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Writing Workshops for the Aspiring Author - Lakeshore
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Jay Lake
Date: 2007-04-17 20:18
Subject: Writing Workshops for the Aspiring Author
Security: Public
Tags:process, writing
carolecole recently asked me to comment on how writing groups work with respect to ideals vs real world dynamics, personality conflicts, differing levels of ambition, etc.

First of all, I point the reader to my post on workshop structure, and the comment thread which follows it.

That being said, it's safe to say that writing groups are highly idiosyncratic. The relationship between a writer and a group is also highly dynamic, dependent on the writer's career state and the group's state in its life cycle. Groups are also susceptible to the effect of strong personalities, even absent any attempted coup.

While all of the above are true of many social organizations, with writers groups these tendencies seem to be magnified.

Let me go to specifics. A newer writer hasn't developed good judgment or self-critical skills yet. They may well need a group which has both peers and more experienced writers, who can offer a diverse spread of critique and commentary. The diversity is important to avoid the group having a single voice, as there's a definite "workshop effect" of people writing to meet their group's (often unspoken) expectations.

This means, for example, that a group composed entirely of new writers doesn't necessarily have the experience or perspective to provide varied, market-aware critique. At the same time, a group composed entirely of mid-career writers would be accustomed to addressing issues of craft and career which a new writer is probably not prepared to handle.

It's like playing chess, or tennis. You want to work with people at or just above your level. That, of course, requires an honest assessment of what your level is. Sales track record is a good rough metric, but not accurate.

You also need a group which doesn't have a overwhelmingly dominant driver. I'm not talking about the presence or absence of a sponsoring pro (the "tall pole" group I mentioned in my earlier post), I'm talking about a person or persons who overmatch the group dynamic socially. This can create an unfortunate dynamic, often unconsciously so -- for example, someone with passionately held opinions about writing, who has to express them constantly or "correct" other people.

One of the purposes of the Clarion method of workshopping is to deal with that issue. The one minute/no dissenting voices rule allows every opinion at the table to be brought forth in a conversationally protected space. Groups with open or round robin discussion, especially without orderly meeting management practices, are highly susceptible to the dominant player. Human nature, not ill intent.

Likewise, the group needs to be of a similar degree of career commitment as the individual. If you're bucketing along writing a story a week or some such madness, a group that meets monthly over tea to discuss one or two manuscripts is probably not right for you. I'm not arguing against writers having social gatherings, far from it. Just make sure your expectations and the group's behaviors are aligned.

Finally, you don't have to like the other writers in the group, but there has to be mutual respect. Critiquing is not a blood sport, nor is it for counting coup. If you find that going on, find another group. If that group doesn't work for you, find another. Check out college libraries, go to your local or regional conventions (and especially the pro workshops there), ask at the science fiction/fantasy bookstores in your area. Failing that, try Codex, Critters, OWW or one of the other online resources.
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Elf M. Sternberg
User: elfs
Date: 2007-04-18 04:20 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
I've been in three writers groups in my time and I have to admit that none of the experiences really "worked" for me; I went to all three in about the space of three years about a decade ago. One, I quickly learned, was made up of "casual" writers who probably are better off now that the Internet is in full swing just posting their stuff to their blogs; I would overwhelm the group with 15,000 words of work every month when most of them would bring between 2,000 and 3,000.

The others were simply hard to take: the SF group didn't want to read the smut; the smut group didn't get what I was trying to do with the SF. I'm happier just having beta readers now.
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joycemocha
User: joycemocha
Date: 2007-04-18 12:16 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
One of the more challenging situations I've faced has been that of being experienced in doing workshop/writers group type work, then going on to grad school and having to produce collaborative-type work with others who haven't had that experience.

I think it's why I'm more interested in beta readers now instead of a critique group, and finding/creating a local social gathering to talk marketing ideas and such rather than a classic critique group as such.
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kara_gnome
User: kara_gnome
Date: 2007-04-18 12:39 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
What tipped me, finally! into noticing I was in a toxic writing group was that I realized I was writing stories that I thought my writing group would like. Of course, that was an unattainable goal, but I think that if you're writing stories as if your writing group is a market, then consider moving on :-).

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User: tsheehan
Date: 2007-04-18 19:53 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
Interesting post. I was just writing about this on my blog. Permissions to link?
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Jay Lake
User: jaylake
Date: 2007-04-18 20:09 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
Please feel free. Any public (ie, unlocked) post of mine is fodder for links, comments, quotes, cites, jeers, etc.

I'm glad you found it useful.
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jeffsoesbe
User: jeffsoesbe
Date: 2007-04-18 22:04 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
I do different kinds of "workshops", for different reasons.

I have a local critique group. We meet once a month and critique each other's work for that month. Work is emailed before the meeting (about a week before). It's mix of peer/ladder, in terms of abilities.

I like this group because the expectation of having something every month makes sure I have something every month, no matter what else is going on in my over-committed life. We all have similar (spec-fic) genre sensibilities and I get good first cut feedback on the story and the characters.

I do the online Critters and SFF groups. I like Critters because I can get a giant pile of feedback (8 to 16 crits) in a short time (one week plus time in the queue). The feedback is usually at a fairly high level, and I can really look for trends and themes in the feedback. Also, the process of critiquing other people's works has really helped me sharpen my sensibility of identifying and understanding what works for me and doesn't work for me in a story.

I only recently joined SFF. There, the jury is still out. I didn't see a higher level of feedback from Critters, and I got less feedback (4 crits in two months) on the story. I get the sense SFF is comprised of smaller groups that critique each other's work and once you're in a group, you're in great shape. We'll see how it goes.

I do Writers Workshops at conventions. This year, I've done Potlatch and Norwescon. I like these because I get feedback from pros who are better than me (like Jay at Potlatch). The feedback is tremendously valuable. I got a lot out of both cons I've been to this year and I think my writing is jumping up a notch because of it.

I'm going to apply for Viable Paradise and Orson Scott Card Bootcamp. They both look good and the thought of spending an entire week doing nothing but writing and talking about writing sounds too good to be true. We'll see if I make it.

So, each form of workshop has its values to me and I've learned a lot from each of them. Your mileage may vary. I'd recommend each of them, in one way or another.
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