Guest blog post: Aaron Allston, the importance of peer review
Back in 1998 I first read a book titled Star Wars, X-Wing: Wraith Squadron by a – new to me – author named Aaron Allston. Not only did I devour the book (figuratively), but I absolutely loved it & read it multiple times over my life. Little did I know that 6 years later I would meet the author himself at a convention (Stellarcon – and yes, that is a picture of us out our first meeting, and yes I am dressed as a Jedi) and that, over time we would become friends, and that he would eventually become a mentor to me as well (though I still am, and forever will be, one of his many many fangirls).
So imagine my delight when he agreed to write a guest blogpost for my website. If only I could go back and tell teenage Janine now… she’d never believe me.
Janine is the co-host of, and Bryan Young is a regular participant in, an annual writers’ workshop I attend. This is the sort of workshop where participants perform peer review on one another’s manuscripts — the literary equivalent of each person handing his or her young child to the person to the left and saying, “Please tell me how ugly my baby is. Don’t hold back.”
I’m sometimes asked if such workshops are a necessary tool of the writer, either of new writerss or of veterans. I always give some variation of the same answer:
(Janine and Bryan are now looking at me and sharpening their knives. But, hey, I often have that effect on people.)
To be more specific, workshops aren’t necessary — but the benefits they bring are. There are other ways to obtain those benefits. So I’m not arguing in favor of or against worishops, I’m here to talk about the benefits themselves.
Benefit #1: Analysis
This is an obvious one. In a workshop, your fellows analyze your work and tell you how they think you did in relation to what you were attempting to do. You do the same for them. (That’s a benefit of good workshops, of course. There are bad ones out there, where your fellows instead tell you how bad a writer you are even if your work is fine, and in so doing manage both to feel better and convince themselves they’re better writers. But I’ll assume that you can recognize a bad workshop environment when you’ve been there and will choose not to return to it.)
There are other ways to obtain useful analysis. Building up a group of advance readers whose analytical skills you trust is a very good one. (It does take a while to achieve this — months or years.)
If you place a story or novel with a publisher, your editor is likely to provide some evaluation, particularly with novels.
There are benefits to be had from the analysis of non-advance readers — that is, when your work is in general release, you’ll begin getting feedback from the readership. Such feedback is a mixed bag, consisting sometimes of genuine analysis and sometimes of commentary from people who mistake their emotional reactions for indicators of good and bad. (For example, “I wanted Jerome to appear in this story. He didn’t, so the story sucked.”) Once you learn to read between the lines of such feedback, you’ll begin to benefit from it.
Finally, there’s expeience. As you become more experienced as a writer, you’ll become more proficient at analyzing your work and correcting problems before anyone else sees them. Many writers get to the point that they’re comfortable being the only pre-publication analysts of their work. (And in some cases that confidence is warranted.)
Benefit #2: Distance
Have you ever watched singing competition shows such as American Idol and The X Factor? In the early rounds of each season, these shows feature audition episodes. A stunning number of auditioners have no idea that they aren’t singing anything resembling the songs they’re trying to perform. In most of these cases, I desperately want to throttle them, then stand over their corpses and demand, “Have you simply never recorded yourself singing and then played back the recording?” It would save the viewing audience a lot of pain if they did — unless these contestants are genuinely tone deaf, they would finally be able to tell that they were completely off-key.
In other words, listening to playback would give them distance — would allow them to hear their performances without the distraction of hearing the song in their mind’s ear as they intend to sing it, or of hearing the tones of their voices in their bones. They would at last realize that they were terrible. (Okay, maybe they wouldn’t. I’m an optimist.) Some might then be able to improve.
Distance works the same way for writers, who, if they’re usefully to analyze their own work, need to gain distance from their own mindsets, especially the mindsets of the “now” of their writing and of the complex sets of beliefs, reactions, and tendencies that constitute “where they’re coming from.” In other words, distance constitutes experiencing the story as a different person. This is useful in the analysis discussed above, but is also useful in helping the writer realize that he or she is writing from a set of preconceived notions that the writer may not actually want to promote deliberately.
For example, I’ve been told throughout my writing career that I’m basically female-friendly. My female characters don’t tend to be objectified creatures, or stereotypes. They tend to be reocgnizable by a female readership. But I still write from a male perspective (more specifically, a clueless straight Caucasian North American male perspective), which means that I’m likely to miss cues. For instance, many years ago, a female friend of mine got into shape and then told me about a difference in her workplace that had resulted from the change. She told me, “It’s weird when your co-workers suddenly start lusting after you.”
Is it? Okay, sure. I wouldn’t have known. Her declaration was one more minute lesson in the difference between male and female culture, and it went into my hopper of human behavior details, someday to be used in a story.
I had experienced distance from my own perspective. Using that distance, using the perspective of others, makes your characters more recognizable, more realistic to a broader readership. And listening closely to the feedback of writers’ workshop participants, noting down not just the analysis they’re giving you but also the sentiments they’re expressing with that analysis, will help give you perspective — help you leave your own head for brief periods.
You can get the benefits of distance from non-workshop sources. The first way is to set aside something you’ve finished writing. Set it aside for a while — I recommend a minimum of six weeks — and then do a revision pass on it. You’re still in your own head, but you’re coming at the story after your long period of “being in the moment” of writing it has evaporated.
Advance readers are another source, and when it comes to gaining distance, it’s actually helpful to get feedback from readers whose opinions you don’t trust, whose perspectives you disagree with in every respect. You might not choose to write for them as an audience, but as a writer you’ll benefit from being able to express their perspectives without disparaging or dismissing them.
On the other other hand, workshopping does offer a distance benefit (and an analysis benefit) that advance readers and six-weeks cooling off periods don’t: group dynamics. A discussion of your story’s accomplishments and failings, in the hands of a group, can turn into an invaluable brainstorming session in a way that individual story feedback cannot. Something to keep in mind.
Benefit #3: Confirmation of Translation
Ask just about any writer who he or she is writing for and that writer will promptly answer, “Myself.”
Which is a crock.
How do we know it’s a crock? Because the writer trains for years in the craft of writing in a language known by others. If the writer were creating only for himself or herself, the fiction could be entirely composed in a mystery language, a shorthand brilliantly evoking images and events in the writer’s mind while remaining mostly incomprehensible to anyone else.
Instead, with fiction, the story may be for the writer, but the execution is for the reader. The story is a bridge engineered to carry the load of the story from the writer’s mind to the reaer’s, allowing the reader to experience something like what the writer experienced. That’s what fiction is: vicarious experience.
So one benefit of a workshop is the fact that it helps the writer know how close he or she has come to delivering the exact experience into the minds of the readers. Even the most experienced authors can benefit from a clear idea of how close the reader’s experience is to the writer’s.
The writer will learn early on that it’s impossible to impart the same experience to the minds of all readers. At that point, subtlety and nuance begin to play a greater role in the writer’s toolbox, as the writer lerns to use specific turns of phrase, specific forms of expression to cause the greatest number of readers to experience events “correctly.”
What sort of differences in experience do writers and readers have? Here are a very few examples:
- The writer might admire or like the protagonist, or at least forgive the protagonist for human failings, while the readers may dislike the protagonist.
- The writer may intend for a scene to cause thee reader to focus on a mysterious detail, while the readers find themselves obsessing about the revelation of a new wrinkle in the relationship of two characters.
- A scene might be intended to evoke sympathy for an antagonist… and fail.
- A scene might exist so that the readers pick up on an important clue, and yet only 30% of the readers do so.
With experience, the writer can impart an ever-greater proportion of the intended experience to the broadest range of readers, and workshop evaluations can let the writer understand how close he or she came to doing so in any given draft.
How else can a writer discover whether the prose is doing what it’s supposed to? Here again, advance readers can provide the necessary feedback… though here, too, the group dynamics of a workshop experience, especially having the participants argue over what a particular scene accomplished or how they feel aboiut a specific character, provides an instant comparison of reader persectives.
Benefit #4: Authorization / Validation
Having a group of writers whose opinions you respect tell you “this story is almost there” or “my objections are only nitpicks” constitutes the granting of a sort of permission: “Fix this up a little bit and it’ll be good enough to print. You have my blessing to move forward.” Jaded veterans and brash aspiring writers aren’t going to be concerned with permission of this sort, but a large number of aspiring writers are.
Too, this is of particular importance in the age of self-publishing. Once upon a time, for most writers, the approval of workshopping peers was only one more step prior to putting the fiction in front of the ultimate gatekeeper, the Editor, so the writer always knew that he or she would have one more barrier of permission to bypass. That’s not as true these days, with the avenues offered by self-publishing. Therefore many writers will find it very comforting to hear, “You’re there. Do it.” Some writers need that final push, that final permission.
So, how do you get authorization and validation outside of a workshop environment? Lots of ways, but let’s concentrate on the validation that constitutes, in your own mind, “permission to publish.”
If the thought of self-publishing causes you any unease, the best cure, ironically, is to self-publish. The first time may be an unsettling experience. (For me, growing up in the old-school world of brick and mortar publishers, where “self-publishing” translated to “vanity press” and “you’re a loser who can’t make it as a professional,” it certainly was.) The second time becomes easier; the third, easier still.
Ultimately, you have to develop enough confidence to look at a story, say “It’s good enough, it’s time to stop fiddling with it, it’s time to send it in.” That’s part of the “thick skin” everyone tells you that you, as a writer, need to develop. And you get that from doing it, and doing it, and doing it.
Benefit #5: Networking
Returning for a brief, inexplicable moment to my example of TV competition shows, I am regularly entertained by the private interviews contestans give where they assert, “I’m not here to make friends.”
Actually, they are.You are. Don’t kid yourself.
Colleagues who know and respect your work, and who like you, are a boon in just about any profession. Professional writing is no different.
My first novel was commissioned by the fellow who replaced me as editor on a small gaming magazine after I left the company. The anthologist who has been my editor on more short fiction collections than any other got to know me when we both participated in writers’ panels and seminars at an annual convention. These were not cases of “It’s n ot what you know, it’s who you know” — they were cases of “It’s what you know, who you know, and what they think of you.”
It’s not enough to have met people, or even for them to have experienced your work. Sure, you must have developed the skills to do the work. But be real for a moment: If a colleague suddenly has the assignment of developing a new magazine or putting together a short fiction anthology, and can choose between the work of two writers of similar skill, one of whom is supportive, gracious, and generous, one of whom maintains a hard “I didn’t come here to make friends” line, who is that person going to choose?
So, do your best to impress your fellow workshoppers with your work, to improve their work with your analysis, and to make it clear that you’re a good guy or gal, a beneficial colleague. When you hear of writing opportunities that you can’t completely fulfill yourself, recommend the writers whose work and ethic you trust — the colleagues you know best. They’ll probably be doing the same for you.
Certainly, workshops aren’t the only way for writers to network. There are social media, online forums, conventions, other public appearances, reviewing work on Amazon or Goodreads… As a survival mechanism for your career, these tactics aren’t “either/or,” they’re “do them all.”
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So, are workshops necessary? Absolutely not. But the benefits they provide absolutely are. If a writer can’t obtain them at a workshop, he or she needs to obtain them somewhere else. And workshops are a good way to go.
Find or set up a workshop and give it a try. Find advance readers and see what they have to say. Network. Armor yourself emotionally for self-publication if that’s what you want to do and that’s what it takes to do it.
And get ready to find out jut how ugly your baby is.
A postscript for aspiring writers: I recently released a book on the craft of fiction plotting, and I’m going to take a moment to plug it shamelessly. Plotting: A Novelist’s Workout Guide is 120,000 words of plotting advice, techniques, examples, and exercises. It’s available as an ebook on my store site, on Amazon’s Kindle Store, and on theiTunes iBookStore. (A trade paperback edition is coming soon.) I won’t claim that it’s the best book on plotting ever written — I intend to beg, blackmail, and bribe others to say that — but I think most aspiring and some experienced writers can pick up some useful tools from its pages. Please give it a look.
*This is Janine jumping in now – as someone who HAS read “Plotting: A Novelist’s Workout Guide” I can definitely say it is a MUST READ for any aspiring, new, or experienced writers.*
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Best known for his work in the Star Wars Expanded Universe, Aaron Allston is a writer of science fiction, fantasy, horror, and role-playing games. By the end of 2013 he will have appeared with Janine K. Spendlove in three anthologies or more. With colleague Michael A. Stackpole, he conducts writers’ seminars, the Inner Circle Writers series, several times per year. His puns have been described as making people want to leap from a moving car. He lives in Central Texas.
Many thanks, Aaron, for such a good post/great advice. Thanks to all out there reading this blog post. If you liked it, please share the link! Thanks again.
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Lastly, need a copy of my books? As it happens you can buy them here.