Catapult Online Fiction Workshop

October 22, 2016 § Leave a comment

Over August and September I took part in an 8-week online fiction workshop hosted by Catapult and taught by Justin Taylor (author of Flings and Everything Here Is the Best Thing Ever). It’s the second time I’ve taken an online workshop to get feedback on my short fiction, after taking a similar 8-week course hosted by Barrelhouse in 2013.

There were originally nine students in the class, though unfortunately one member had to drop out early. The schedule allowed each writer to workshop a story twice. The writer posted the story, then the rest of the class had a week or so to read and comment before the class gathered for a chat session (blocked out for an hour, but usually extending beyond that) on Wednesdays.

The interface on the Catapult site allows you to upload your story and edit it right on the site, WordPress-style. Once it is “published,” the other members of the class can comment in two ways: 1) a general comment at the end of the piece, and 2) flyout-style comments (like in MS Word) that highlight and quote particular strings of text. That way, if there’s a certain sentence or phrasing you want to point out, it does the quoting for you right in the program. Since it was the first time Catapult had attempted an online class, there were a few early bugs, but the administrators, Julie and Colin, were very responsive to concerns and fixes. By the third week or so it was working smoothly.

While it’s always a wild card what kind of personalities you’ll get when you sign up for any class, especially an online one, I can say that the other students were careful and thoughtful readers who were unshy about their expectations, as well as talented writers who brought a range of drafts with them that made me see different ways a story can take shape. (There seemed to be a lot of stories about ghosts and children in this bunch.) In addition to the workshopping sessions, there were writing exercises about such elements as point of view, the elapse of time, and other narrative devices, supplemented by close readings of stories by writers such as Wells Tower, Lydia Davis, Dawn Raffel, and Deborah Eisenberg from The Anchor Book of New American Short Stories.

There was also a half-hour phone conference with Taylor, where we went over some of the takeaways from the class, tossed around ideas for reworking my stories, and had a low-key chat about writing in general. As an instructor, he was good at moving the live discussions along and directing the conversation toward those aspects of the story worth a longer look—not an easy thing to do when nine people are typing all at once.

Through these lessons, I think my greatest takeaway was an expansion of my thinking in what a story can set out to achieve. There were stories in workshop with dynamic characters and voices, but there were also less character-driven stories that still managed to convey a genuine mood. The ending remains the hardest part for me, and I am realizing that writing an ending that satisfies the rest of the story is not the same as setting up the punchline to a joke. It’s about what is true to the growth of the character, and so often the right ending, the one that rings true, is decided in the early moments.

It’s too late to sign up for the next course, which started last week, but there will be more in the future, perhaps with different instructors and angles. And here you can find an interview with Taylor on his experience teaching the course.

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