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Tin House Writers Workshop: Day Two

Also known as the day I got my story work shopped, day two was freaking unbelievably awesome! I’ll spare you the boring details about breakfast by saying that the food was good and I ate bacon and eggs.


The first order of business for day two was the morning lecture, titled “THE TIN HOUSE VIEW, WITH LEE MONTGOMERY AND ROB SPILLMAN”. It was basically a Q&A panel with two of the editors of Tin House Magazine. This provided a great opportunity to ask questions not only about submitting to Tin House in particular, but also to ask advice on submitting to other places. Some of the main things I took away from the talk are as follows:

  • Write in exile, write naked, write in blood. Quoted from Denis Johnson by Rob Spillman.
  • Have urgency in your writing
  • Be surprising
  • Be driven by voice. When asked further about this, Rob told us what he meant was that he wanted the story to have a sense of authority that tells the reader that the writer who wrote this knows what he is doing and is telling the story for a reason.
  • Submit your work to the company you want to keep. This means that if a magazine doesn’t have work you like or admire, don’t submit there. Only choose places you would be proud to have your work in and associated with.
  • Finally: If an editor rejects your work, but also goes so far as to ask you to submit again, make sure to do it. But don’t do it a week later. Give it at least 3 months–enough time to show that you reflected on a piece or even worked a completely new one and you wanted him to be the first one to see it. Also, be sure to reference when you got the letter from the editor and that he asked you to submit again.


Next came the workshop. I must admit, it’s not bad being workshopped, but when the person leading your workshop is Benjamin Percy, well, you get a little bit scared. He opened the workshop by talking about genre and literary fiction and how it’s interesting when writers mash them up. He then read an interview of Stephen King and talked about how we reveal what people are afraid of in horror. And then he started talking about my story, how it did an awesome job using horror as a starting place the story, but undermined the typical thoughts of horror with inventive and lyrical language, not to mention complex characterization. I have to admit, just these little compliments from Ben Percy made me feel so good I was ready to hear any kinds of advice.

After this part, my fellow workshop members were encouraged to say what they liked about the story. Unfortunately, I didn’t really write down anything nice they said, but I remember that it made me feel good. They liked the image of the glow-stick fluid being the central image. They liked how the tension got ratcheted up. They liked the situation and premise. Next came the discussion of what the story is actually about. We got some interesting feedback. Lots of it was echoes of: fear, cowardice, wanting to do the right thing, etc. Ben decided to extend the conversation about the theme of the story a little bit more by introducing an interesting and perfectly phrased quote: “A story is always about two things: the thing and the “other” thing.”  Now this probably sounds retarded, but it actually makes so much sense. We always have to keep two things in mind when writing a story–what the main story is saying and trying to get across and what this thing has an effect on or how it affects the character. For example, in my story, the boys witness a rape and the main character runs away from the scene with his friend. But I had no back story and no reason why this failure to do anything should bother the boy so much. So I need to find out what it is about this boy that makes him feel so bad about this. Maybe his sister was raped, maybe something else. But I have to find that out and we all do when writing a story.

The critique I got was really good and some wasn’t really consequential. This is how it always works and we kind of have to decide who we want to listen to. The really good stuff I got will basically be listed now:

  • Set up conflict between character’s feelings/desires and what actually happens.
  • Set up conflict between the main character and his friend.
  • Make sure to make the story causal, not episodic.
  • What is Tristan’s deal?
  • Horror is not a genre, it’s an emotion.
  • Early manifestation of interior.
  • What is at stake?
  • Glow-stick goo as symbol/trope.

Right there is pretty much the recipe of what I need to remember in order to make this story better and ready to publish. Ironically, taking out the conversation I had at the beginning of the story actually took away some of the clarity of the story. So now I have to find a way to re-work the conflict between the friends at the end and make it apparent at the beginning. Also, I need to make this later event matter at the beginning of the story. How will the rape affect him so badly? The best thing about this is that even though I now had a laundry list of things I needed to do with my story, I actually felt encouraged and ready to go back and re-work it. And I think that’s the staple of any good workshop.

12:30 PM: LUNCH

Next was lunch. The food was good.


After lunch, we had a panel in Vollum Lecture Hall with three literary agents, where we could pretty much ask them anything we wanted. I don’t remember much from it. A lot of the information I already knew or wasn’t at a point where I could quite use it yet. But it was really cool to be able to get some insider information if we had a question ready to ask.


Okay, so most people really didn’t like this talk, but I found it really interesting. Maybe because I’m prejudiced in favor of Richard Nash, maybe because I really love his ideas on the future of publishing. Basically, Richard Nash is a dude dedicated to cutting out the middle man of publishing. He is interested in getting readers and writers connected in a way that hasn’t really happened yet. His website, Red Lemonade, is basically a social networking site for writers to post their work and have it reviewed by readers and fellow writers. I’m on this site, but I don’t post anything, as I intensely distrust people on the internet. However, I do give some feedback, because I think the site is a cool idea in theory. Plus, hearing Richard Nash talk, you know he’s extremely knowledgeable about publishing and an intense lover of books. After his talk, I met him and told him I liked his talk. I’ve emailed him and asked him for a copy of his talk, so hopefully I’ll be able to post the bullet-points of his talk sometime soon.

4:30PM: Cocktail Hour (and a half)

Writers are very nice people who buy me drinks when I don’t really deserve it…


Again, food was great.


Self-explanatory. Lots of drinking and talking.

8PM: AUTHOR READINGS w/ Karen Shepard, Mary Szybist, Benjamin Percy

The first reader of the night was Karen Shepard, who gave a really cool reading. Then Mary Szybist read a bit and did an awesome job. I kind of think that Benjamin Percy stole the show, though. His voice was just unreal and you could probably hear it from hundreds of yards thanks to the microphone. He read a bit from his book, The Wilding. The selection was scary in itself, but with his voice added, it was pretty terrifying. And he shared that his favorite stage direction in literature is from A Winter’s Tale: “Exit stage right, chased by bear.”


From here on out each night, we drink. We smoke. We do other things that are mostly legal. It’s a shit-ton of fun. I think the thing that makes this workshop so awesome is the amount of down time provided to meet people and have interesting conversations. This night I hung around mostly with the people from my workshop and the people I had had conversations with earlier that day. Cigarettes and liquor were consumed, but I went to bed pretty early because of how long I had been up that day. All in all, an awesome day.


About rydowney

What’s up party poetry people?! Welcome to my poetry blog. This is my rambling intro to you. My name is Ry. Ry Downey if you’re interested in googling me (giggity) but I’m not sure it will turn up anything interesting. I’m a citizen of Planet Earth and I might be from Mars. Or Venus, because I believe in love more than I do war. Yes, Venus. Definitely Venus. I love the thought of aliens and space–I’m a lover of nature and sunshine and laughing so hard I cry. I love my friends and my family and anything that makes me feel love and appreciation and gratitude for having lived this long on this beautiful rock floating through the stars. And then comes poetry.

2 responses to “Tin House Writers Workshop: Day Two

  1. In my experience, writers and artists are super generous, with drinks and opinions especially.

    Thanks for sharing the cool insider shit you learned.

    I will suggest keeping in mind that ideally your audience could be more than just people who’ve read the story you’re talking about or who know which one you submitted for workshop. It took me a minute to remember.

    Also, I’m totally making this comment using the internet of the FedEx across the street from where I’m waiting for my ride. And that amuses me.

    • rydowney

      Good call with the advice to be more explicit about the story that was workshopped. I need to do some more blogging, but right now I’m kind of on a roll–I have two or three different short stories I’m trying to work on while outlining my first stab at a novel (outside of NaNoWriMo). So yeah, writing > blogging. Oh and there will be far more insider stuff to blog about! I only finished with Day 2–there’s 5 more days!

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