Mincemeat: on writing
  "Writing is easy, you just sit down at the typewriter, open up a vein, and bleed it out drop by drop."
Red Smith

On Workshops

Recently, I read an established writer advise others not to participate in writing workshops. Aah! I couldn’t disagree more. While he may have reached a point where they are no longer valuable to him, I think writing workshops are oxygen and water to developing writers. Use them right (so, like, don’t drink the oxygen or breathe the water) and workshops will save your writer’s butt. I’m ready to admit that workshops can be BRUTAL, but also indispensable. Here are three pros that I think make it all worth it.
  1. You get to read bad stuff.
  2. I’d say 80% of published novels and stories are fairly good to amazing, and if that’s all you ever read you don’t see the other side. Pretty much everything you read in a workshop is in draft form and written by amateurs. Don’t underestimate the power of bad writing. It will open your eyes to the horrors of poor characterization, the painful writhing of weak plot construction, the dreadfulness of cliché. Reading this stuff and learning to identify its problems will help you identify it in your own writing.
  3. You get to meet like minds.
  4. Some might say that the real reason to workshop your stories is to get solid feedback on your own writing. Sadly, this is not always the case. Not everyone in a workshop has a knack for seeing a story’s weakness and helping the writer to improve it (including you). However, sometimes there are those who can see what you’re trying to do with a story and can offer tips and insight that will help you do it better. Be nice to these people. Stay in touch. Out of dozens of workshops over many years, I’ve kept only one workshop buddy, but we still exchange our writing and depend upon each other. Years of workshops is worth finding one person.
  5. You get used to wrestling with outside criticism.
  6. Applying your own internal edits to your manuscript can be difficult enough, but incorporating others’ comments…that’s a real challenge. But one day when you do sell your book, your editor will send you a letter with her recommendations for changes. If you haven’t spent years practicing how to interpret and apply outside criticism, this just might stump you. I would venture to guess that an editor pays close attention to this process. She’ll be more willing to buy things from you in the future if she’s gone through an editing process with you when you’ve proved you can take feedback and improve the manuscript.

I received an email recently from a reader who asked,
“Workshops can be grueling. I'm just wondering, from the criticism you got, what advice did you NOT follow?”

It can be difficult. Everyone in the room can have a different opinion: “Change it to first person,” “Cut it in half,” “The ending doesn’t work,” “The ending is the only thing that works,” and so on. There’s no way anyone can tell you what to heed and what to ignore. Sometimes some feedback just feels right, or it comes from someone who has shown astuteness for your work in the past. It’s easy to ignore the comments from people who clearly don’t know what you’re trying to do. Try experimenting with the feedback. Applying it may be the only way to know for sure. It takes time, but nothing about the writing process is easy. And remember—others can identify the things that aren't working, but no one can tell you how to fix them. Unfortunately, that's the sole burden of the author.

Tips to help increase the effectiveness of your workshop experience:
  • Don’t expect to publish everything that you workshop.
  • This may sound cruel to hopeful writers, but what worked for me was to treat my first novel and the first 30 short stories that I workshopped as practice. It took away some of the anxiety of wondering, What advice should I take? What should I ignore? Try to remember that the real purpose is to hone your skills, not come away with War and Peace.
  • Don’t workshop something riddled with problems you already know how to fix.
  • It’s too tempting to dismiss all the criticism and think, “I know, I know, I was going to fix that anyway.”
  • Don’t workshop something you know is perfect and have no intention of changing.
  • You’ll just resent the feedback.
  • Don’t workshop anything you hate.
  • As the feedback rolls in, you’ll be tempted to think, “It’s worthless. I’m going to chuck the whole thing.”
  • The best kind of piece to take to is workshop is one that you’ve taken through at least two drafts, and have the attitude, “I want this to work, but it isn’t as good as I'd like it to be and I’m not sure how to fix it.”

I was a part of creative writing classes in high school, undergrad, graduate school, and a little bit afterwards, and now I’m to the point where I’ve read enough bad writing to think I can recognize it cold. I have a couple amateur editors who look at my rough drafts and one amazing, professional editor who is with me through to publication. I don’t participate in group workshops anymore, but I really believe I never could have ascended to publishing heaven without first passing through workshopping hell.

Return to On Writing