Chapter Five: Killing the Sacred Cows of Publishing: The Myth of Workshops

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I believe writers’ workshops, when used correctly, are a good tool for a writer.

When used for the wrong reason, they are destructive beyond all measure.

Big Workshop Myth

A WORKSHOP WILL HELP YOU FIX A MANUSCRIPT

Of course, that’s total hogwash, but many writers go into a workshop thinking just that. And not just thinking it. Believing it!

Workshops, in the form that we know them today, have been around since the early part of the last century. There are lots of thoughts about how these workshops started, the most repeated being that Iowa Writers Workshops started it all. Of course, peer reading of manuscripts for writers has been around for far longer, but for this chapter, there is no reason to argue history.

Somewhere back in the baby boom, the structure of a round-robin workshop came about. A group of writers sit around a table or a room and take turns critiquing the story.

That form has become the standard form for most workshops. When sponsored by a university program of some sort, there is an instructor running the workshop, but in many cases workshops fall into a few standard forms.

—University Program Workshops. A group of students, all at the same basic level, take turns tearing apart manuscripts without any understanding of how anything works while an instructor keeps the fighting down to a certain level and sometimes adds in an opinion. The idea is that if a student is forced to actually look at a manuscript and tear it apart for a grade, and have their own work torn apart, they will learn how to write creatively. This method fails for the same reason that giving a person a hammer and telling them to tear apart a house will turn that person into a fine wood craftsman. It creates good critics, but seldom good writers.

—Peer Group Workshops. These are everywhere and run in a number of different ways, the two most used being:

1) Round robin style where a person submits a story and the group, going around the room one-at-a-time takes apart the manuscript.

2) Read aloud workshops. A person reads his story aloud and then the group makes comments in some form or another. (This method has nothing to do with selling writing, since you can’t go into an editor’s office and read your work to them, thus a person who is a good reader can slide by with awful stuff, while a poor reader gets trashed no matter what he writes.)

Of course, the biggest problem with peer group workshops is that the knowledge level is often about the same, so learning is slow and painful and requires members of the workshop to constantly go outside the workshop for new knowledge to bring back to the group. Many workshops never have this outside input and thus just swirl in place, with its members making no real progress.

— Leader Driven Workshops. This type of workshop usually has an experienced professional leading a group of not-as-experienced writers. Sometimes these are round robin, sometimes only the instructor talks. Either way they work or don’t work depending on the experience of the person running the workshop.

Denise Little, John Helfer, Kristine Kathryn Rusch, and I do a workshop sort of in this form almost every year. Everyone writes stories to order for an anthology assignment, and then everyone reads everyone else’s stories, but only Denise, John, Kris and I talk about each story coming from an editor’s slant and if we would buy the story or not.

I pretend I am buying for Pulphouse Magazine, Kris pretends she is buying for F&SF, John and Denise are anthology editors. This helps everyone understand why a story is bought or not, and can help them match their own reading experience with four professional editor’s reading of the same story. This form would never work as a regular workshop, but it works great for one weekend a year.

(Also note, I call all the classes we do here on the Oregon Coast “Workshops” but none of them are really workshops like what I am talking about here. They are basically advanced writing classes here, taught by advanced professionals to other professional level writers, but the word workshop seems to be used for such things these days, so I figured no point in fighting that.)

So back to the myth.

Young writers think that taking a manuscript into a peer round-robin style workshop will help them “fix” that manuscript and make it sell.

Let me list a number of reasons why this myth does not work past helping you fix a few missed details, the same thing a good first reader would do.

1) See my last chapter about rewriting. The best way to take your voice, the quality of your writing out of your story is to pound it like you are pounding a steak to make it tender. All rewriting does is make sameness, seldom quality. And editors buy for unique voice and unique story, never the same-old-thing written blandly.

2) Doing anything by committee never turns out much quality work. If you take your manuscript and try to fix everything everyone says is wrong with it, your remaining story won’t even look as good as a Frankenstein monster. It won’t walk or even crawl. And it sure won’t be like anything you wanted to write.

3) Writers in peer workshops know less about writing than you do. Why listen to them? (There are reasons, but I will get to that in a moment.) If they could tell you how to “fix” your story, they would be selling work themselves all the time or be a top New York editor. So why listen to what they tell you to do? Just assume they know less than you do.

4) If a manuscript fails, it does not mean your story failed. Your story is still in your head, and having a manuscript beat on only means your tool for relaying the story failed. In other words, if the hammer is broken, don’t try to tape the handle, get a new hammer (write the story again from scratch, called redrafting). A workshop will tell you exactly how to tape the handle together and I hope you know how well that will work on the next swing of the hammer.

5) Writing for your workshop. This starts to happen the longer a workshop has lasted with the same group. You get the member’s voices in your head and as you are creating a story, you make decisions in your story based on what another member of your workshop will think. By this point, you are lost as a writer with a unique voice and need to run from the workshop with all speed, just as you should run from any read-aloud workshop. If the voices of other workshop members are in your head while writing, you are in deep trouble. That simple. You have to write your stories your way, not anyone else’s way.

6) Work-in-progress workshops are death!!!!! This is the worst of all workshops, and often are done with novel workshops. The simple rule is that you should never, ever show anyone a work-in-progress, even your first reader. It is your story, your book, and the only hope of it being unique and original to you will be if you write it alone, with no input along the way at all. Nothing of quality ever comes out of a workshop of this type.

The Good Reasons to Attend a Workshop

So, why go to a workshop at all if the workshop can’t help me “fix” my work of art? Actually, if used correctly, peer workshops can really, really help you learn, but you have to have a thick skin and the ability to keep what is being said in perspective.

And you have to have your reasons for attending very clearly laid out. And kept in focus every week, because the peer pressure to do otherwise will be awful.

Here are a few good reasons to attend a peer workshop.

1) Deadline. Writers must learn to write to deadline and often a workshop is structured so that something needs to be turned in to the workshop, thus giving you structure and a deadline. My first peer workshop didn’t have many rules, other than only one person could talk at a time. So I made my own deadline, deciding to turn in a new story every week.

And not once did a critique bother me. Why? I always mailed the story to an editor before turning the story into the workshop that week, so the deadline of the workshop not only helped me finish a story by a certain time, but mail it. By the way, if you do this, don’t tell your workshop you are doing it. Because they believe they are helping you “fix” your story, they will be insulted.

2) Audience. A workshop gives you a built-in audience to see if a manuscript is actually working for the story you wanted to tell.

But the trick on this reason is that you you have to understand how the audience works. If everyone loves your story, it means it hit everyone right in the middle and the story might sell, it might not. If everyone hated your story, the same thing. The story might sell, it might not, but you will know to expect some ugly rejections before it sells. But if half the workshop hates your story and half love it and they argue about your story, don’t touch a word. You have a winner. Your manuscript worked so well, the readers got arguing about content and thus you know it will sell. Editors love that kind of story.

Kristine Kathryn Rusch tells a story about a workshop where she turned in a wonderful little story that everyone loved. I read it and loved it also, thought it sweet and cute. At the break, she went out into the parking lot, angry as all get out. I asked her what was wrong and it turns out she was furious about the critique. To her the manuscript had completely failed and she was going to toss it. When I asked why, she said simply, “It was supposed to be a horror story.” She had used the workshop as an audience to see how the manuscript worked for what the story in her head was. The audience told her that her manuscript failed, even though they all loved it.

3) Learning from other writers’ skills. Taking another writer’s story apart as a critique seldom helps anyone, including the reader. It’s often why the best reviewers are failed writers. They can tear apart, but they can’t build.

However, instead of going at a story to tear it apart, if you are using a workshop correctly, you are reading to see what the writer did correctly.

That’s right, I said look for what the writer did right. Ignore the mistakes.

So say the writer of a manuscript used a nifty way of introducing a villain that really worked for you. Study how the writer did that, complement the writer about it in the workshop and try to say what you mean out loud, and guess what, that same trick will now be in your tool box for later use on a new story. That’s one of the many ways writers learn new writing skills.

For example, without using a workshop, if I finish a book by an author that I loved (I always read for pleasure first) and really think some trick the writer did was nifty, I go back and look at that section, often reading it and rereading it up to a dozen times so I can get past the story and see the words. Then if I really like the trick, I will take those few pages of the book and type them into my manuscript format.

By running the author’s words through my own fingers and mind, I will learn the trick. I might not use it for three or four novels, and then suddenly, without thinking, I will use it when it needs to be used.

Workshops, if you go at the reading correctly, can teach you the same kind of things.

But you have to be focused on what works in a manuscript, and why. Not just a ripping and shredding critique. Those kind of critiques do nothing for you, or the author.

4) WRITE DOWN THE GOOD STUFF. When all of us are being critiqued, the tendency is to only write down what people didn’t like. Kris and I fight to get our students to write down the good stuff we say about their work. It is a constant fight.

Asimov’s Rule: When someone says 9 good things and one bad, the writer will only remember the bad thing.

Fight that rule, only write down the good stuff. Ignore the bad stuff AND NEVER WRITE IT DOWN.

Let me repeat that. ONLY WRITE DOWN THE GOOD STUF.  NEVER WRITE DOWN THE BAD STUFF.

Of course, few of you will do that since Asimov’s Rule is strong human nature, but I figured I might as well put that in.

5) Listen carefully to other critiques of other writer’s stories. You will be amazed that another writer in the room will see something in a manuscript that you have read that you didn’t see. Often something good or well-done, sometimes a problem you didn’t see. Since it is not your manuscript, you have no emotional attachment to it, and thus can learn from the comment. Go back into the manuscript to see why you missed it and if you agree. If you do agree, you will have just learned another trick for a future story. In fact, you will learn more by listening to other people critique other writer’s stories than from ever having your own story critiqued.

So, besides those reasons to go to a peer workshop, what is the biggest reason? Put simply:

You are attending the workshop to help make your next story better.

That’s right, there’s nothing a workshop can do to help you fix a story without killing it. Nothing.

But you can learn stuff from a workshop that will help you make your next story better. Your focus always has to be forward, toward learning and writing the next story. (Again, why I mailed my stories before turning them into a workshop. I never cared about that manuscript, it was finished. I did care to learn nifty new stuff that I could use for future manuscripts.)

So, get your mindset away from the myth that a workshop will help you “fix” a manuscript and focus forward.

Try to learn everything you can learn to help your next story be better written.

And if you can’t do that, RUN AWAY FROM ALL CRITIQUE PEER WORKSHOPS.

If you can’t use a workshop correctly, they are too dangerous to you as an artist to get near.

Besides, letting people beat up on your work is just no fun. If you aren’t learning how to write the next story better, what’s the point, anyway?

Have fun with your writing. And always work toward the next story.

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Copyright © 2011 Dean Wesley Smith
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Thanks, Dean


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