The sheets folded like cream across the mattress as she rolled through them, twisting her body to avoid the morning’s light.
As she cocooned, the sheets uncovered his body and he awoke.
His head lay at one end of the bed and hers at the other.
Her eye shadow had smudged, lipstick smeared–her face like a child’s watercolor–but her hair still in an elegant rope braid.
He gripped her foot. “Let’s get married,” he said to it. He kissed the big toe. She muttered in French and gently pulled away.
“She enjoyed you last night”—came a voice from the darkness by the door.
It startled him. A figure sat there.
“I don’t remember.”
“A good show,” said the figure.
He got out of bed and clothed himself. “Who are you?”
The figure laughed like a donkey.
“Leave by the balcony,” the figure said.
“But there’s no stairs…”
Her eyes fluttered open. She stretched. “You’ll have to fly then,” she said.
In the morning, skeletal buildings puffed smoke from their charred innards. He ran between them, wearing yellow shorts, his shoelaces lime.
Rubble littered and buried the streets. Distant gunshots echoed.
He ran before soldiers sitting on a stationary tank, their heads rising from breakfast plates.
In the plaza, his cleats crunched blackened tourist trinkets. He shuddered.
He ran by the park, its trees leafless, their trunks black masts against an overcast canopy.
He passed the perfume shop, its scents now blended into one foul odor, glass bottles merged into twisted, ashen sculptures.
He vomited in an alley, hiding so soldiers wouldn’t see.
Endorphin high, he flew along the canal, throwing forward his numb, rubberized legs. The canal held nothing. He had ordered it drained.
“Remove the water. Burn the city,” he had ordered.
He ran on, lungs heavy with soot. Charred drapes rippled overhead. He swore they whispered his name.
This 150-word flash fiction piece was a semifinalist and finalist in Flash Fiction Friday’s anniversary contest, #Flashversary 2014. It was eventually one of three stories awarded an honorable mention by the editorial staff of Flash Fiction Online, who were the final judges of the contest.
What makes a quality workshop?
Mainly it’s the writers and how those writers interact.
Each writer is responsible for making the critique environment productive. But not every writer knows what this responsibility entails and how to get results.
Over the years, I’ve participated in many, many workshops. And in May 2014, I created a virtual workshop called Write Draft Critique. Doing so reminded me of ways to make the experience more worthwhile.
Below are the best ways I’ve found to create great critique environments.
Many are simply things each writer should consider and keep in mind during, or before, his or her attendance. These aren’t exclusive to workshops and can be used in a variety of critique environments. But all are useful if not essential.
Ways to Make Critique Sessions And Workshops Successful:
1. Always focus on helping each other to be better writers, readers, and critics.
2. Bring professionalism to the quality of all your critiques and interactions even if the work in progress or the author does not exhibit the same level of professionalism.
3. If you only like to read certain genres, seek out critique environments that explore those genres. Don’t participate in broad critique groups.
4. Before you commit to the workshop, ask yourself if you have the time to read, analyze, and critique the work of your peers plus prepare your own submissions. Can you meet all the deadlines? How many hours a day can you dedicate to the workshop?
5. Know the terminology writers, editors, and critics use to discuss literature and stories.
6. Write constructive, helpful critiques. “I liked it” and “I didn’t like it” are unhelpful if you don’t explain why while using examples from the writing. It helps to focus on the reasons why it does or does not work as a story, chapter, or article.
7. Someone already say what you were going to say? Say it anyway. It’s extremely helpful to know if folks had the same reaction.
8. Don’t want line edits and grammar corrections? Note what you want us to focus on in the body of your post or at the top of your MS.
9. After we’ve read your submission, sometimes it helps to tell us what your intentions were and ask us if they were clear.
10. Often we come across taboo subjects in people’s work: violence, sex, abuse, rape, religion, politics etc. Material with these subjects, although potentially challenging, still requires your professionalism and a quality critique.
11. Is one submission different from anything you’ve ever read before? Does it break with convention? Before you shoot it down, first try to understand it. Ask yourself if the differences are intentional.
12. Take arguments and personal disagreements outside the workshop. (Author and filmmaker Garrett Robinson has a great video on this.)
13. Communicate. Can’t make a deadline? Need to leave the workshop for a while? Need to quit? Always be courteous to your fellow writers and let them know.
14. Do not neglect your critique responsibility just because you don’t like or agree with the subject, genre, style, or author.
15. The workshop or the critique group isn’t the place to justify or defend one’s work. It’s a place to listen and consider. You can privately reject or integrate advice later.
16. Remember if people rip your work up and shoot it down, no matter how personal it feels, it isn’t. Adversity is an opportunity for you and your work to grow. It almost never feels good, but it can be essential to improvement, and it thickens your skin. So eat bullets for lunch. Over time, they get easier to swallow.
17. Sometimes following everyone’s suggestions is a big mistake. Pick and choose what works best for your stories. Use your judgment and your instinct.
18. Critique the writing, not the author or the story idea or the genre. (Unless otherwise specified by the author.)
19. Clarification. If you don’t understand a critique, edit, or comment, politely ask people what they meant. And do so every time it happens. It pushes folks to be clearer and creates wonderful discussions about the work. (It also adds to your own understanding.)
20. Aim to leave yourself time to draft, polish, and work your writing to a point where you get stuck or it’s as good as you can get it or you have questions about it.
21. You have to want the workshop to succeed. You have to want your peers to succeed.
22. Do your best to critique and submit on time. “Deadlines are a writer’s best friend” is an old newspaper adage. Being held accountable is one of the best benefits of a workshop.
23. For story lovers, discussing and analyzing stories should be fun. So have fun!
24. Always tell the truth in critiques. And do so nicely and to the best of your ability.
25. Know the difference between sugar coating and genuine encouragement.
26. Remember, you are the final decision-maker when it comes to your writing. You don’t have to take anyone’s advice if you don’t want to.
What else makes a workshop successful?
Below is a list of terms that help writers discuss and think about what they read and write.
Understanding these terms is particularly helpful when critiquing the work of your peers in a writer workshop or a critique group.
The list is not comprehensive. And I did not include definitions. But I encourage you to familiarize yourself with these terms. Look them up, but don’t rush through them. Take your time learning which ones will be most useful to you.
Did I miss an important one? Write it in the comments, and I’ll include it the next time I update this list.
Abstract Concept (vs. Concrete)
Concrete Concept (vs. Abstract)
HEA (“Happily Ever After” Ending)
HFN (“Happy For Now” Ending)
In medias res
Point of View (POV)
Rapport (with the reader)
Showing (vs. Telling)
Telling (vs. Showing)
Usage (as in word usage)
Updated 4/15/2014: Anachronism, Archetype, Artistic License, Authority, Backstory, Chronology, Climax, Continuity, Dream Sequence, Epilogue, Foreshadow, Gobbledygook, Nonlinear, Obfuscate, Poetic License, Preface, Prologue, Setup, Superfluous, Technique.
Updated 4/16/2014: Antihero, Antiheroine, Character Arc, In medias res, Subplot.
Update 5/12/2014: Filter Words.
Update 9/08/2014: HEA (“Happily Ever After” Ending), Head Hopping, HFN (“Happy For Now” Ending). Special thanks to Laura Roberts for these suggestions.
No one spoke. Mist hung above them in the leafless branches. Tank treads in back, truck wheels in front, and a rattling gun turret atop, the A-track advanced along the narrow path, pulling itself through the mud. The squad of eleven followed.
The mist accumulated and rolled down their steel helmets. Moisture seeped through their fatigues, soaking their skin. Eleven faces smoothed with razors. An endless scattering of black tree trunks stood before them. Mud stuck wet and thick to their boots, and they took on more with each step.
Sergeant Kelley lit another cigarette. Those without smokes still exhaled vapor, their breath vanishing up into the white.
Boots sank deep into the path, the ground sucking at the soles. The A-track treaded and hummed and pumped out black exhaust. If the Germans were there—behind melting snowbanks, around bends in the path, in tunnels under their feet—they could hear the A-track’s treads. They could hear Sergeant Kelley. The squad. Their boots. Slowly. Coming. Through the mud.
Dedicated to Arthur M. Kelley, and based on the stories he told me before his death. This is the first of a series.
When driving through Iowa’s flat, long plains and high ceiling skies, we came to a burger joint. The sign read “Best Burger in Iowa.” We ordered four, one for each of us, and happily munched them in our car parked by an old farmhouse. A fence, with covered wagon wheels leaning against it, encircled the place, cutting through the high grass. Later, as we passed through Des Moines, I barfed the “Best Burger in Iowa” out the window of the moving car. Some of the burger blew in the wind and chased itself in liquid streams around islands of chunk stuck to the side of the rental car. How many more states until it would dry? We did not know. But we took bets anyway.