Running your fiction through a workshop is a time-honored, traditional way of perfecting your writing craft. Nearly every writer has had their fiction shredded and pulped in workshops, often several times. It seems to almost be a rite of passage, and there are writers who never send out a story unless it has first been run through their workshop group.
Myself, I find that I'm deeply ambivalent about whether workshopping your fiction is always a Good Thing.
Before I get to that, though, let’s take a bit of a detour via an analogy. If someone wanted to learn how to play chess, I would give them this advice:
1. Learn the rules of chess any way you care to learn them: on your own, by playing with other beginners, or by finding a good chess player who is willing to teach you the basics. But learn the rules. All of them. Know them.
2. Once you have the rules down, find someone who is moderately better than you, who will beat you every time you play them but who you always take into the endgame before you lose.
3. Coerce that person into playing several games with you.
4. If they’re willing, have your opponent give you a running commentary on the match while it’s going on. But no matter what, notate the game so you can replay it afterward.
5. Study the games you lost (it's an extra bonus if your opponent will explain what she were thinking for each move she made against you).
6. When you think you understand where you're making your mistakes and can correct them, play that person again. Repeat from step 3 until you start actually winning a few games.
7. When you're winning 30 - 50% of your games, go back to Step 2 and start over. In fact, you probably should be following Steps 2-6 with two or three opponents rather than just one if you really want to learn chess -- so that you’re learning different styles of play and strategic approaches.
You'll be a much better chess player afterward. Step 1 is critical: you have to learn the rules first -- for writing, Step 1 is critical. But if we want to move the analogy into the writing arena, Step 2 is also important when we start looking at classes and workshops and mentors. To truly learn chess, the opponents you choose always have to be moderately better than you. If they're way out of your league, you won’t learn well because you'll never be able to figure out what they're doing that you're not. If they're on your level, you won’t learn well or quickly because you won't get pushed or consistently see better work than yours. If your opponents are actually less skilled than you, you'll be teaching them, not the other way around.
I suspect it's the same way with workshops. The composition of the workshop matters a great deal in how valuable it will be. Early in my career, I was part of a local workshop. It was a truly ugly experience, and turned me off workshops for a long time. The group was composed of several aspiring writers who had yet to sell their first piece, me (at that time I already had several short story and two novel sales under my belt), and Mike Resnick (with lots and lots of sales..). Carol, Mike's wife and his usual first reader, occasionally sat in as well.
What I found, after several sessions, is that when Carol or Mike talked, I should listen -- because when I managed to detach my ego from the story (not always easy for me, frankly), their suggestions nearly always improved the story. I sold one story I first read in the workshop precisely because I followed Carol's advice.
Then there were... the others. I had a hard time (honestly) even hearing the advice from the rest of the group because I'd read their stories and wonder how valuable their advice could possibly be when (in my opinion) their own writing was far more flawed than my own and rife with beginner problems that I was already beyond...
Let me stop here a moment. The logic in that last paragraph is faulty, and I know it. Just because someone can’t play piano very well does not mean that they can’t notice when someone else plays well or poorly. In other words, the fact that the other writers’ stories might all be fatally flawed doesn’t mean that they couldn’t accurately diagnose the problems in my work. To believe otherwise is dangerous and wrong, not to mention incredibly egotistical -- which is mostly what it was in my case, honestly. That’s not a good thing.
But... Putting aside the ego-mania, I did see that the advice the others gave me was quite often the opposite of Mike or Carol’s input. That was more of an issue. Things reached to the point where I was using the workshop group (with the exception of the Resnicks) as anti-advice: if they told me that the opening wasn't working because I wasn't getting to the action fast enough, I'd figure that I needed more exposition and character development in the opening to slow down the pace.
In that kind of situation, you have to either change your attitude or change the situation. I made the choice to quit the group. For a long time afterward, I avoided workshops. Still, like any writer, I craved input. I still shared my nascent stories with others; I just chose them more carefully.
The best critiques I've ever had have come from individual peers who kindly offered to read something I'd written and comment on it. My fellow writers can often tell me what they feel is wrong -- and when they tell me something isn’t working, they’re generally right. They can also suggest to me how they might go about fixing it. A diagnosis is different than a suggestion for a cure, especially in writing. Every writer is different, and the vision of the story in their head may not match mine. I’ll listen to an editing suggestion, but it may or may not be the way I revise the story. The diagnosis is what I’m after. I like the suggestions -- because I can see how another writer would approach the problem -- but I often ultimately take a different path.
My editors are also great for input -- their job is to 'edit,' after all. I listen to them closely, since they have a sense of the pulse of their readership. Again, sometimes they can give an indication of what way to go, and sometimes I go that way and sometimes I try something else. I’ve learned that no editor cares whether I take their advice as long as the revisions work.
I also have a few first readers (Denise, my partner and friend is foremost among those) whose judgment as to whether something is working or not I trust implicitly. My first readers can rarely tell me how to 'fix' something since they're not writers themselves, but when they tell me something’s broken I believe them and start looking for ways to fix it.
My own inner critic is what I listen to most intently, because writing isn't a group project. In the end, always, it’s solo work.
But we’re talking about workshops here, aren’t we? Remember that I said I was ambivalent? Well, in every creative writing class I teach, I also run a workshop. I do that because I really do believe there is value in the process, and because I think it's a good idea for new writers to learn how to read someone else's work critically -- so they can learn to read their own work with the same critical eye.
I also find that it’s valuable for the students to hear how others are reacting to their work, and that they also hear from readers where and why they fell out of the story. What's usually least valuable in the workshop are the suggestions their fellow new writers have for 'fixing' the problem -- and that's simply because they lack knowledge of the craft and long experience in revising their own stories.
It's the "learning chess" analogy again: you learn best from working with someone above your level. A chess tyro at the same level as me will make the same kind of mistakes I’m making, and thus neither one of us sees those mistakes very well. We continue to repeat those mistakes over and over again because neither one of us can point them out, nor are we penalized for those mistakes. There's no incentive (like losing every last game) to force me to correct them. In fact, in the worst case scenario, we may think we’re playing pretty well, not even realizing how amateurish we truly are.
The incentive in writing, of course, isn't "losing" but "rejection." You can workshop your stories to death, but unless you're also sending them out, you're not getting the professional feedback you need to see if what you're doing is effective.
Here are the Pros and Cons of workshops, from the perspective of my admittedly limited experience:
* you’ll have lots of eyes on your draft that are hopefully more objective than your own
* if everyone in the workshop tells you the same thing is wrong, guess what?: it probably is
* you can gain advice on possible strategies and tactics to revise your work
* by looking at other writers’ mistakes, you can learn to find the same mistakes in your own work
* you’ll be in the the company of people interested in a common pursuit: writing. That can be exciting and inspiring.
* the advice from your peers on how to ‘fix’ your story can be contradictory or confusing, and its accuracy is questionable
* you don't necessarily learn how to critique your own work effectively, especially if you come in with the wrong attitude.
* it is difficult to know whose advice to take and whose to ignore, especially when the advice is contradictory. One of them might be right... but which one?
* endless workshopping doesn’t get the story out the door. In fact, it may stop you from getting the story out on the market.
* in the final analysis, writing isn't a group project; ultimately you need to learn to trust yourself and your own judgment
I'd also mention that most workshops -- for good reason -- tend to focus on short fiction rather than novels. That's all fine and good. Short stories are wonderful. Many writers prefer that form, or write exclusively short work. There’s nothing wrong with that.
What are your goals in writing? If your goal is to be a "working writer" (defined as someone who makes a most-to-all of their income from writing) then you’re not going to be writing short fiction for one simple economic reason: you can't support yourself from the sales of short fiction. If you want your writing to supply your primary income, you must write novels. I'd argue that there are more differences than similarities between writing good short fiction and writing good novels. Workshopping short work isn’t going to hurt your writing, but it isn’t going to give you a great deal of help in writing long work.
There are workshops out there that concentrate on the novel. I can give you no personal feedback on the value of them, since I’ve never attended one. I suspect (but don’t know) that the same caveats I've outlined above still apply. Much depends on the composition of the workshop, who’s giving you the feedback, and the way you approach the workshop.
Workshops can be a wonderful, valuable tool to help your writing. They can also be a detriment and an utter waste of time (and sometimes money). In the end, they’re like a marriage: when they work, the rewards are rich; when they don’t, they’re hell. Most workshops, like most marriages, probably exist somewhere in between those two poles.
And (finally): often it’s the attitude you bring to the relationship that makes the difference. Go into the workshop with your ego detached from your submissions, with the belief that you intend to take something valuable from the workshop, with the resolution that you will work hard and be an active participant, and you’ll probably be rewarded.
Like nearly everything in life, it’s up to you.
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