Sunday, January 03, 2010

Fiction Class: Workshops (or, How To Take Criticism)

Halfway through the term in my fiction class, we started workshopping short stories by other people in the class (before that we read and discussed classic short stories, like Flannery O'Connor and stuff, which was an experience all on its own).
The process in a nut-shell: we would turn in the short story we wanted workshopped, the teacher would make copies and hand them out, we would take them home, read them, mark them up as much as we wanted and make comments in the margins, and then we also had to fill out a critique sheet with a basic summary of our thoughts, and THEN we came back to class and discussed it with each other, whilst ignoring the author. ^_^ At the end, the author could say a few words if they wished.

So that's the process. I wasn't sure at first if I wanted to submit one of mine, because....well I just felt really insecure. The short story I had written at that point (note: other than 2 short stories the entire term, we wrote a million 300-word scenarios) was a reimagining of Alice's encounter with the Cheshire Cat. I knew it was horrible so....yeah.
But meanwhile, I had a lot of fun reading other people's stories. Craft and skill aside, everyone in the class had GREAT brains and imaginations, and the stories we read were all wildly different and very interesting. There were really only a couple that were sooo bad I had problems reading them... XD It was really fun to critique them, too. I think we all got more nit-picky as we went along though. But it made us really look at the words we were choosing, the way we were telling a story, plot, characters, and most especially what we were all leaving OUT. I think every single story had some fairly-major element that was VERY unclear to most of us. ^_^
One frustrating thing for me, and this is going to make me sound like a conceited bitch, was that probably about 80% of the people in the class still didn't have their technical writing skills down (by that I mean spelling, grammar, etc). Even their "polished" stories they were submitting were sometimes riddled with errors. They were all works-in-progress, so, I was trying to ignore them, but it was like everyone would praise these stories that still needed a TON more work, just because the premise or a character was well-written or good, and then they would HATE these other stories that were way more polished, just because they disagreed with one little aspect? I dunno, I think all of us, including me, were very inconsistent in that way. Anyway, I just felt myself needing to come to the defense of a couple of stories that were perfectly decent but the loudmouths in the class were totally bashing.
Okay, so meanwhile. As I was reading these other people's stories, it gave me a bit more confidence to submit my own. After a couple edits, I felt like it was at least not going to shame me into my grave, and anything they said would be probably more constructive, as opposed to them reading my rough and just calling it crap and have done with it. XD
I might have been wrong about it not shaming me into my grave. XD The class period when they discussed my story was MORE than a little humbling. Pretty much they reached into the stories guts and completely disemboweled it. It was an interesting psychological process because I was struggling so hard to stay open-minded and tell myself that this was GOOD, I was getting a ton of good constructive criticism, plus I knew from the beginning that the story was kinda iffy. But honestly, after that class, I wanted to burn the story and pretty much everything I'd ever written and never write a word again.
That particular story got ignored for the rest of the term, until the VERY end. For our final we had to take the 2 short stories we'd written and completely rewrite and revise them. I cautiously took all my "pink sheets" (the critique sheets my classmates had filled out) and set to work on my story. I had already read all of them, and I was surprised as I re-read them that I was so much calmer and readier to work with the criticism and the story again. I still was angry with the story, but I was just more business-like and objective about it? I completely reworked the story (at this point it was the 4th or 5th draft), and I was amazed at how much the suggestions they gave helped. At the same time, I didn't use ALL of their suggestions: I ignored a few because I didn't agree. But that was OKAY. :D I was objective-minded enough at that point that I could find the good suggestions and make them work in the story, and ignore the rest. The result was a much stronger, more polished story. Overall the work isn't one I'm particularly proud of, as it wasn't well-thought-out from the start, but the whole process was a MAJOR jump in knowledge and skills for me. :)

Wow, this turned out kinda long. I'm sorry? If you're still reading, here's my conclusion from the whole madness:

-Having critical readers is a blessing.
-When you receive criticism, let it stew in your brain for a while before freaking out or before attacking your story with a cleaver.
-Revision is lovely and VERY satisfying.


Snazel said...

Wow, I'm sorry for the critique session! I thought it was good all along the line! I, uh, also always think that. But huh, critique is good. :D I'll keep that in mind, along with the fiction class thing.

Kelly Enigma said...

Haha, wow I never would have survived that critique class. Not that i'm a writer, but that stuff in general just kills me.

Even in english class when the prof would hand back my essay with comments in the margins, i'd never be able to read them. I'd just put it away in shame and forget about it forever, haha.