The first short story I published, "Faces of Stone," went on to win $500 in a writing competition. Even by today's rates, that's a respectable haul for a 3300-word short story. It was published back in 2002, in a now largely abandoned E-Zine called Bygone Days. Out of curiosity, I ran the story through a workshop group in 2011. Like any workshop, there were those who liked it and gave some advice on where and how it might be improved, and there were those who didn't like it and gave their opinion on what and why they didn't like it. I didn't learn much about improving my writing that day, but it was an "aha" moment in my knowledge of workshops. It was also the day I stopped rowing...read on and you'll understand what I mean.
At some point, I think most writers move beyond workshops. For them, workshops have become repetitive, they've learned their own strengths and weaknesses, and the gain no longer outweighs the effort. Writers tend to move on and settle down into a long-term writing group, develop a corps of beta readers, or rely on a single trusted agent to be their sanity check. Don't get me wrong. I'm not saying workshops are unimportant—quite the opposite. They are invaluable for learning the craft of writing and developing the skills needed to be proficient in any genre. Writing classes and workshops are simply time in the boat.
In other words, if becoming a halfway decent writer is your journey, you have to spend some time at the oars rowing the boat to get there. You have to build up callouses, feel the frustration of battling waves that set your progress back, and you have to get lost a few times trying to figure out where the hell it is you're going. There is no shortcut. Eventually, you'll realize that you've done enough rowing. That doesn't mean you'll stop learning...only that you've wrung out all you are going to get from classes and workshops. So, here are some tips I hope will shorten your time rowing. Oh, and if you are interested in the story, "Faces of Stone," you can find it here.
Tips to get the most out of writing workshops:
1) Garbage In = Garbage Out. In other words, don't go into a workshop with your first draft. I'm not saying you have to go in with polished prose ready to be sent off on submission, but it should be as close to submission ready as you can get it on your own. If you hand in a story (or chapter) full of typos, misspellings, grammar errors, characters that change gender or name halfway through, comments mid-piece that say "insert description here later," or my favorite—characters whose only actions are smiling, nodding, and letting out breaths they didn't know they were holding—guess what you’ll receive feedback on? Yep. Your few precious minutes of feedback will be wasted on crap you already knew was wrong. Take your craft seriously and don’t put garbage into the workshop.
2) Do your part. This goes right back to the last topic. Take the time to do an honest, thoughtful critique of your peers’ works. Read every submission twice. During the first read, don’t writing anything down…just read. In the long run, it will save you some time going back and deleting comments that are answered later in the writing. Your critique will always be better when you have an understanding of the whole piece and know where the author is trying to go (or what they are trying to do). Also, don’t take the easy way out and focus on the “garbage in.” Just because the other writer didn’t put the effort in doesn’t mean you should take the easy way out.
3) Shut up and listen. Now is not the time to guard your precious work from attack. The best workshops I’ve been involved in don’t allow the author to speak until everyone else has provided feedback. If the rule isn’t in place, follow it anyway. There is nothing worse than a defensive author interrupting feedback with rebuttals and excuses on why the reader didn’t get it or didn’t understand what they were attempting. Listen to what people say, write it down, and nod along. At some point it’ll make sense…or it won’t, and you can discard the feedback. The best response to feedback and criticism is always “thank you.”
4) Don't drink the Kool-Aid. On the opposite side of the coin, don’t put too much stock in praise. You never know when it’s honest or someone just doesn’t want to hurt your feelings. Yes, I know, we all secretly need the praise. We are writers. Being insecure and needing validation come with the job description. Take the praise in, savor the moment, do a happy dance inside, and again, say “thank you” and move on. These moments are not why writers attend workshops.
5) The group isn't writing "your" story. Sometimes a workshop group will throw out ideas that make you cringe. An example: “I think your male protagonist should be a police officer, not a teacher, then he would have a reason for investigating the crime.” In your head, you think, but my story is about a teacher! From jobs to morality, people want to turn your story into their story. Focus instead on why the reader didn’t believe in your character. The simplest way to remember this is that it’s not the workshop’s job to decide anything about what your characters do and don’t do in the course of the story. It’s up to the workshop to tell you if they believed your characters would do the things they did.
6) Use a timer. While you can’t enforce this if you’re not the moderator, if you have any say at all, make everyone provide his or her feedback in a set amount of time. About a minute per person is enough time to give feedback and not overwhelm the writer. After that, people begin to sound like Charlie Brown’s teacher. Keeping critiques to a set time limit also forces people to be more focused in their critiques.
7) Be prepared for the stupid. In every workshop I’ve ever attended, from my undergraduate days to my MFA, there’s always been that one person who just didn’t get it. It can be the “my opinion is better than everyone else’s” guy who starts with saying all the other feedback is wrong, or the woman who doesn’t understand it’s a historical fiction piece and there are actions the protagonist must do keep the story historically accurate. The best thing to do is to simply smile and nod. It’s all you can do. Trust me, you’re not the only one in the room who’ll figure out who to listen to and who to ignore.
8) All workshops are not created equal. There are differences between college workshops, convention workshops, and online workshops. There’s a reason why so many genre writers apply for places like Odyssey Workshop and Clarion. Knowing yourself, your audience, and where you are on your writer’s journey will help you decide where you need to be. Don’t go to a convention workshop thinking you are going to dive into theme and symbolism, and sadly, don’t go into most collegiate workshops focused on the plot and tropes of your favorite genre. Also, you have to understand that most continuing workshops have their own philosophy and culture, with expected norms and techniques. What one group tells you can be the exact opposite of the next workshop group.