Beth's Blog: The Gotham Writers' Workshop Experience
Published: July 26, 2004
My name is Beth Bakkum and I'm the editorial associate here at The Writer. For the next several weeks, I will be keeping a weblog on our site, detailing my experiences taking the Gotham Writers' Workshop Short Story class, co-sponsored by The Writer.
I signed up for the 10-week course in the hopes that it would motivate me to get back into the writing routine. Lately, I've found myself inventing ways to avoid writing -- walking the dog, watching HGTV, painting the basement Packer colors (my husband's idea, not mine). Anyway, I thought that a class, with an instructor, deadlines, and other classmates going through the same experience, would provide the extra motivation I need.
For those of you wondering if an online class is right for you, this inside perspective might help you decide. If you'd like to sign up for this class, the next session begins October 12.
If you have questions or comments, feel free to e-mail me at email@example.com.
Anthony Tognazzini, the class instructor, sends out a welcome e-mail to the class and gives us our first assignment, which is to write a short bio and post it on the class roster. Over the next few days, bios from my classmates pour into my inbox, and I'm impressed by the diverse backgrounds of my fellow classmates. All age groups seem to be represented, and our locales range from the Midwest to the Middle East. Some of the students have already had their fiction published, but most of them, like me, haven't even submitted anything yet.
As I explore the virtual classroom, I learn that we have to submit a weekly writing exercise (for the instructor's eyes only) and two short stories for class critique. I breathe a sigh of relief when I see that my first short story submission isn't due until week five, which gives me a month to work on it.
However, I vow to set up a writing routine and start working on it now, so that I will have time to get the much-needed rewrites in before the deadline. Since I'm a major procrastinator, this will take some self-discipline. I'll let you know how it goes.
Later in Week 1:
I'm having trouble working on the writing exercise. I'm not much into writing exercises in general--I'd rather spend that time working on an actual story. But maybe I just got burned out on them in my Intro to Creative Writing course in college, in which a typical assignment would be to "write 500 words describing a place you loved as a child." If I was writing a story, there's no way I would ever make my readers suffer through two pages of description.
Thankfully, the writing exercise assigned this week is not in that vein. It's more about what motivates me as a writer, and what my fears are. Once I get going, I find it's actually cathartic to get some of my writing hang-ups down on paper. They seem less scary and more manageable when they're in black and white.
I turn in my assignment and look forward to week 2, when three of my classmates will be posting their short stories up for critique.
I haven't started my own short story yet, but I still have lots of time.
I quickly learn one advantage of the writing exercises - near instant gratification in terms of feedback. Anthony posts his comments on last week's writing exercise within 24 hours.
This week's writing exercise (to write a scene incorporating words off a provided list) is so fun it doesn't feel like work. Wait, that's how it's supposed to be, isn't it? The nice thing about these assignments is that they're pretty short, so I'm able to complete mine in less than an hour and turn it in.
During the course of the week, I work on reading my classmates' stories and posting my comments. We're supposed to say two positive things about the story, and then two criticisms for improvement. After everyone has had a chance to comment, the author can ask us questions or clarify some points. I think the critiques go fairly well, but notice that only half the class is consistently commenting on others' work. I hope that the number of participants goes up as the weeks progress.
End of Week 2
A few days after I turn in my writing exercise, Anthony posts his response. His comments are pretty positive--he says my writing has "verve."
Excited, I tell Elfrieda (editor of The Writer) that my writing has verve. She smiles and tells me that I should take some of that verve and put it to work in my short story.
Oh yeah. The short story I'm supposed to be working on. I should get on that.
This week is pretty uneventful in the class. None of the three students slated to post their stories do so, and although that means less homework for the rest of us, I'm disappointed. Part of the fun of the class is reading others' work.
With less to do for class this week, I think about starting my short story. I talk about starting my short story. I read some short stories. I page through some books on how to write short stories. I don't actually write a short story myself, but I feel like I'm making progress.
Yes, I've started my short story, now due in a mere week. Once I sit down to write, I find that it's actually not too bad. My attention span seems to last for about an hour, during which I write around 400 words.
On another positive note, class seems to be back on track this week, and the students whose stories are due this week post them up for critique.
During the week I post my critiques on my classmates' stories and put in some more time on my own. By Friday I have about 1,200 words, but the story still has a long way to go, and I'm having company this weekend. (This is why I should have started writing my story earlier, like I said in the beginning!) I don't get back to my story until Sunday night, and now I'm feeling pressured and not sure of what direction to take. I plow ahead anyway, figuring that drivel is better than nothing at all. On Monday night, the night before it's due, I do some serious revising, cutting entire paragraphs that I feel add nothing to the story.
I find that critiquing others' work has helped me critique my own to some degree. For example, one of the most common "mistakes" we've been seeing in class is the omission of important details or descriptions that help readers visualize the setting and better understand the characters. When I reread my story, I realize that while I say the setting is a Wisconsin farm, I don't describe it at all. (This could date back to my aversion to writing long-winded descriptions that I mentioned in Week 1.) I go back through my story and add lines of pertinent description where I feel they are needed. I also notice that my tense changes from present to past midway through, so I change it all to present tense for consistency.
I give it one last read on Tuesday and then post it and hope for the best.
This week is the most suspenseful to date. I find myself logging on to the class several times a day to see if anyone has commented on my work yet. By Friday, no one has posted a critique. I start to get paranoid and wonder if my work was so bad that no one wants to say anything. Or so boring that they fell asleep before they could post.
Where IS everyone?
Thankfully, by Sunday I have a couple critiques on my work. The comments are mostly good, and the constructive criticism is dead on. Anthony (the instructor) posts his comments on Tuesday, and gives me some good suggestions to consider when working on my next draft. The bottom line of all the critiques is that I need to develop the characters more and heighten the tension. I can live with that.
My next short story is due the last week of class. This time, I really am going to start it early, so that I give myself more time to fully develop it.
This week's lecture is about word choice. Or, as Anthony calls it, "Getting jiggy with creative descriptions." When I read over the stories submitted this week, I'm much more appreciative of good word choices and description. It's one of those things that when it's done well, it seems effortless, which makes it easy to take for granted.
During my lunch hour at work, I've been reading the short fiction in The Virginia Quarterly Review and Ploughshares. It's not required for the class, but I'm trying to supplement what I'm learning with some real-life examples. The talent of these writers blows me away, and I have to admit, reading such great work makes me insecure about my own abilities.
But I'm going to try not to dwell on that. Instead, I start revising the story I submitted to class last week, incorporating some of the suggestions that were given in my critiques (and yes, revisiting some of my word choices). If I don't have a new short story to submit by my due date, I can always post a revision of my previous draft.
I've stopped revising my old short story. I'm a little sick of looking at it, and I think that it's based too much on my real life. While all fiction is autobiographical to some degree, I think mine goes too far. I mean, I'd be really uncomfortable if my family (okay, my in-laws) read it.
I'm not going to give up on the story entirely--I think that I can still use the general premise with a different setting and characters. Which would require a gigantic rewrite. Which is why I might as well start a brand-new story to submit in week 10.
This time it won't be based on my own life. Well, not exactly, anyway.
I know what my new story is going to be about. And it's not anything that I've personally experienced! This is a good thing.
I got the idea from my friend Alyson who told me about some problems she'd been having with her next-door neighbor, who'd started leaving notes taped to her front door (typical neighborly complaints, loud music, etc., that got increasingly nit-picky). They were showing up on a fairly regular basis, and Alyson wasn't sure what to do about it--she'd never even met this person. She ended up moving to a different city before she really had to deal with it, but what if she hadn't? What if the notes kept coming? What would happen?
I don't know the answer, but it's worth exploring in my next short story. I'll let you know how it goes.
My short story, now due in mere days, is coming together. Of course, I'm really mad at myself for leaving the bulk of the writing to the week before, but apparently, this is how I operate. I can't turn back time, so I'm trying to make the most of the time that I do have. I actually amaze myself (and my husband) by getting up an hour earlier in the morning to get some writing in before work. For three days in a row! (Where was that motivation when I tried my morning running program?)
I've turned in my story, but I'm not anxiously checking the class Web site for critiques this time. It's weird, but I feel like I already know what else needs to be done with my story.
When I finally do take a peek at my critiques, I find that there's more than enough feedback here for me to improve my work. Anthony's comments are very encouraging, and I feel like I did a better job on this story than on the last one. Which is kind of the point, right?
For our last writing exercise, Anthony asks us to write down some of our writing goals. My goals are pretty simple: to establish a writing routine and to continue to improve my writing skills.
I'm not really going to have any time to slack off, because in November I'm participating in National Novel Writing Month (see www.nanowrimo.org for more information). Hey, and guess what? I'll be keeping another blog about the experience--updated daily!
If you're interested in learning more about the Gotham Writers' Workshop Short Fiction class, you'll find more information here.
If you have questions or comments about the class or this blog, feel free to e-mail me at firstname.lastname@example.org.
--Posted July 26, 2004