Writing Workshop Survival Guide

A week from today, writers from far and wide will be gathering in Austin for The Armadillocon Writers’ Workshop. I’m excited to take my place among the pros this year. This is my hometown con. I have been a student of this workshop for several years and have learned a lot about the craft and art of writing from the wide range of professional writers that make this workshop so special.

I know workshops can be a daunting proposition. Since I started writing seriously, I’ve gone beyond the Writers’ Workshop. I attend my local in-person critique group and participate in online critique communities. These activities have both improved my writing, and thickened my skin a bit when it comes to presenting a brand new piece of writing to a group of people who I’ve implicitly and explicitly tasked with finding its faults.

It’s hard, after investing so much in a story, to hear about all the ways its not working yet. It’s like finding out my beautiful baby is a Frankenstein’s monster after all. (But fear not, after some excisions, new body parts, and some clever suturing, my readers might just see a thing of beauty after all. And with luck, they’ll love it as much as I did when I struggled to create it.)

Workshopping is not for everyone, but you’ll never know if a workshop or critique group is valuable to your process until you try it, so here are some thoughts to get you through the experience. Many workshops (including Armadillocon) use the Milford method of critique, or at least the essence of it, which is:

“The author whose work is being critiqued has to sit in silence through the first part in which each participant in turn is allowed an uninterrupted four minutes to deliver their critique. Then the author gets an uninterrupted right to reply. Following that a general discussion ensues.” 

I believe that the single most important reason that this method works so well is that it forces you to:

No speaking up while receiving your critique. This is more than just good manners, it is a crucial skill that every writer should hone. You may feel like you, or your work, is on trial. You are not. It is not. When people are engaged in a debate or a conversation they tend to spend the time when the other person is talking formulating a response. When you are thinking about what you are going to say, you are not listening. Regardless of the stated rules of any particular workshop or critique group, practice not only shutting your mouth, which will give you the appearance of polite propriety, but also opening your mind so you can really hear. This is hard, I think because it is hard for us to truly receive anything, say nothing of critical notes on a piece of our own writing.

Your group is a collection of writers trying to improve their craft, but it’s important to remember that you are all readers, too. Listen for the ways these readers go astray, look for patterns. Is everyone getting hung up on a certain detail, wondering what a character looked like, or how the knight’s horse got from the stable to the field? More than once I’ve been rewarded for really listening. Even the person who is entirely off base regarding what I am trying to accomplish with a particular story, will often have valuable insights embedded in their feedback, little gems that I would have missed if I wasn’t giving that person my full attention.

You will hear multiple opinions on your story. This is a great opportunity to compare your intention, your vision, to what others are actually receiving when they read it. Until telepathy becomes a reality, what you are trying to communicate with a story, and what your reader gets will never be the same thing.

Be kind to yourself. In the heat of creation I’m investing myself in the story, sometimes the drafts come easy, sometimes they come hard. Either way, I’m often riding high when I finish. Sometimes, I’m even convinced that this piece is pretty damn good; sometimes it is, sometimes not so much. It can be hard to tell when I’m still so close to it.

More than once I’ve gone in to my crit group thinking I’ll just get their stamp of approval, they’ll catch a couple typos, and I’ll be sending it to editors tomorrow. It hurts to find out that my story isn’t quite working yet, that there are confusions and problems that still need to be solved. That it will take more time and hard work before this story will become all that it can be.

If you are pushing yourself you will have some brilliant successes, but more often you will fall down, will write something that has moments of brilliance but is also deeply flawed – this is a good thing. Achieving excellence is a long hard road, but that’s the road you’re on, right? Be kind to yourself. Catch your breath. Set your story aside for a few days. When you pick it up again, read all the positive comments first; fluff up your ego a bit before taking the next step.

With most groups, you will be sent home with half a dozen copies of your manuscript riddled with notes, some of which will agree, others will directly contradict each other. This is the tricky part. You want to keep your ego somewhat intact, but there’s no point in workshopping a story if you’re not going to consider any of the advice. At the same time, it is important not to rank everyone else’s opinion over your own. As a writer, one of your greatest assets is your voice, and I think the quickest ways to destroy your unique voice is to try to implement every note given. You have to assess all these notes and opinions and decide what to take.

Before going through the notes, I believe the best thing you can do is sit down and really think about what you’re trying to accomplish with this particular story. What is your goal with this piece? If the first draft is about figuring out how to write it, this draft is about the Why. Why did you tell this particular story in this particular mode? I will usually work this out in my journal. Once I have the Why of the story, I can better see which comments to use and which to disregard.

Reading other people’s stories critically is one of the best exercises by which writers can learn their craft. When critiquing, I read for comprehension, plot and flow, marking the manuscript as I go. I note places where I’m confused, phrases that seem out of the idiom for the setting or characters. I write questions that pop into my head as I’m reading.

Afterwards, I think about the story as a whole and make a guess at what the writer is trying to accomplish with this particular piece. When I give feedback, I usually say, this is what I think you’re trying to do here and these are the things that worked/didn’t work – for me. Using phrases like “I think” and “for me” are not capitulations or ways to soften the blows of a critique – it’s an acknowledgement that I am one reader. The things that bother me may not bother the next person.

Be kind to others. Receiving critical comments on something that I worked very hard on, something that I may still have deep emotional ties to is hard. So when giving feedback I want to be kind. It is not kind to refrain from pointing out the weak spots in a manuscript because you don’t want to upset a fellow writer. On the other hand it is not kind to shred someone else’s work in the name of artistic perfection.

In a regular critique group, you will get to know your fellow crit mates and may be able to be more frank in your feedback. But often you may find yourself in a group – like The Armadillocon Writers’ Workshop – where you are meeting your workshop mates in person for the first time at the critique session. In either situation is always a good practice to find the positives of any given piece. I like to lead off with a couple specific examples of things I enjoyed. In the middle I’ll bring up the elements that were problematic, confusions, and anything that pulled me out of the story. After talking about the weaknesses, I like to finish on a high note with my impression of what the strengths are for the piece in particular or aspects of the writing that are working well in general.

And with those thoughts, I wish you happy writing, happy workshopping, and happy revising!

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