Shaping the Longer Prose Manuscript

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Finding good critique for a book-length manuscript can be a challenge. Peruse the classifieds in any issue of Poets & Writers, and you will discover editors willing to do the job for a fee. If cost is an issue, you can always swap manuscripts with a literary friend. But what if you want to be an active participant? Most prose workshops – fiction, creative non-fiction, or memoir – offer a workshopping environment for a roomful of writers armed with roughly 30 pages each. While critique of an individual chapter might provide the writer suggestions on how to polish their prose or set up a chunk of time meant to be inserted into a longer narrative, this doesn’t address overall structural issues. Nor does it touch on narrative drive. The writer can’t know if their longer manuscript is even working.

Writers David Ulin and Amy Wallen have put their heads together over this conundrum to come up with the Big Picture Workshop, focused on manuscripts up to 200 pages in length. This two-day class is hosted by Wallen and takes place in her San Diego living room. She usually whips up one of her signature savory pies for the event. Ulin, former book editor of the Los Angeles Times, serves as lead critic, though everyone contributes to the discussion. All participants are expected to arrive prepared to comment on work on the table. Yes, this does mean there is a lot of preparatory reading, though it’s worth the effort. I’ve pushed three manuscripts to the next level after taking them through this process.

More recently, I stumbled upon the hospitality of Kate Moses, a writer and editor who got her start with North Point Press in Berkeley during the 1980s, right after she graduated from University of the Pacific. She’s the author of Wintering: A Novel of Sylvia Plath and Cakewalk: A Memoir, among other things. When I first spotted her ad for a writing intensive through Birds & Muses: Kate Moses Literary Services, I had a collection of short stories underway, one that had already received a fair amount of critique.

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I’d workshopped the manuscript with David Ulin during his Big Picture workshop. Ulin always passes written notes to the writer in the hot seat, once the verbal critique is over. He encourages other writers in the class to do the same. So when I returned home, I sorted through these sets of comments before embarking on a another rigorous rewrite. As I proceeded to break the manuscript down, I removed one story Ulin thought should be lengthened into a novella (it’s currently being submitted as such). I wrote a number of new stories—and I reorganized the whole collection. I also linked these stories (a suggestion from Amy Wallen). I handed this new construction to novelist, Patricia Santana, and she inked it up some more (in turn, I worked over one of hers).

I wasn’t really looking for another workshop, but when I noticed how Kate Moses was offering time to write, plus a full manuscript reading and consultation, I decided to bite. By this time, my work-in-progress had swelled from 200 to 260 pages. Since I’d linked my stories—moving characters in and out of thirteen different plots—the manuscript had morphed into something between a novel and a set of stories. Some of these pieces were pretty autobiographical—others completely made up. I didn’t know if my design worked, so I was eager to have the collection assessed as a whole by a genuine editor. Indeed, in my application I noted I wanted to prepare the manuscript for publication, give it a final polish.

Kate Moses read my entire manuscript, scrawled notes all over it, and discussed it with me throughout the week-long intensive. This added up to hours of one-on-one guidance. She assisted four other writers during the retreat, yet she never set up a workshop environment, as Ulin does. Each writer worked with Moses separately. Days were structured so we could get in plenty of writing time, while evenings were reserved for social interaction. The six of us enjoyed dinner together (more on that later). And after our bellies were full, Moses usually led a discussion based on a writing-related issue.

While Moses didn’t exactly line edit my work-in-progress, she did talk me through her detailed notes, allowing me to absorb them on the spot and make some decisions of my own. She’s a fine editor. As I interacted with her, I jotted comments all over a separate copy of my manuscript. At the end of the week, she handed me half of her copy to take home. We plan to go over the rest – one way or another – when she has time. Yet even if she ends up mailing the last six stories with written comments, she’s already given me more than enough to prepare for a good scrubbing. I even managed to write the draft of a new story while I was with her—one to round out the manuscript.

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As for logistics, the intensive was held in the historic Kenney House near Elk, California. The place offers inspiring ocean views and ample room for retreatants. It’s situated on a working ranch boasting a trail that winds past a herd of highland cattle into an adjoining forest. BTW, Kate did all the cooking for the six of us. I’m pretty sure she could have changed things up on the spot and switched our week to a cooking intensive, should we have asked. She’s an outstanding chef—truly creative in that regard. We did not go away hungry.