When I was finishing my master’s thesis, which was a short story collection and was supposed to be at least 100 pages, I came up five pages short. So I wrote five pages of toss-off dialogue mimicking the voices I heard during two years of workshopping stories. It was a passive-aggressive candle on the cake of my MFA experience. All of the lines reflect things I had actually heard (or said) in workshops, but a few of them were, if not verbatim, accurate reminiscences of things my first MFA writing teacher, the novelist Ethan Canin, would say. They’re not hard to pick out. I called the piece “Shopworn” and my thesis advisor grumbled that it wasn’t actually a story, but that was nothing new.


“Okay…let’s begin with structure. What is the structure of this story?”

“It’s pretty much linear, I think…with a few flashbacks…I mean, I was lost on the–”

“Let’s finish with the structure before we–”

“…well, yeah, linear for the most part.”

“And how did that work?”

“Seemed okay.”



“Yeah, I didn’t know about the placement of the flashbacks…I don’t know, the story just didn’t seem balanced.”

“The linear structure worked for me.”

“The first half seemed like maybe it was written at a different time, like the two parts were glued together…”

“Does anyone agree with me that the breaks are really manipulative. Look at page four. The placement of that flashback-”

“Wait, where are you?”

“Page four, I guess it’s the second double space break, which is another thing we can talk about.”

“Yeah, I didn’t get that first break. It’s not a flash back or a scene change and–”

“That break made sense to me. I think there was a change in the mood.”

“But that doesn’t make any sense, and the second break on that page, it’s like a commercial break to go to a flashback there. It’s fake. I think it’s manipulative.

“Yeah, I was thinking that too.”

“Wait, we write fiction, we’re supposed to be manipulative. It’s what we do.”

“I didn’t like where that break was placed.”

“I guess it felt manipulative, or dishonest, to me too. I mean, it didn’t really ring true. I didn’t think about it until now, I didn’t mention it in my written critique, but it’s a little fake.”

“I just want to say that I think the writer has come a really long way since his first story.”



“I was just…I was thinking about the content of the flashbacks. I mean, this one especially. Are these memories or are…could you…do people remember exact dialogue like this? I’m a little confused how long ago this stuff happened.”

“Yeah, I was totally lost on time and place. I didn’t feel anchored. We also didn’t get the main character’s age.”

“You need to give ages on your characters, folks.”

“And I was thinking about the P.O.V. just before that flashback…and there’s one on page one.”


“Uh…I guess…it’s the second large paragraph on page one. It’s the whole thing really. I mean, who’s seeing this?”

“Okay, I don’t know about the P.O.V. thing, but that brings up the narrator. Doesn’t the narrator feel distant? I don’t know….it feels aloof to me.”

“I just thought it was a distant third.”

“No, I mean it has this omniscient feel that makes fun of the main character. I don’t think that works in character fiction.”

“I like the voice. It sort of drifts around and settles here and there. I don’t know…it was…the writing is very good.”

“Yeah, the writing is good.”


“I definitely like the writing.”

“Okay, the writing is good, but what’s the story.”

“The trip.”


“The trip?”

“The whole thing. Just in the car and when they get there.”

“But that’s not a story. Are you satisfied with that? Was anyone…is anyone satisfied with the trip, and I’m not sure about the end…what that is…but are you satisfied with the trip as the story? The rest is just window dressing.”

“Well, I was thinking it was kind of weak on plot but–”

“I’m not saying there’s no plot, but is it satisfying?”

“Worked for me.”

“I think it could be beefed up.”

“Maybe…I was just thinking it could work as a character sketch.”

“Okay, let’s talk about the characters.”

“I don’t know, I didn’t think the main character, Gordon–”

“Hate the name.”

“Definitely hate the name.”

“I don’t mind the name, but she shouldn’t call him Gordo. That sounds familiar…TV familiar.”

“Forget the guy’s name, the character isn’t even on the page.”

“I don’t get a real sense of him either.”

“Very flat.”

“I wanted to know about his mother.”

“Your main characters have to go deep, folks. This guy is too cartoonish.”

“But what if that’s what the writer was after?”

“But that doesn’t make any sense. That’s not why people read fiction. Is anybody satisfied with this character. I mean, you guys are all smart, does this character hold your interest?”

“The woman character…uh…Mindy–”

“Another bad choice.”

“Oh, I disagree.”

“I kept thinking of Mork and Mindy.”

“Shouldn’t that be a semi-colon in that second sentence on page nine?”

“Did you mark that? Okay, let’s stay on character.”

“Well, what I was trying to say is the Mindy character is almost better developed than the main character.”

“The Mindy passages are just always in the passive voice. Listen, I rewrote that paragraph at the bottom of page six. I wrote it in an active voice and–“


“You can really hear–“

“Did you put it in your notes?”

“Then let’s move on.”

“Is she supposed to be his wife, or what?”

“I don’t know, I was completely lost on what was going on between them.”

“I think that page three makes it pretty clear that she’s his girlfriend. I mean, they obviously live together, but–”

“What? How do you get girlfriend out of that? You mean that dialogue?”

“No, that part in the middle of the page–”

“What is that? Is that a flashback or just sort of a…I don’t know.”

“It’s not a full blown flashback, it’s like a musing.”

“I don’t get girlfriend from that.”

“Well, anyway, it’s obvious that there are some confusing sections.”

“But the writing is good.”

“It’s confident.”

“Very nice. Distinct.”

“I think it’s almost ready to send out.”

“Oh, it’s definitely ready to send out after a polish.”

“Absolutely. I mean, I hope I didn’t sound too harsh earlier, but I like this piece.”

“I think the writer relies on ellipses a little too much, but that’s easy to fix. Definitely, send it out.”

“Great Story.”


“Okay then, let’s hear from the writer. Do you have any comments, Mike?”