Workshop or Organized Torture?
So it's that time of the year again in my life as a Creative Writing minor. Don't get me wrong, I love my Fiction classes, but after the writing comes the workshopping, and sometimes that's not so fun. Instead of having people critiquing your work, it can feel like your peers are critiquing you instead. I don't know about other writers out there, but I pour my heart and soul into everything I write and when people rip it apart, it can be just as if they'd lodged a knife in my chest.
However, I have learned that when they are well-done and comprised of people who really care about each other and about writing, workshops can be a very good thing. I'm always up for some helpful criticism from people who genuinely care about my story. It may take a while to get used to putting yourself out there, but the feedback you get can be helpful.
But since it is hard, here are are a few things that I have learned over the past four years in college that has been valuable for me surviving workshops:
1. It's better to have a group of acquaintances or strangers in your workshop instead of family or friends. Don't get me wrong, they should be nice people and obviously have experience writing. It's always good to get along with people who will be staring into your very soul and telling you what you can fix. But that's where the problem comes in when the people in your workshop are relatives or especially friends. The prior relationships that are there makes it extremely difficult to separate their critiques of your story from their critiques of you. That doesn't mean that mom and dad can't ever read your work, but I find that I usually reserve that for when I am done with a story and need some encouraging praise about how good it is so I can get up my courage to send it out into the world.
2. Always find something nice to say. Because, as I'm sure we've all heard, if you can't say something nice don't say anything at all. Before diving in directly into critiquing someone else's story, cushion the blow by praise. Tell them what they are doing well and what parts or sentences you really liked. I know, it can be hard to find something to compliment. I've read stories where the only thing I could really say that I liked was the main character's name. (Actually, there was one time where that didn't even work...but at least they had used a nice font. See? There's always something!) And trust me, starting off with the good things makes the person feel confident and more apt to listen to the critiques that you do have. Not to mention, you'll feel a lot better about it to. Most people don't like to feel like the bad guy in a workshop.
3. Don't focus on grammar errors. The point of a workshop isn't to be their personal proofreader, it's a time where people can get advice and quality feedback on their story. Notice that? Story. Not spelling, not formatting, story. They used "it's" instead of "its"? No biggie. They killed off a character on page two and the character is suddenly back on page four? Biggie. If you're like me, this can be a hard one to get past. I'm a natural editor of other people's writing but we all make mistakes. I'd bet you twenty bucks that I've made several in this blog post already. But the small errors aren't important and how useless would a workshop be if everyone just debated whether the writer correctly used "effect" and "affect"? If there's a reoccurring error that's driving you nuts, fix the first occurrence and then move on.
4. No talking. This may be the most excruciating, torturous part of workshopping. Not being able to say anything. Zip. Nada. Even when a peer mispronounces your main character's name. Even when another person doesn't get the joke you made on page five. And even when someone offers completely bogus advice. Until that workshop is over and you have everyone's feedback in your hands does that mouth open. Because when you bare your soul like you do in writing, the first reaction we have is to defend our work to the death against anyone who misunderstands or attacks it. When the writer is allowed to talk during workshop, they can get into meaningless debates about the small things. This is not the point of the workshop. No matter how frustrating, keep quiet and try to listen even to the things you disagree with. Especially to the things you disagree with. Because after the heat of the moment has passed, I often find that the suggestion I was most up in arms about is the one that is the most true and the thing that I need to consider. Maybe my main character's name doesn't read well. Maybe the joke on page five wasn't clear enough or was worded badly.
5. Take some time. After the workshop is over, you're feeling pretty strange. You've been playing everyone's critiques over and over in your head all day. Before you read your peers' comments, give it a couple of days. Let the hurt heal, let the suggestions sink in. Then you can come back to your story and the comments more confidently. Trust me, it will be a lot easier to read them once you've had a few days of recuperation.
There you have it. I'm not an expert, and this is not an exhaustive list nor is it very original. It's just what works. So get out there and workshop!
AWP Conference 2015
Last year I went with my college's English Club to the AWP Conference (Association of Writers & Writing Programs) in Minneapolis, MN. It was a great experience because I have never seen so many writers together in one place! It was amazing because all of these people were passionate about the very same thing that I am passionate about.
There were lots of sessions you could go to on different topics and I got a lot of good advice. There was also a huge book fair with people giving away free books. Let me just say, it was paradise.
We got there for the tail end of the conference on Friday and went to our first full day on Saturday. When we walked into the conference center, the first thing that we saw that morning was a ridiculously long line for coffee at the only open coffee shop in a mile radius. Quite amazing. Writing conferences have to bring in a lot of revenue for these people.
The first session I went to talked about how writing is a job and how to get paid for your writing in a way that you can support yourself. I was very interested in this one and so were a lot of other people as it was pretty much packed. Some great tips that the speakers gave that I will relay to you is this:
Go after paying publications, don't give your writing away for free unless you're doing it to gain readership
Look at local publications as potential options or write articles for online journals and magazines or do book reviews to pay the bills in the meantime
Get really good at writing query letters. Don't know what they are? It's alright. I didn't either. Here's a good example: http://www.writersdigest.com/online-editor/how-to-write-the-perfect-query-letter
Get up early so that you will get into a routine of giving yourself time to write.
Be a good self editor but build up a community of other writers to read and comment on your work
Know that your fiction is valuable even if it doesn't make a dime. You are an artist.
And my own personal note: write what you can feel good about. Respect yourself and your values. Your writing is a part of you. Do write out of your comfort zone, but don't write like someone else. If you can't be proud of your writing then how are you going to be brave enough to send it out for others to read?
Nice To Meet You
Hello, my name is Jessica and I'm an English major. No, I'm not English Teaching, just plain English. What do I plan to do with that? Wallow in failed dreams and poverty? No way! I'm going to do what I love: write.
Some people think I'm crazy when I tell them that I'm going to be a writer. But as crazy as it may be, it's what I'm meant to do. From when I first learned language I was cranking out stories. In junior high I was already writing short novels for my little sister and her friends. Of course, once I got into college, that lifelong dream and goal did waver a bit. I was scared by everyone telling me that I won't make it, that you can't earn a living that way, and that it's just too competitive. For a little while (I'm not proud of this part of my life) I considered choosing another major and occupation. But let's be honest, once a writer, always a writer. Eventually I surrendered and declared English with a double minor in Creative Writing and Interactive Digital Studies.
I couldn't be happier! Of course the future is unsure, but I'm doing what I love. Of course I'll probably have a "real" job to support myself with for a while, but that's allowing me to live my dream, not preventing it. I thank God every day for giving me the gift of storytelling. So, if you're up for it, join me on this exciting and scary journey of trying to become a published author. Maybe I'll crash and burn, but maybe, just maybe, there's a place in the literary world for me.
So some quick things you should know about me:
I'm a Texan (warning-there will be state pride), relocated to Iowa (another warning-there will be complaints about the cold).
I like to try out new genres and styles of writing but I feel most comfortable writing historical fiction and fantasy. However, I have written sci-fi, realistic fiction, children's stories, poetry, Flash Fiction, short stories, and electronic literature.
And most importantly, I am a Christian and my ultimate goal will always be to glorify God with the gifts He has graciously given me.
"So whether you eat or drink or whatever you do, do it all for the glory of God."
~ 1 Corinthians 10:31
So there you go! That's basically me as a blog post!
Hi, I'm Jessica! I'm on a mission to make my writing better in hopes of becoming a published novelist. It's been a crazy journey so far as I learn the twists and turns of the publishing world, but it's been worth it. Though I'm still learning how to be the best writer I can be, I'm excited to share what I learn with you. Happy writing!