Recently, I submitted one of my short stories to the Masters Review Online Summer Workshop. Several published authors signed up as editors to look over the writing of people like me who want a few notes before sending out their work to literary mag submission calls, a lot of which close during the fall.
Workshops were my favorite part of being an English/Creative Writing major, and I’ve never understood people who hate them. While it’s never fun to receive criticism on your work, it’s an essential part of our trade. I’ve scrolled through enough Amazon and Good Read reviews on books to know that if an author decides to throw her work out into the world without consulting a second set of eyes, especially an honest pair, she isn’t doing herself any favors.
I knew before I even sent in my story that the critique I’d receive would be of a more holistic nature. Instead of a round table discussion about dialogue or a one-on-one session with a thesis advisor over character traits, I would get a review of the story as a whole, with notes about what worked and what didn’t. The editor assigned to my story talked a lot about the tone of my piece, and how different paragraphs made it more evocative. She offered me advice on how to play that up, and she also pointed to sections of the story that seemed to lag or lack development. For example, in my story there are only two characters, and one isn’t introduced until the last few pages. My editor made the suggestion that I introduce him earlier on, because he seemed central to the story and she’d only just got to meet him on the pages, never really getting to know him. Consequently, the story after he appears rushes and the reader has trouble understanding why he was even brought in in the first place. That’s something I’m eager to explore in later drafts of this story.
While the advice I received was good, what I really enjoyed were the suggestions my editor made for further research while rewriting the story. My story deals with a lot of worldbuilding, so one of the suggestions she made for further reading was Karen Russell’s Vampires in the Lemon Grove, particularly the title story in the short works compilation. I’ve read it, and I could definitely see how it fit into my work. The story is told from the perspective of an old vampire, and he’d spent most of his existence following the rules of vampirehood, including sleeping in a coffin and avoiding the sun. Then another vampire comes along, the only one he’s ever seen, and she teaches him how to be a real vampire, without the constraints of what the stories have had them believe. It’s a beautiful story, and throughout it you feel this pull towards a big event, something that real and fake vampires are destined to do, and the clues left behind make you wonder during a second read how you didn’t see it coming. I see it as essential in my own writing to slowly reveal the world my characters are walking in, without keeping too much close to the chest. The vampire in Russell’s story, for example, is revealed as such early on, but what he plans to do in the lemon grove is hidden from us for a lot of the story.
Along with the information from my editor, the workshop also included a packet with many craft essays. I won’t go into detail, but some of my favorites from the collection include “This is How A Writer Writes A Story” by Margaret Malone and “Productive Ambiguity” by Kim Winternheimer. Both of these essays dealt with something I’ve struggled with not just in the story I submitted for review, but in my writing as a whole. In Malone’s essay, she talks about that “force” that takes over after drafts and drafts of writing, when the writer starts to lose control and lets the characters take over the narrative. To me, this equates to the advice to kill your darlings, letting go of your own aspirations for the story and surrendering to how the story is meant to play out. It’s something I’ve heard a lot of well-known authors talk about, and something I’ve always thought about as a bit hokey. Who controls the story if not the writer? Now, however, I think I’ll try and surrender a little more, and see how the story blossoms.
Winternheimer’s essay hit a little closer to home with the story I submitted. When I sent it in, I mentioned in my notes that I wasn’t sure if my decision to make my character an ambiguous one was working. The response? It wasn’t. My editor said it didn’t seem to make sense with the story I was telling, especially when the world itself seemed so ambiguous. Winternheimer’s essay touches on the subject more and talks about the balance between clarity and ambiguity. She suggests not throwing a fully developed setting or character on the first page, but also not hiding something that could be said upfront. She suggests giving the reader a lure, a grabbing detail, then giving context throughout the story as to why that detail is important. That is the essential question to answer when being ambiguous: why is this important to the story?
I would definitely recommend the Masters Review Online Workshop to anyone who wants to submit their stories for publishing. I will warn that it is a bit pricey. I spent $299 on the workshop, something I wouldn’t have been able to do back in college without eating ramen noodles for three months. But in my opinion, what you receive is worth the price. Aside from the advice and craft essays, I will get a free copy of an anthology from the Masters Review, and free submission into one of their upcoming contests. Since the submission fee is usually around $20, I’d say that’s a pretty good perk.
I would also suggest not sending a first draft story. The workshop really does seem more geared towards people who want to submit soon but want an experienced person reading over their work first. My story was definitely a first draft, and while the advice I got is going to be helpful when I go back and revise, I wonder if it might have been better to work out some of the issues I saw myself before sending it in for what should be more of a clean-up review.
All in all, I would say my experience was a lovely one and definitely something I’ll repeat next year when the workshop opens again. What are some of your workshop stories?