Monday, January 28, 2013

Wordcraft -- A new word in writing critiques

I drove to the Writer's Garret workshop Saturday in a drizzling rain wondering why, oh, why, I’d signed up for a writing critique. Because however necessary rain and critiques are, neither of them are usually spirit-lifting. Little did I know that I would emerge from the morning workshop feeling with a new attitude toward writing critiques.

It helped, of course, that the instructor taught us a new naughty word. In French.

Co-editor with the day’s second workshop leader, Robin Hemley, of Extreme Fiction, University of Alabaman professor Michael Martone opened with a brief lesson on the history of writing critiques. The classic University of Iowa creative writing critiques, he informed us, could ultimately be blamed on the GI bill, the post-World War II legislation that flooded American colleges with “twenty-two year old guys who’d just fought a war.” Twenty-two year old guys who devised writing critiques with the same methods they’d used successfully to fight Germans, post D-Day, through the hedgerows of Normandy.

“The workshop became tactical, to use a military term, instead of strategic,” Martone said, based on the belief that “everybody knew what a good story was and thinking the purpose was to make your bad story good.”

Considering it unlikely we’ll have to defend our stories from Nazi gunners, however, Martone prefers a method called the cross-sectional workshop, a method more like coaching than fighting. I’ll provide a synopsis of the first part of his -- and our -- discussion today, with more to follow.

In the first slice of the cross-section, Martone asked us to contemplate the physical appearance of our papers without regarding the words. They looked eerily similar -- black 12-point serif type on 8 x 11-inch white paper. Did it have to be that way?

“Crots,” he said.

Before we wondered whether we’d heard him correctly, he explains. It’s a term French printers used to describe the appearance of printing on a page, similar to the view of a print preview on a computer screen. “What printers were saying is, this is a white road and there are ‘plops’ on it left by the horses.”

(My high school French dictionary defined “crotte” as, among other things, an animal dropping.)

Then on to the cross-section of titles. Honestly, I can’t remember ever encountering a discussion of titles in a workshop. And I usually hate thinking up titles, wishing I could do the musical thing -- opus number so and so. But I’d be missing an opportunity, in Martone’s thinking.

“You want to suggest to the reader what kind of game you’re playing,” he said. “Any time you can use two words that are contradictory, there’s almost a fight between the two ideas, which is useful for drawing people in. If you’re a prose writer, this might be the only time you’re asked to think in a more poetic way -- a kind of poem that introduces a prose piece, or the prose is a commentary on the piece of poetry that the title is.”

A short poem for a title. Perhaps a poem with only two words? Only one. Or many? Martone teased us with a tale of a flash fiction piece whose title was longer than the story itself. Yes, maybe I can do that.

For more about the Writer's Garret, see

(Next Monday -- more cross-sections, and a peek at Hemley’s writing prompts.)

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