Tuesday, April 19, 2011

How to Work a Writers' Workshop

Now I'll admit it...though I've always meant to join one in the course of writing my novels, I've never participated in a writers' workshop to get feedback on my work. Maybe it was traumatic experiences from listening to critiques during college writing classes that's kept me from trying them, or just plain laziness (that's probably closer to the truth), but I've often wondered if I could benefit from the process. With the exception of one or two relatives and friends, usually the first people to read and critique my novels are agents and editors at the publishing house. I invited a fellow writer and guest blogger Shantee' Cherese to share her experiences with different types of workshops and groups, sharing the pros and cons of each. Its a long post...but I think pretty informative! It starts below:

When I decided to write, I foolishly believed that was all I would do. I would sit at my computer, type up something once and send it off to be edited and published. No one prepared me for the concept of rewriting and, perish the thought!, critique groups that would give their opinions on my prose. So I went through this process, mainly because that’s what all my writing books said I should do. Then a wise man told me, “the point of writing is to be read,” so I gradually got over my critique group phobia.

I’ve been in a variety of critique group/workshop sessions since then. My participation has been sporadic – depending on the writing project and where I am in the revision process – but I’ve learned something from each group I’ve been a part of. Here are the five workshop settings I’ve been in, and my insights on each one.

 The Online Workshop. Zoetrope.com has a virtual studio for writers. Members of the community have to  critique five stories for every one submission they make. There are areas for short stories, novellas and screenplays.

-Quid Pro Quo. The site’s rules guarantee that someone will read and review your story. The polite thing to do is to provide a critique for your reviewers.
-Diversity. This is an international writing community, so your work will be read by people who might not otherwise be able to access it.
-Networking. Writers of various levels in their careers use the site, so that can be a valuable elbow-rubbing tool.

 -Quality: The fact that everyone is required to do five reviews before submitting means that at least one of those reviews will be a rush job, where it becomes obvious the reviewer didn’t finish reading the story. Your story might be the one.
-Fairness: There will be times when you provide an insightful review to someone’s richly detailed, 8,000-word story, only for them to give you a shoddy review of a 1,500 word story you’d submitted previously.
-Critique Fatigue: Reading and reviewing can be a drain, especially when you have to do it five times.

Conflict Creation. In a past life, I helped run a writing workshop in a men’s prison. It was a poetry workshop, so it allowed me to step outside of my comfort zone. A university sponsored the workshop, so it ran on a weekly basis each semester. At the end, we all gave a reading at the prison.

-Brutal honesty: I can write some horrible poetry, and no one knows that better than these fellow workshoppers. Their honest opinions helped me take my work to the next level.
-Brutal Discipline: We had writing assignments each week. Pity the fool who didn’t do them, or didn’t take the work seriously. The group’s elders – three of our best writers that I nicknamed The Wise Men – would glare at you until you straightened up.
-Brutal Insight: This was where I meant The Wise Man who gave me the quote about writing. It was his way of telling me to toughen up and take critiques – good and bad -- because I’d have to deal with them all my life.

-Outside forces. There were days when some of the best participants had a conflict with the prison staff and couldn’t come to a session. That took away a lot of the group’s synergy.
-Control. The participants got distracted easily and it was hard to keep them focused.
-Oversight: The prison has to sign off on everything you do, from workshop materials to who is invited to performances.

Friend Reviewers. In the absence of a writing group, I’d give copies of my novel to friends. These were not just any friends, but ones I knew would finish the book and give their honest opinions.

-Your relationship. You know their personality and can already predict which aspects of the story they will like or dislike.
-Trust. This is someone you know will do what is asked of them, and not share your story with others.
-Good vibes. These are people who love you and want you to succeed.

-Cheerleaders. You’ll have some friends who are so in awe of your project that they’ll only want to tell you what’s good, not bad.
-Taking it personal. No matter what you write, some will presume your antagonist is based on them and write a scathing review. Some will dislike a plot point that you think is absolutely necessary.
-Lack of diversity. You may have so much in common with some friends that they are a carbon copy of you. That equates to you reviewing your own book, which can’t be good.

Academic. In college, I took a few fiction writing classes. The rules were simple: Everybody provides a piece of fiction and we’d spend a portion of the class talking about what worked and what didn’t work.

-Diversity: The reviewers are of all ages and ethnicities, and if it’s an elective class, they may not have a writing background at all.  
-Grades. Your grade depends on it, so everyone will submit a quality review.
-Networking. Some of the students work on the college’s literary journal or have contacts to others in the area. Take advantage of it.

-Jealousy. All teachers have favorites (some hide them better than others).
-Your grade. Disparaging someone else’s writing may not be your thing, so you’re probably not vocal in class. Expect your participation grade to be a reflection of that.
-That Guy/Girl. Each class has that person who hates everyone else’s work, but makes a submission that is subpar. It might be easy to disparage that work as an act of revenge. Don’t.

Overall, I’ve learned something valuable from each group setting. These days, I fluctuate between the friend reviewers and the online community. I submit my longer work to my friends, while the short stories are submitted online. That should keep me in an ongoing state of writing and revising until it’s ready for the world.

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