Ages ago, when the crust was cooling and TV was funny, there was an episode of M*A*S*H where Hawkeye was looking through the files for the map to the minefield and Radar says it’s right here. Under “B”…for “Boom.”
An acquaintance over on another blog recently told us that she’d joined a writers’ workshop, and my immediate reaction was “Uh oh.” I’ve had some bad experiences with writers’ workshops. While I don’t want to discourage any writer from joining a workshop, they can a minefield. Luckily, I have a map.
The main problem with writers’ workshops is that they’re made up of people, and not just regular folk…writers. Yes, it’s true. Writers’ workshops are filled with writers. And writers have egos and writers have opinions; usually lots of both. The former can be a pain in the tush, but the latter can often make it worth all the pain.
Workshops have been invaluable to me, but they’ve also been traumatic. No one likes getting bad news or receiving harsh criticism, but essentially, when you join a workshop, that is precisely what you’re asking for. So, Rule #1: toughen the hell up. You are going to get unflattering, hard-to-hear, knife-to-the-heart critiques of your work and if you don’t, you’re in the wrong group, because Rule #2: a writers’ workshop is not a touchy-feely, kumbaya-singing, love circle. It’s purpose is to make you a better writer, and that’s work, and that’s why it’s called a workshop and not a playground.
In my first workshop, for my first story submission, my first critique came from a guy who started by—and I am not making this up—taking out his frazzled, dog-eared copy of Strunk & White’s The Elements of Style, which he proceeded to thump on the table to punctuate each and every point of grammatical divergence in my story with patronizing, gleeful vitriol that left me ashen and shaking. I subsequently sold that story, unchanged, and that unwashed little fireplug still hasn’t sold a thing, but that’s beside the point, because Rule #3: everyone must be treated with respect, regardless of experience. We are, all of us, learning our craft, and none of us writes anything that is perfect as it first hits the page. So check your massive ego at the door and be humble both in delivery and in reception, because Rule #4: any member can be disinvited. That’s right, no one “owns” the group, and no one’s opinion is gospel, and if anyone is disruptive or belittling or just in general screws up the positive goals, they should be ousted but quick. Nothing poisons a writers’ workshop than demigods and kinglets.
I tried several writers’ workshops—some were regular meetings at someone’s house or a local pizza parlor, and some were online—until I and some writer friends started our own. Some of the guidelines we set up may seem obvious, but you’d be surprised. Rule #5: Gather writers of the same genre and with the same goal. It doesn’t do to mix hard-sf novelists gunning for their first sale with write-when-it-feels-good journalists searching for their inner child. Some people love detective novels and some people hate them, so mixing them together is probably not going to help anyone. And, there’s a whole bag of topics that interest the writers intent on selling their work—formats, markets, per-word pay rates—that will be so much blah-blah-blah to those who just want to finish their memoir.
We also imposed submission requirements, so that Rule #6: everyone contributes. Nothing breeds resentment more than one guy who sits in the big chair, leaning on his patched-tweed elbow, rambling on about how you could have done so much better, when he hasn’t submitted anything for six months. We also imposed a format to our proceedings, modeling it after the Clarion workshops, where Rule #7 the critiques go around the table, one by one, during which the author cannot speak. The author may rebut or ask for clarifications at the end, but not during the critique, and the purpose of this format was to avoid escalating “discussions,” and allow each critique to be heard.
Whether you use a writers’ workshop, an online share-list, or a circle of writing-savvy friends and colleagues, feedback is critical to learning and growing as a writer. I’ve learned a great deal from them, and am always on the lookout for like-minded writers interested in a mutual exchange of critical feedback.
Feedback is good, even if it’s bad because, as a well-known writer once told me, if a reader doesn’t “get” your story, it’s not the reader’s fault; it’s the author’s.
Sorry. This has been a looong post, but it’s important. Try a writers’ workshop. If it sucks, quit that group and try another. Or form your own. Use these rules as guidelines, and you’ll avoid wasting time and gaining unneeded heartache. Workshops can be bad, very bad; but they’re also one of the best tools available.
Just watch your step.