Writing Workshops 101
I’ve been lucky to have participated in a few great writing workshops. Yes, I’ve dabbled in fiction, and yes, the workshop experience helped me greatly as an editor. But I didn’t fall into the Perfect Workshop. I learned from workshops that were great (and greatly productive) and workshops that were…not so much. Here are a few tips I’ve shared at writer’s conferences about the workshop experience that I hope will help you decide if a workshop is the right next step as you write, revise, and polish your novel.
- Like any relationship, you MUST have good chemistry: You know what I mean. If something in your workshop doesn’t feel right, then get out, no matter how many of the members have been published, are well-connected, etc. Unconstructive criticism, put-downs, and favoritism don’t work in most settings, and certainly don’t bolster the writing workshop experience. Nor does socializing during workshop time. I was in a workshop some years ago that included an author whose pompous and condescending attitude sent me running. Better to move on than to sit through workshops cringing and worse, feeling judged.
- But there is such a thing as being too supportive: If you’re joining or forming a writing workshop, expect criticism. Encourage it. That’s how you’ll get better, and that’s why you’re there in the first place. If you sense your colleagues are holding back (constructive) criticism, encourage them to come clean and then show them you can take it by listening and not being defensive.
- Listen, mull, and digest criticism, even if you think it’s useless: I just mentioned listening. There is no faster shutdown of a good conversation about a book than for the author to immediately defend her work and then publicly dismiss the critique. You won’t agree with all the criticism. You will value the opinions of some colleagues over others. And you don’t have to take anyone’s advice when you go back home to work on your book. But treat all colleagues as you want to be treated, and listen. That’s why you’re there. You never know — help may come from unexpected places.
- Find something positive to say: You’re working hard on your book. Your colleagues are working hard on theirs. Start your critique by saying something positive, even if you’re feeling turned off by the work. There must be something. The name of a character, a description of a setting, even the title of the book. Starting with something positive before you launch into everything you don’t like about the work (which you will express constructively, of course) is a good exercise in remembering why you and your colleagues have chosen to be part of a workshop. As an editor, I start my feedback to authors by focusing on the positive. I find it grounding and productive. Is that being too “nice?” I don’t think so. It actually helps me set my critiquing compass and organize my thoughts.
- Be specific in your criticism: You don’t like a character, scene, chapter, etc. Why? Where is it going wrong for you? Be honest, even if you wonder whether you’re the only person who feels the way you do. I have often admitted to authors and agents that the reason I’m not connecting with a project is because I don’t understand a theme, plot twist, or character. I’ve learned not to worry about feeling like the only person in the room who doesn’t get it. Ask questions – it will help the author see where she might have to dig deeper for details. Here’s a link to a good overview of critiquing.
- Do your homework and study the market: Go to bookstores. When I go to writer’s conferences, I ask how many people have been in a bookstore in the last month, and I’m shocked by the paltry show of hands. If your workshop is for teen fiction, then go to your local bookstore and peruse the teen fiction. Ditto any other genre. Ask booksellers what’s working, what’s not, and what they’re looking for. Go as a group with your workshop, or go alone. That’s called market research. Sounds pretty easy, doesn’t it? You’d be surprised how many aspiring writers believe they can skip this step. Don’t skip this step or the next one…
- Do your homework: Read. I understand your worries about not wanting to read into the genre in which you’re writing – what if you’re influenced or daunted by what’s already been published? Then read something else. Something really good. And if you’re reading in your genre, then you’ll have to look closely at what makes your book different. What if someone else’s bestselling published novel is just like yours? If that’s the case, you’ll have to work extra hard to sell your book. (Just saying.) Unless you can “position” your book alongside what’s already out there, it’ll be difficult to catch an agent’s eye. What makes your book different? What makes it marketable? Who is your audience? Your workshop can help with positioning, but you all have to know enough about the current marketplace to suggest that a book is, for example, “Divergent meets The Fault in Our Stars,” or whatever comparisons feel right to you.
- And if you don’t know of a workshop nearby… Then ask your local bookseller. Some bookstores are even willing to host workshop meetings. There are also organizations, such as the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators, which will point you to workshops in your area.
— By Liz S.