September 8th, 2010


Writing Workshop Question

toliver said Yes, I have some questions or rather would you do a post about the benefits of writing workshops and what to look for, the cost and who runs good ones?


When I was first starting to write stories to submit to magazines, I think workshops helped me a lot. The ones I did as a student were back in the late 80s and 90s. They were really pre-web, pre-internet to a large extent, so they were one of the best ways to get information on what publishing was like, how to submit stories, and so on. They also let me talk to other aspiring writers, let me meet professional writers, gave me encouragement.

The biggest benefit, and the one that I always feel is the most important, is that they taught me how to evaluate criticism. Even if the criticism is constructive and well-meant, it may be taking your story in a direction you don't want it to go. You have to remember to be open to corrections and suggestions, while still keeping in mind that in the end, it's your story. Workshops also taught me to edit my manuscripts, and how to critique other people's manuscripts. Those are really important things to learn if you're going to try to become a professional writer. Even if you just want to write for fun, they're still important things to learn.

You will encounter people who have had bad experiences at workshops, who ran into critiquers who were either very bad at objective critiques or who were in it for LOLs, and just wanted to make hilariously mean comments about other people's work. I certainly ran into a few of both types. But I think that's an important part of the experience. If you're going to try to be a pro writer, you need to develop a thick skin over your fragile ego, and you need to learn the difference between a) harsh constructive criticism that hurts because it's right, b) well-meant criticism by someone who just doesn't get your work and c) deliberately destructive criticism. (It's especially hard when all three of these types of critique come from the same person.) These things can make a workshop a very fraught event, but the only way to learn how to deal with it is by experiencing it.

(If you watch Top Chef, think about the way Tom Colicchio and Eric Ripert give their critiques to the chefs. Tom is strict, occasionally harsh, but fair and not personal. Eric is a lot more gentle, but still tells them where, how, and why he thinks they went wrong. Those are the kind of critiques you want. It hurts, and you may still not agree with everything they say, but in the end it's going to help you improve and learn to evaluate your own work. Then there's Toby Young, of the hilariously mean comments that say more about him than they do about the dish. He may even be accurate, but it's not particularly helpful.)

Types of Workshop

Most of the workshops I did as a student were usually free, invitation-only ones. (In all of these, there were pro writers leading the group, but they also submitted manuscripts for critique.) I went to Turkey City, where Bruce Sterling was said to give very harsh critiques, of the ripping people's heads off variety. I found Bruce to be more of the Tom Colicchio style, and he gave me some of the best help and instruction on what was wrong and what was right about my prose that I've ever had in my life. I did a pay-workshop-class that was held through Texas A&M University's old Free U program, where Steven Gould was the teacher, and got a lot of early encouragement. I also went to a pay workshop that was held by Cepheid Variable, the university student committee that ran AggieCon. This was a large workshop divided into groups of ten or so, with two pro writers assigned to each group, and it took place over a three day weekend. The pro teachers in my group were Rory Harper and Lillian Stewart Carl, and it was very helpful.

The one pay workshop I have experience teaching at now is the eight hour one held as part of ArmadilloCon in Austin. It follows the same style as the old Cepheid Variable one, with the students divided into groups with two pros assigned to each group. There are also panel discussions and question and answer periods with all the pro teachers. I forget how much that one cost last year ($50?) but the price also included your membership to the rest of the convention.

(Note: the pro teachers aren't paid, except by a free pass to the convention, and usually you do a few other programming items on Saturday and Sunday. Most fan-run conventions don't pay the writers and artists who appear on the programming with anything except a free membership. Travel and food is sometimes covered for top three or four headliner guests, but cons that can afford to pay speaker fees are few and far between.)

A couple of the other well-known ones: Clarion, Clarion West, and an excellent one for teens: Shared Worlds.

If anybody has recommendations for workshops, local or pay or otherwise, free free to post them in comments!

And I'm still taking writing or publishing questions here.