How to talk about a WIP

How to talk about a WIP

To my novel-writing classes,

Next week, you’ll meet with your small group and talk about 25-50 pages of  your WIP (work-in-progress), the novels you’ve been working on this term. This is the moment when a lot of novels fizzle out, but it’s also the moment when a lot of novels get a much-needed vote of confidence.

My book, The Circus in Winter, got that kind of boost back in 1993. I describe that workshop in full here.

Forty-five minutes of productive discussion, and I walked out with pages of scribbled notes, stories crystallizing in my brain, and boom, I was off.

I was lucky.

Typically, students want to prescribe. They want to talk about what’s not working. It’s up to the instructor to create the default setting, to frame the workshop so that big things can be brought to the table and discussed meaningfully.

That, my friends, is what I’m trying to do here: change the default setting, frame our small group discussions so that everyone walks out the door elated, not deflated.

In order to change the default setting, I’ve purposely placed you in groups of Potentially Sympathetic Readers. The people who like fantasy are reading each other’s stuff. The young women writing about relationships, they’re reading each other’s stuff. The sci-fi folks are reading each other’s stuff. Does it matter if the sci-fi folks would hate the novels about relationships, or vice versa? Not one little bit.

This week I asked you to share you fears about showing your partial to others. I’ve cut and pasted some of your comments, and provided my responses.

What you’re worried about

“I’m worried about whether my story is good or not.” 

It’s impossible to say whether a novel is “good” at this stage of the game. Readers might like the premise, the character, the idea, but there is no “good” or “bad” at this point. There are only possibilities.

“I have no qualms about showing my work in progress. The worst thing that can happen is you all hate it, right?”

Actually, you aren’t allowed to “hate” each other’s manuscripts. It’s too early to decide if you hate anything. The only reason you might is based on subject matter or genre, which is why I placed you in groups of Potentially Sympathetic Readers!

“I feel like what I’m sharing with my group is the equivalent of the first scene/section of a short story.”

This is a wonderful analogy. It’s like being in a poetry workshop and getting the first stanza of a poem-in-progress.  Or being in a fiction workshop and getting the first page or two of a short story…dot dot dot.

Typical Workshop Response: You’re mad at the writer for submitting something unfinished. What are you supposed to say? She didn’t even finish the darn story/poem! What a lazy bum! So you go off a little. The writer, who can’t say anything, takes her lumps, collects her critiques, and scurries out of the room.

Small Group Response: You say, “Given what’s going on in this stanza/scene, here are three questions I have that I hope you will answer in this poem/story.” And the writer, who gets to speak, says, “Yeah, I’m going to do number 1 an 2, but where did you get the idea for number 3. I didn’t realize I was even talking about that…” etc.

For people who write as scenes come to them

“I wrote a lot of good scenes I think. It’s just being able to string them all together that is throwing me off.”

If your manuscript is comprised of scenes without all the “connective tissue,” simply tell your small group this. Include a prefatory note at the top of the manuscript, or include a note between two scenes that says, “I need something to connect the last scene to this one. Any suggestions?”

Then the group can’t say to you, You have a lot of good scenes, but they don’t fit together. Because you have already admitted this. Thus: pointing out this flaw is no longer the point. The point is: how might they be strung together?

“I switched what I was writing at week 4, so I’m not entirely sure how much material I have to work with. I’m hoping that I have enough and I don’t have to use completely new material to make it to 25 pages. I think I have about 7 right now.”

I don’t know why this writer thinks he has just 7 pages, because I know I’ve read more than that each week. Maybe the writer has the first 7 pages and then various chunks from elsewhere in the book. Not necessarily sequential pages. This is fine. As long as we get something of an introduction or preface, you can submit non-sequential pages, as long as you make sure you tell your group that you’re doing that, and you make sure that by the time of the final, you’ve got the first 25-50 pages nailed down as best you can.

“I’m confused about what to include. We polish writing from the beginning of the novel, format it, and email it, but what if the writing that we have doesn’t follow a particular order? I have scenes from different areas of the novel that’s and now I have an ending, but they’re all rough drafts and scattered on a word document.”

Like I said above: it’s okay to show us disparate pieces as long as you try to have some kind of opening, and as long as you preface your manuscript with a note to the readers explaining that they are NOT reading sequential chapters.

“I think my biggest worry so far is the structure. I’m still unsure of how I want to break the novel up into chapters or sections, so I’m hoping for some feedback on that.”

Best way for a reader to help this writer is to say, “This what it was like for me to read this manuscript the way it’s currently structured,” and then describe it.

For people who are writing a less-than-perfect “down” draft that they will fix “up” later

“I know the writing and language isn’t fancy – I haven’t taken the time to make it such, so I know that needs work. What I would really like to know is if my ideas are going in the right direction. Can you see this turning into something bigger and better with more work?”

To do a micro-editing job on this person’s manuscript would be a huge mistake. What this person wants and needs is some encouragement. To tell him that no, you can’t see this being a book would be—in my opinion—quite cruel. I’ve been teaching creative writing for 20 years, and I’ve read a lot of work, and I have never once said “No, this isn’t a good idea. Don’t tell this story.” It is not up to you or me to decide that for someone. It’s up to the writers themselves. There are those who DO think it’s their job to discourage writers, but I am not that person, and I don’t want you to be that person either.

I’ve had students who sat in my office and BEGGED me to tell them whether they had “it” or not, and I said, “It’s not up to me to tell you that. You have to figure that out for yourself.”

For the masochists

“Often, I feel paranoid when people read something I do and don’t tell me what I did wrong, as it makes me feel like they are being too nice. By all means, rip my novel to shreds, if need be!”

Nobody’s ripping anybody’s anything. Readers, you’re not supposed to be “too positive” nor “too negative.” You’re supposed to be somewhere in the middle. How the writer interprets that approach is up to him.

“I’m looking for very critical feedback, the kind of stuff that you wouldn’t say to your closest friend. I’m not worried about feelings and pride, only honesty.”

I say it again: IT IS TOO SOON TO BE “HONEST” OR “HARSH” or “BRUTAL” WITH PEOPLE ABOUT THEIR NOVELS. I know that some of you are saying, “Rip me to shreds,” but what I’m saying is, according to all my research and experience, that is not the way a novel workshop works, esp. novels that have barely gotten started.

Note: If ever I am in a position to offer this course as a two-semester sequence, then I would step up the level of critique in the second class. 

For the fragile

“I’m terrified.” 

“I’m not sure if I ever want to share my work publicly.” 

“I think it will be nice to have someone other than my good friends read it because I will get some writer’s advice instead of friendly advice. I need to know what to change, what works and what doesn’t.”

Readers, imagine that your job as a reader is to be both a writer AND a friend to the writer.

“I don’t typically share things that I am in the process of writing, except with a few select people. People I went to school with didn’t have the best attitudes toward my desire to write, and as a result I don’t tend to trust anyone with my writing. A professor is one thing – something I have become comfortable with – but students I’ve never met, never spoken to, and couldn’t pick out of a line-up is a totally different matter – something I am very uncomfortable with. If given the choice, I wouldn’t be sharing a partial with people I don’t know.”

Please know that the number one consideration I made when placing you in groups was that you’d get a sympathetic reading from that group of people. If I was wrong in how I made my selections, please let me know.

“I think that the feedback I will receive on it will greatly help me decide exactly what I want to do with the novel.”

This is a very good attitude to take.

“Since this is such a massive undertaking, I want someone to tell me what I need to change early on before it becomes to overwhelming to change.”

Ditto this.

For those who are writing pages that are summaries or synopses of their novel, not real pages.

“My biggest worry about my story is that I am writing it in a compressed format. I know this can easily be changed through revision and expansion, but for me I feel it is easier to just get the story “down on paper” before worrying about expanding and lengthening.”

It’s vital that you explain to your group what you are giving them! And if you’re the person reading this kind of manuscript, it’s vital that you be able to picture what they are synopsizing. Imagine that you are trying to decide if you want to watch a movie, and you read the synopsis of the plot off of IMDB or Wikipedia.

For those who say they just don’t care

“I guess what it really comes down to is that I’m really pretty detached from my work. It’s still personal, and I still take pride in it, and I still get my feelings hurt a little when people say bad things about my writing, but I’m not totally emotionally invested in the work.”

A little detachment goes a long, long way. But don’t feel too detached!

Remember that this class is about process, not product

Remember: we are not “workshopping” your WIP.

The kind of “workshopping” you’ll be doing in your small group is fundamentally different. I talk about the difference between a typical workshop and a novel workshop here.

In the typical workshop:

  • You assume that you’re looking at a whole piece that has a beginning, middle, and end.
  • You read and “mark up” the manuscript on the sentence-level.
  • You assume that the manuscript is a “problem” and your job as the reader is to “fix” it.

But in a novel-writing group:

  • You’re not looking at a whole piece.
  • You’re looking at something on the macro level, not the micro.
  • Your job is not to fix the manuscript.

To be honest, the manuscripts you’re going to read will have many, many problems. So what? The whole point of writing a novel is that you have to flounder around quite a bit. So how can you fault someone for floundering? And how can you say, “Give it up, man,” when they’ve barely gotten started?

In sum

Writers: Tell your readers how you need them to read what you’re giving them. It’s important to tell them in the manuscript itself, and during the discussion.

Readers: Tell the writer what they want to know, and aim for a critical, but generous frame of mind.