Lessons Learned While Preparing for a Writer’s Workshop


I am back from an extended vacation with my family, which ended with a glorious week on the North Carolina coast.  I am tanned and reasonably relaxed, and am already getting ready to leave town again first thing tomorrow morning.  (This has been a crazed summer: by the time the two months between July 1 and September 1 are done, I will have spent forty days on the road.  Signing tour, vacation, conventions, oh, and taking my daughter to college.)  Tomorrow I head to Calgary in Alberta, Canada, where I will be running a two day writer’s workshop and then will be Guest of Honor at WhenWordsCollide.

As part of my preparation for the workshop, I have been reading manuscripts submitted by those who will be attending.  Using a structure very similar to that outlined by Mindy in her fabulous post from Friday, I write editorial letters to the students that elaborate on my margin comments, and, I hope, give them a sense of what they are doing right, and what they still need to work on.  In addition to going through the critiques, however, I will also be pausing throughout the workshop to lead quick discussions on patterns and issues that I am seeing across the work of the workshop participants.  And I thought that with today’s post it might be helpful to share with you some of the lessons I will be presenting at the workshop.

1.  Data Dumps are symptomatic of a breakdown in Point of View.  What does that mean?  First, let me refer you back to the “Creative Intersections” piece that I wrote earlier this year on Worldbuilding and Point of View. Data dumps, even small ones, can disrupt the flow of our prose, yank our readers out of our stories, and ruin an otherwise excellent narrative.  And they are completely avoidable if we simply remember to be faithful to our point of view character.  When we remain true to point of view, we give only information that our character would a) need to know, and b) be thinking of at any particular time.  If our POV character is battling for her life with an eight foot tall arachnid, this might not be the time for her to reflect on the history of the Fren Dynasty arachnid infestation, interesting though that may be.  When data dumps occur, it is because the author has failed to focus on the emotions, thoughts, and needs of his/her POV character at that given moment in the story.

2.  Passive writing is something that is bad to do because it is a sign of writing that is not so good.  (See what I did there…?) Or, put another way.  Write actively.  It will improve the quality of your prose, making it more fluid, more readable, and more exciting.  I find that my writing grows more passive as my comfort with the material decreases.  In other words, for me at least, passivity in my writing indicates that I’ve lost the thread of my narrative, or have strayed with a character into uncomfortable territory, or that I have made a poor plotting decision that has led me down a dead end.  Use the symptom to identify the problem, and then get rid of those passive constructions.

3.  Avoid anachronisms.  An anachronism is anything that does not fit your setting; usually it is tied to a temporal problem.  So, for instance, if you are writing in a medieval-type setting, chances are your houses should not have hot and cold running water.  Books should not be widely available; in fact, if they are available at all, they should be luxury items, owned only by the very wealthy.  If you are writing in, say, a pre-Revolutionary War setting, your characters should not use phrases that are more appropriate to today’s vernacular.  Things should not be said to be “okay,” or “neato,” or “totally tubular.”  All kidding aside, anachronisms can totally ruin a book for the discerning reader.  And they can be incredibly subtle.  For instance, if the religions of your world do not include a doctrine of eternal damnation, then no one should ever say something like “what the hell.”  Little things like that can be pretty important.

4.  Take pride in your work and present it appropriately.  When you submit work for ANY purpose, be it for submission for possible publication or for critique by a professional writer, agent, or editor, you should take pride in the work you’ve done and present it in ways that demonstrate your respect for the process and for the time being spent by the people who will read your work.  This means taking the time to learn how to format a professional manuscript.  Paginate your work; use proper punctuation; space it properly (double spaced with one inch margins all around); put your name and contact information on the front page; know when to underline/italicize and when not to.  And above all else, proofread your work before you submit it.  The people reading your work are there to critique your writing, not correct your typos.

5.  Avoid said-bookisms.  I have written about these in the past on this site, and no doubt will again.  Essentially, said-bookisms are those words we use instead of “said” and “asked” when assigning lines of dialog to our characters.  “He rasped.”  “She hissed.”  “He opined.”  “She averred.”  “He exclaimed.”  “She inquired.”  Once upon a time, they were accepted tools in writing — books from half a century ago are full of them. But in today’s market, they are frowned upon because, essentially, they are a classic example of TELLING rather than SHOWING.  The thinking is that gesture, facial expression, context, and the spoken words themselves should tell the reader everything she needs to know about how the lines are delivered.  The said-bookisms are superfluous.

6.  Accept criticism graciously and with an open mind.  Giving criticism is hard — nearly as hard as getting it.  I do not make comments to be mean, or to put people down.  And I can tell you that I like nothing better than reading an excellent manuscript that needs little or no editorial work.  My purpose in giving comments is to help the writer improve his or her story and craft.  I know that some of the comments I have made on people’s manuscripts for this week’s workshop will seem nit-picky.  Some might think that I was looking for reasons to mark up the page.  But the fact is, if I made a comment, it’s because what I read struck me as odd or out of place.  And that means that there’s a problem.  As writers, we want our readers to be totally immersed in our stories.  When readers — be they agents looking for clients, editors looking for their next star author, or writers commenting on a workshop submission — comment on a paragraph, or a line or a word, they do so because it drew their attention, and thus pulled them out of the story.  That’s useful information; we need to make the most of it.

So, do any of these patterns strike you as particularly helpful?  Do any of the problems I’ve identified sound familiar?

David B. Coe

23 comments to Lessons Learned While Preparing for a Writer’s Workshop

  • Great points! I only recently *got* the notion that data dumps violate PoV. (I actually pride myself on being good at PoV — I’ve written a *lot* in the first person…) Once I got the idea that Character X really wouldn’t take five minutes to think about past event Y… It got a lot simpler to figure out data *transmission* (not dumps…)

  • TwilightHero

    Excellent post, David. Reading through your list, I take it as a point of pride that I can see a lot of things I used to do, but don’t anymore. More specifically…

    2. This, absolutely. My writing used to be waaay too stiff. But it got more active over time – particularly during fight scenes 😛 – and critiques I received mentioned this as well. I saw their point, and started changing my writing habits.

    3. While the first part of this – modern words and phrases in fantasy settings – has always been one of my pet peeves, my WIP was full of ‘what the hell’s. I think it was actually a previous post of yours, or at least somewhere you mentioned this, that made me realize it, and that that was a symptom of a larger problem: I’d never gotten around to working out the details of my world’s religion-by-default. I did as a result, and came up with a more appropriate exclamation.

    And 5: minimal dialogue tags. These, too, I used to have a lot of. I’m not really sure why I stopped using them, though more current books I’d read, and this site, were probably influences. I just came to see them as…I don’t know…tacky.

    Though I still love Harry Potter. The exception that proves the rule 😛

  • […] Misty Massey, Mindy Klasky, John Hartness, and James Tuck, among others. Today’s entry is called “Lessons Learned While Preparing for a Writer’s Workshop.” I hope you enjoy […]

  • sagablessed

    David, what about data dump in the form of dialogue that would come into play for plot later?
    No trying to be a butt, asking for serious reasons.

  • mudepoz

    Dang. So no barked, growled, bayed, or woo-woo?

    Back to the drawing board.

    Yeah. Still hounded by a basset hound.

  • Mindy, I had blogged about POV and worldbuilding before, and had made the connection in some ways. But the idea of data dumps being a breakdown of POV — the framing of the issue in that precise way — came to me as something of an epiphany as I was reading these manuscripts. And I like that: data transmission. I might borrow it.

    Twilight, thank you. All of us struggle with passive voice on occasion, and my early work had a bad case of said-bookisms, in part because when I started, about 18 years ago, the market had only recently turned away from them. The problem was actually pointed out to me in a letter by none other than Anne McCaffrey, who blurbed my first book with a very generous quote, but then urged me to fix that problem. Glad to have helped with the religion thing. That was another issue pointed out to me early on, in this case by my editor at the time.

    Saga, data dumps are almost always to be avoided. Now, it is true that we have to give information somehow, and dialog can be a way of getting important data across to our readers. But you need to keep in mind a couple things. 1) The dialog HAS to sound natural. It can’t be two people telling each other things that they really ought to know already. That is the classic data dump, the “As you know, Bob . . .” Data Dump. 2) If the information pertains to a later plot point, you need to ask yourself if this particular conversation has to happen in the scene in question. Is it detracting from the current action? Is it slowing your narrative in order to set up something later? I usually try to give information as it is needed, and so the idea of using a lengthy explanation of stuff now to set up a later plot point gives me pause. 3) There may be a way to get this same information to your readers in bits and pieces, so that they can put it all together for later. That, usually, is the optimal solution, and you should consider whether it’s a possibility. Ultimately, you are the only person who can judge properly whether this is the best way to convey the necessary information. Oh, and for the record, I would never think you were being anything but sincere and courteous with your questions. Seriously, you don’t have to worry about me thinking you’re a “butt.”

    Mud, I thought of you while writing the last paragraph and nearly wrote, just for you, that the idea of a data dump “gives me paws.” But to your question — unless using the “barked” “growled” “bayed” is part of theme you’re trying out to buck convention and be amusing, I would recommend that you put those away. Sorry.

  • sagablessed

    Thanks David. Very helpful. 🙂

  • David, I’m with Mindy. I only put together (in this latest book) that if the character is doing data dumps, then I (the writer) screwed up somewhere. And yes, it is often POV. But it is also simply laziness–me not wanting to go back and inset the info I need in earlier parts of the story, at times more appropriate to the macro timing.

  • Hepseba ALHH

    Thank you for all these excellent points, David. Although, as with adverbs, I suspect I’ll never bring myself to fully abandon said-bookisms…

    I think that POV and info-dumps are something that I’ve been steadily working on and improving in my WIP, although I’m not sure if originally my characters were really out-of-character so much as just sat around thinking *way* too much. What is really cool to see, though, is that honing in on a good, tight POV not only gets rid of most info-dumping and smooths out the action, it also makes the story more intriguing. As a reader, I *like* to have to piece the information together as I go along.

    Currently, my very favorite example of plot-critical info that gets doled out *just* right, is the movie Wreck-it Ralph. When that critical plot twist came along, I just sat in awe of the excellence of the world-building that lead-up-to and allowed for it. Major take-away from that one: Try to not only dole out the information, but get your characters to refer to it in reference to a completely different (but equally critical) plot sequence. 😀

  • I’m lucky enough to be one of the members in this class and I’m really looking forward to it. I know I forgot to put my name and information on the first page(oops) and I’m sure a few of the others apply as well (passive voice and said-isms are my downfall). I can’t wait to see what David and the other class members say about it though. Even though I know it will hurt, I know my work still needs the help.

  • Donald, my pleasure.

    Faith, I agree that often my breakdowns in craft — be they data dumps, overuse of crutch words, or shoddy plotting — often result from my laziness. It’s hard to keep one’s head “in the game” for an entire novel. Thank goodness for revisions!

    Hep, thanks. I will admit to using the occasional said-bookism, though usually only in order to convey volume (whispered, muttered, murmured, bellowed). As for data dumps, you are so right. There are so many books (and movies) in which the meting out of crucial information is done with such skill, such patience, such perfect timing, that it boggles the mind. It’s something I’m still working on.

    B.A., I’m very much looking forward to the class, and I look forward to meeting you in person, as well. I think you must have written under a pseudonym, because I don’t recognize the last name. But I found that all of the stories I read had something to recommend them, and all of them needed improvement in certain respects. As I’ve said before, none of us gets it right the first time through. See you soon!

  • Ken

    Great list, David. I’m ruthless when it comes to said-bookisms but, like you, I am tempted to use them to convey volume. Which is the lesser evil, I wonder: the “Whispered” or the “Said quietly”? 🙂

    #3 is a really good point to remember. It made me think back to my last writing sesion to see if I fell into that trap.

  • Thanks for sharing this, David. Data dumps and passive writing are both problems I have to watch out for. I find that they often go hand-in-hand since my data dumps tend to be written in passive voice.

  • I gotta disagree about hell necessarily indicating damnation. In my SF Epic, some people say “in all the nine hells” (along with “What the hell?”) …in terms of religion (of which there are two that are widespread, but no one takes either seriously) they don’t have the concept of damnation, but they do have the concept of an “abode of demons” … it hasn’t come up, but I imagine those are the residents of the “nine hells”. 🙂

    Sounds to me like y’all are conflating “passive voice” (the grammatical technique) with passive writing (which just lies there limp and soggy) …?? Passive voice is perfectly legit, if that’s what the scene needs to focus attention (or blame) where it’s required:

    Punches were thrown; bottles were broken; arrests were made. What, me? I wasn’t there, I’d gone fishing. Need me to bail you out?

  • These are great, David. I’ve gotten better about writing active, not passive, but I can still accidentally slip into it. I’ve also found that I’m okay with excising the data dumps, but sprinkling them back in while maintaining the pace of the story can be a challenge sometimes.

    That workshop sounds wonderful. I know my friend B.A. is looking forward to it.

    And congrats on being guest of honour at WWC!

  • Ken, right — exactly. To me, whispered conveys not just tone but action, posture, attitude, and so I like it more. But some don’t. And yeah, anachronisms are another one I learned about the hard way. The fact is, I’ve made every mistake I’m now identifying in the work of others.

    Sisi, thanks for the comment. And as I say, I’ve done all of these things myself. We learn, we grow, we improve. Its a never-ending process.

    Reziac, you’re splitting hairs on the hell thing. I will concede that the world does not have to have religions with damnation, so long as it has a hell or hells in its belief system. My point is, a world without a hell of some sort (real or simply believed in by many) should not have the word as part of the lexicon. As for passive writing, I have to disagree with you here as well, and again I think you’re splitting hairs. Can characters use passive voice in dialog? Sure. Can a character in point of view use the phrase you give as an example in describing a particular moment in the story? I suppose. But passive voice and passive writing in general narrative use are basically the same thing and they are indicative of ineffective writing.

    Laura, thanks. I’m looking forward to the workshop and to meeting your friend. I slip into all of these things occasionally. As I said to Sisi, it’s a process.

  • ajp88

    Looks like the writers you’re critiquing are in for a treat! This was very helpful.

    This past weekend, I attended Northwestern University’s Summer Writers’ Conference. Along with several workshops and panels, I also had the first chapter of my current work in progress critiqued along similar lines. It was helpful, not too brutal, and in general positive. The issues were pretty easily fixed, I now know of a minor plot hole that needs patching up, and best of all the most concrete critique was to stop stalling and finish writing the last few chapters before diving into revisions. I only wish that any of the faculty there had been as well versed in fantasy (or really genre fiction in general) as you, David.

    Still though, it was helpful. And I’ll be using this article as a guideline during my revisions. Thanks again!

  • Sorry about that! I’m Brandy Ackerley. I write under BA Matthews because my husband was really uncomfortable with me putting my name out there. I think I put it under my real name to make it easier (and less pretentious) to identify me at the workshop.

  • Razziecat

    David, these are all excellent points! Data dumps are something that occasionally creep into my work, although not so much anymore; and I’m proud to say I use very few dialog tags and have found that my writing flows so much better without them. As long it’s clear which character is speaking, I don’t need them. I find that numbers 1 through 4 usually happen because I’ve lost track of the plot, or there’s a big whole in it. Fixing that makes it easier to fix these problems 😀 Enjoy your workshop! Wish I could be there!

  • Vyton

    David, another excellent post. The connection between data dumps and POV is amazing. I have followed what you and others have written about data dumps: Bad. But the connection to POV opens up a brand new view on the matter. I write lots of data dumps. I work on them. And then I go back and work on them some more. Thank you for this insight.

  • AJP, thanks. Sounds like you had a good experience with your workshop — I hope I’m able to offer the attendees in Calgary the same. And I’m glad you found the post helpful.

    Oh, of course! Hi, Brandy! Looking forward to meeting you person!

    Razz, I use dialog tags when I need them, but try to use gesture and expression as much as possible to identify the speaker. I totally agree that many of these problems crop up when deeper underlying issues are at work. Thanks for the good wishes!

    Vyton, thank you. Glad the insight resonated for you. As I said to Mindy (I believe) I had written about POV in the context of worldbuilding before, but this particular direct connection came as an epiphany, and I think I will find it helpful in my own work as well.

  • And she’s getting a signed MW book from ConCarolinas… 😉

  • quillet

    #1 is brilliant. *takes notes* #2 made me laugh. I had to read that bolded sentence twice! (Yes, I see what you did there. 😀 ) And said-bookisms are/were one of my bad habits. Cutting them out and putting in (but very sparingly) expressions and/or actions — or just letting the dialogue speak for itself, totally tag-free — has made my scenes both leaner and more vivid. Better pacing too. …Or so I like to think.