Monday, February 27, 2017

Writing Fiction: How to incorporate workshop feedback

Part 2 of my workshop examples has come! Last week I showed you how I revised a poem based on a few notes from my peers. Today I am going to do the same with an example of my fiction writing!

For this week’s post, I debated the merits of including the full text of my fiction piece.
Honestly, just the first draft is 14 pages. The third draft is 30 pages and the completed project was about 26 pages.

There is no room for a full copy of that work on here.

Ultimately, I’ve chosen to give the highlights of my story here and show what feedback I got and how I chose to respond to it.

Now, some context: for my final year in Undergrad, I wrote a Capstone/Thesis on authorship in fan fiction. For this project I worked closely with my mentor and few trusted peers to develop two short stories – one an original work of fiction, the other fan fiction for the TV show Angel the Series created by Joss Whedon.

The piece I’m discussing today is the fan fiction.

To start, I wanted two stories with the same premise. Based on my reading habits, I chose to explore how families deal with the knowledge that the world will end in about 24 hours. And there is nothing they can do to stop it.

My first draft of this story, titled Helpless End, was just 2 scenes – the prophecy of the end of the world, and the Angel Investigations team/family deciding to go for ice cream before the end comes.

That was it.

My mentor took this and asked for me to expand on the in between moments. How did they try to fight the inevitable? Where did they go in the time between? Were they all together? Did they separate? What was so important to each member of the family that they decided to spend their last hours pursuing it?

Basically, my first draft was a summary of the important events – discovering the end of the world, a few characters discussing it, sharing the news, and coming to terms with it.

Each subsequent draft added some details.

Angel and Cordelia spent a lot of time in the sewer, as vampires do, fighting demons. Business as usual.

Wesley, Gunn team up to take Fred, the girl they are both interested in, out to the beach and the pier and just have fun, instead of allowing their competitive history to get between them. They eat crap and waste money on rigged games. They have fun.

Once the basic structure of the story is there, I give it over to my peers for notes and inspiration about big revisions.

Some of the notes I received from them:

  • Why is Angel so accepting? He should have more angst if you want him to be in character to the show.
  • You left Angel and Cordelia at a strange spot, where are they heading after?
  • On page 29 you just gloss over a lot of time. You said, 
“The initial grief passed for Fred and Gunn as it had for the others. Acceptance comes quickly when helplessness is the only other option.“I want ice cream,” Fred admitted, hours later as the clock approached midnight.”
  • What happened in those hours? How did Fred and Gunn really react – don’t they have families as well? Did they not call their families?

One peer literally said, “I don’t believe it. They get warning of the end of the world and just… go with it? WTH?”

Each of these responses was perfectly valid and useful to me, even though I really hated to hear that last comment. She was basically saying she just plain didn’t like the premise and therefore didn’t like the story.

But I took it as a challenge.

How can I make this more believable?

Really, I think I took the peer comments to heart more than the mentor comments.

I was more invested in improving what my peers saw as flaws, which is why I’m glad I decided to have them read it. (It wasn’t a required workshop, more like a writing group of others also working on the Thesis.)

I took some time and reread the story based on their comments, making my own comments in the margins to see what they saw.

I found that I agreed with a lot of them. I did not want to add Angel-angst because it didn’t fit well with the purpose of the story.

But Angel the character is very angsty, so I added a bit more of that from him, sprinkled throughout the story rather than all at the front.

A bit of restructuring took care of the sudden loss of Angel and Cordelia.

And based on how others noted they would react to the news of an apocalypse, I upped the emotional gravity in everyone in the story to create something that read as more realistic.

I didn’t have to take the advice of everyone who gave me notes (and I didn’t, really) but I felt that, as part of my thesis, adjusting to the expectations of the readers and maintaining the established characterization from the TV show, was a very important aspect of the whole project.

The most important part of revising based on peer comments in fiction, in my experience, is deciding what you want to do with your story. I wanted to convey an idea to an audience, therefore I took a lot of audience feedback into account.

The other half of this project, the original piece I wrote, was a lot more about my own vision for a world and characters. I changed a lot less from that first draft after receiving peer feedback.

In that story, I had one person suggest I try writing from another character’s perspective.

While usually I would at least experiment with that idea, that wasn’t the purpose of the story and I didn’t bother. I knew what story I wanted to tell, and that wasn’t it.

Fiction workshops are generally a lot harder than poetry workshops. They take more time to read and respond to, incorporating feedback takes a lot of commitment.

And writing fiction takes time itself – sometimes you feel horrible when a peer makes a negative comment or overlooks something you found amazing when you wrote it.

But as most writers have heard before, sometimes you have to kill your darlings.

Cut out the pieces you really love about a work. Accept that others don’t read the story as you intended. Most of all, don’t compromise on your writing for the sake of another.

Yes, I think you should cut out the parts you love if they do not add to the overall story.

But don’t revise to please someone else. Accept the revision notes if you think they improve your writing. Not because you think another will like it if you change it.

There’s my notes from a fiction workshop. Have you ever been in one? Working in a writing group? 

How do you incorporate other’s notes into your fiction (or nonfiction, or poetry, or anything)?

Thanks for reading!

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