For the purpose of this post I’m going to break all writing workshops into two groups. In the first group are workshops taken by writers who are learning craft. People in these workshops, whether students in a formal sense or like-minded individuals sharing a passion, are primarily interested in improving their writing skill. In the second group are workshops populated by seasoned writers who already have a solid understanding of craft. These workshops primarily help authors determine whether their fiction is functioning as intended.
To the extent that writers are always learning, and that all writers want their work to be successful, there is obviously some overlap between these two groups. Rather than argue any pure distinction, I will simply note that this post concerns writers who are primarily interested in learning the craft of storytelling, and who are taking workshops that support that objective.
There are a number of factors that can help or hinder the rate at which you learn the craft of storytelling. Here are three aspects of any workshop that are outside your direct control:
If the person running your workshop does not know how to moderate such a group, or if they lack the ability to articulate craft issues, the workshop will necessarily suffer.
The more experience workshop members have at giving feedback, the better the feedback will be. Better feedback — by which I mean more craft-focused feedback — will necessarily improve your understanding of craft.
Every writer learns at their own rate, and that rate is not consistent. (Think fits and starts rather than steady growth.) Other than writing as much as you can and participating in workshops, there’s not much you can do to speed the rate at which you learn. There is no crash course.
At best you might hope to control for two of these variables by asking other writers for recommendations, but in general you simply have to trust the fates to even things out over time. What these inevitable uncertainties should encourage you to do, however, is put a premium on variables you can control.
Given that your time in a workshop will be limited, it makes sense to try to maximize your knowledge of craft during that time. It may seem paradoxical, but the majority of your understanding of craft and technique will come not from feedback on your own work, but from giving feedback to others. Unfortunately, this process tells you little or nothing about how you yourself work as a writer, and I believe that kind of self-awareness is fully half of what any writer must know in order to consistently produce good work. (Craft knowledge is fifty percent; self-knowledge is fifty percent.)
In terms of what you write and present to a workshop, there are two variables you can control that will increase the value of the feedback you receive:
Length of Work
The longer the work you submit to a workshop, the greater the likelihood that the feedback you receive will be less thorough. Part of this is simply due to time. If you submit a thousand-page epic and your workshop will be devoting an hour to your work, chances are the workshop will not be able to explore every nuance. On the other hand, if you submit a two-page sketch or piece of flash fiction, you’re fairly assured of having an exhaustive discussion — if not one which concludes well short of the time allowed.
The complexity of your fiction also plays a part. The more complex your work (and longer works are generally more complex), the greater the analytical sophistication must be in your workshop. If you’re in a beginning class, and you drop a thousand-page epic on people who are still struggled with concepts like character and plot, you’re probably not going to get a fair reading. While that may in itself be disappointing, the larger problem is that you will have learned little or nothing about what you accomplished as a writer.
If a longer work can preclude full analysis in a workshop setting, and a shorter work runs the risk of providing scant feedback, then at the very least it’s worth considering whether there is some optimal story length that takes greatest advantage of the time and attention that will granted to you in most workshops.
Degree of Completion
For readers who have never taken a workshop before, I should note that not only is it unlikely anyone would submit a thousand-page epic for consideration, such a work would undoubtedly be refused by the leader of the workshop. However, because some authors do want feedback on works of considerable length, the generally-accepted solution is for a key section or chapter(s) to be submitted.
The problem with doing so — and it’s a big problem if the author’s goal is primarily learning about craft — is that there is comparatively little of substance that even a knowledgeable writer can say about an incomplete work. If you are a professional writer and you want to know if your latest novel has gotten off to the start you intended, then having other professionals look at the first three chapters will probably answer your question. If you are still learning your craft, however, not only will it be difficult for others to tell you what you have accomplished, it will be difficult for them to find anything useful to say.
As Aristotle said, all stories have a beginning, a middle and an end. For the purpose of learning how to tell stories, then, little could be more useful in a workshop (to both author and reader alike) than having an entire work to contemplate. Even a short, simple work of several pages is preferable to an excerpt of considerable length and complexity simply because the shorter work is whole. (Imagine being asked to comment on the skill of an archer after witnessing only the first third of an arrow’s flight. That’s the problem with workshopping excerpts.)
Merits of the Short Story
Jack Leggett, long-time director of the Iowa Writers’ Workshop (1969-1987), often compared the authorial crafting and impact of a short story to a single punch. At the beginning of a short story the arm is pulled back, cocked, ready to fire. At the end of the story the blow has landed. (The impact may be feather-light, glancing, or full.)
What’s often overlooked is that the short story is not simply one kind of narrative form. It is that, of course, but it is also something else. Compared with all other narrative forms, the short story is the shortest narrative form that still fully evokes the depth and power of longer works. Meaning one can write a short story and still fully express what it means for a story to have a beginning, middle and end.
Now, I know flash fiction is currently very popular, and that people are doing interesting things in that form. But before these short works were called flash fiction they were called sketches, in acknowledgment of the fact that they were incomplete relative to the full potential of fiction. Just as an artist might draw sketches in anticipation of a later, more complete expression on canvas, writers can and should write sketches to catch or illuminate details that might later prove useful, or even to just stay sharp. Given the degree to which computers and hand-held devices favor shorter narrative (and non-narrative) forms, I don’t dispute that flash fiction may become as popular or more popular than the short story. I do not think, however, that flash fiction evokes the same degree of emotion, conviction and suspension of disbelief found in longer forms (including the short story), and I don’t think that’s a radical notion.
Leaving aside that debate, from the point of view of maximizing craft knowledge in a fiction workshop I think there is simply no better narrative form to pursue than the short story. From it’s flexibility to its length to its historical significance the short story has proven not only that it can be a meaningful and entertaining form, but that it can be turned toward any conceivable narrative objective. For writers learning the craft of fiction, the short story melds accessibility with plasticity, meaning every writer of every temperament and skill level can express themselves as fully as possible.
Just how long is a short story? The tautological answer is that it should be as long as it needs to be in order to accomplish your authorial goals, and no longer. The generally-accepted quantifiable answer is that short stories tend to be about 15 or 16 double-spaced pages in length. And of course Edgar Allen Poe famously argued that a story should be able to be “read in a single sitting.” Whatever metric you use, however, that metric should be secondary to the authorial intent — as Jack Leggett suggested — of a single, unified effect.
The Short Story as Building Block
At first blush it might seem that writing a short story is easier than writing a novel, for two reasons. First, a short story is shorter. Second, a short story is necessarily less complex: fewer characters, fewer plot elements, etc.
Were I to speculate, however, I would say that more good (and great) writers have been laid low by the short story than by the novel. Why? Precisely because the short story demands unity of effect in what is essentially a distilled, concentrated form. Having written a number of short stories and one novel, I can tell you with confidence that it is pretty damn easy to get into the groove of a novel and simply let the story play itself out. Short fiction, on the other hand, requires disciplined focus on the effect you want to achieve, and some writers have a devilish time with such constraints.
Though I generally tend not to favor intellectualism in my storytelling, the novel — with its open-ended length — is a veritable paradise for people who want to pontificate about meaning and ideas. Not so the short story, the brevity of which precludes (or, worse, reveals) the kind of intellectual blather that some writers use to turn a 150-page story into a 400-page novel. In short fiction there’s simply no room for navel gazing or philosophizing. You’ve got a few pages in which to tell your story, and all of those pages need to be devoted to your intended effect. Asides about subjects close to your authorial heart, or chapters meant to illuminate some tangential aspect of the main character’s tortured life history, simply won’t make the cut.
By far the biggest advantage in learning to write short fiction is that any discipline and craft knowledge gained is directly applicable to almost every aspect of writing larger works, while the opposite is not true. Learning how to infuse a short story with a unified effect is like learning to throw a well-timed and accurate punch. Just as good punches are the building blocks of bouts and fights, techniques demonstrated in a focused short story will allow you to develop longer and more complex narratives that are still under your control. (You don’t have to know how to throw a punch in order to fight, but the outcome will probably not be decided by skill, or in your favor. By the same token, launching into a novel without knowing how to craft a solid short story may produce a considerable amount of flailing, as well as the occasional blow to your own face.)
Just as importantly, there is no level of artistic excellence that the short story will not support. No matter who you are, no matter how great your talents, it is not possible that your genius will exceed the narrative capacity of the short story. You may not prefer the form, you may even think it trivial, but the legion of names who have excelled at writing short stories, and the great works those writers have produced, proves that the short story is capable of meeting your own best efforts.
Granted, there’s no money in short fiction, but there’s also little money to be had in being a bad writer. Instead of trying to figure out which narrative structure makes the most money, give some thought to the idea that mastery — or even competence — in short fiction will improve the quality of your output regardless of the genre(s) or form(s) you favor. The better you are as a storyteller in any genre, the more likely it is that someone will pay you for your work.
Short Stories in Workshops
The inherent advantages of submitting short stories in a workshop far outweigh the advantages of any other form. That workshops the world over continue to emphasize the short story has little to do with quaint tradition or literary dogma and everything to do with the way the short story fits perfectly into the workshop process.
Consider the five variables I talked about at the beginning of this post. Here is how the short story relates to the three variables you can’t control and the two variables you can:
- Workshop Leadership
Because of the ubiquity of the short story in writing classes and workshops, almost all workshop leaders have at least passing experience with the form. Too, there are so many excellent historical examples of good short fiction, and so much has been written about the form from both a critical and instructional point of view, it’s hard to imagine anyone rising to the status of workshop moderator without having something useful to say.
- Workshop Sophistication
Because of the prevalence of short fiction in the educational pipeline, the likelihood that other members of the workshop will have previous experience writing and analyzing short fiction is also high. This means you stand a good chance of finding readers who understand what you are attempting to do, and whether or not you were successful.
- Authorial Ability
Until you write a story with a beginning, middle and end, you don’t know what it takes to write fiction. You might start fifty novels, but until you finish something and see if it has the effect you intended you’ve essentially learned nothing. What you need most when you’re learning to write is the same thing you need when you’re trying to learn how to hit a baseball: practice. In a fiction workshop the most useful reps are those that other members of the workshop will have the time and ability to respond to. The short story meets those requirements.
- Length of Work
By its very nature, the short story is usually digestible in a half hour or so. This not only improves the odds that your work will be read by most members of the workshop prior to discussion, it makes it more likely the readers will also provide notes. Because short stories (generally) take less time to write than longer works, you will also have time to write more stories, increasing your authorial reps. (In this context more is more.)
- Degree of Completion
While I’m confident that some enterprising slacker has submitted an excerpt of a short story to a collegiate workshop somewhere on planet Earth, the vast majority of short stories are submitted as complete works. This avoids the problem of asking readers to comment on sample chapters or sections.
To get the most out of each story you workshop you must produce a complete work that is as good as you can make it prior to receiving feedback. By definition incomplete works fail this test. It’s also difficult to demonstrate a robust knowledge of storytelling if you submit partial works or very short works that don’t allow readers to appraise your full range of your skills. Submitting short stories maximizes your practice of craft while also maximizing the quality and quantity of feedback you receive.
As with many things in life, you get out of a workshop what you put into it. Literally.
— Mark Barrett