An online writers workshop aims to expose the guts of works in progress to the Internet's hive mind.
The open-source movement isn’t just for hackers. Hacks are having a go at it too, says Andrew Burt, a writer of both code and prose who has contributed to the BSD kernel, Perl and Linux and who founded the online writing workshop Critters. He encourages writers to expose the guts of their stories, just as Linus Torvalds does his code, and invite critique and contribution.
The premise is simple: You submit a story or novel, via Web browser or e-mail, to a password-protected area of the Critters site. When your story comes up for review, you receive around 20 critiques. In exchange, you are obligated to evaluate the stories of other group members at least three times a month. It’s a lot like many a writers’ group, except that it harnesses the Internet’s hive mind rather than a small group of geographically related people.
Burt, a former professor of computer science at the University of Denver and current president of custom software developer Tech-Soft, says he created Critters along different lines from commercial writers workshops. Workshops on America Online and CompuServe, for instance, require participants to subscribe to the online services. And those run by publishers, like Random House’s Del Rey workshop or Francis Ford Coppola’s Zoetrope All Story workshop entice writers with the promise of potential publication.
Critters, on the other hand, is interested in developing better writers and writing, without commercial motives. “Critters is dedicated to the concept that there aren’t enough good writers, and that the way to create more is to nurture more beginners,” says Burt, who first approached leaders of traditional writers workshops to get feedback on his science fiction, but found them less than eager to work with beginners. In 1996 he started Critters, which has about a thousand members and has generated some 40,000 critiques. “This is in contrast to the attitude of former Horror Writers Association president Lawrence Watt-Evans, who … believes … there are too many bad ones and that it would be better to discourage as many of these wannabes as possible to leave larger slices of the pie for those who somehow make it,” Burt explains. “This is similar to the Linux vs. Microsoft conflict — the Critters/Linux method is inclusive; the Lawrence Watt-Evans/Microsoft method is exclusive.”
There is a crucial difference between Critters and Linux, however. Whereas Critters readers offer critiques and suggestions, they’re not encouraged to grab someone else’s story and simply go to town on it, adding new passages and maybe new characters, the way Linux hackers conceive of and write new code. In fact, most writers, far from considering their oeuvre a community-built product, would probably consider such behavior akin to stealing or plagiarism.
“I don’t think writing is ever about an idea,” says Burt, who has arranged to donate profits from his first novel, Noontide Night: A Y2K Novel — itself a product of Critters — to the American Red Cross. “That may be the seed that starts something, but as with programming, you’re not going to make any money unless you can actually manage the implementation. I think Critters works the same way. It’s about the free exchange of ideas. That’s one of the underpinnings of the open-source movement as well as open workshops.”
Of course, most of the participants of writing workshops dream of publishing deals and dust-jacket pictures. Given our hermetic notion of authorship, it’s hard to see how open-source ideals can be sustained by professional authors. A good public algorithm may show up in numerous commercial software packages, but borrowed prose ruins reputations and ends careers. Ultimately, no matter how closely workshops hew to the open-source model, writers cannot, or perhaps will not, give their peers everything that goes into their writing. Ideas may be exchanged, but something is always withheld.
Whether the principles of the open-source movement end up having as profound an impact on writing as they’ve had on programming remains to be seen. The academic tradition of peer review has long been opposed by our mystical reverence for the creative process. But there is the possibility that fiction workshops foretell the twilight of the private muse and the dawn of an open-source reformation.
More Related Stories
- What's 2013's "Gone Girl"? Here are this summer's best reads
- Fox executive behind "Does Someone Have to Go?" leaving the network
- Hillary Clinton memoir shows up on Amazon
- A brief history of Jennifer Weiner's literary fights
- First look: Joaquin Phoenix, Marion Cotillard shine in "The Immigrant”
- No women allowed: Summer music festivals are dudefests, again
- Vivica A. Fox tapes anti-gun PSA in front of poster for her movie
- This is what Guy Fieri looks like as a balloon
- Mariah Carey's rambling, cursing, dress-popping "Good Morning America" concert
- Fox's new reality TV show threatens regular people with unemployment
- Amanda Bynes arrested after hurling bong from window
- Steamy lesbian-sex movie has Cannes abuzz
- Stop what you're doing and go watch "Borgen"
- Teenage girl claims she was beaten up for looking like Taylor Swift
- Mike Judge: "Bowling for Columbine" made me pro-gun
- New York chef serves up eight-course meal around "Arrested Development" jokes
- HLN: Jodi Arias "pleading for her life" got us a ratings win!
- Michael Ian Black on Maron feud: He "considered me a poseur"
- Chekhov's story mirrors Russia's own
- Pussy Riot member Maria Alyokhina denied parole
- Joe Francis apologizes for calling jury "retarded"
Featured Slide Shows
The week in 10 picsclose X
- 1 of 11
Lisa Montgomery embraces her nephew Thursday after a tornado tore apart her home in Cleburne, Texas. The twister killed six people and destroyed entire swaths of the North Texas town.
Credit: AP/LM Otero
Jack McMahon, the defense attorney for abortion doctor Kermit Gosnell, speaks outside the Criminal Justice Center in Philadelphia Tuesday. His client was convicted of killing three babies in his clinic, and will serve multiple life sentences.
Credit: AP/Matt Rourke
A photo taken Monday captures Vice President Joe Biden's response to a Milwaukee second-grader's innovative proposal to end America's epidemic of gun violence. This guy!
Credit: AP/Jenny Aicher
Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky., flanked by a grouper-eyed Michele Bachmann, addresses the IRS' admission that it targeted Tea Party groups in advance of the 2012 election. In an op-ed for CNN Thursday, the Kentucky senator slammed the president for his faux outrage.
Credit: AP/Molly Riley
Ousted IRS chief Steven Miller is sworn in on Capitol Hill Friday. Miller testified before the House Ways and Means Committee on the extra scrutiny the agency gave conservative groups applying for tax-exempt status.
Credit: AP/J. Scott Applewhite
Attorney General Eric Holder pauses as he testifies on Capitol Hill before the House Judiciary Committee Wednesday. Holder is under fire, among other things, for the Justice Department's gathering of phone records at the Associated Press.
Credit: AP/Carolyn Kaster
O.J. Simpson sits during an evidentiary hearing at Clark County District Court in Las Vegas, Nev., Thursday. Simpson, who is currently serving a nine-to-33-year sentence in state prison for armed robbery and kidnapping, is using a writ of habeas corpus to seek a new trial.
Credit: AP/Las Vegas Review-Journal/Jeff Scheid
Major Tom to ground control: On Sunday astronaut Chris Hadfield recorded the first music video from space, a cover of David Bowie's "Space Oddity."
Credit: AP/NASA/Chris Hadfield
When it rains it pours. President Barack Obama speaks during a news conference Thursday with Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, inexplicably inspiring an #umbrellagate Twitter meme.
Credit: AP/Jacquelyn Martin
A smoke plume rises high above a road block at the intersection of County A and Ross Road east of Solon Springs, Wis., Tuesday. No injuries were reported, but the the wildfire caused evacuations across northwestern Wisconsin.
Credit: AP/The Duluth News-Tribune/Clint Austin
Recent Slide Shows
- 1 of 11