cambridge sf workshop - basic operation

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Since the founding members of CSFW started from the Clarion SF Workshop model, it's not surprising that the basic operation of CSFW is similar to the Clarion method.

At Clarion, the writers sit in a circle. Prior to the meeting of the workshop the material has been handed out and read, critiques thought out, etc. Then, one at a time, each writer delivers his or her critique to the writer of the material and exposes the critique to the group as a whole. The rest of the workshop is constrained from interrupting the critique though they often contribute or refer to the critique when it's their turn. At the end of the round, the author of the material gets rebuttal time. When I was at Clarion, there was sometimes a bit of free-for-all after the end but this was often discouraged.

There are a few differences between CSFW and Clarion, largely due to the fact that Clarion is a temporary workshop under the titular control of a professional writer, one writer for each week or pair of weeks. CSFW is a permanent workshop with no one in control but the group.

In CSFW, writers are expected to write down their critiques in a legible fashion. This can range from minimalist suggestions to tomes of inch by inch criticisms. At one point in the workshop, a member regularly delivered a critique that usually was about 10% of the presented material. A four hundred page manuscript would merit forty pages-- or more-- of solid, perceptive critique.

In the round, when the critiques are delivered, the criticizing writer is expected to deliver the important points, not dwell on minutiae. For example, if a writer has misspelled "quack" over and over, it would be noted in the written critique and not referred to in the delivery. Unless, of course, it has driven the member crazy, at which point the critiquing writer might suggest this tic be corrected. As you could expect, knowing writers, the suggestion might be creative.

Often, in the round, ideas suggested from one member will be fleshed out and refined by other members. It's not at all unusual to have a member enter the round with one opinion of the work under criticism and by the end of the round turn his opinion to the opposite side. All members are professional imaginers of fiction and they bring the same creativity to bear on the object of criticism as they do on their own work.

Over the years the free-for-all at the end of the round has become just as important as the round itself. Sometimes, a whole evening of criticizing one work will be overturned in the free-for-all as idea sparks idea and the discussion heats up.

The author of the work has two fundamental responsibilities in the criticism. The first is to listen in objective silence while eight, or ten, or (at one point in the distant past) twenty-three, writers tear apart the material. This can be difficult. The author is not allowed rebuttal during the round itself. However, sometimes the author might ask a question or two to clarify a point but that's about it. Save up the bile and spleen until the rebuttal and then don't use it.

The second responsibility of the author is to make sense of the criticism. The critiques are freely given. The author is free to use them or not, modify them or not, or use them as a springboard for some other idea. It is entirely up to the author. There have been works that have gone through the workshop, torn down to bedrock, only to be finally published without a whisper of the effects of the critiques showing in the final product. This is the author's prerogative. It is the author's work.

Often, writers will suggest solutions to problems found in the material to the author. The author is free to use them or not. However, it has come up a number of times that a writer will make a suggestion that they themselves would like to write. In those cases, a plaintive request is made to the author to release the idea if the idea isn't used.

Each story gets the same treatment. We handle up to about six stories per session. Sometimes the agenda is full. Sometimes it isn't. The agenda fills on a first come/first served basis but sometimes we can jigger the agenda if someone has a deadline.

Novels are handled somewhat differently. In a story, each writer does all of the critiquing for that story in one go during the round. Novels, being the unwieldy beasts they are, typically drive multiple rounds, each round for a different purpose. A novel might be critiqued in multiple rounds, for example, on a general comments, character comments and plot comments. Other categories can be used. Usually this is requested by the author. However, when an author requests any sort of specific criticism, that criticism may or may not occur. While determining the use of the criticism is the sole province of the author, determining what is important to critique is the sole province of the critic.