Welcome to the Norwescon Writers Workshop (NWW), presented by the Pacific Northwest’s premier science fiction and fantasy convention. NWW is open to attending members of Norwescon 43, April 9-12, 2020. This is a Milford-style workshop: a peer-to-peer critique facilitated by professional writers, editors, and agents.

All participants must purchase a convention membership; there are no additional fees. We accept one manuscript submission per attendee, either a short story or novel excerpt in the science fiction, fantasy, and horror genres.

Our workshop’s aim is to encourage the development of genre writers toward publication, so we welcome participation of all skill levels (first-timers to seasoned veterans), of adults eighteen and up. Because a writing career is more than what happens on the page, NWW’s aim is also to provide opportunities for networking, follow-up communication, and Norwescon programming recommendations that should be helpful to our workshop attendees.

There are a limited number of spaces available in the workshop and it will be curated, so submit your application as soon as possible. The deadline for submissions will be announced later this year.

We encourage writers of varying backgrounds, physical abilities, and those from traditionally marginalized groups to apply and participate.

Workshop Guidelines: How to Apply

Norwescon Writers Workshop is accepting short stories or novel chapters up to 4,000 words (roughly 16 double-spaced pages).

Prepare a manuscript in MS Word for your short story or novel submission in standard manuscript submission format:

Save as a .doc or .docx.

For short story submissions, include a cover letter containing a brief synopsis of your story.

For novel submissions, submit a cover letter and a separate 250-word synopsis of your novel in a separate file.

Note: The cover letter and novel synopsis should be independent files, separate from the manuscript.

This is an application process. Applicants will be notified if their manuscript is accepted into the workshop.

We don’t accept paper submissions. Email your submission to submissions@norwescon.org with your two (or three) files attached.

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How the Workshop Works

The workshop is divided into groups based on submission type (short story or novel chapters) and genre. NWW attendees will be placed into critique groups of four or five with an industry professional (Pro) leading their group.

In January, each NWW attendee will receive the submissions for their group and, prior to the workshop, will write a critique of the manuscript. This response should be at least one page, single-spaced. Readers of the manuscript may offer a “line edit,” i.e., marking the manuscript to highlight spelling, grammar, good/bad word choice, excellent images and dialog, typos, and so on, or simply offer a one-page critique. This is the reader’s choice, based on their skill, the perceived needs of the writer, etc. Readers will bring one copy of their critique to reference at the workshop session. Following the verbal critique, this will be provided to the writer. Feel free to use this guide to write your critique:

Each workshop will last three hours, including introductions, a brief talk by the Pro to establish expectations, followed by a “Milford” or “Iowa City-style” round-robin of manuscript critiques.

In this style of workshop, each attendee writer’s round-robin should last no more than 30 minutes total. Individual reader responses should be five minutes or less. The group’s Pro will act as timekeeper. During the round-robin, cross-talk and interruptions are discouraged, though big nods or short, quiet comments of agreement might help the writer see when the group is reaching consensus on a manuscript issue. For the sake of time, it’s very important for the attendee being critiqued not to speak, except for very brief clarification.

The Pro will critique last and may take a little more time than five minutes if need be in order to summarize the group’s consensus on the work, then offer their own critique and, ideally, opinion on where to take the next draft, how close the work might be to professional submission, which markets might be most interested, etc.

After the discussion, the attendee writer may ask the readers a few short questions before moving on to the next attendee’s submission.

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How to Write a Cover Letter

A cover letter is your greeting to an editor whom you’d like to buy your short story or novel. At Norwescon Writers Workshop, we expect a professional cover letter explaining what you are sending us. The cover letter to us should be exactly like a cover letter you would send an editor with your short story for submission.

If you haven’t written a cover letter before, here’s how you do it.

Editors receive thousands of cover letters per year, or, if they’re working at a very popular publishing house, that could be thousands of letters per month.

For that reason alone, respect the editor’s rules and formatting preferences as they are written in their submission guidelines. In your letter, be “professional” in tone – that is, courteous, brief, and businesslike. If you aren’t, you are simply making an editor’s job harder – and making it that much easier for them to reject your submission.

Many editors now use online submission systems like Submittable, their own systems, or accept email/online submissions. Even if they do, you will probably be asked to attach a “cover letter” to your online submission just as you would a job application. When setting up your manuscript, be sure to follow standard manuscript submission format for either short stories (118KB .pdf) or novels (121KB .pdf) and double-check that it matches the guidelines of individual markets.

Write your cover letter as you would any business letter. Since this letter should be short and sweet, create a new file every time you submit a story. Don’t re-use the same file and inadvertently mislabel your letter.

Sample Cover Letter

YOUR ADDRESS, PHONE, EMAIL

MARKET ADDRESS

 

DATE

Dear [editor’s name]:

I am sending you my [#] word short story entitled “[story title]” for consideration in [Name of magazine or publisher]. It’s a [name of genre] story about [VERY brief, < 20 word synopsis].

My work has previously appeared in [name your most recent 2-3 publishing credits].

Sincerely,

[your name]

Recipient’s Title, Gender.

These days, many people have their preferred pronouns and titles listed on their professional social media pages, but not all do. Check the magazine’s website for guidance.

When in doubt, address your cover letter Dear Editor, To the Editors of [Magazine Name], or To Whom It May Concern followed by a comma or colon. Be formal and businesslike. Don’t refer to the editor by nickname or first name unless you have met them personally.

Synopsis.

For Norwescon Writers Workshop, we would like a short, 20-word or less synopsis of your short story in the cover letter, but note that many markets don’t care for this. These editors would simply like to know what the story is, who you are, and why they might know you.

If you are submitting a novel-sample for workshopping, we would like a 250-word or less synopsis of your novel as a separate file.

Credits.

In your cover letter, mention relative publication credits only. The smaller the publication, the less meaningful it will probably be to a larger market, but any publication is fair to mention. Small publications with respected editors or awards are wonderful to mention.

NWW doesn’t need to know conventions you’ve attended in this letter. Stick to publication credits only, unless your degree or job experience might be relative to your story’s/book’s subject matter.

Simultaneous Submissions.

NWW is willing to accept a “simultaneous submission” from you, though your workshop mates would probably prefer receiving a story that is not already at market.

Note: When submitting to publication venues, never submit to multiple markets at the same time unless the receiving markets have specifically said that’s permissible to them. Sending simultaneous submissions to an editor who doesn’t approve of that is a little like knocking on someone’s door to sell them a vacuum and then saying, “Oh, sorry, I am actually trying to sell it to someone else. Can you wait?” Not very courteous.

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How to Write a Synopsis

Synopsizing your work is an important skill to develop as a professional writer, because when submitting stories to magazine editors for the first time, you will need to write a cover letter to them. In your cover letter, you’ll greet them professionally, offer your work for consideration, and give a brief description that entices the editor to read your story.

Note: You aren’t trying to sell the story in one magnificent sentence! You just want the editor interested enough to read it based on a short, solid description.

Different editors require different types of synopses, based on the magazine’s needs and their own personal preferences. So obviously when writing your cover letter, you’ll have to read that magazine’s individual guidelines.

Here at NWW, we require a one-sentence synopsis of your short story, or, if you are submitting a partial-novel manuscript, a page-long synopsis of the whole novel (250-words).

Do I Have To?

Yes.

But we feel your pain. Writers often find it very difficult to boil their ideas down to a single sentence, but it’s an excellent skill to develop and may even help you envision your story more completely.

If you’ve never written a synopsis before and find the task frightening, try this exercise.

Thumb through your local television listings and read the one-sentence descriptions of ten or twelve movies. For the sake of discussion, here are some one-sentence synopses from three popular films.

1) Fantastic Four: After exposure to cosmic rays, four astronauts are transformed into superheroes.

2) Halloween: A psycho escapes from a psychiatric facility on Halloween night and returns to his home town where he goes on a bloody rampage.

3) Murder on the Orient Express: In 1930s Europe, legendary detective Hercule Poirot probes a murder that occurs aboard a train known as the Orient Express.

Notice they are purposely short. Nobody wants a two-page movie description when deciding on a show to watch on Saturday night. A magazine editor is the same. They have so many hopeful cover letters to read through that they’re just skimming yours.

But like Saturday-night TV viewers, editors do appreciate a little sizzle. “Cosmic rays” are fun. “Bloody rampages” are cool. A murder onboard a train? That’s intriguing. Make sure your one-sentence description is a little fun to read.

One-Sentence Synopsis

Now try it yourself. Write a synopsis of the last movie you saw (movies are easier to describe than books). Make sure the sentence is no more than twenty words long. Incomplete sentences are ok. Describe it using setting, mood, and perhaps a strong clue as to why the story is titled the way it is.

Once you’ve done that, try synopsizing a couple of your stories or a short-story you love. Here’s a run-down of “Made Out of Meat” by writer Terry Bisson.

“Made Out of Meat.” Two aliens discuss the nature of human beings who are in fact made out of meat. (16 words)

This synopsis is short and snappy, and that’s all the Saturday night viewer (or editor) wants in a cover letter.

Novel Synopsis

For your application to NWW, we’d like a 250-word synopsis, which is about one page double spaced.  Some literary agents or publishers might prefer seeing a formal outline, a paragraph per chapter, or 2-4 pages or longer, depending on their needs and the length of your proposed book.

Regardless of length, the basic approach to synopsizing is the same. For your 250-word summary, we recommend using the old method from journalism, the 5 W’s and H (Who, What, Where, When, Why, and How).

Here’s the summary for the Guillermo del Toro film The Shape of Water that won Best Picture Oscar in 2017. See how it’s a description and not a blow by blow account?

In 1962, mute janitor Elisa Esposito works at a classified government laboratory that tests new technology to help defeat the Soviet Union during the Cold War. Isolated and lonely, Elisa finds her life changing forever when she discovers the lab’s classified secret — a mysterious, scaled creature from South America that lives in a water tank. As Elisa develops a unique bond with her new friend, she soon learns that its fate and very survival lies in the hands of a hostile government agent and a marine biologist. A quirky, fantastical love story develops.

Source: Wikipedia, edited.

This synopsis is just the main architecture, the framework of the plot. It’s the Who, What, Where, When, Why, and How of the story.

In fact, you can use those elements as a “recipe” when writing your novel’s synopsis. It’s practically fill-in-the-blank, it’s so easy.

Your Novel

Who: Your Main Character

What: What does the Your Main Character do that makes them important for your story?

Where: Your Setting.

When: When does it take place?

Why: Why is Your Main Character doing what she’s doing? (As a person who cannot speak, Elisa in The Shape of Water is isolated and lonely. These feelings drive her and the love story forward. They are the reason WHY everything happens.)

How will maybe take the most thought on your part, but it can still be written like a fill-in-the-blank. Approach the HOW of your story by answering this question: At what moment does your character’s life change forever. How does her life change?

Write it like this: [Your Main Character’s] “life changes forever when” [HOW IT CHANGES]

Look back at the The Shape of Water summary. It’s the same formula! “Elisa finds her life changing forever when she discovers the lab’s classified secret — a mysterious, scaled creature from South America that lives in a water tank.”

Remember: This synopsis is not an elevator pitch or advertisement and you aren’t writing it in a way to leave major elements out in order to “hook” us. The point is to succinctly describe your story to your fellow critiquers and NWW so that we can understand what you’re writing.

You don’t have to use this exact formula for your synopsis, but if it’s your first time synopsizing a novel, give it a try.

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How to Write a Critique

One of the strengths of the Milford/Iowa City method is that the attendee writer learns to receive and deliver criticism as a professional, and to “step out of our own skins” so we may examine our own work dispassionately.

To do this, it’s important, as Dan Savage put it, to be “good, game, and giving.” In a writers’ workshop, this means we should be good colleagues (supportive of each other’s work), game (willing to read anything, even if it’s not our preferred subject matter), and giving (generous, helpful).

This means reading workshop manuscripts like a writer instead of a reader. To do that, NWW advises you approach your critique like a mechanic repairing a car. It doesn’t matter much if a mechanic “likes” the color of a car, if the model is cool, or if your uncle owned one once. Of greater use to you and your colleagues are questions like, why won’t the car run? Why doesn’t it accelerate? Why can’t I sell it? WHERE should I sell it? And what is up with that pinging noise??

Here’s one approach to being a “good mechanic” for your colleagues, even if you haven’t attended a Milford-style workshop before.

1) Identify What the Writer is Doing

In the very first sentence of your one-page critique, tell the writer what you perceive they are trying to accomplish (this might take you at least two reads to even articulate this). Identify the genre/subgenre and say a few words about what you think the writer is trying to achieve in the manuscript. Something simple like,

“A space-opera love story with two aliens told in a complicated point of view. Revealing their true identities is the story’s big finish and hardest trick.”

Or,

“A duel between brothers at the bottom of the sea. Neither knows the other is their brother. Combat scenes are a key feature of this swashbuckling story.”

This assures the writer you “get” what they are trying to do, and helps them decide how accurate your overall critique will be.

2) Assess What Works

Now tell the writer what they did exceptionally well in order to achieve the above goal. Every writer needs to know what they are getting right. Furthermore, ticking off the positives will help you as a critiquer to develop your final diagnosis of the story.

As you read the manuscript for the first time, either in the physical margins or by blocking off lines in Word’s Review/Notes tab, highlight the well-written sentences you admire, the beautiful images, snappy dialogue, crafty plot twists, surprises, and shining moments of characterization. This way, by the end of the first read, you’ll have a decent map of What Works in the story.

If you make handwritten line edits, a simple system of X=Bad and Check Mark=Good can help create that map (be sure to inform the fellow attendee that’s what you have done). Two different colored highlights can do the same thing in MS Word. This allows you to summarize “What Works” which you should then describe in some detail in the round robin. Describe why something works so that YOU, as a fellow writer, understand the mechanics of good writing. Don’t say, “Bill is a cool character,” and then move on. Be exact. “Bill’s a really well-described character. His hat. His limp. His angry blow ups. I feel like I could spot him at an airport.” That’s more concrete and helpful.

Pay attention to your mind and feelings as you read the manuscript the first time through. What hooked you? Why? Were you engaged by characters or certain scenes? Were you caught up in the world? What strong feelings did you have? These are all excellent things to report to the writer, as well, but only if you can pinpoint what they are and why they worked so well for the story.

DOUBLE CHECK. If you can’t find anything at all that works in the story, it might be your shortcoming, not the writer’s.

It’s okay, if so. But do reread the story for your colleague’s benefit. Concentrate. Give the manuscript its due.

3) What Doesn’t Work?

That map of Xs and or “bad” highlights on the manuscript should give you clues as to what your diagnosis will be. Scan them if you’re having trouble spotting or describing what doesn’t work.

For example, is all the dialog marked X in that space-opera love story? What does that tell you? Are revelations of character marked X, too? Do you see a pattern between those two sets of problems? If character and dialog are both problematic in a love story, then you’re onto something useful. The writer won’t sell a love story if the characters and what they say to each other are unbelievable. You may have felt something was wrong while you read the story, but scanning the manuscript after the first read might help you focus on what it is and explain it cogently to the writer.

Pay attention to your mind and feelings for what does not work, especially in your first read through. Did you keep getting distracted? Why? Were you irritated by certain characters or passages? Were you caught up in some parts but not in others? Did you feel nothing? These are all decent things to report to the writer.

4) Diagnosis: How to Fix It

Do you exit movies knowing what should have been done differently? Do you see where books falter and derail? Now’s your chance to offer that to a fellow writer.

If this is your first writers workshop, don’t worry if you can’t “diagnose” a story. Offering a fix is the kind of skill that will come along as you attend more workshops, join writers’ groups, and get more critiquing and writing under your belt.

Also, it’s fine to point out an issue and say you don’t know why it’s not working for you. Others in the group may be able to explain why it’s not working, but may not have had the same issue as you or mentioned it. Even if you don’t know how to fix the problem, chances are, another attendee or the Pro will.

Finding a fix is where articulating “what worked” might pay off – and your own imagination will help, too. The story’s positives are probably going to be “launching pads” for the writer’s corrective draft and it will help immeasurably if you have already identified those strengths. Now you just have to imagine what the writer could do to build on those strengths, while still maintaining what they were trying to achieve originally (don’t offer fixes that break the writer’s original vision).

Take the example we began with. If the world in which the space opera love story is solid and believable – the science, the ship, the alien planet are all well drawn and fascinating – but the characters and dialog are weak, then chances are, a fix for the characters may be somewhere in what works (the worldbuilding, the setting). Maybe the characters need to be OF their worlds more. Perhaps the stilted dialog doesn’t sound like personalities from another planet, even though the worlds themselves are well written, so focusing on those characters, their worlds, and the feelings will help the story. Encourage the writer to step into those alien minds more thoroughly. What is alien love? Offer examples of where the characters come close to capturing the feeling you’re talking about.

That would be a helpful fix that adheres to the writer’s vision and goals for their story.

Round-Robin

Preparing your round-robin thoughts is a good idea. This is where being GGG (good, game, and giving) will come in very handy.

Lots of people use the “sandwich method” when verbally offering critique in a workshop’s round robin: Positive, Critical, Positive. Divide up your positive comments from “What Worked,” start there, then move to “What Didn’t Work,” then finish up with your last positive comments. This allows your fellow attendees to hear your comments on an upbeat, which might be good for those who have never gone through a critique before.

Suggesting places to submit the story is a positive as well, and ending with a “thank you” is always good form.

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How to Take Criticism

GGG applies here too. It can be nerve-wracking indeed to take criticism for the first time, so stay open, be game to hear what colleagues have to say, and give them your full attention.

Really concentrate on what your fellow writers have to say. Taking notes is useful, but don’t forget to look your colleagues in the eye and say thanks when they finish. If you are shy and feel vulnerable (first time jitters are totally normal!), it’s perfectly ok to jot notes as your colleagues talk. But nod so they know you are listening and understanding.

Listen for “consensus.” Do your readers agree on certain strengths and weaknesses? That’s crucial and will provide a clear path when you rewrite. Some writers can be blind to their faults or, more commonly, way too hard on themselves. This is a chance to see past your blinders and identify where you can improve this story and perhaps grow as a writer.

Many times, workshop attendees will have revelations and brain storms about your story while they or others are talking. Listen for the enthusiastic voices and take notes while they speak. These folks are championing your work, even if it may sound negative or critical. Let their enthusiasm infect you.

Be prepared: Some colleagues simply may not be the right readers for your story. They may not be familiar with the genre you’re writing, can’t identify what you are attempting, and they may not understand that this is tainting their critique. If someone is really not getting your story and their opinion seems to out of synch with others, don’t despair. Concentrate on the consensus for your rewrite. You do have the written critiques, so you can always return to everyone’s critique later if you wish.

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Norwescon Writers Workshop Co-Directors

Barth Anderson

Barth Anderson is a science fiction, fantasy, and horror writer whose short stories have appeared in Asimov’s, Clarkesworld, Weird Tales, Strange Horizons, Abyss & Apex, Talebones, and other quality venues. His short story “Lark till Dawn, Princess” (anthology Mojo: Conjure Stories, edited by Nalo Hopkinson) won a Spectrum Award for Best Short Fiction. His novel The Patron Saint of Plagues (Penguin Random House) was called “a page turner that is at once a medical thriller, cyberpunk romp and provocative tease” by Salon.com; his book The Magician and The Fool (Penguin Random House) was a Lambda Literary Award finalist.

Barth has 36 years of writers workshop experience, including Clarion East, Rio Hondo, and holds a degree in Creative Writing from UW-Madison.

Alaina Ewing

Alaina Ewing entered the writing community as an author and has since expanded into the realms of editing, publishing, author branding, and workshop organizing. Her fiction has appeared in numerous anthologies including Best Women’s Erotica of the Year.

Alaina is the former President of Cascade Writers, a nonprofit writing workshop connecting writers to senior level editors and agents. She’s organized countless workshops spanning from craft and development to agenting and the business side of writing. She has run partial and full workshops at Rustycon, Anglicon, Norwescon, Westercon, Pleasure Bound Studios, and she assisted with WorldCon writers workshops. Alaina owns a small press with a focus on sexuality and healing where she recently published best-selling author Janet W. Hardy.

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