Lies My Workshop Told Me

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Lies My Workshop Told Me

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I am working on a new handout for talks, one about mistaken ideas that come out of workshops. And I thought I’d ask you all for help creating it. But first, a disclaimer: I have spent a lot of time in writing workshops—as a student and, later, as a teacher—and I have learned a ton from them. Good, useful things that improved my craft and gave a professional sheen to my work that would have taken years and criminal acts to achieve otherwise. I love workshops and think most every writer should have one, so don’t get me wrong when I warn you that sometimes …

Workshop members have no idea what they are talking about. You know the person I am talking about: Full of advice, self-important, hellbent on hearing herself speak, convinced she has the solution to every problem, has sussed every issue, has gamed every system, knows the ins-and-outs of everything about anything. Which means, of course, that she’s talking out of her hat. Often the misinformation comes from good intentions, or is simply outdated, but it is misinformation nonetheless, and it should be taken down with extreme prejudice. Hence the need for a handout.

To start us off, I thought I’d gather a couple I labored under years ago, when I was a teen and just pecking out stories on my family’s old Selectric II.

  • All manuscripts must be submitted in Courier 10

“Courier 10″ here does not mean a ten-point font, but rather, a type size that corresponded to a certain size and kind of type on typewriters (forSelectric me, it was a certain IBM Selectric II typeball—God, how I loved those things!). The reasoning for this was sound: In the days before we could reformat type easily, editors and copy editors wanted the type to be large and generously spaced on the page, so that the text was easy to edit and mark up and rewrite while still be clear for the typographer. But that was before designers simply reformatted text files and output pages. So, while you definitely want your manuscript to have big, easy-to-read type, it doesn’t have to be Courier. A nice, large Garamond or Times will do just fine. (Bruce Coville will argue otherwise, but he’s set in his old-fashioned ways.)

  • You MUST have a copyright notice on your manuscript to protect your intellectual property

A close partner to this one is the person who advises having the copyright line appear on every page, as though an editor will seize a page and say, “Ah ha! This page doesn’t have a copyright symbol, so we can steal EVERYTHING with impunity!” (Being editors, and pretentious, they will, of course, use words like “impunity” to add dignity to their low-down thieving.)

CopyrightWhile the theft of intellectual property does happen, no examples come to mind of it happening on a corporate level. Yes, authors steal from other authors—plenty of examples of dishonor among writers comes to mind. But editors? Publishers? It is much easier for them to just buy the book rather than steal an idea. And, really, ideas are cheap; execution is what it’s all about. (Stephenie Meyer did not invent the vampire romance. J.K. Rowling did not invent the wizardry school story. George Lucas did not invent space opera—though that did not stop the makers of Flash Gordon from filing a spurious lawsuit against Star Wars in the seventies, but they hadn’t invented space opera, either, which is why that lawsuit went nowhere.)

Truth is, your work is copyrighted once you’ve fixed it in some medium. To file a lawsuit, you must file copyright, but your copyright exists from the moment you put the work down on paper, and every editor knows that. So that “Copyright (c) 2009 by Enid Blythe” reveals only that you’re a bit of a naif.

  • There are strict word limits for middle-grade novels, teen novels, and adult novels. In fact, that’s how they are categorized.

Um, no. Not at all. Just yesterday I had coffee with an author who asked me if her word count was too short for a teen novel, and I shrugged and asked, “Does the book feel thin? Underdeveloped? Below the reading level of the target audience? Then it may be too short. Otherwise, who knows? A book is as long as it needs to be.” Angela Johnson’s The First Part Last is a short, short, short book. No one would mistake it as being a book for middle graders. Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix is longer than life itself (and nearly as good). And obviously a high middle-grade read. Your story will determine its length. Whether you’ve satisfied your target audience in terms of tone and complexity and so on—well, those are questions of craft, not of word count.

Those are just a few misconceptions that I carried around with me in my early days as a writer, but there are tons more out there, I’m sure. What other bits of misinformation come to mind for you? Which lies did you labor under until you were gently told otherwise?

  1. […] This post was mentioned on Twitter by Upstart Crow. Upstart Crow said: Now on the Upstart Crow blog: Lies My Workshop Told Me (http://tinyurl.com/yj9zkgl) […]

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  2. Great article- thank you!

    There are still people who firmly insist that The 3-Act Structure is the only way to write anything…

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  3. Not from a workshop but from an editor early in my career: don’t put any humor into an intense scene. What a maroon.

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  4. I just recently had an editor tell me my novel was too short (she got to see a 700 word sample, which included the word count). She also told me to start earlier in the story to show my character more instead of in the midst of action. I’m not saying I don’t need to show my character more, but telling me not to start in the middle of action seems a contradiction to much of what I’ve heard from other editors. Would be interested to see what you say on this topic.

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  5. “Lies” is too strong, but I found that the advice to join a critique group is GREAT if you are READY. I tried them too soon. I needed protected space before advice. I shelter my first efforts, then, when I’m not so attached, ask for evaluations. I lost time nursing wounds and changing my style to avoid criticism.

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  6. Thanks for this. The word count myth is a very oft repeated one. The promoters of this myth cite the texts you mention but call them “exceptions.” Rarely, though, do they cite books which are the “norm.” Most successful high middle grade books that I’ve read exceed the 50-60k word count limit that is generally preached as gospel. Many others (Lemony Snicket, for instance) come in under the generally recommended 20k so I really wonder where these figures come from and who’s supposedly holding beginning writers to them.

    The difficult thing is that some of this advice is not coming from obvious BSers in amateur workshops, but from people who seem to have extensive knowledge, who write how-to books or blogs and who claim to have knowledge of the “industry.” They deliver stark warnings to people who dare defy the “rules.” It’s scary.

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  7. Brian, look: There *are* general guidelines. If you write a 120,000 word middle grade about a dog’s cwazy antics, chances are, you’re writing long and haven’t the foggiest idea of your target market. Ditto if you write a 20,000 “teen” novel. All of which is to say that if your book is woefully different than the mass of those on the shelf, you may want to ask yourself why. And if it is that you are in love with your own prose, well, your book will get the response it deserves.

    But to try and seize the example of long middle grade novels to justify your inability to cut and keep your story moving? That’s just weak. And editors will respond to it that way.

    K., yes, “Lies” is too strong a word, but it made for a better blog entry title. :D

    And Sue, clearly something is wrong with your manuscript. That you’re beginning in action may be fine, but not if you don’t pay attention to developing characters we give a damn about. Workshop with the comments and see how your group responds. Maybe someone can explain what you’re missing in that editor’s advice.

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  8. My favorite lie is “it’s just perfect! Don’t change anything!”

    Seems to be a very common response to writers who include their mom in the critique process.

    I’m also a fan of “you use ‘said’ too much.” Every editor critique I’ve had at a conference or such notices (and dislikes) the times I use ‘reiterated,’ ‘explained,’ ‘prodded,’ and other non-‘said’ words.

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  9. Ah, yes, “said.” People harp on that, because when you’re reading closely, it tends to leap out. But really, what happens with “said” is that it disappears. Unlike other speech verbs.

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  10. One thing I heard a lot was, “Don’t put illustrator notes in a picture book.”

    I felt like a big cheaterpants putting notes in the margins of my MS, but until I gave myself permission to do this, I struggled mightily.

    So I think this is advice that maybe needs to be nuanced.

    As picture books get shorter, you have to leave a lot out. Sometimes, it’s to such an extent that the story is hard to follow. So I think it’s fine to indicate the action you imagine in picture books if it’s not obvious from the text, especially if the action is at odds with your words to create a comic juxtaposition.

    I think this advice hurts beginning picture book writers, who tend to go on at length describing actions that can be shown in the images. You don’t want to put stupid notes, like “Kitty has on a green collar with rhinestones.” But some notes really can help.

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  11. I have the word count discussion pretty often with writers. I look at the numbers out there as guideposts and agree with Michael–the story will be finished when it feels finished. I represent both a 87,000 word middle grade and a 46,000 word YA. In queries, I raise an eyebrow when the numbers are skewed way off the norm, but will still consider the sample pages.

    I like when people are looking for responses beyond “It’s perfect!” I got that reply a lot in graduate school to my writing, and found my “perfect” stories did not fare well out in the scary world of publishing.

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  12. Once at a conference I heard an editor say, “The plot doesn’t matter, it’s all about the characters.” Everyone nodded as they jotted that pearl into their notes. Then they all went home and wrote a lot of rambling, aimless manuscripts that I’m sure were promptly rejected.

    These days you hear more about the importance of the story, character and plot working in tandem, so maybe that myth is on the way out. Or maybe I’m the only one who thinks that’s bad advice.

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  13. Too many workshop leaders tell new writers that their first manuscript should be shoved in a drawer because it will never be publishable. What about revision?

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  14. The thing that bothered me about the writers conferece I attended (work precludes me getting to many of these things) was the overwhelming assumption that One Must Get An MFA In Fiction. Bleh. Like spending thirty grand on a useless degree is going to make my writing publishable? Most of these folks hadn’t gotten published yet.

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  15. “I wanted to know more about the [character/situation]” is a popular one on first pages. (Jay Asher and I were talking about this a while back.) This is a tricky issue that takes finessing to reinterpret. You don’t have to find that perfect, masterful, sneaky way to get all the information in on page one. You do have to instill confidence in the reader that all the answers are coming, and that he or she’s going to have a good time finding out.

    I like to think of workshop comments as flagposts for trouble spots. Deciding what they really mean is up to you.

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  16. I’ve heard in many workshops how important it is these days to structure your writing career so that you become known as a particular type of author. In other words, the follow-up to your first published novel should be in the same genre/tone, etc., so you become a “known” commodity and easier to promote than if you followed up with something wildly different. I’m not sure how true this is, but it can be troubling if your first novel, for example, is a middle-grade boy’s action story, and you’ve got your heart set on a quiet YA story as your second.

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  17. It’s not helpful to get detailed critiques about little things at the expense of big picture stuff. For example, who cares if I’ve used the wrong simile if really the whole scene needs to be cut? I love it when people are honest enough to point out the idea of major change/revision.

    But we should also talk about the flip side: the good advice from writer’s conferences. Some faculty/editors/writers/agents just spew out gold every time they open their mouths.

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    • Lori: While gold spews out from my mouth infrequently, I *do* love when I make a big-picture suggestion to a writer and see a light go off. Really rewarding.

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  18. Yay, I’m so glad I found this blog! A lot of “myths” I’ve read here, I’ve heard at my workshop. To add to the list, the old “I heard a lot of ‘was’, you need to go in and cut a bunch of those out”. While using it in passive voice I can understand, but I do believe ‘was’ is not a bad word to have in there (kind of like ‘said’) if you use it correctly.

    Rita, exactly right in what you said about how you take your workshop critiques. In the end, it’s your story, some suggestions may be gold, and some might not work at all, and it’s up to the creator to pick which to choose and which to dismiss.

    Chris, I love it when anyone I know spews out gold, talk about epiphanies and awaking the muse. I had a colleague do such a thing earlier this year that resulted in a complete rewrite of a book I’d already completed. Moments like that are goose-bump worthy.

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  19. And I meant to say, Michael, that picture you chose to go with this post is priceless.

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  20. Misinformation: Workshop leaders who think books should start out with a bang and be this immediate heart-pumping, can’t-take-my-eyes-off-it experience. Yes, books need great beginnings (and middles and endings), but I’m tired of feeling like I’m getting hit over the head by page ones.

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  21. I enjoyed the comment from someone in a fiction class who, after I presented a novel excerpt and brief synopsis, suggested that I read more short stories to understand how they’re constructed. The least you can expect from your fellow classmates is that they at least pay attention to what you’ve submitted.

    I’ve been fortunate to have great workshop leaders like Pam Houston, Jonis Agee, and Christina Henriquez.

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  22. Thank you for this post. For me it epitomises the problem with so many workshops – they concentrate on the outer instead of the inner workings of a manuscript. As if anybody, reader or editor (the first reader) buys writing for these reasons. Writing is magic! It’s about going deep. And so many writers are more concerned about copyright or somebody stealing their ideas when the challenge we labour under is not plagiarism but obscurity – inability to be heard above the din. For that to happen, we have to have something to say and the skills to say it well. Fostering and enabling such is be the one and only worthwhile function of the writing workshop.

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  23. Any advice which tells you to completely eliminate one of a writer’s tools, whether it’s punctuation (e.g. semi-colon), part of speech (e.g. adverb) or any other part of grammar or style.

    These are a writer’s tools, and they all have their uses. A plumber may not find a use for all his tools on every job, but if he throws a little-used wrench away, it limits the jobs he can take on.

    If something is used properly and in moderation, there’s nothing wrong with using it.

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  24. I think a handout is a great idea.

    The most important point to me is not the mistaken ideas and lies I’ve come away with from various workshops, but from where this information coming from in the first place.

    In my experience, my first regular writers group was a safe haven and I trusted the advice and criticism given to me by these smart women. My last experience in a writers group (this time focused solely on writing for children and it was years ago in another state) completely sucked, and it didn’t take long for me to realize they were really terrorists.

    As you can see, I’m wary about writers groups in general.

    It all comes down to just whom is offering information. Whether it be a short term workshop or a weekly writers group, I rely on my instincts to decide whether to trust and take to heart what information this person is offering me.

    Workshops are such a valuable resource, and a handout coming from you would be an enormous help in alleviating the common misconceptions mentioned above.

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  25. My critique group had sort of a similar discussion last week. One of us had been told opposite things by two editors on how to begin her manuscript, and she was asking us which editor she should listen to. We all agreed – neither.

    Obviously both editors were trying to solve some problem they had with her beginning. In workshops when people start saying “start earlier” or “start later” or whatever, they are dancing around some problem they can’t identify but they know is there. It’s not so much *what* they say, but *why* they say it. So before you tune them out, see if their comments are pointing to a problem – then discover your own solution. Chances are it will be a better fix than what they suggested.

    And that annoying workshop participant that Michael was talking about? The one that always has something to say and knows everything? I had one like that in all my undergrad writing workshops. Her name was Amy and every time she opened her mouth, I immediately rolled my eyes and tuned her out. She kept telling me, rather condesceningly, that I was writing YA, not adult. I scoffed the first time because I thought I was writing for adults, and I got really pissed the second and third times. It wasn’t until a few years later that I realized she was right. If it weren’t for that particular know-it-all, maybe I’d never have found my voice!

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  26. Anita Miller said: “Yes, books need great beginnings (and middles and endings), but I’m tired of feeling like I’m getting hit over the head by page ones.”

    I agree 100% with this.

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  27. I think there’s some historical perspective missing that would clarify the font issue (which, btw, is less myth than you seem to think). The explanation’s got some backstory, so be patient. I get there in the end:

    A publisher must have a fairly accurate word count of a ms in order to do a profit/loss sheet (part of which calculates the cost of printing your book, in order to decide whether they can afford to buy it). These days, we have computer counts, but in the old days (up to about 10-12 years ago), those counts were calculated by a process called casting off, in which someone hand-counted the average characters per line & average lines per page, then multiplied those together, and multiplied that by pages in the ms. Finally, that #was divided by 6 (average characters/word in English prose as a whole) to get a word count for that particular book.

    It sounds incredibly convoluted, but it worked very well — so long as everything was typewritten. Typewriters use the same amount of space for each letter, be it an m or an i (i.e., their fonts were non-proportional). But when primitive word processors started appearing, printers discovered that casting off didn’t work so well with proportional fonts, where that m takes up far more space than the i. Since for consistency’s sake, manual casting off had to remain in place until the majority of writers had switched over to computers, publishers were forced to insist that writers using computers submit using only non-proportional fonts. While they were at it, they asked for a size the editor could read easily and without eyestrain, in other words, something similar to what typewriters put out.

    Now, remember that most typewriters only had one font –usually something much like Courier –and that even the magnificent IBM Selectric, with it’s selectable pitch and interchangeable balls, had very few typefaces to choose from that weren’t “weird” (e.g. sans-serif, which is hard to edit, italics, or oddballs like Script or even Orator, which was all caps). To avoid those oddballs — because, yes, some fools insisted on sending in mss typed in Script on perfumed, lavender paper –submission guidelines in the typewriter era almost universally specified Courier 10 as a first choice, with Prestige 12 in second.

    Here’s where another detail from the past becomes relevant: In typewriter-speak, pitch refers to characters per inch. Courier 10 (aka Courier Pica) was 10 cpi; Courier 12 (aka Courier Elite) was 12 cpi. Computers, however, deal in points, not pitch. It so happens that Courier 12pt is roughly equivalent to 10 pitch or 10 cpi (and conversely, Courier 10pt is about 12 pitch, or 12 cpi).

    So you can see where that particular bit of confusion arises.

    You ought to also be able to see why Courier 12pt/10cpi was the publishing gold standard for years after computers became the primary tool of writers: partly because of its readability and partly because, unfortunately, more choice of fonts made some folks even more foolishly experimental. “Courier’s so dull,” some would say, “I’ll use this nice Snell Roundhand.” Or, “I’m writing comedy, I’ll use Comic Sans. And paper is expensive, so I think I’ll bump the font size down to 8 pts.”

    Seriously. I’ve seen the mss. Imagine getting 450 pages in Comic Sans 8pt.

    Sure, there are other acceptable fonts besides Courier, but an explanation of what is acceptable takes time. It’s easier for a editor to say “Courier or TNR, 12 pt.” (btw, in the first few years, when everyone was confusing pitch and points, editors often said 10 cpi – which is why the Courier 10 thing got even more fixed in some minds)

    So, where does this leave us?

    Last year, hoping to get away from clunky old Courier now that edits are totally electronic, I asked my (young) editor at Berkley if she’d prefer another, more graceful font. Guess what? She *wants* Courier 12 pt.

    The fact is, it’s clunky precisely because it offers generously rounded letters that are readable and easy on the eyes, which is incredibly important when your entire job is reading. Its non-proportional design also makes mistakes easier to find because the letters don’t smoosh together. I’s and E’s stand apart; more importantly, so do I’s and L’s

    To address another bit of what was said: your editors (likely 3 of them: line, copy, & managing), who are the people who do the most grueling work over your words, generally will not reformat text files to a new font (not at NY houses, anyway) because of the potential of losing critical formatting or fouling up something in the process. For instance, I have the occasional rune in my books; if my editors each bulk reformatted to some font they found aesthetically pleasing, the runes might be turned to gobbledegook–esp if it was reformatted again later. Instead, reformatting is done once, and that by the folks in Production, after the final typeface is selected by your book’s designer. That reformatting only happens after rewrites, line edits, and copy edits, so your editors and you will have to work with your text quite a bit before any reformatting happens.

    Bottom line: the preference for Courier 10, now properly known as Courier 12 pt, is not a myth but something people who’ve been in the business for a while had drummed into their skulls. Some younger editors still prefer it; some prefer Time NR; and still others state no preference at all (at least until they get that submission in Comic Sans 8pt). Either way, however, few editors will shoot you for another choice PROVIDED you use some common sense and pick a clear, standard, 12pt, serif font.

    If in doubt about your choice, check the house’s submission guidelines. Do what they say.

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  28. As most developing writers quickly come to realise, there’s a plethora of advice out there, from many sources. Some of it can be confusing and even conflicting at times. Some of it makes sense immediately as it seems natural and sensible. So how do we sift the wheat from the chaff, so to speak? How do we decide what’s useful for us and what to filter out?

    I don’t have a magic answer for this but I have noticed a common and disappointing trait with many advice givers: they don’t justify the reasons for their pearls or wisdom. All too often, particularly in a teacher-student type of environment, they’ll impart rules and guidelines, expecting you to dutifully record them but give no logic nor reasoning behind their advice.

    Examples of such “advice in a vacuum” that I’ve been given, include:

    * Never start a scene with dialogue.
    * Begin the first page of your manuscript half way down.
    * Avoid writing novels using the first person narrative voice.
    * Don’t use flashbacks.
    * A first novel should be between 90 and 100 kw in length.

    Thanks to Lisa Hendrix for the explanation of why fixed-width typefaces were preferred. This is exactly the sort of explanation I’m talking about that is too often omitted.

    Michael, I do hope you’ll post the handout once it’s finished. I’m sure we’ll all benefit from it.

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  29. Partially in response to Sue’s post near the top about starting in the middle of the action, one of the most frequent misinterpretations of advice that I hear is ‘you must start with action; you must not start with a ‘slow’ scene’.
    As you rightly pointed out Michael, it should not be at the expense of introducing your character and ignoring the detail needed to help the reader visualise the setting.
    Pullman’s opening chapter in The Golden Compass could be classified as ‘slow’ (a girl in a university), but it introduces the main character, sets the scene, and is filled to the brim with hooks (unanswered questions) that encourage the reader to keep reading.

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