We’re Moving!

The front entrance at 110 Main Street

Walt Mahany enjoying the windows in Studio 3C

As many of you know, our top administrative priority this year has been to find a fully-accessible space for the Burlington Writers Workshop. I am very happy to announce that we have done just that!

On April 1, 2016 (or sooner…stay tuned for the exact move date!), the Burlington Writers Workshop will begin holding workshops at our new address, 110 Main Street, Studio 3C.

This space offers a beautiful, light-filled atmosphere for our workshops in a building that is completely accessible to all. Its downtown location, and our new neighbor Vermont Stage, which resides in the building, keep us connected to the center of Burlington’s cultural and artistic community.

Its proximity to the Cherry Street bus stop keeps evening workshops accessible to those who rely on public transportation, and its proximity to City Hall Park and many local establishments makes it easy for members to continue the workshop conversations outdoors or in a nearby coffee shop or bar. And, thanks to the generosity of our new landlord, Dave Farrington of Brick Box Co., we will have one reserved parking spot so that our dedicated volunteers who serve as workshop leaders and/or help to keep the space open for members will no longer have to pay for parking. (We’ll have a map of available parking in the area ready for you soon!)

The front entrance at 110 Main Street

The fully accessible front entrance with gardens

Best of all, this move is within budget, which leaves more funding for the programs and publications we’ve planned this year.

Getting this space has truly been a group effort. Thank you to everyone who attended the recent informational meeting on our space search and/or who offered suggested spaces to consider. Thank you to our space committee—Wendy Andersen, Cynthia Close, and Walt Mahany—for their work in locating and viewing a range of spaces for the board to consider. Thank you to our realtor, Meg McGovern of Donahue & Associates. And thank you to all of our board members for their careful deliberation of the available options.

Finally, to everyone who has expressed their concern about this issue, and has stuck with us during this time of transition, I would like to take a moment to personally thank you. Your understanding and patience has been very much appreciated, while your concern has also helped to prioritize this issue and ensure that everyone has access to our workshops.

We’re looking forward to welcoming you into the new space soon. Stay tuned for details on an upcoming open house celebration!

Novel Exercise: Making Extreme Options Reasonable

Credit Sajan Mullappally/flickr

Credit Sajan Mullappally/flickr

If you’re writing a novel, one of the easiest ways to send your character on a worthwhile journey is to eliminate possible solutions to your protagonist’s problem until the only one that remains is the riskiest, most dangerous, or most extreme.

If your reader watches your protagonist fail to solve the problem with the easy, common-sense solutions before resorting to extreme measures, it’s more likely that the reader will identify with that protagonist. That feeling of identification goes a long way toward making the reader want to keep reading.

Recently, in one part of a three-part book-length narrative planning workshop in Burlington, I used the following episode of This American Life to illuminate the concept of eliminating the “simple” options.

In the first story in this hour-long radio show, a young couple is sailing across the Pacific Ocean in their houseboat. (If you have 20 minutes, listen to the story. It’s worth it.) This houseboat is their only home. While they’re on this journey, their baby becomes sick. To solve this problem, they have a range of options:

  1. Treat the baby while they’re at sea.
  2. Keep sailing until they reach a country with a good hospital system.
  3. Push a button on a device that will call in help but force them to sink their boat.

Spoiler alert: Number three is a life-changer, and the one they eventually chose. But they had to try the first two and fail at those before option three could be reasonable. (Imagine sinking the boat first! Insanity!)

In short, here’s what happened: The baby had some kind of ear infection and wasn’t responding to treatment. The baby’s illness was so upsetting that they didn’t feel it was wise to wait until they found a decent hospital. The boat sustained some damage, making the luxury of extended travel more risky. And their radio had died. They agonized, but ultimately decided that option three was the best one available.

If your characters make irrevocable choices with huge consequences, you may have a good story on your hands. This couple’s choice left them homeless, which was the consequence they anticipated. What they didn’t anticipate was that, back in the United States, the media had labeled them “bad parents” because they’d brought the baby out to sea (which, as host Ira Glass points out, is not unusual for people who live in houseboats). It’s hard not to sympathize with them. They had some bad luck, did what any reasonable person in their situation would have done, and faced miserable consequences.

As I listened to this piece, I kept wondering what a novelized version of this would look like. Their struggle to make the outside world understand what they had gone through—and perhaps how their relationship survives the stress of being homeless and persecuted by a judgmental world—would serve as the basis of such a novel.

In this workshop, I advised my fellow writers to try and figure out the “simple” steps toward solving the problem facing their protagonist. What’s the problem? What are the reasonable steps that ultimately fail? What extreme measure did they choose, and what are the consequences of that measure?

Granted, there a million ways to write novels, and this exercise won’t apply to all (or perhaps even most) novels. But it’s worth trying out to see if it works for you. While some writers shun any kind of planning (“It ruins my creativity!”), I argue that it’s worth putting careful thought into this essential part of your story before you start writing it. Identifying the problem and the steps your protagonist would have to take isn’t going to sap your creativity. It’s going to save you time, and if you’re like me—a person with a 40-50 hour-a-week job—you’re going to need to make every precious hour count.

Reading With A Pen

file000424834161I recently found this fascinating article about reading with a pen by Tim Parks in The New York Review of Books. The gist is this: the printed word is powerful, but it’s also seductive, so don’t let yourself be seduced too easily.

He’s referring to a common, dangerous assumption: if a book is published, it must be good. We may believe that each sentence has been vetted for clarity, each paragraph hangs together, and the author’s logic holds water. This isn’t necessarily true, Parks reminds us. He provides several examples of badly written published works to make his point.

Readers definitely fall into this trap. I’m definitely guilty of it, too. But if readers are at times not critical enough, creative writing workshop participants may be too critical. Workshoppers may assume that if a piece of writing isn’t published, there must be something wrong with it. This assumption isn’t necessarily correct, and if it isn’t consciously banished from your brain, you may blind yourself to the author’s intent.

Note: this isn’t the first time I’ve warned against “looking for errors” in a work-in-progress. I speak about it at length in “On Giving Feedback.”

It’s wise to be alert while reading, to “resist enchantment for a while, or at least for long enough to have some idea of what we are being drawn into,” as Parks says. But I would caution against being so alert that you find problems that aren’t really there. A general, almost neutral awareness of your responses to each part of the piece is the real weapon here—a weapon that takes time and effort to cultivate.

Dispatch from AWP: The Fine Art of Constructive Praise

file4211283523276There are workshops that tear you down for sport, and there are workshops that build you up with meaningless praise. Somewhere between these two extremes exists the sweet spot of the creative writing workshop, where, as four panelists from Grub Street in Boston put it, the “poetics of generosity” exist to provide writers with the space, encouragement, and advice they need to grow and improve. Continue reading

Your Character’s Age Doesn’t Matter (As Much As Your Readers Think)

What would this boy’s exact age tell you about who he is?

If your readers ask the age of your character, they’re really asking for something else: What makes this character special, unique, believable, and human? Age, as they say, ain’t nothin’ but a number.

In every workshop I’ve attended—at the undergraduate level, in my MFA studies, and now at the BWW—I’ve seen discussions of stories that prompt this question: “What’s this character’s age, exactly?” Continue Reading

Writing Workshops: Six Guidelines for Cultivating Trust

Meg Stout

Meg Stout

Writing workshops are a pretty amazing thing. People, often strangers, come together to share pieces that express their artistic visions and, sometimes, intimate details of their lives. It can be scary to submit your work for review, but in return for your bravery, you receive valuable feedback, encouragement, and a sense of community. Participating in a writing workshop can be a powerful and even transformative experience. Continue Reading

Changes for the New Year

Twenty fourteen will be a year of change for the Burlington Writers Workshop. Of course, that’s nothing new. Every year we’ve changed our system in big and small ways to accommodate what we need/want to do. But our rapid growth has prompted us to rethink some of our procedures, and after consulting with a few of you, I’ve decided to make the following changes.

1.   Announce new workshops/events on the last day of the month.  With occasional exceptions, I will announce a month’s worth of events on the last day of each month. On January 31, I’ll announce all of March’s events. On February 28th, I’ll schedule all of April, etc., etc. This kind of predictability will (hopefully) help you plan ahead and keep your email box clear of random announcements.

2.  No more goofy workshop names. We have named meetings after out-of-context lines pulled from stories, essays, and poems that we’ve discussed. This causes new members to look for stories, essays, and poems with those out-of-context lines as titles. It’s causing too much confusion, so this practice should stop. We will use titles that more accurately represent the purpose of the workshop.

3.  Standardize workshop times. We will make permanent our workshops on Mondays, Wednesdays, and Thursdays at 6:30 p.m. and Tuesdays and Fridays at 10:30 a.m. We’ll also have songwriting workshops every third Sunday, and reading discussion groups every other Saturday (more on this later). This does not mean we won’t plan other workshops as needed. For example, workshops in which StoryhackVT experts appear to help with digital storytelling depend on their availability and therefore need to be flexible. Ditto workshops with established authors. But these workshops will be predictable for folks who want to attend on a regular basis.

4.   Submit universally accepted file types. When you post your work for review, post only two different file types: .doc or .pdf. It’s become a hassle for many people to open .docx and .pages files, so don’t post anything except .docs and .pdfs. (Note: If you can print a file, you can turn it into a PDF with a free program called PrimoPDF. You can find it here.) Full rules on how to participate are here.

5.   Follow professional formatting standards. It’s important to format your document correctly for a variety of professional reasons. For the workshops we do, I’ll just say that the work needs to speak for itself, without any funky fonts. For prose, follow this example, and for poetry, follow this example.

Hemingway16.  No more alcohol. Bummer, right? Yes, definitely. But it’s a liability. Fortunately, Citizen Cider is moving in across the street, and Church Street is just a few blocks away. The upside? We have all the coffee, tea, soda, and water you could ask for. “Write drunk; edit sober,” said Hemingway, but we do not take this literally.

There are more changes on the horizon, but they’re not quite ready yet, so I’ll save that announcement for another day. In the meantime, if you have questions, or would like to suggest more changes, please feel free to contact us.

Survey Says…


Credit anykitchenwilldo.com

You may be wondering: “Chocolate fondue? What does that have to do with a survey about a writing workshop?”

You’ll find a perfectly reasonable explanation here in the survey results. Two things really surprised me: (1) You want to launch a new literary journal  and (2) you’re mostly opposed to paying for a permanent space.

Here are more details on the survey. Fifty-eight people completed it.

1.   Assume the BWW has enough money for one new project or initiative in 2014. What should it be?

  • Pay established writers to attend workshops: 8 Votes
  • Publish a book by a Vermont writer: 6 Votes
  • Launch a new literary journal: 30 Votes (55.56%)
  • Acquire a permanent space for all workshops: 16 Votes
  • Sponsor readings by established authors: 7 Votes

When asked to suggest “other” projects, responses were: more publishing panels, more readings, start a writing conference, and set up a “pitch” night where folks with finished manuscripts can pitch to a panel of agents.

It’s clear that you want to start a literary journal. Let’s make it our number one priority while keeping in mind that these other things are important, too.

2.      What did you enjoy most about the BWW in 2013?

The vast majority of you say the workshops themselves were the most enjoyable. Folks also mentioned the panel discussion and having access to each others’ thoughts through their pieces and discussions.

3.   What do you think the BWW should do differently in 2014?

Lots of divided opinions here. Some folks want us to limit attendance to 12. Others want us to have workshops with no attendance limit. Some people love Half Lounge, some hate it (fortunately we have two locations now). Some want a permanent space, but some would rather wait until we have more money.

Three things emerged that I think we can do with a little effort: (1) Writers should show evidence of having polished their pieces to perfection before submitting for the workshop’s review. No typos, no grammar problems, etc. (2) More readings by local authors, panel discussions, and book-length narrative workshops. Yes, yes, yes! We’ll do these in 2014. (3) Workshops in other cities. I’m working with some folks in Montpelier who may be able to help us expand there. If you’re in a city other than Burlington, contact me, and let’s work together to expand these opportunities to folks in other cities and towns.

4.   Should the BWW spend money to acquire a permanent space?

  • Yes: 21 Votes (40.38%)
  • No: 31 Votes (59.62%)

Most people do not want to spend BWW resources on renting/buying a new space. However, it still seems important to many people that the BWW establish a free, public writing center that can serve as a space for our workshops, panel discussions, and readings. So perhaps there’s a way to find someone to donate space to us (non-profit status may help). Let’s explore options this year and see what we can do.

5.   Are you willing to make voluntary monthly contributions to support BWW activities?

  • Yes: 31 Votes (55.36%)
  • Maybe: 22 Votes (38.60%)
  • No: 4 Votes (7.14%)

If you are a meetup.com member, you can make automatic monthly contributions of $12/month by clicking on the Member Dues section in the left-hand column of Meetup.com.

If you would like to make a one-time gift or give a different amount on a monthly or quarterly basis, make you donation here. Both methods employ WePay, which is like PayPal but easier to use.

Of course, donations are optional. Our mission is to be a free community resource. Your donation will allow us to do even more. We’ll always have our core service, which is to provide free writing workshops for anyone who wants to attend.

6. What could organizer Peter Biello do differently to better serve you and this workshop?

You were all very kind. One person expressed gratitude that I am “not a tool.” You made very good suggestions. I should: (1) keep better track of time to ensure that we spend the same amount of time on each writer’s work during our meetings; (2) expand these workshops to different areas; (3) create a pamphlet that explains the rules to new members; (4) create a team of leaders to help manage the growth. I will do all of these. In fact, I’ve already done number 4, and if you’d like to join the team, please contact me.

7.   What opportunities would you like to see the BWW create for you?

In short: more workshops, panel discussions, and opportunities to read in public. Someone wrote: “Getting Simon and Schuster to pay me a large advance to publish my memoir. (Just kidding – but not really kidding).” We’ll work on that! We’d also like to build a young adult (YA) workshop for those writing for a younger audience. This is totally do-able. And yes, some folks wanted a permanent space.

8.   The launch of The Best of the Burlington Writers Workshop 2014 is scheduled for Friday, April 11, 2014 at Burlington City Arts. What should we do to make this event great?

My absolute favorite suggestion: “Have a live band and chocolate fondue.” I don’t know who wrote that, but I love him/her. We shall have chocolate fondue (if BCA allows heated things).

As for the music: Yes! Now that the BWW has a songwriting/hootenanny component, it makes sense to bring musicians into the mix.

I also thought it would be wise to create an awards ceremony of some kind. Maybe offer a “fake MFA” for folks who have attended a certain number of workshops? Or maybe you could nominate your fellow workshop participants for “best/most thoughtful responses”? Just an idea.

You also said I should promote the heck out of this. Trust me, I will. If you want to help me promote it right now, invite your friends in the Burlington area to “Like” our Facebook Page.

9.   What special talents do you have (artistic, technological, or otherwise) that you’d like to use to support this community?

This is the part that I wish was not anonymous. Now I know what you can do, but I don’t know how to ask you! Please contact me if you were the person who said you’re good at: InDesign, WordPress, social media, marketing, non-profit organization, and graphic design. You listed other skills—such as the willingness to serve on a board or committee for one of our projects—so send me a note about that, too. In fact, there’s nobody I won’t tap for help. Just give me time.

10.  How can burlingtonwritersworkshop.com be improved?

Two big takeaways: (1) More guest blogposts written by BWW members. If you have an idea for a post, send it my way. (2) Put the work that’s up for review on the “Attend a Workshop/Schedule” page. That way we wouldn’t have to go to Meetup.com

WordPress.com has been difficult to work with when it comes to using “buttons” and “widgets,” so anyone with WordPress experience who wants to help me with the website, send me a message!

I did not list all of the comments here (it’s more than 44 pages printed) but I’ve read them all. This organization is strong because you have taken ownership of it in surprising and creative ways. I’m very thankful for your dedication and creativity.

And if you have chocolate fondue equipment I could borrow, please contact me soon. The sooner the better. I think I should test it out at home right away. You know. To make sure it works.

More Guidelines for Good Workshop Discussions


BWW writer Colleen McLaughlin (center) offers some wise advice to Paul Hobday (right).

A few months ago, I posted six guidelines for workshop discussions. Folks suggested more, which I think are worth mentioning here.

7.   Assume the writer meant every word. Writers are expected to make a piece as good as it can possibly be before workshop members read it. It’s not helpful to say, “I’m not sure the writer meant to do this, but…” The writer did it. It’s our job to explain what the writer did, not what we think the writer meant to do. The writer knows what s/he attempted to do and will correct later if corrections are needed.

8.   For nonfiction, treat the main character as a constructed character.  The character on the page is different from the one sitting in the room with us, even if this is “nonfiction” and therefore to a certain degree truthful in the literal sense. We should avoid using the word “you” (we shouldn’t be addressing the writer during discussions anyway; see Guideline #1). According to the person who commented on my original post, following this rule will help “keep the discussion focused on the narrator character on the page and not the personal life of the writer sitting across the table.” Well said!

9.   For fiction, never assume the writer is writing about her/his self. Just don’t go there. It’s irrelevant, anyway.

10.  Avoid tangents. It’s fine to bring up personal experience when it relates to something happening in a story, but it’s not helpful to launch into a long story.

I have a feeling that this list will continue to grow, so please do leave your comments and help us continue to improve our discussions.

Six Ways To Improve Discussions

BWW2discussWe thrive on good discussions. There’s nothing as stimulating as a debate about an element of the craft of writing. As workshop participants, we’re encouraged to talk about these elements of craft with passion and tact.

As witness to and leader of nearly 200 workshop meetings, I’ve figured out a few things that help discussions flow. Our discussions are usually stellar, but, since we’re always trying to improve ourselves and our writing, I’d like to offer these six suggestions for improving our discussions as well.

1. Talk to each other, not the writer.

It’s tempting to talk to the writer, but don’t. The writer can’t respond, so when you address your comments to the writer, you’re creating a one-sided conversation. Talk to the other workshop participants. Better yet, see #2.

2. Ask questions.

This opens the floor for a debate. For example, if you say, “I think the use of the word lamb gave the poem a religious/Christian undertone. Did anyone else think that?” Workshop members now have a chance to weigh in.

3. Challenge each other to dig deeper.

If someone says something you don’t quite understand, ask him/her to clarify. Sometimes a simple “What do you mean by that?” will expose assumptions about a text—and this kind of stuff is very helpful to writers.

4. Do not give a laundry list of your responses.

You’ve read the story/essay/poem and written a ton of comments. Great! Do not feel compelled to read them all aloud. Use one at a time. If you recite a list, nobody will listen.

5. Focus on elements of craft, not line edits.

Most of the time, line edits aren’t fun to talk about. When you discuss line edits, you run the risk of rewriting the piece for the author, and that’s not what we’ve gathered here to do. It’s usually better to talk about character development, plot, setting, dialogue, and, in the case of poetry, meter, rhythm, rhyme, form, and sound.

6. Listen.

It’s not as easy as you think. If you’re too busy thinking about the next thing you want to say, you won’t listen. And if you’re not listening, you’re not going to ask questions or challenge the speaker or move the conversation forward. So here’s a tip: Write down the thoughts that occur to you during the discussion and save them for a moment when the conversation naturally pauses. At the very least, you’ve written it down for the author—the only person who really needs to hear it.

I’d love to hear from you about your techniques for good discussions. How should we talk about writing in the context of a writing workshop? Join the discussion on our Facebook page.

Richard Russo On That Last Two Percent

richardrussoNovelist Richard Russo recently spoke at Vermont College of Fine Arts. In his hour-long conversation with VCFA President and novelist Thomas Greene, he spoke about the value of formal education for writers.

In describing his MFA experience, Russo said, “What it was for me was a port in the storm, for one thing. Two or three years in which you’re in a place with other people, you’re all doing the same thing, and you don’t have to explain yourself to anybody.”

Russo has also taught writing, and shared his thoughts on teaching the craft. “I think part of what a writing teacher’s job is to help a talented writer find out how to get that last short distance,” he said.

To explain what that “short distance” is, he offered this analogy: “You know how in a computer when you’re waiting for something to download and you follow the bar along and it goes up to 98% and sometimes it stalls at 98% and you think ‘What the hell? It took you thirty seconds to go 98% and now you’re sitting there waiting for that last two percent.’
It’s like that with writers […] It’s amazing how quickly you can learn all but the thing that you need to learn most. And that’s that last two percent.”

Russo said that “one of the things that a good writing teacher will do, in addition to the technical things, is to help the writer understand who he or she is and what’s coming between that writer and that last two percent.”

This is helpful advice, especially since, in the Burlington Writers Workshop, we’re all each other’s teachers.

What’s your “two percent”? And how are you working to travel that last short distance?