Portrait of a Writing Workshop

The Cajun Sushi Hampsters keep winning awards and launching careers.  Here's how they did it.

Science fiction writer Marie Vibbert crosses her legs in her papasan chair and balances her laptop across her knees as she studies Steve Swiniarski’s newest short story.

“I like the ending better than the beginning,” she says. Swiniarski’s tied-back black curls bob with his nodding head as he listens and marks her suggestions on a legal pad.

Constructive, honest and drama-free. It’s the Cajun Sushi Hamster way.

It’s been 20 years since Mary Turzillo first posted signs in Cleveland libraries looking for science-fiction writers and met with them for story critiques and sushi at private homes (some of which contained the pet rodents and a bayou influence). These days, gourmet meals — such as leek-and-rutabaga-filled puff pastries and asparagus soup — have replaced sushi. Several careers have been launched, and 12 major awards have been won, including a Hugo for Maureen McHugh (“Lincoln Train”) and Nebulas for Geoff Landis (“Ripples in the Dirac Sea”) and Turzillo (“Mars is No Place for Children”).

Every local science-fiction writer, it seems, wants to be a Hamster. But you’ve got to be invited to join. Members recruit writers at other workshops and literary events. About a week before each meeting, the Hamsters trade stories via e-mail. Comments are made directly on printed copies. At every gathering, the Hamsters critique a few stories first, then eat and socialize, then finish the rest.

It sounds simple, but it’s hard to maintain a successful writers’ group. Structure seems to be the Hamsters’ key. Individual critiques are limited to five to 10 minutes and follow an unwritten rule: no insults. Hamsters begin and end with something positive, “even if it’s only ‘I like your font,’ ” says Vibbert. Only one harsh critic has been asked to leave the group.

“He who will not be named was evil not with everyone, but with enough to disrupt the workshop,” Swiniarski says. “Lesson learned: Keep evil out.”

Although structured, the group is not homogeneous. “Some genre writers, some literary genre, some that skate the edge of the genre,” says Pat Stansberry. “It gives us a broad range of opinions.” Everyone also critiques differently, whether technically, literary or sociologically.

“Sometimes it seems like not everyone has read the same story,” Swiniarski says.

The critique is the most important, but not the only thing the Hamsters get out of their workshop. Knowing other professional writers will read a story raises a writer’s bar. The once-a-month deadline also assures productivity. In an otherwise solitary endeavor, the workshop gives writers a social outlet and a sense of community. They say it’s lonely at the top — but not if fellow Hamsters helped you get there.


How to find a writing workshop
1. Decide the level of seriousness. Some workshops welcome beginners; some, like the Hamsters, are invite-only.

2. Decide the genre focus. Romance thrillers, sonnets and nonfiction pieces all require different advice.

3. Check out existing groups. Try www.ohiocenterforthebook.org/LiteraryOrgs.aspx.

4. Start your own group. Organize your writer friends or post signs at your local bookstore, coffee shop or library.


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