: "I want to care more," which is what a boyfriend says upon breaking up with you. He means he never wants to see you again, which is what your workshop participants mean about this piece. Unfortunately, you will bring in 50 more drafts before you figure this out.

What Does the Character Want?

Kurt Vonnegut has said that every character must want something, even if it's just a glass of water. It should be a glass of water that's very far away so that there is conflict in the piece. This is what moves the story forward. If the story does not move forward, there is no story. Holden Caulfield wants out of the mental hospital. Captain Ahab wants to spot Moby-Dick. Bella wants to become a vampire and exchange smoldering looks with Edward forever and ever.

So when you are asked, "What does the character want?" what your workshop means is, "Your story is boring."

If, unfortunately, you are writing memoir, what they mean is, "You are boring."

What Is this Story Really About?

This is a favorite phrase of workshop leaders everywhere. They take your piece, which is about that summer you spent in the circus feeding elephants, and mine it for its true meaning: "This is really about your desire to leave home and become an adult," the leader says, opening it up to the others, who offer tidbits such as, "I think the elephants symbolize your latent homosexuality."

You will be so floored by their analysis that you entirely miss what they are really trying to say: "I hate the circus. I hate elephants. Write something else."

So then you do write a story that peripherally mentions the circus in a poetic allusion, but is really about your emerging homosexuality - by God, they were right! But everyone is confused.

"Where is this taking place?" they ask. (The circus. Duh.) Then they want to know why you were there, when you were there, what you did there, what happened to all the animals, and you end up with a piece called, "My Summer of Feeding Elephants in a Circus." It is remarkably similar to the first piece you wrote, but this time the narrator (you) is out of the closet.

Show, Don't Tell

This means describe what a setting looks like, how a character feels, what they are saying. Playwright Anton Chekhov said, "Don't tell me the moon is shining; show me the glint of light on broken glass."

It is a perfect thing to say when you haven't read someone else's work because the maxim applies to all forms of prose except, maybe, certain personal blogs, whose writers have never been to a workshop, and possibly even school.

Sometimes when people say "show, don't tell," what they mean is that they find the characters sympathetic, the story is moving forward, and they even like the conflict, but they just don't like the way you wrote it.

What they'd really like to do is steal the idea and write it themselves, because honestly, they would do a much better job.

Kill Your Darlings

William Faulkner is one of the writers attributed with having said "In writing, you must kill all your darlings," which means you should take the one phrase you love most and get rid of it. That's because if you're so enamored with some bit, it probably doesn't work in the grand scheme of the piece.

However, when your peers tell you this, they might be excising every original construction you ever wrote (see number 1, "Find Your Voice"). Perhaps they don't understand brilliance. Perhaps they understand brilliance but don't want you to succeed.

No matter. When you hear "Kill Your Darlings," you will be tempted to literally kill everyone in the room. Resist the temptation! Aside from the legal and ethical problems, where else would you find a group of people who, week after week, month after month, take time to meet and listen to your poem/essay/story again and again and again until you finally get it in good enough shape to send it out to an agent who wants it completely rewritten?

Nowhere but a writing workshop.

Amy Klein is a New York-based writer who truly loves her writing workshop, without whom this piece would not be possible.

Back to Workshop resources page.

updated 6/4/2014

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