Thursday, December 06, 2012

The Importance of Story Workshops

I just returned from a weekend workshop with a number of fellow writers (including Aaron Allston and Janine Spendlove). It's something we've been doing for years now and it's something I look forward to every bit as much as I dread in some small way.

Every year, we all submit between 7k and 10k words of prose and have the others hit us with both barrels of their notes. It's an all day thing, with at least 5 or 6 people sharing stories and notes around the room. We all come having read all the submissions and we pick one victim...ahem...one writer at a time and we all discuss their piece at length.

And this discussion is frank. There is no pussy-footing around. Sure, we'll briefly talk about what we liked about certain pieces, but the point of the workshop is to tell your fellows what doesn't work in their fiction. We're all friends and have been doing it for a while, so the need to sugarcoat problems is non-existent and we have frequent disagreements and arguments among each other. But it's liberating.

This group of people, with totally different perspectives on issues as large as publishing, storytelling, and characterization, and as small as speech attribution tags, semi-colon use, and the font used, is so incredibly valuable to the process, it's almost hard to explain.

Many writers want to show others their work and be pat on the head. And, when you're dealing with an audience, you want to have crafted your work to a point where that's the case. But no one can get their prose to that point on their own. Which is why unloading in sessions like these is so important. You've brought this piece of fiction that you've lost perspective on. You're either suffering from a warrior mentality and think it's the best work you've ever done, or you're terrified that it's the worst drivel you've ever committed to paper and wish you hadn't submitted it. A committed group of peers will let you know exactly what your strengths and weaknesses are and put you back on a firm, level ground. That way you can attack your next revision with a level head.

We have very few rules at these workshops, but one of the biggest is this: Do not retort. Unless you're asking for a direct, clarifying question, you need to take what comes quietly. We're all naturally defensive and want to protect our babies, but if you keep your mouth shut and listen, you're going to learn a lot more from your story than you would by arguing to defend it.

And you have to understand when your story is the subject of the critique that you personally are not being attacked in any way. You need to understand that you're in a room of your peers and (hopefully) friends, who want nothing more than to see the best work you can produce come from the piece you submitted. They're telling you their storytelling perspective on your story because they want to help you make it the best, not because they're competing with you or trying to hurt your feelings.

This is part of the process. If you can't handle it from a peer, why would you be able to take it from an editor?

And you also need to be aware that you can discard any bit of advice you're given about your story. In fact you have to. If you've assembled a quality group of writers, they're all going to have wildly different opinions. I can't tell you how often Aaron and I find ourselves giving completely opposite advice to other writers, but even that can be a good thing. Listening to two competent storytellers (or at least one good one and me) give you different perspectives on the same issue, it will force you to evaluate your own instincts on the problem. Maybe you find that neither of them are right and you've chosen a better third path, but pondering those perspectives is the only way to have gotten there.

I've workshopped Lost at the Con and Operation: Montauk at these gatherings and I can't tell you how many mistakes in the narrative and characterizations were revealed by having these extra, expert sets of eyes on them.

I implore you to assemble a group of writers on your own and start tearing each others work to shreds. Like a muscle, the only way to build up a better, stronger story, is to tear it and let it heal. I always leave these workshops newly refreshed to attack a story, either the one I brought with me, or the next one I'm working on. They're invigorating, or at least they should be. If you don't find them creatively nourishing or recharging, you need to work on getting a thicker skin, because this is what writing is all about.

It's better that a friend and a colleague tears your story a new one while it's in its rough, unpublished state, than rushing it out too early with too many problems and then your readers tear it a new one.

I'm more than happy to answer any questions anyone might have about the process and how we run ours, but you should seriously be considering setting one of these up for yourself.

While you're thinking about it, feel free to order a signed book from me, or check out my collection of work that's available digitally.

And don't forget to check out my continuing series of tips for writers. 
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