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Jay Lake
Date: 2007-03-05 19:34
Subject: Workshopping
Security: Public
Tags:process, writing
For some reason, the subject of workshopping has come up several times lately in conversation and in IM. My own views on this have changed over the years, following my needs for the most part. I'm not sure I haven't been militant in the past about the need for a good workshop. These days I'm a lot more laissez-faire (which I think is French for goofing off at the carnival).

First of all, distinguish between one-offs and regular workshops. One reason this is on my mind is that I am being a workshop pro at Potlatch. I generally volunteer to be a workshop pro at cons, simply in order to pay forward. That's a one-off, where I have no prior experience of critiquing the writer and no real expectation of continued experience of critiquing the writer.

Regular workshops, on the other hand, meet regularly. I've mentioned before I see there being three kinds of regular workshops -- tall pole, peer driven, and tennis ladder. More or less by definition, con workshops are tall-pole workshops.

  • Tall pole -- One or two sponsoring pros at a career or experience level significantly ahead of the balance of the attendees, who are largely peers

  • Peer driven -- Everyone in the workshop is at roughly the same career or experience level, often seen at the very earliest stages of writing, and also among well-established pros

  • Tennis ladder -- The rarest but most useful form of workshop, where there are writers at all levels of career and experience, so virtually everyone experiences mentoring both upward and downward

There's also the issue of whether a workshop is good for you the writer. This can change over time, depending on your readiness for critique and the structured experience of the workshop. It can also be personality dependent -- a strong workshop member with firm opinions can be troublesome for quieter members, for example. There's also a regrettable tendency among writers (and human beings in general) to assume that whatever they think, feel and act on is the right way to do things, and everyone else is an idiot.

All that being said, without a workshop, where are you going to get direct, cogent feedback on your writing craft and the art thereof?

Eric Witchey explained something to me some years ago which has stuck strongly in my head. In fact, I've found it to be the touchstone of the different models I've used for working with my writing -- workshop, first/second readers, one-on-one critique exchanges, parallel play, etc. He pointed out that the way most people learn a facet of craft is by intellectualizing it first, for example, through structured critique. Then there is a time period of months for that intellectualization to sink in. Then, eventually, the subject of study becomes part of the writer's unconscious competence.

So for me, I listen to what people tell me, I listen to my own intuition about my writing (which, for the record, I still find highly unreliable, six and half years into my publishing career), and I pay a lot of attention to what other people tell each other. Because for me, the real purpose of a workshop was never the critiques I got or didn't get -- I was too invested in those to listen as well as I should. The real purpose of a workshop was the critiques between others, where I could listen with both objectivity and focus.

What's your take on workshops? Do they work for you? Am I full of it?
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User: joycemocha
Date: 2007-03-06 04:16 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
I used to workshop.

I don't any more. Part of that is due to having participated in three different types of workshop. The first one, I was (believe it or not) the one with experience. The second one was in a format that didn't work. The third one worked for a while, and then kinda fell apart for various reasons.

For me, any more, if I could find a trusted beta reader, I'd probably go for that instead of a workshop format. I need to have someone who is not going to spout off workshopese and jargon at me about obscure points in the Turkey City Lexicon; rather, I need someone who can point out plot holes without feeling driven to do the line-by-line rewrite/edit (anyone out there feel like they want to audition for this role?).

I am also rather allergic to workshops at the moment due to the nature of grad school and working on a Master's project. Right now the thought of "critique group" or "writer's workshop" channels grad school negative experiences...and I'm not ready to go back to that!
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User: swan_tower
Date: 2007-03-06 04:37 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
I have a local critique group, which falls partway between the tennis ladder and peer driven states you describe, I think. (Or maybe we're just a really truncated ladder, as I'm the highest in career terms, and that isn't very high.)

Sometimes I just want a pat on the head and a reassurance that yep, spell-check that baby and it's ready to go. Sometimes I hand them a story and say "it's broken and I can't tell why." I don't always get a useful answer to that second one, and I could probably get by without that first one, but I like having the group anyway. Just the simple fact of having the regular meetings keeps my mind on writing when it might not otherwise be.

When I got to college, the critique group there was a huge factor in making me get serious about my writing. Most of the people in it weren't serious, and I rarely got truly useful critiques, but for the first time in my life, I had a reason to finish something by a set date. The boost that gave to my productivity was phenomenal.
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catsparx: agog
User: catsparx
Date: 2007-03-06 04:59 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
I never would have progressed a single story to publication standard without the assistance of workshops and crit groups. But 3 years post Clarion, I can't handle them on a regular basis. I'd rather dedicate the time spent in them to writing or reading, and see my old crit group buddies socially instead of across the table. I still need the benefit of other eyes on my prose, but I get this by swapping crits with writers whose work I like. Recently I participated in a one-off workshop with Kelly Link & Gavin Grant and that really rocked. It was such a new and fresh experience. And yeah, they thought my story sucked...
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User: (Anonymous)
Date: 2007-03-06 05:10 (UTC)
Subject: take it or leave it?
My first workshop was when we met down at Rio Hondo, and I have to say it was mostly confusing for me. Lots of information but no way to assess whether the ideas coming at me were good/bad/right/wrong/sane/crazy. Just a flood of possible routes to take. Nine months later, I was finally able to come back to the piece and do some rewriting, and at that point I was removed enough both from the piece and the critiques to be able to pick through and identify ideas that seemed intriguing enough to try applying to the story, but wow, it was a long process.

I'd do it again, but my preference is definitely to find writers who are as experienced, or more experienced than I am. Or else -- and this has worked really well for me -- to just have completely unschooled readers, who are entirely uninterested in writing as a craft, but are broadly interested in reading as a pastime. I get useful responses from these people, mostly because I can ask them questions, "When you read this section, were you scared?" "What did this section seem to mean to you?" "What did you think character X was planning?" And in that way I can get a sense of how the story works as a reading experience. Using people as test subjects has been really fruitful for me in terms of finding where a story has holes, or needs clarifying, or simply didn't make any sense at all.

And finally, I agree with you about how much I ended up learning about writing from listening to other people's stories being critiqued. I'd often have a problem with a story but wouldn't have a good way of communicating it, and then someone else would just nail it, and I'd sit there with an "Aha!" feeling as a new aspect of writing was revealed to me. That part of the workshop was really really good.

paolo bacigalupi - windupstories.com
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Coffee Shop Whore: Typewriter
User: skidspoppe
Date: 2007-03-06 05:19 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
As an MFA student (an old refrain, to be sure) the workshop is a way of life. And, I think, it mostly sucks. Not the process of working with a fellow writer, but the academic structure. For the most part, I find people who want to write their story, not yours. So instead of telling you what works or doesn't in your piece, they tell you how they would have done it differently.

That said, I have found a few people with whom I get together on a regular basis (both from within the MFA group as well as outside it) to read and comment on each others work. The benefit, of course, is that we know each other and have bypassed the ego driven set of write it my way and moved into a what are you trying to accomplish with this scene and does that work or not.

Personally, I find this second much more beneficial. Especially when you have people in your workshop who either A) don't want to be there because they don't feel they are going to get anything positive out of it or B) are not qualified to assess your work critically (I speak here primarily of Poets, who, while good at the poetry thing, are not very good at analyzing story structure).

Add in to that the idea that I write Speculative Fiction and we enter into a whole new world of pain and torture. So again, the group I have gathered around myself is a group open and receptive to the idea that a story that details something about the "human condition" can, indeed, take place on a spaceship.
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International Bon Vivant and Raconteur
User: nick_kaufmann
Date: 2007-03-06 05:20 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
I put together my own workshop back in '02 or '03 by gathering together a number of writers in my area whose work I respected. It's been going strong ever since, and everyone's skill level has improved enormously, leading to pro-level sales of everything from short stories to novels. So I heartily recommend workshops, but with the caveat that it must be the right workshop. Your fellow workshoppers must A) know how to critique something constructively, and B) know what they're talking about. You yourself must know A) how to listen to critiques without getting defensive or egotistical, and B) what advice works for or fits with the piece and what doesn't. With the right balance, a workshop is indispensible.
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User: muneraven
Date: 2007-03-06 05:40 (UTC)
Subject: Workshops and critique groups
I just did a panel at Marscon on this topic last weekend. Fun panel.

My take is that workshops can be really good or really bad for a writer, depending on the structure, rules, and of course mix of people in the group. However, I do think that most writers go through stages where they need workshopping and then go through other stages where workshopping can be at best a distraction and at worst harmful to the writer's work. I like your take on it (or Mr. Witchey's): workshopping is useful when you are gaining an intellectual grasp of some aspect of writing, but then at some point the lessons sink in and workshopping is less useful at that point.

A really good critique group or workshop can be wonderful. However, there are many many ways for such a group to go bad, lol. Bad workshop stories can be hilarious, actually. So many ways to be dysfunctional! :-)
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David D. Levine
User: davidlevine
Date: 2007-03-06 06:15 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
As you know, I find workshops invaluable. My current group started off as a peer-driven. I still think of it as being that way but, in your taxonomy, I suppose I would have to class it as "tall pole." The value of the group to me, as the "tall pole" (and I have to say I dislike that phrase) is that several of the members who've sold little or nothing are some of the finest critiquers and story doctors I've ever met -- they've helped me solve out many problems I wouldn't even have spotted all by my lonesome. These people do for me, I suspect, what your trusted beta readers do for you, and the critiques of the others are gravy. I've gotten pretty good at listening to the comments that resonate and letting the others just slide off me like sauce off a goose's back.

I would love to participate in a regular workshop with writers who are selling the way I am. But in my experience, writers who are selling the way I am don't workshop... they're too busy and/or don't get enough out of the process.
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User: zhaneel69
Date: 2007-03-06 06:50 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
I prefer the one-off, tall pole structure. Or at least that is my most regular. I got a TON out of the SH weekend, and most of that was as you say: Listening to others about what they thought of the other stories.

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User: autopope
Date: 2007-03-06 09:56 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
I agree in general with all your points, but I think you missed one: when joining a pre-existing workshop, there are two general broad categories -- ones that exist to provide positive reinforcement of the participants' egos and no other reason, and workshops where the default attitude is to learn. It's easy to tell the two apart: if you deliver some reasonable criticisms of a work and get rotten tomatoes thrown at you, then it's the former type, and you should walk, very fast.

Regrettably, the circle-jerks are not as rare as one would wish.
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User: zanzjan
Date: 2007-03-13 20:45 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
Sadly, there's a third category. I was invited to attend one session of a regular writer's group where the dynamic was one of being as deliberately over-the-top abusive and harsh to the writer/story being critiqued. It was as if it was a contest to see who could be the meanest. While I don't believe you should pull your punches when giving a critique if you've got a valid point to make on a story, neither is it ever necessary to be mean about it. Needless to say, I didn't join...
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Joanne Merriam
User: joannemerriam
Date: 2007-03-06 11:02 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
There was a writers' group at my university English Dept that served this purpose for me, and they were extremely helpful, for about a year. Then key people graduated and it fell apart. But that experience was very positive.

I haven't found a workshop since that wasn't part of a structured paid-for short-term course (the ten-week writing class f'rinstance, which I've been unable to find south of the border and might be a Canuck thing, I dunno). I haven't been looking particularly hard, because all the ones I've found so far ended up being me showing people how to put a submission together, and while that's a nice ego boost it's really not making me grow as a writer.

Instead, I have a beta reader, who is not a writer but somebody who I trust, who reads voraciously and who knows how to be straight with me without being hurtful. I use her sparingly because of course, it's not her job. Many stories she doesn't see until they're in print. But it's invaluable having somebody like that.
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Patron Saint of Pessimism
User: woodrunner
Date: 2007-03-06 11:42 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)

Workshops are not in Size Fits All. They aren't necessarily accessible either - and I'm not talking about distance accessibility. From my point of view, I'm not sure what I would get out of a workshop, not being able to hear the discussions or conversations, so for me it would be a loss.

From another point of view, it really depends on who is giving the workshop. If it's an arrogant little snot who's only got one thing in print and who acts as if that makes him much better than anyone else... yeah, not really accessible. A little demeaning for other people too.

I'd prefer to have a second reader (ideally, several), and a mentor. I work better one-on-one. Unfortunately, while I ask for second readers, I don't push, and no one volunteers; and I'm too polite to impinge on others to ask if they'd like to mentor me.

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User: marshallpayne
Date: 2007-03-06 13:17 (UTC)
Subject: A radical approach?
I imagine we’re supposed to talk about our own experiences with workshops, but I came across an excellent book on the subject by novelist/instructor Madison Smartt Bell: Narrative Design: Working with Imagination, Craft, and Form (trade paperback edition Norton 2000) He’s taught at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, one of the oldest in the country. He has a radical approach. Right at the beginning of the workshop he tells his class that 90% of what they’re going to hear about their work will be rubbish and to ignore it. Yes, radical indeed. Once, after the class had gone over a writer’s story and the
writer was leaving with crits in hand, he want to tell the poor fool to go “burn that rubbish.” Though he knew the writer wouldn’t. The writer had spent all this money and time to get to this point and this is what he’d come for. Still, Bell didn’t think it would be
of much help to the writer. This is nothing new to anyone who has gone through the workshop process. Most writers find only a few crits germane to their work in question. Also, sometimes the process can be harmful as it produces stories that are “workshoppy”
or “written by committee.” A final product that is “perfect,” yet dull and lifeless.

Through my experience, I find this to be true. One value of a workshop, I think, is meeting a couple of people with whom you can continue the critting relationship with, usually by email, after the workshop has finished. The critiquing of fiction, like everything
else, is partly a gift, partly an acquired skill. Sturgeon’s Law operates here as well. Most people aren’t very good at it. This may have a direct correlation in how perceptive and advanced a writer is, but the skills are somewhat different. I’ve found, of course, that
some critters are better than others. Not everyone has the ability to analyze fiction to the same degree, and some are better with certain types of fiction. When all is said and done, I think it helpful to acquire a reader or two so in touch with what you’re trying to do, and honest at the same time, that they can help you see where you’ve failed. Most can’t do that. They can only tell you what they would like the work to be.

Bell has one other nugget in this book. He said that the best way to know if a story is finished is when the crits drift from specific flaws in the story to saying that you should’ve written a different story. Workshops are designed only to find fault in everything, never to praise success. And while the goal of any workshop shouldn’t be to have one’s ego stroked, the goal it to create a finished product that is successful. Unfortunately,
workshoppers often feel that if they’re not constantly finding fault with a story in front of them, then they’re not doing their job. The smart (Smartt Bell) instructor is adept at elevating such a work out of the critiquing process and letting the class judge it in a new
light. Baring that, this is an interesting little measuring stick. When the only crits you’re getting are that you should have written a different story, then the story is probably finished.

I think workshopping is an invaluable experience for any writer, but I think there comes a time when each writer must go it on his own. One of the most valuable things I’ve learned from them is how to analyze my own work, to do much of what a workshop does for
myself. And the only way to learn that is to go through the workshop process and acquire the tools. Having reached that level of critical self-analysis, that’s where the friend or two met in the workshop comes in, because no one should operate in a vacuum. But in the
end, each of us is own our own.
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User: mevennen
Date: 2007-03-06 13:21 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
Obviously, I rate Milford, but people do seem to find it useful. I find it helpful not just for the crits, but for the ideas I get when I'm up there: Milford will regularly provide me with a year's worth of short fiction ideas, and most of those have been published.

I also rate the groups I'm still involved with in Brighton and Hastings: one is a split group for novels and short fic, and the other is run by Chris Priest (largely because he couldn't get to Milford, due to young children). Both are very worthwhile, but notable for the absence of egos.
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User: kellymccullough
Date: 2007-03-06 15:55 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
I think you missed an aspect of a high functioning writers group which are not the same thing as ongoing workshops. And that is all the stuff that happens beyond critique. Mine (wyrdsmiths.blogspot.com) is about half pro (novels published by large NY presses) and half working at it. The critique is generally highly valuable and can range from pretty brutal to pure cheerleading. But it's only part of what the group does. There is brainstorming, both on stories and careers. There is mutual promotion. There is industry gossip. There is mutual support and cheerleading. There are cross introductions to agents, editors, and con folk. There is listening to complaints and brags. Most of all, there is friendship.

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User: kellymccullough
Date: 2007-03-06 17:07 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
Oy, syntax. That first sentence... That'll teach me to post before I wake up.
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Laura Anne Gilman
User: suricattus
Date: 2007-03-06 22:56 (UTC)
Subject: coming late to the party...
I'm not a fan of workshops as a whole -- too much feedback, especially if strongly done, can do more to damage a writer than help him/her.

That said, I rely strongly on feedback from readers who Are Not Me. I work with a small critique group that has publishing creds in several different genes, so we get cross-pollination, and I have beta readers who are exactly that -- readers.

Between the two, I usually get the feedback I need to make something better (or to know when to stop fiddling with it).

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User: blogeois
Date: 2007-03-07 05:45 (UTC)
Subject: Workshop? What's a workshop?
I'm a complete newbie to the whole workshop thing. Sure, I attended as many of the writer's programs at last year's OryCon and I recently returned from the Southern California Writer's Conference. At both I furiously took notes, pages upon pages of them, and noticed that for the most part, what is said at them is rehashed stuff I read from my own How-To Write library here at home. I suppose that's a good thing but how am I to know one way or the other?

Last year, I helped form a teensy tiny writer's group locally and it's suffered it's ups and downs. I feel like I've made tremendous strides, as much as I can considering the other members write SF and I write psycological thrillers (I know, what the heck am I doing here?) and neither of us really understand each other's genre passion but comparing my group and the conferences, I'd have to say they are both good and bad in their own way. It's good to be around people who talk writing and sometimes, it's bad to be around people who talk writing especially if all they want to talk about is their own story or how they would make someone else's story there story. Some of the comments above really struck me as true as seen and experienced through the eyes of a new writer, specifically stories that turn out 'workshoppy' in the end, the value of having beta readers who aren't writers, and listening to the critiques given to others. Of course, I love going anywhere that there are a lot of characte....er, people.
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Kyell Gold: fox
User: kyellgold
Date: 2007-03-07 17:43 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
After taking a couple evening classes that introduced me to the workshop format, a friend and I formed our own workshop. We both write in a fairly small niche of SF and have a few friends who do as well, though less seriously. The real key to the workshop is everyone's enthusiasm for discussing their work and reading other people's, and we've been really lucky to have that enthusiasm continue through the group for many months now.

One of the best points made above, I think, is that even a less critical writer can still provide valuable feedback from the reader's perspective. We're all voracious readers, and so when we read a story, we know whether it measures up to the book we just read (in fact, we often take time out to discuss what we're reading and why we like it). That's one of the most valuable things about a workshop for me: hearing what other people felt and thought after reading a story.

The other big benefits of the workshop are motivation and inspiration. It's easy, when you're writing on your own, to put off writing, or to let the stories sit without editing or revision, or to let finished stories hang in the is-it-done-yet limbo. Our workshop gives me a deadline to get things finished, the motivation to make them better after receiving critiques, and the confidence to send them out beyond our little group.
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