In Part 1, I spoke about writer’s groups and explained some of the differences between writer’s groups and critique groups. I’ve already covered my search for a critique group in The Help. And, I touched on some of the benefits I’ve received by joining the “right group”, in The Help, Part 2. I will come back to critique groups later in this series or posts.
Today I want to discuss workshops. To remind you, here is the definition that I am using:
“Writing workshop – A group of writers (strangers) who have provided samples of their writing to each other to read. They then provide feedback (written and/or verbal) on the quality of each other’s writing and possibly provide recommendations on the various aspects of the craft. This is usually a one shot event.”
Advice provided by other writers indicated that this would be an excellent tool to use during the editing process. The fact that the members do not know you very well, if at all, and haven’t seen your work on a regular basis like a writers/critique group does. Fresh eyes, various backgrounds, and hopefully a common interest in the genre can provide insight into those writing tics that your friends and group mates have become accustomed to. Their reactions and feedback should be reflective of a new reader in your target audience. Or, so one would think.
The common interest in your genre is not at all required. In fact, having authors from other genres look at you story can really be an eye-opening experience. Romance, mystery, and literary authors can see your fantasy story very differently, and provide unique feedback that you may not have considered before. Each writer tends to focus on their genre’s own tropes and idiosyncrasies. Blending some of those into your story can, if they fit, provide a color or plot direction that makes it sing. Equally important is that being a participant in this type of workshop (multi-genre) forces you to read the other writer’s stories. So you get to see how the different genre’s deal with issues common to all stories like setting, characterization, plot, pacing, etc.
I will never forget the first romance novel I ever read. Yes, I read it cover to cover and provided a review for the author. It was a struggle for me to get through simply because it was so different from my usual fare. However, it was well written. I did see a few issues, in my humble opinion, in how the setting was portrayed and I hope that some of my comments helped the author with future projects.
Like all forms of critique facilities, workshops should have rules or guidelines to provide a framework for the event and attempt to ensure the workshop runs efficiently and is as productive as possible for everyone. Typical guidelines might include: Only one participant speaks at a time in a prescribed order, always start with a positive comment, what worked for you, what didn’t work for you, what would have worked better, critique the writing not the writer, read from prepared comments, the author cannot speak other than to ask direct yes or no questions to clarify a comment, the author should not attempt to defend the work, the author can ask additional questions after all critiques have been received, the author is allowed to take notes during the critique, or written copies of comments are provided at the end of the session. It is the responsibility of the moderator to keep everyone on track.
As a rule the workshops I have attended were friendly, productive and well worth my time and money. Yes, you usually have to pay a small fee to participate. However, I would advise you to be aware of two issues before signing up and paying your fee. First, read the submission requirements and guidelines carefully. Being unprepared is rude and can bring out the worst in even the friendliest of writers. This will also tell you what to expect when your work is being reviewed. Second, grow some thick skin. You’ll need it eventually anyway, so start now. Not everyone follows the rules of critique and not every moderator can retain control of a session. So, some of the comments you receive might be very harsh. Always remember that you asked for this.
One other thing. If you attend a workshop, expect to learn something! In fact, a lot of somethings. Even the harshest critique can have a silver lining. Let me give you an example from a recent workshop I attended as part of a fantasy writers conference.
I had attended this same conference many times, so I felt comfortable signing up for the pre-conference workshop. The introductory email included a link to the “MilFord Style rules” of the critique sessions as well as submission guidelines. I submitted the first 5,000 words of a story I’d been working on and had already run through my writer’s group. I wanted some fresh eyes to see it. After a short time I received four submissions from the other participants that I was required to read and comment on during the workshop. I completed my assignment, printed off copies of my comments and arrived at the workshop site.
To keep this on point, I will skip ahead to the feedback I received and the lessons I learned. First, a brief scene synopsis: Scene One – My half-breed male protagonist enters a contemporary western brothel run by his mother, an evil woman whom he suspects is responsible for the murder of his father, to tell her that her second husband has died of cancer. Scene Two – The protagonist is introduced to his new client and the female lead of the story, an award-winning actress/ranch owner who is being stalked.
The four members of my group spent forty of the forty-five minute session in which my submission was critiqued, focused on two things: My negative portrayal of women, based on a two sentence description of two working girls wearing undersized lingerie, and that the mother was a sociopath. And, that a “middle-aged white male writer” should not discuss native american spirituality and syncretism across cultures, without substantial supporting data and permission from the Nations I was portraying, as it will be seen as an insult to the indigenous peoples.
As for my portrayal of women, the moderator did say that she gave me the benefit of the doubt in the first chapter, since she didn’t know me and that the second chapter seemed to reflect a more favorable light based on her initial impression on the actress character. However, the other three participants felt that I was being insensitive and should reconsider my setting choices. In addition, they recommended that I move this first chapter to later in the story to allow for the more positive view of the actress to lead off.
At no time during the critique, did any of the participants ask me about my own belief system, my heritage, my experiences with Native Americans, my credentials, or whether I was basing this character on a real person. According to the “rules of the workshop” I was only allowed to answer yes or no questions and could not speak up to clarify misconceptions. So, I kept my mouth shut and took good notes. The other five minutes of the session included some positive comments about my writing style and some suggestions relating to technical aspects of the story.
After they were finished, I chose to not get defensive (once again, I followed the rules), thanked them for their feedback, and we moved on to the next submission.
Those people who know me well are probably shaking their heads wondering how I controlled myself and kept from lighting up the entire group. The answer was simple. I know and believe in myself, my characters, and my story, what they said was based on a limited amount of information, and I’d been through enough critiques to know what to listen to and what to ignore.
The silver lining of this experience was two-fold. One, a group of strangers who read fantasy novels, stated that my writing style was engaging. And, two, these four individuals were probably not part of my target audience. I could have jumped up on my soapbox and shouted at the rain, trying to convince them, and maybe I will in a later post. However, it would not have changed the outcome of their critiques. The bottom line is not everyone is going to like your story and they have hot buttons that will send them off on a tangent. But isn’t that what writing fiction is about? Making the reader think, question, feel, experience is what this is all about.
I strongly recommend attending a workshop if you are able. More often than not it will be a fantastic experience. Just prepare and go into it with an open mind. And when you are providing a fellow writer with your comments, pay attention to the advise from this quote:
“When giving the critique of what did not work for you about the story. Don’t be afraid to be critical of the writing, in a fair and constructive way. Focus on the writing, not the writer. In short, be of assistance, don’t be an ass.” – Milford-Style Workshopping
Next up, Retreats!