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!

Workshops, Critique Groups, and What Works for You

OK, my writers’ group doesn’t look exactly like this… Dance of Apollo with the Nine Muses by Baldassarre Peruzzi
If you are a writer and are planning to attend Austin’s own ArmadilloCon Convention, this is your heads up that the deadline to submit work and sign up for their excellent Writers’ Workshop is fast approaching. Get your 5,000 word diamond in the rough together and submitted by June 15, 2014!  I have participated in this workshop the past few years and found it to be both inspiring and useful: well worth the price of admission (which, by the way, also gets you into the con).

For those of us who don’t have the time or the funds to go for the big name workshops like Clarion or Odyssey, know that many local consrun writers’ workshops that will give you a chance to read and critique other people’s work and get a critique of your own project.

I’ve blogged about the usefulness of critique before. For me, it is invaluable to get someone else’s eyes on my work at some stage in the process. Also, since I enjoy the chance to socialize with other writers, my regular in-person critique group keeps my daily writing routine from feeling too cloistered. 

I also use the Online Writing Workshop. OWW charges an annual subscription fee, which, I feel, inspires a greater level of commitment and participation. And, in the end, better crits. The site is well run, and I’ve made connections with writers from all over the world trading crits there.

Over the past couple years I’ve built an informal schedule for regularly critiquing and getting my own work critiqued. This has helped me grow as a writer in several ways:

  1. Informal deadlines – Slugtribe meets on the second and fourth Tuesday of each month. I try to bring something in every 4 to 6 weeks. If a piece takes longer to get to a critique-able stage, I can just move that deadline out another two weeks. Still, having a meeting to go to gives me something to shoot for when I’m planning my daily writing.
  2. Regular face-to-face critiquing – Learning to articulate what is and is not working in a piece of writing has taught me more about writing than anything else. Having to think on the fly (at Slugtribe we read the work at the meeting) and put my ideas into words hones a different kind of assessment skill. Hearing what other people in the room think of the same piece of writing is also illuminating!
  3. Regular written critiques – With the online option, I can read a story over twice, make notes in the margins, and then put my thoughts into written form in a more coherent way. I try to put something up online every couple months, too. If, after a Slugtribe critique, I’ve made major changes to a story, I’ll submit the revised version to OWW to get fresh eyes on it. Other times, I’ll submit something new for a critique on the first or third week of the month.
  4. Making connections with other writers – I’ve met lots of other writers in all stages of development. We commiserate about the writing life, and trade tips and techniques about anything from punctuation to how to fit our writing in around kids and significant others.

Wherever you live, check out the resources around you. There may already be a critique group meeting at your local library.  If so, sit in on a few sessions and see if their style suits you. If it doesn’t you can always start your own group. There are also several other online options Lit Reactor is another subscription based site for writers. Critters critique group is free and can be a good place to start (though I found the critiques there varied pretty wildly as far as quality).

The important thing is to find the groups and people and schedule that works for you. You’re looking for a support system that inspires you to write and finish more material. 
In person or online, remember that it’s you who’s auditioning the group, not the other way around. While there is no perfect group (as they are all made up of humans after all), find or create a network that supports you and keeps you moving forward.
Mary Wollstonecraft Shelly

Writers Groups & the Value of Critique

The ArmadilloCon Writers’ Workshop was excellent again this year. The morning was devoted to a wide-ranging discussion about different aspects of writing and publishing. Pros who write, edit, publish and review all had great advice and opinions about the process of writing and the business of getting published.

After lunch we broke into separate critique groups. The ratio of pros to students was nearly 1:1. My group had four students and three pros! (Cat Rambo, Liz Gorinsky from Tor, and Stina Leicht) Everyone, student and pro alike, put their egos aside and came to work. I feel like everyone gave and got good feedback for the chapters and stories they brought. I’ll be revising my short story next week and look forward to sending it out into the world.

I have always felt that both getting AND giving critiques are valuable tools when learning how to write. There are so many techniques that you must manage to produce really good prose. When I write I try to get inside the story, the characters, and their world. It’s easy to loose perspective about what’s working and what isn’t. Putting the work away for a few days can help (and I do that too). But getting a critical perspective on a work in progress is often what will help me take it to the next level.

The key is a CRITICAL perspective. It sounds scary, and the endeavor is not without pitfalls. There isn’t really any instruction for critiquing, so most of us just have to learn how to do it any way we can. The world of critiquing is full of trolls and ogres who will tear your work down so they can show how brilliant they are (NOT). There are well-meaning dolts, toadies and yes men (usually relatives) only interested in heaping praise on anything you show them.

Learning how to give good criticism will help you recognize and find good critiquers for your own work. I started out reading slush for the Austin Film Festival‘s annual screenwriting competition. I would recommend looking for slush work. It’s an eye-opening introduction to the basics of presentation and storytelling, and you don’t need that much experience to weed out the awful.

Most of the time the only option is to dive in. Take a workshop if you can, or look for a group in your area. Many people form their own groups after attending a workshop like the ArmadilloCon Writer’s Workshop. With Skype and other chat services it’s possible to have a real-time discussion regardless of where you all live.

Here in Austin, Texas I attend the Slugtribe writer’s group, which is an open critique group. I like meeting face-to-face because it allows for a give and take that can be useful and illuminating. People in the group can ask you questions and tailor their comments to your stated intention. Also, people can disagree, which often generates a discussion about the piece that goes in interesting places.

When you’re live and/or in-person the Milford rules are a good format, which is essentially keep your trap shut – and listen, really listen – while everyone gives their thoughts and impressions on your work. Don’t worry you’ll get your turn at the end. But remember a critique is not about you defending your work against all comers, it’s about problem solving and making what you’ve done better.

You may find that learning how to articulate how a story isn’t working, will teach you as much about writing techniques as any book or class. Good criticism requires you to fully engage with the work of others; to think not about how YOU would write this story or chapter but about what this writer is trying to accomplish.

The more you learn how to give it the easier it is to take it. Getting good criticism helps you to develop a thick skin, because you can’t write good stories without becoming emotionally involved, and even if you know they aren’t perfect, it still hurts to have their imperfections pointed out.

Also, it will teach you to be brave. By accepting errors (in a story in particular or your work in general), you reduce their cost. Once you see that the flaws pointed out by a good critique session can be addressed, you can spend less time perfecting your work before anybody sees it and more time being daring and trying new techniques.

There are also some online groups out there for genre writers. Most of them require you to critique other members’ work in order to put yours up for critique, providing both an opportunity to give and receive critiques. The downsides of these groups are the same as with any web-based endeavor of this sort: from amateur or lazy critiques to snark and worse. I still think it’s better than nothing, just gird yourself for the experience. Critters is an open and free group. It’s quite high volume and can be a good place to start. Currently, I use the Online Writing Workshop they charge a small annual fee. I feel that this investment shows in both higher quality work and better critiques.

Just remember to critique in the spirit of generosity. No matter how bad someone’s work is, they were still brave enough to put it out there, so find a way to be both kind and honest. Just remember, it’s about the work and, I believe, about supporting each other on the journey.

ArmadilloCon34 Writers’ Workshop Tomorrow!

Tomorrow is the ArmadilloCon Writers’ Workshop. I am really excited to participate again this year. This convention knows how to do workshops right! It’s all morning and afternoon tomorrow BEFORE the convention actually starts, so I don’t have to miss any panels to participate. I’ve been working all week on my critiques for my fellow workshoppers, who I’ll meet tomorrow. It’s a little nerve wracking to write critiques for people I’ve never met but it’s a good practice. It’s also refreshing to critique work from writers I don’t know.

I attended ArmadilloCon and the Writers’ Workshop for the first time last year and had a great and productive weekend. My pros last year were none other than Paolo Bacigalupi, Lou Anders and Mark Finn. They all provided great advice and insight. This year I’ll be sitting down with Liz Gorinsky (an editor at Tor), Stina Leicht and Cat Rambo!

Manuscript page from J. G. Ballard’s Crash

Okay that page is a revision not a crit, but it was just too cool to ignore! I’ve been putting together some thoughts about why I think workshops and critiquing are valuable and will be posting that soon.

Meanwhile, I’ve been re-reading Bradbury’s collection of essays and remembering that while I’m working very hard to hone my craft, writing should always be fun, more than fun, thrilling. His enthusiasm is truly inspirational.

This morning I watched the long and gorgeous trailer for the upcoming film adaptation of David Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas.  I don’t know if they’ll pull it off, but that was a beautiful six minutes. It made me want to read that book all over again.

ApolloCon 2012 report

I enjoyed ArmadilloCon so much last year,
I thought I’d try out Houston’s version.

After driving to Houston and getting checked in and typing up my last critique for Saturday morning’s Writers Workshop I was pretty wiped, but I managed to make it to a couple panels.

Of Blood Spatters and Fingerprints: Clues to Fool the Savviest Fan
Martha Wells, Patrice Sarath, Bill Crider, and Ramirez 
A discussion of how mystery writers work clues into their stories without telegraphing the ending. It’s tricky walking the fine line between believability and predictability to create a satisfying mystry. All writers being different, many approaches were discussed.

Cue the Evil Laugh: Lessons Learned from Evil Geniuses
Tanya Huff, Rosemary Clement-Moore, Rhonda Eudaly, and A. Lee Martinez

 All about evil villain stereotypes and how smarter villains make for a better story. This was a lively panel where villains and villainy were discussed. Personages mentioned ranged from Thantos to Wile E. Coyote. Everyone agreed that good heroes need strong villains, and villains need to be relatable (you have to understand their motivations). Martinez has the theory that villains are often likeable because of their committment to their goal and their crazy ways, like how the riddler MUST frame everything in a riddle even when it makes things more difficult for him. Interesting. Glad I stayed up for this one!

Writers’ Workshop

I spent the morning in the Writers’ Workshop led by Martha Wells. It was a good solid critique session with three other participants in our group. We had time, after talking about our stories and chapters, to talk about some of the larger issues regarding world building and publishing.  Very worth my time and you can’t beat the price!

I spent the afternoon on the science panels. Being in Houston, a couple NASA people were kind enough to grace ApolloCon with their expertise.

Saturday Science with Paul Abell 
Dr. Abell is the lead scientist for Planetary Small Bodies assigned to the Astromaterials Research and Exploration Science Directorate at the NASA Johnson Space Center. Wow! What a title. He gave a really interesting talk about the study of NEO (i.e. asteroids), and he brought slides!

100 Year Starship
Al Jackson, Stanley Love, Paul Abell, and Todd Caldwell

He was dressed slightly more casually for the con.

This panel took a little while to find its feet, but once it got going there was an interesting discussion about the science and challenges and rewards of interstellar travel.

Enter the Dragon: SpaceX and the Future of Manned Spaceflight
Al Jackson, Paul Abell, Stanley Love, and Scott Padget
A discussion about how private space companies will shape the future of crewed spaceflight and space exploration. This was a lively panel with some real world information and anecdotes from the people who make it all happen.

I finished off the afternoon with Austin (both Jane and Texas!) author Patrice Sarath. She read an excerpt from The Crow God’s Girl, her stand alone novel of the Godarth Wood Series. The excerpt sounded quite intriguing, so I have yet another book to load onto my Kindle.

I made sure to stop by ArmadilloCon’s Party since I’ll be seeing them next month!

Writing 101 
Tanya Huff, Kerry Tolan, Bev Hale, and Julia Mandala
Billed as tips from pros on how to get started, stay motivated, and how to see your Big Idea through to the end. The wide-open topic seemed well suited to the first panel of the morning. It was fun with lots of real world writing advice and encouragement.

The Best YA You and Your Teen are not Reading
Patrice Sarath, Bev Hale, and Katy Pace
Well attended and in a small room, which happily encouraged more of a group discussion. Very enjoyable and now I have another long list of books to read – I may have to delegate some of these titles to my daughter!

Authors and books mentioned included (but were by no means limited to):

The Iron Fey series by Julie Kagawa
Divergent and Insurgent by Veronica Roth
Scott Westerfield (Uglies, Leviathan)
The Girl of Fire and Thorns by Rae Carson
M. T. Anderson and Paolo Bacigalupi

Countdown to ApolloCon 2012

The show that spawned a million conventions.

I have my reading list for the last of May, and I’ll post it eventually, but today I’m on deadline to finish (a revision of) a story for the ApolloCon 2012 Writers Workshop. I am excited to be able to attend not one but two con workshops this year. I’ll be going to both ApolloCon in Huston in June and, attending my home con ArmadilloCon here in Austin in July. I’m looking forward to comparing these workshop experiences. After going to the ArmadilloCon Writer’s Workshop last year, I’m hooked! I’ll be doing these workshops and going to as many conventions as I can get my hands on for the foreseeable future. Why do I love them so you might ask, here are just a couple reasons:

  • You can’t beat the price, compared to most writer’s workshops, these workshops are generally well under $100, and that’s with 3-day convention badge included.
  • Getting feedback from pros and other writers who are unfamiliar with my themes and quirks (as opposed to feedback from my regular critique group, which is also good but in different ways).
  • Geeking out at the hotel bar with other writers and scifi/fantasy genre types.

Han Solo says, “Enough talk, get back to writing.”