Tag Archives: Jennifer Carson

Conning your way: Moderating a Writer’s Workshop

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Graphic from Bo’s Cafe Life

Moderating a writer’s workshop at a con is easy.  Someone has passed you the power to sit down and conduct.  All you have to do is show up, say go, and let the people talk. Right?

Yes…but no.

Moderating a writer’s workshop well at a con is not so easy.  The point of a workshop is not to see that a half dozen people get to talk on a manuscript; the point is to guide the workshop to help an author make a better manuscript.  Workshops can do that, but they can also do the reverse.

I know of one instance where the writer went home, took the advice of one of the pros, and totally chopped up the manuscript.  I was at the workshop so I heard the advice, and since I know the writer, I saw the result.  The advice was a reiteration of something I’d said: writing structure should reflect writing content (a blog for another time).  For instance, in the writer’s action scene, her sentences sometimes got away from her.  They were longer and occasionally more rambling than they should have been for the situation: a gun fight in the forest. While these sentences were perfectly good sentences for the right situation, right there, they needed to be shorter, punchier, and more directed to the immediate events (no time to dissemble on stray thoughts).  However, what and how the pro said it may have confused that writer  for she went home and applied the advice to the whole manuscript to its detriment.  Took her a few months to undo the damage.

You as moderator want to try to keep the workshop session focused on the goal of helping author-entrants to improve their works.  The value of those works should not be under discussion. At one time, I had a writer’s group member make the comment in group about my work, “Ho hum, another Conan the Barbarian novel, but I guess you know that” (No, I didn’t, he is the only person to have ever said that—I left that group as a result).  Another con workshop I heard about had an author-entrant writing about Norse mythos.  A workshop participant compared her to Marvel’s Norse-influenced work and said they liked Marvel better.  We writers need to follow our bliss, so don’t judge the author’s choice.  Instead, guide each author to make his or her take on the subject his or her own unique story.  So in your workshop, judge the intent of the stories and help the author-entrants meet their goals. If this type of judgment does happen, be prepared to gently redirect the attention to the intent and those goals.

Over the years, I’ve learned from my mistakes and successes to develop pretty simple guidelines.

Workshop Format

The science fiction and fantasy cons I’ve moderated for use the same format.  The workshop comprises three author-entrants, two pros, and a moderator.  Three manuscripts of up to thirty pages are delivered to all the workshop participants in advance to be critiqued in a three-hour session.

I will breakdown the process of a workshop using this format. If your workshop varies, you’ll have some math to do. This also assumes the room is yours for the full three hours. If it’s a dedicated room to the workshop, this is likely the case, but if a panel follows you, they will assume you were supposed to be out before the hour.  To be sure, ask your program coordinator or look to see who is in the room after you.

Introduce yourself and that this is a workshop session. If more people are in the room than you expect, let them know it’s a private session. Go around the table and have everyone introduce themselves. I like to ask the pros to share their latest project—a moment of shameless self-promotion if you will. Set the rules for the workshop.


I’ve adjusted these guidelines from my college creative writing workshops.  Each critiquer reviews the manuscript without interruption either from the other critiquers or the author-entrant. The critiquer whose turn it is to speak should not engage the others at the table (including the author-entrant) with questions unless the critiquer has a quick clarification he or she needs to make a point.  He or she may then ask a question to elicits a very short answer from the author-entrantYou as moderator should be prepared to say, “let’s make note of that and address it further at the end” if the answer goes on too long.

The author-entrant will have time to ask questions.  I like to stress that this workshop is for the author-entrant, not the critiquers.  Author-entrants should not defend their work. After all, a shrink-wrapped version of the author does not come with every copy of the book sold.  It’s not important that the critiquers understand what the author-entrant is trying to do, it’s important that the author-entrant understands what a reader may infer.  No rebuttals or justifications are necessary and no good ever comes of such.  If a critiquer is wrong, it’s just not that important that he or she knows. You as moderator may be called on to gently curtail an author-entrant who is trying too hard to defend the work.  The only exception to this is if an author-entrant would like clarification on why a critiquer came to a particular conclusion. In this case, the author can outline the back information necessary to frame the question, ask where he or she went wrong, and inquire about suggestions to fix it.


  1. Each manuscript gets (about) 1 hour.
  2. Each critiquer will get up to 8 minutes to speak with a one-minute warning at 7 minutes. (I use my phone to have an alarm go off at the seven minute point. This way, I don’t clock watch, can remain engaged in the workshop,  don’t lose track of time, and  don’t have to personally interrupt folks.)
  3. 10 to 15 minutes of open table time starting with asking the author-entrant if they have questions.  This will usually instigate an open table conversation. If it doesn’t, be prepared to ask questions to get conversation rolling.
  4. 5 minute break


I give the order the critique will go in.  This is really up to the moderator. I usually go clockwise, counter clockwise and clockwise again.  However, some people may have never been involved in a workshop or feel insecure about going first, especially in the presence of pros. If one of the author-entrants is sitting left or right of you, you might inquire if they would prefer to go later (but don’t forget them!  It’s quite embarrassing).  Or you may just choose to start with one pro and move in a circle from there. Or you could determine an order before you even arrive and announce it when you start that critique.  I tell people I will go last so that I can adjust for timing if it gets off.

I then announce the order of the manuscripts. Because of the workshop introduction, the first manuscript may go over the hour. You may wish to start with a manuscript that is shorter or you think might elicit fewer comments.

End of Workshop

Thank everyone for their time and participation.  Remind the author-entrants to take time to think about and feel out the advice they have been given. They are here to learn, but ultimately they are the shepherds of their own work. They are the ones that need to guide it.  Sometimes in experimenting with new ideas and ways of doing things, the writing can go wrong. So make a clearly marked back up of the story before massaging it.  It will be liberating, allowing the author-entrant to push harder, and it will ensure that writing paths that lead to dead ends don’t lead to a manuscript’s dead end.

The Writer’s Toolbox
Real Heroes Don’t Get Charlie Horses
Part 4: But how do I do it?

inkwellIdentifying the words that have connotation worth mining can be a challenge if you are not used to thinking of words in this fashion. Poetry is rife with examples of mining connotation. Find some you like or that has an emotional component like one you are looking for and read it. Make notes; pay close attention to metaphor; write down words that attract your attention. Contemplate what those words contribute. Look them up in the dictionary, then the thesaurus.

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Hey, as long as you have the thesaurus open on your desk or desktop, peruse it. Think about how some words evoke different feelings within you, even though they are under the same heading. Pairs like shadow and shade, rock and stone, chill and cool all have different connotations. Shadow tends to be spooky or disturbing, shade restful. Rock is a little less formal-sounding than stone, and the use of rock is more common in the western United States and stone more so in the east. Cool is refreshing, chill is unpleasant, even scary.

As you look through the thesaurus entries, note that the long and complex words tend to leave you cold. Long Latinate-based words can be too neutral. In the worst scenario, they can be so dispassionate as to feel cold. When you are working with neutral words, some are better than others even if neither has heavy connotation. Shorter words tend to be better and are usually not Latinate. Our original example of The clouds moved across the sky, though neutral, is much better than The clouds locomoted across the sky. They are both synonyms from the thesaurus, but locomoted is long and Latinate. Latinate words run the risk of being boring, off putting, cold, or scientific feeling. That said, I like the sound of The clouds traversed the sky. Maybe there is a story where that would be the right choice.

Now that you have looked through some thesaurus entries, it is time to try an exercise to help your next scene. I had a terribly difficult time with a battle scene, and I kept consulting with readers and SCA fighters and reading books on tactics. The scene got more organized, but it never got better. I finally figured out that all the staging and proper window dressing in the world was not going to save the scene. What it lacked was an emotional connection to the reader. Emotional situations were happening; they just weren’t connecting with my reader on an emotional level. So I did two things, I looked for ways to expand my understanding of what sensory events were occurring in a battle (in my case I watched movie and Internet clips), and I spent time with a thesaurus to generate lists of words related to events, the sensory experiences of the characters, and relating to what I watched on the clips. Here are some of the words I looked up: battle, slash, clangor, explode, rage, weak, energy, dance, destroy, adrenalin, taste, scent, perfume, odor, cloying, and fetid. Note how the last five relate. If a word doesn’t work (perfume didn’t work for me) keep looking. Look up entries from within the list you are looking at, they themselves will likely have alternative choices, which will help you refine your word lists.

Now you have useful words swimming about your head ready for you to pluck. Or a list you’ve generated to peruse when you feel you need stronger or different terms. The result for my battle scene was nothing short of transforming. It may not have become the definitive scene to end all battle scenes, but it jumped the chasm from boring to engaging.

Go Forth and Do

If you look at your writing, you may see that you have made choices already where connotation is aiding you. Now you understand what it is you were doing when you chose those words. With your conscious understanding of connotation as a tool for writing, you can control more effectively how your reader connects to the scene you are portraying. You can amp up or dial down the emotional elements, revving up your readers or resting them so you can take them refreshed on the next thrill ride. Your job as a writer is to provide the reader the emotional experience they seek. Connotation can be a powerful and subtle tool for manipulating the emotional connection between your story and your reader, so get out your virtual whetstone, hone your new tool, and put it into your writer’s toolbox.

The Writer’s Toolbox
Real Heroes Don’t Get Charlie Horses
Part 2: The Charlie Horse Syndrome and Other Ill Applied Connotations

So we’ve just reviewed what connotation is and how it can be used, but let’s look at what happens when the word with the wrong connotation is used. Enter our bad guy:

His lip curled into a leer as he towered over her. She shuddered every time he moved, at every flex of his fist, at every step that brought him closer. He pushed his fuzzy black hair away from his stone-cold eyes, and said…

Queue the sound of a record scratch…Huh? Fuzzy hair? Bunnies are fuzzy, chicks are fuzzy, our childhood teddy bears are fuzzy. Clowns have fuzzy hair, your BFF has fuzzy hair on bad hair days, newborns have fuzzy heads…Do you see the commonality? All of these things are nonthreatening.

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Threatening things are not fuzzy: Wild boars bristle; hissing cats raise their hackles; and gorillas thump their chests as their hair stands on end. While you might stretch the denotation of fuzzy to cover a boar, hissing cat, or angry gorilla, the connotation just screams out against it. So here, the villain has got himself a comic do. Read it again, only this time substitute the word wild for fuzzy. Same tangle-haired look, different feel. One builds your tension, one ruins it.

The title example is one of my favorites and really underlines the point well. In it, the scene is dire and the pain all but unendurable. Note how the end undermines a lot of work to portray a desperate situation. In this example, our fantasy hero is being tortured by magic:

Every time the witch curled her finger or touched him, Gerrick felt another muscle convulse. She brushed Gerrick’s leg and his calves curled in pain. She traced her finger lightly up his thigh and blazed a fiery trail of knots up to his groin. She curled her lips in her knife-edged smile and leaned over to kiss his naked stomach. The muscled clamped so hard he choked on a mouthful of vomit. She worked her way up to his chest. His diaphragm snapped tight, knocking his breath from his laboring lungs. His heart clenched, shooting pain down his arm. By the time he threw his head back under the ratcheting of his neck muscles, he was in agony; the Charlie horse all over his body was the worst pain he’d ever felt.

A Charlie horse? A Charlie Horse is what Hubby gets in the middle of the your favorite show, and he goes hopping around holding his leg going, “Ow-ow-ow! Charlie horse, Charlie horse!” It’s a funny pain when you see someone with it. It’s a mundane pain, one I would say most would not associated with the worst pain they ever had. And frankly, the words Charlie horse just plain sounds light weight, even humorous.

So you see, real heroes don’t get Charlie horses.

The Writer’s Toolbox: Real Heroes Don’t Get Charlie Horses—Connotation Vs. Denotation

Part One: The Sacchariferous RoseToolbox2

What is in a name? A Rosa Indica by any other nomenclature reeks as sacchariferous…doesn’t it?

Not in a book, it doesn’t. A rose by any other name smells as sweet sounds a lot sweeter than the above rendition put together with synonyms.  The denotation of the words, the dictionary definition,  is close enough between the two that all substitutions either have the same dictionary definition or are listed in the thesaurus as synonyms.   So why do the two lines feel so different?

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Writing is an artificial means of creating something tangible within our minds.  The only tools authors have to reach into the minds of the readers are words and their conveyance.  But to tell a story is not merely to depict a map of places, a timeline of events, and a phenotype of characters.  The heart of a story is to convey an emotional experience to the reader.  This is where denotation can fall short of the task.

Enter connotation.  Connotation is the baggage that many words carry that you usually won’t find in a dictionary.  Words gather associations over time and across different cultures.  Take an apple for instance.  Strictly speaking, a fruit that evokes little emotion in me when I pick one up at the supermarket.  But pair it with the word Big, and now we have an exciting metropolis.  Or paint it multicolored stripes, and we think computer.  Or put it next to a snake, and we conjure temptation in out minds.  The apple hasn’t changed, just how you relate to it.

The same thing can be done with just about any word.  For instance consider the meaning of these five sentences:

The clouds moved across the sky

The clouds floated across the sky

The clouds lazed across the sky

The clouds raced across the sky

The clouds roiled across the sky

Do you feel a different relationship to the sentences?  Do you picture fluffy white clouds piled high on a warm sunny day for floated and lazed?  Do you see a blustery day for raced?  For roiled, are the clouds dark and threatening? Is a storm is coming?

And yet each entry is in essence the same as the first, moved.   What has changed is our emotional connection to each sentence.  This is because, through their use, words collect meanings that they did not originally have, and using a word with the right meaning and background for the tone of your situation enhances the emotion.

This emotional connection is the heart of engaging a reader, and connotation is a powerful tool to do that.

How Did a Math Major Write a Fantasy Novel?


Moreover, how did she get published?

Keep in mind that I majored in math for two reasons. The first was it was fun. It’s okay…I’ll wait for you to stop laughing. Really. I’m serious. I enjoyed it. I’m a puzzle person, and most mathematics is solving puzzles, which appealed to me.

But I confess that a part of me majored in math because it wasn’t English. It didn’t involve English. To get my degree I needed little more than English 101 to graduate, and that sounded like a good deal. In fact, I put it off until my senior year—yes, I hated English that much. The whole “writing papers” thing…what a wasted of time! And the reading! Bah!

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Interestingly, there was this other part of me, however, that daydreamed. A lot. A lot, a lot. I’ve been guilty of that since I was knee-high to a grass hopper. Music, TV, movies, all of these generated a constant stream of playmates, friends, and distractions. As I got older, these “phantoms” had adventures.

I decided to write these down.

Oh, they were horrible! I really needed to learn how to write. Yes, I could see these people and write what they did and said, but reading it was more like a description of animated robots. The writing was lifeless, colorless, and cumbersome.

Wow. I should have taken more English.