Wednesday, August 4, 2010

What a Workshop is all About

Now that we’ve launched the site and have our legs under us we will be running full steam ahead working on the content of the e-book we will be publishing next summer. This means a lot of writing for us…writing and more importantly workshopping--because we know there’s room for improvement in our story-telling craft.

I’ve been workshopping stories, poetry and non-fiction in and outside of school for almost ten years. All I have to say about my experiences with them is that they are great, in so many ways--even the bad ones. Now let me explain why…

On the simplest level, a workshop occurs when a group of people get together to read your work and give you feedback on it or you read another writer’s work and give them feedback--sometimes both at the same time. A serious writer’s workshop is not a social hour, a word-play date, or bitch session. It is time to work on craft, on words--something that you love.

There are different kinds of workshops: professionally run retreat workshops such as Viable Paradise, Taos, Clarion and Odyssey, one-shot Con workshops, online workshops, class workshops offered through schools, and many others. Each have their own strengths. But I’m going to focus on the regularly meeting group style as that is what we scribists will be doing.

Let’s say you’ve written a story and you just want to send it out. You want it to get into some editor’s hands so they will instantly send you an email asking to buy the story’s first publication rights. You think it’s that good.

Then why, a few days later, did you get a form rejection?

Because you are blind to what your work really looks like word for word--yes even if you put it aside for a week, or a month to forget about it. No matter what, you won’t be able to find all your grammar and spelling mistakes, or all your confusing sentences that you with all your idiosyncrasies will not notice as abnormal expression of English, or whatever language you write in.

You might have a great story, but the first time it comes out, it might not take the same shape that you see in your head. A good workshop can point out your foibles to you much quicker than you can find them.

So, confident you wrote the best story you could, and unable to find anything else in there to fix (you’re not letting your workshop fellows do work for you that you know you need to do first), you bring your awesome story to a workshop.

Now you are in the box, the silent state of the writer being workshopped, ready to write down everything you can because you are open to their constructive criticism.

Each group member quickly runs through their points about your story, maybe elaborating on one or two so as not to take all the time for themselves. You hear lauds on the parts of the story that showcase your strengths, but then… Wait…What are they talking about? That’s not what I wrote. They didn’t read it right. But you keep silent. You might find this difficult but it is important for the writer of the work in question to not pollute the critiquing atmosphere. They read it as they saw it. As a wise professor of mine once said, “You are in the box in workshop because you can’t sit behind every reader and say, ‘No, this is what that means.’” And so you listen carefully and write down what they said; ideally it was constructive criticism about the various parts of a story: plot, characters, style, pace etc. They are critiquing your work, not you. They probably know very little about you and can only know about the story. So don’t take anything personally.

Everyone’s said their bit, and now it’s your turn to talk. First, say thank you, because someone took the time out of their busy week to read your story. Then ask for any clarification on comments you didn’t understand. If no one commented on something you were wondering about, ask what they think--someone will be happy to tell you.

The reason for all this? They want the same help from you. They are in the same position you are, they want to improve their work to professional standards and beyond--this will take more than workshopping, but it’s a great place to start.

The best part about receiving criticism is that you get to make the final call on which pieces of advice you take. Of course, even if you disagree with a comment, you must give it due consideration. In the end, you are the only one with the vision of the story in your head and you can decide what’s best for it.

Perhaps the most important part of going to a workshop, at least in my opinion, is the motivation that comes from it. Language comes to life in workshop sessions. People are discussing words and phrases and paragraphs and their right to be on the page. Then someone brings home feedback and thinks about edits and plot snags and character depth. Beyond that though, they have someone else’s story in hand to critique for next time. The cycle never stops, it keeps you going and it keeps you improving your own work.

Now we aren’t always so lucky to find a great workshop where the other writers are generous or constructive in criticism. There are always those workshops where you won’t mesh well with the other participants. That’s fine, you’ll always have readers who will react that way, and it can be good to hear things you don’t like. But if the group really isn’t working for you (no one is trying to publish, anyone can show up whenever etc…), get packing and find a new one, or put a new one together yourself.

Reading other people’s work will help you realize what your own strengths and weaknesses are. Listening to other people critique the same work you critiqued will help you sharpen your own reading skills. As Donne said in the early days of the Renaissance, “No man is an island.” Writers need readers and writers need other writers--so get workshopping!