The primary interest of this fiction workshop will be reader reaction. Our first and most important task will be to express to the writer how his/her work was received. Because of this, it is imperative that you be an interactive reader, reading with a pen and keeping a running account of your own reactions. (If this is too cumbersome or distracting for you on an initial read, read the story once for the raw experience and then again to note your reactions. Second readings, particularly after some time has passed, are always beneficial.) Being aware of your emotional reaction to a piece of writing takes some work, but consider that you’re always feeling something. Your obligation is to try and put that something into words: while you’re reading; immediately after you’ve finished; after some time has passed; and in class during our group conversation. As a writer, you will begin to notice the textual elements that make you tick.
What kinds of things should you be writing while reading? Almost anything. Be honest and fair, but consider this is a workshop with the ultimate goal of helping the writer improve his/her art. Below is a sampling of the types of helpful comments I’ve seen in the margins of many manuscripts:
This scene drags.
I’m in tune with this guy’s head.
Had to re-read this paragraph.
I was easily distracted while reading this page.
I can’t see this.
Adverbs gone mad!
I’m putting this down for a while. Too hard to follow.
A lot of exposition in one place.
She hates this guy.
I’d like to run over this narrator with a truck.
I just counted the number of pages.
I see this.
Too intense. I need a break.
I don’t buy this.
I wanted to stay in this scene longer.
I read this page quickly–eager to find out what happened.
As you can see, the type of comment is as limitless as the type of reaction. One of the benefits of a group workshop is that if many trained, considerate readers find a certain line weak, or an important detail vague, or a description overblown, the author should give this more credence.
All art strives to create a sustained emotional experience, and in fiction this culminates at the conclusion. This is why I always find it important to jot down even the briefest of raw reactions immediately after finishing. Ever watch folks come out of a movie? You can tell what they thought by their expressions. Try and give your classmate something like this, even if it’s just a sentence or phrase.
When We Disagree
Readers in the class will disagree, both on aspects of a particular story and the story’s overall merit. Especially when your story is being discussed, try not to get defensive. See this all as an ongoing opportunity to provoke, challenge, and ultimately improve your aesthetic. We have an absolute obligation to share our frank responses with each other in this public forum, and at times that may mean my opinion will contradict yours. With rare exception, that doesn’t mean I think I’m right and you’re wrong. This isn’t math. Indeed, it may be that workshop reshapes how I feel about a story, something I’ll always note. You should do the same.