Yesterday I shared my observations on what makes for a worthwhile workshop. If you missed part 1, you can read it here.
Having been through a handful of…let’s say…less than helpful critique sessions, here are some tips on what not to do during your workshop, whether you’re the critiquer or the critiqued.
What Workshopping Is NOT
Workshopping is not…
1. A time for being defensive
I emphasized in my first post that the key to a successful workshop is listening. Workshops, when run well, provide time for you to respond to the notes given on your work. Workshopping isn’t, however, a time for getting defensive, e.g., “Well, you just don’t understand what I’m trying to do in this piece”. Will everyone love what you’ve written? No. Will everyone be kind in their critiques? No. Sometimes people are rude and brash and their comments bruise your ego. But taking a defensive stance in response to critique will prevent you from learning and growing as a writer. It’s difficult to see a bigger, better, more vibrant vision for your work if you’ve built a wall around yourself.
There is always room for taking time to ask for clarification on comments, as well as a time to answer questions or clear up misconceptions about your piece. Being defensive, though, shows your lack of good sportsmanship, and will make your chances of getting another objective from the same group unlikely.
2. A time for retaliation
As unbelievably childish as it is, it happens: you provided feedback on a person’s chapter, and now that it’s your chapter on the docket, that person uses the opportunity to flay you. To tell you just how horrible a writer you are because you had the audacity to point out the weak areas in his manuscript. Workshopping should never be a time for retaliation. Critiques should never be a personal matter. It’s not about the author or the critiquer’s relationship with the author. Workshops should always be about the work. If you find yourself critiquing out of spite, do yourself and the author a favor and step back. If you can’t offer an objective critique, don’t waste everyone’s time. Do everyone a favor, and don’t ruin what could be a productive, growing workshop with your need for retaliation.
3. A time for showing off
I once attended a roundtable critique session with a very well-known editor. We each had ten minutes to hear her thoughts on a chapter we’d submitted, as well as the thoughts of the other writers at the table. A really cool opportunity, don’t you think? Well, one woman at our table could not keep her mouth shut. When it came time for her to share her comments, she used the majority of each person’s ten minutes talking about…herself. It was so, so disappointing.
Let me be clear: workshopping isn’t about you. It’s about the work. It’s not a time to show off. It’s not a time to sing your own praises or talk up the book you just posted on Amazon. Give honest, objective feedback and then stop talking so others can have a turn as well.
Writers are not just people who sit down and write. They hazard themselves. Every time you compose a book your composition of yourself is at stake. ~E.L. Doctorow
One thing I think we can all agree on is that writing can be a difficult journey. It takes a lot of courage to put words to paper. It takes even more courage to show that paper to others, especially strangers. The least we can do is respect each other and the writing process enough to not get in the way — either our own or others. The best workshops are led with ground rules in place. Whether or not the workshop has guidelines and a leader keeping people in check, if you follow the guidelines I’ve posted here and yesterday, you should have a worthwhile experience.
If you have other guidelines or observations you’d like to share, please comment below. I’d love to hear them!
I’ve participated in a number of workshops (a.k.a., critiques) over the years. Many have been great. Some have been not so great. I’ve come to some conclusions about what makes for a worthwhile workshop and what doesn’t.
I’ve decided to do a two-part post, sharing what I’ve learned in hopes of helping those who are just starting out on their writing journeys, and maybe some who need a refresher.
Part 1: What Workshopping Is
1. A time for listening
The most successful workshops I’ve experienced have always been those where the ground rule is set that the author of the piece being workshopped must remain quiet during the critique. This allows those giving comments and notes to do so without interruption or rebuttal. However, this is a difficult thing to do, listening to people talk about your work. The very best thing you can do as a writer is to listen and take notes. Write down questions and points you want to clarify. Save those until after everyone is done with their comments.
A workshop is a great opportunity to hear how your work is being received. It’s a proving ground where you can see if what you thought you wrote is actually what came across. Better to go through the process during workshop than read it in reviews. But you have to be willing to listen.
Courage is what it takes to stand up and speak; courage is also what it takes to sit down and listen.” ~ Winston Churchill
2. A time for learning
A workshop is a time to hear how your work is being received. If you’re open to the suggestions made, you’re going to learn how to make your piece stronger. That will either come through taking on the suggestions given during the workshop, or by sticking with what you’ve written and your vision for your work. Sometimes the comments readers give are way off. Whether you follow the critiques or your gut, workshopping a piece teaches you how to be a better writer.
Some people will never learn anything, for this reason, because they understand everything too soon. ~Alexander Pope
3. A time for growing
It can be very difficult to listen to people critique your work. Some comments bruise your ego. Trust me, I know. One of the hardest but best lessons I learned (and continue to learn) from workshopping is to keep my ego in check. It is serious hard work at times. Comments — especially coming from certain people — can be so hurtful. The truth is everyone has an ego that rears its ugly head from time to time. Learning to take critique — to be teachable — will grow you in unbelievable ways. Not just into a better writer, but into a better human.
“One may understand the cosmos, but never the ego; the self is more distant than any star.” ~ G.K. Chesterton
Check back tomorrow for Part 2: What Workshopping Is Not.
After the Friday Intensives (critique sessions) portion of the SCBWI 2010 Winter Conference, Lin Oliver led a Q&A session with Wendy Loggia (Executive Editor, Delacorte Press), Ari Lewin (Senior Editor, Disney/Hyperion) and Allyn Johnston (V.P. and Publisher of Beach Lane Books).
Here’s a run down of what was asked, what was answered.
Q: What are some common problems you see in manuscripts?
- In picture books, authors try to rhyme, but rhyming is weak or forced
- The voice is too old for a picture book narrator
- In novels, authors start en media res, but then don’t go back and establish the who, what, where
- It’s better to begin in a scene in the “normal” world and unveil the story slowly
- Authors info dump, and use too much exposition
- Authors show a lack of awareness of the market in what they choose to write
- There are too many overdone themes
- Do market research
- Read IndieBound
- Don’t include art notes in picture books
- Read LibraryThing and Goodreads
- See what books are getting attention, winning awards
Q: What makes a good beginning? Where should a book start?
- Start where it feels right for your book
- You don’t have to start with a bang
- Good writing will grab the reader
- Picture books should start with a clear, direct statement (e.g., “Marcy was a chicken.”)
Q: Do revisions ever lead to the book falling apart?
- Even with well-published authors there are times when it seems the book will fall apart (Allyn)
- Sometimes it feels like it will fall apart in the outline stage (Wendy)
Advice: Be flexible and see things from a different perspective.
Q: What are some key phrases you use that writers should hear as warning signs that their work is not ready or not good enough?
- “Who is this for?”
- “Why would someone care about the place/character?”
- “Put this on the shelf.”
- “Is there anything else you’re working on?” (Though this shows the editor/agent sees some potential in you)
- Remember the quote, “In writing, nothing is ever wasted but the paper.” (Sid Fleischman)
- Commit to your writing career, not just one piece
- It’s a fine balance between hearing critique and continuing to believe in yourself as a writer
Q: What are the current trends in YA lit?
Q: Final piece of advice for writers?
- Wait a day after critiques before making changes to your MS (Ari)
- Write letters from your characters’ POV to other characters in the book (Ari)
- Watch American Idol and learn from it — publishing is like American Idol (Wendy)
- If you have a story worth being told, it will find the light (Wendy)
- Be yourself; don’t take yourself too seriously (Wendy)