Getting the most out of your workshop

It sounds a bit dull, but a writing workshop should be approached with the same level of preparation as a board meeting. It needs a clear objective, an enthusiastic chairperson, open-minded participants, and, most importantly, doughnuts.

The objective is much the same every week (or every fortnight, or every month): everyone should leave the session with a warm fuzzy glow, basking in the admiration of their literary prowess, and with a clear idea on what needs fixing. (Personally, I think how they should be fixed is down to the writer, but suggestions are always welcome.) I’m not sure what’s the ideal number for a writing workshop, but in my MA group there were seven and that seemed to work pretty well. Since then I’ve worked with just two other people and that’s been just as good. The important thing is that you meet regularly to keep the momentum going and that everyone has plenty of time to read (carefully!) each piece and make notes. The notes are very important; you don’t want to arrive at the workshop and look as though you read six pieces while driving there. For this reason, it’s often a good idea if the chair sends an email reminder a few days before, just to remind folk.

During the meeting, the chair should keep a close eye on the time to ensure that everyone’s piece gets a fair crack. If you’ve all agreed half an hour per piece then stick to it, rigidly; tolerate no overruns. You can always pick it up again in Starbucks afterward. Make sure everyone has a say and keep the group from straying too far from the point. If there’s some disagreement over factual content then the author can look up the details later; don’t get bogged down in the detail. The aim is to critique the quality of the overall piece. Likewise, stuff like spelling and grammar only needs a brief mention, not a half-hour inquisition. Basically, the writer wants to know if the piece, as a whole, works.
Having said all that, you may occasionally get presented with a ‘rush job’: a piece of work so appalling (poor spelling, missing sentences, shocking grammar, crimes against punctuation) that it takes you an hour to critique the first page. Be patient with it if you can, but bear in mind you have five other pieces to read too. The chances are that others in the group are in the same boat, so drop a polite note to the offending member, point out (carefully!) that this piece wasn’t up to their usual standard, and perhaps he’d like to have another crack at it. Personally, if I haven’t had time to put my best piece of work forward then I’d sooner skip my critique for that session, and I think most people would feel the same.

As well as keeping everyone to time, the chairman should make sure that everyone gets a say. Groups are a mixture: some people are shy, some won’t shut up, but I’ve yet to attend a workshop where someone has nothing of value to contribute – unless they didn’t read the piece.
The thing about the quiet ones is that they’re meticulous readers and so are the most likely to have spotted the hole in your plot big enough to drive a bus through. Ignore them at your peril.

Every so often, you may get asked to explain some part of your work. If one person is asking then fine, they may have missed the point you are trying to make. Tell them what you meant and then make a note to look at revising it later; perhaps it just needs tightening up, or perhaps they read the passage while watching the last few minutes of the Kylie gig (guilty!).
Still, if the whole group looks vacant and treats you to a collective ‘I just don’t get it’ then I’m afraid you still have work to do. I’ve sat in groups where the person under review calmly explains what they meant and seems satisfied when the group nods and moves on. My next comment is usually something like this:

‘When someone buys your book, you won’t be there to explain that to them, will you?’

After the workshop, give yourself a few days to mull over the changes; don’t try to fix everything quickly and don’t slavishly shoehorn in every suggestion the group made. It is possible that all seven of them are wrong (though this is highly unlikely). As the author, the final decision as to what is best for your work rests with you.

Now, on the question of doughnuts. Most of the big chains do a reasonably priced dozen. Krispy Kremes are a bit more expensive but do a nice assortment of flavours. If you’re buying the box then you are well within your rights to nab your favourite before the workshop starts. I have been known to nab two which is not recommended and can lead to violence. If you remember to bring a box of moist wipes, you will be considered a workshop god.

Thanks for reading 🙂

Rejection and rationality

Okay, the first rejection was expected; the second is disappointing, the third, worrying; the twenty-third – it’s really starting to grate.

Part of the problem is that new authors have a slightly romanticised view of the literary agent: a chain-smoking Barry Humphries clone who’ll tout their slab of literary genius to the furthest corners of London and secure that first multi-million pound advance.

The publishers see the agent somewhat differently. To them, he provides saleable talent and shields them from everything else. And that is the view you should take as a new author; the literary agent is there to filter out dross.

As I said previously, after the twenty-third rejection the new author can take one of two stances:

  1. They are fools! They are blind and ignorant fools!
  2.  Or, more usefully – Maybe I’m writing stuff they don’t like.

Going with number two doesn’t necessarily mean that the novel is beyond help (remember that agents rarely give feedback), but before spending anymore time on it, you need to find out if what you have written just needs more work, or should be taken out back and shot.

So here’s the next question:

Who told you that the book was good?

Was it family? Friends, maybe? There’s nothing wrong with letting those close to you read the novel, but remember, above all else, their job is to love and support you. They will lie (and they will lie convincingly) to spare your feelings. And to be honest, if you’ve ever told a friend they look good in leather trousers then clearly you’re prepared to do the same.

This is where writing groups come in (improving your work, not your dress sense), and no new writer should be without one. If you live in a town big enough for a bus service, then somewhere nearby is a group ready to eviscerate every substandard piece you put in front of them. And this is a good thing because it’ll make your more self-critical and more prepared to cut swathes from your manuscript which simply don’t work. And the praise, that’s all good too, especially if you’re nursing a bruised ego after rejection number twenty-three.

And if, for example, you write and love science-fiction then don’t join a group in which everyone writes and loves science-fiction. Find a group with at least one member who hates it, loathes it, detests it.  I was lucky in that no one in my group was too keen on  science-fiction and I genuinely believe Regarding Avalon was a better novel because of it. If, each week, you have to face people who don’t care or understand the theories behind faster-than-light travel or the complex and riveting political history of the mighty Intergalactic Gonk Empire, then you will focus less on the genre-related elements of your story and more on the story. This goes for any genre: romance, war, crime, thriller. A balanced group will help you create a balanced novel.

Thanks for reading … 🙂

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