Sunday, 23 October 2011

How Zoetrope Virtual Studio Worked for Me

How Zoetrope Virtual Studio Worked for Me

Do you know Zoetrope Virtual Studio? It’s an online writers’ workshop launched in June 2000 by Francis Ford Coppola where writers and artists can review and discuss one another’s work.

Out on a limb?

I live in Japan, so it is very difficult for me to meet other writers. There is only one writers’ conference a year, and it is more often than not held far away from where I live. So when a colleague introduced Zoetrope to me I realized that a writing community like this was just what I was looking for.

Become a member of a group

I joined the site in February 2007. Once I had reviewed five short stories I was able to submit my own short story for review. I uploaded into the system in the evening, Japan time, and by the time I got up the next morning it had been reviewed by a number of writers in the United States.

Exchange Reviews

The story remained on the review board for one month, during which time six other members read and reviewed my story. I got some good feedback, and I was able to improve my writing thanks to other members’ suggestions and advice.


At the time I had never submitted a story for publication. I had entered a few writing competitions, but apart from winning a book on a radio poetry competition I had not had any luck. So, when one member suggested that I send my story off to a publisher I was a little hesitant. However, she insisted my work was as good as, if not better than a lot of stories she had come across. She directed me to Duotrope and pestered me until I sent that story out.

The First Story

The story was called One Little Bird. It was about a family with a budgie that lived a very long life. It didn’t get picked up by any of the magazines I sent it out to, but the act of sending it out did give me the confidence to try again. So, I began writing and workshopping regularly.

Keep Writing

I continued to submit stories for review at the Virtual Studio, and to review other writers’ work, and in the process I found that I was writing more. I was also improving my craft. It was not only the encouragement from other writers that spurred me on, but also the fact that I was looking at other writer’s stories in a critical way. I saw the mistakes others made and began to pinpoint those mistakes in my own writing. I saw how others overcame certain problems and how they dealt with certain writing issues in different ways. It was thanks to this work-shopping experience that I was able to learn so much from that.


Within the larger community I found a small community of reviewers who understood what I was trying to achieve with my writing. (And of course, some who were rude and impossible, but I generally took the rough with the smooth.) I joined a few offices, The Horror Library, Lolly’s Café, and The Flash Factory, on the site and began making friends. It was difficult though, since the conversations on the discussion boards were usually finishing by the time I was getting up in the morning, and starting just as I was going to bed. But it didn’t matter. A community with a time delay was better than no community at all.

Be Open to Suggestions

It was not until I had submitted my fifth story for review that I really began to see the benefit of workshopping. I submitted a 6,000 word short story The Infinite Piggy Bank for review. The story is about a little girl who finds a black hole in her piggy bank. Reviewers said it was a great idea spoiled by being too long and confusing in its tone. It had elements of dark fantasy and light children’s science fiction, and ultimately confused. With the help and advice of other Zoetrope workshop members I was able to see that. I pared down the word-count, chopped out the dark fantasy elements, and got my first sale. The Infinite Piggy Bank appeared in Issue 20 of Beyond Centauri.

Finding a Voice

It was this experience that helped me to discover my voice. The Infinite Piggy bank has its flaws. I am not saying it is a perfect story. What I am saying is that before workshopping that story, my writing lacked a consistency of tone, focus, and narrative voice. Zoetrope writers helped me to discover this. And for that I am extremely grateful. Since finding the black hole in that piggy bank I have been lucky to sell most of the stories I have finished.

The Future?

I continue to submit my stories for review at Zoetrope and I continue to review others stories, though not as regularly as I used to. Many people come and go from the site, and in recent years the numbers of users have dwindled. Some say that Zoetrope is coming to an end. Some lobby the SYSOPS for change. Some continue on with a positive spirit in spite of all the hot air. There have been trolls discovered on the boards, incidents involving writers abusing the system, and even the odd flame war. But there have been some high points too. The most notable was when the Zoetrope founder Francis Ford Coppola himself turned up in a discussion in the screenplays section the year before last. And best of all, there is still a hardcore group of writers who hang out there and take the craft of writing seriously.

Join us!

There are writers from all corners of the earth writing in various genres using the Virtual Studio today. They are waiting to share their community with you. Sign up today and participate in the revival of the Zoetrope Virtual Studio.

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