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Writing Workshops: The Good, the Bad, the Ugly

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"No child could possibly be happy about her father moving out!"

The above was said to me at a writing workshop, in a discussion about my then unpublished novel (it eventually became The Murderer's Daughters.) The 'child' in question lived with a selfish, sarcastic, angry mother and an oft-drunk "mooning around" father. In the questioned scene this 10-year-old protagonist voices guilty relief at finding a less troubling atmosphere after her father moved out. A workshop member, adamant in his belief that no child would ever feel relief at her father leaving the house, expressed insistence bordering on disbelief (that I would write such an emotion)! bordering on disdain (that I would be able to dredge up such an emotion)!

Really?

Precious minutes slipped away as the group debated this point. The workshop operated under the "in-the-box" silenced writer rule (which most of the time I agree with) so I could only listen as time ticked by and the debate raged.

Should this point have been up for grabs? (And should anyone wag their finger when giving critique?) This is problem I've found in writing workshops. Let's call it the 'scrim' factor. Aside from the craft of the work, the plotting, the plausibility, believable motives, and the ability of the writer to engender suspension-of-disbelief, when (if ever) is a character's 'belief system' up for judgment -- especially if the judgment is made based on the belief system of a fellow workshop member?

Never.

That's only my opinion, but one I hold dear. A writer's workshop is not there to tell you:

1. Your character would be better served as a secretary than as a doctor. They can say you didn't write a believable doctor. They can say they didn't believe someone with an IQ of seventy could become a doctor. Then, it's up to you to make the reader believe.

When stuck in the 'scrim' factor, your fellow-workshop members try to revise your manuscript to live within parameters in which they are comfortable.

2. Your character wouldn't: give up a child, become president, cook roast chicken. The workshop is there to let you know if they believed your character (the vegan) would suddenly roast the chicken, not if they would ever roast.

Beware workshops that become arbiters of morality and comfort levels, rather than sharp-eyed watchers of motive, plotting, and plodding prose. One wants a workshop that scrawls MEGO (my eyes glaze over) on the page, not one that says, "women don't usually change the oil in the car."

If they do mention the oil, your writerly job is to discern whether your workshop buddy meant that women don't change oil, or they didn't believe your particular woman character would change oil.

In one workshop the leader (making this problem more egregious for me -- a neophyte) went on a rant about the non-political nature of my character. Why wasn't she out making the world a better place, rather than worrying about having sex with her neighbor?

Did she mean I wasn't writing the book she wanted to read?

I've been in workshops where men have been lectured about how disrespectful their characters were to women. I probably even got heated up enough to agree and join in -- Yeah! He was awful! We forgot the author was building a character, not our new boyfriend.

The thing is this: to write well, you have to first write terribly -- allowing those crappy first drafts to get out. You need this awful draft -- otherwise what would you have to revise and, eventually, make wonderful? The danger in writer's workshops is writing for the others, writing for the workshop, rather than writing for your eventual audience:

Today, writers want to impress other writers. -- Paulo Coelho

I believe in writer's workshops and groups. Without the best of them, I'd have a weaker novel. But without the worst of them, I'd have built that better novel faster.

Use workshops wisely, taking the best and leaving the rest. Take off blinders and examine your motives and those of members. Purity of member's motives can never be guaranteed. Some are angels leading to Pulitzers -- some are devils sent to torture us. Use guidelines:

1. Are you coming with the secret belief that you will be the one "perfect nothing-needs-changing" writer? They will be astonished by my piece! Not going to happen my friend. Not to you. Not to me. Not even to Marilyn Robinson should she wander in from the Iowa Writer's Workshop (OK, maybe her.)

If what you seek is pure approbation and amazement at your genius, send your story to your family.

2. Beware of hardening yourself to protect your ego. Even the smartest critique stings. It is common to hate, really hate, someone who points out that five backflashes in a row might leave the reader confused. I make a deal with myself when I'm 'up' in my writer's group. I am allowed to think everyone is stupid for 10 minutes. Then I have to consider their ideas. I don't have to buy them, but I must rent them.

3. Beware of drinking the Kool-aid of love. Or the river of hate. My first time ever at a writer's group was at a local adult education venue. "Brilliant!" the teacher told me. (It wasn't.) A few years later, at another venue, I was told how much my character sucked -- that she defined worthless. (She wasn't.)

Teachers and groups often have cultures that overshadow reason. Listen hard to what members say about other's books -- especially books about which you feel strongly one way or another. If the general consensus (there are always outliers) makes sense for those books, take what they say about your book (good and bad) seriously.

4. Critique benefits from compassion. At an education conference, an expert (whose opinion I value) said a version of the following: "Why do we get mad at students for not knowing the answers? Isn't that why we're there? To teach them?" Those who sneer at your work are not helping. Don't fall under the sway of a writer-bully.

5. Yes, Virginia, there is jealousy in groups, and it can be poisonous. Sometimes it comes from the leader, sometimes it comes from members, and sometimes it comes from our own gnarled little hearts. Accept it, don't act on it, and move on. Carol Burnett, when talking about the parts she didn't get, said it well: "It wasn't my turn."

6. Don't let the group write your book. Look around the room. Does one choose Gillian Flynn as their favorite writer, another Ian Rankin, and a third Virginia Woolf? Will they all perhaps, subconsciously, push your romantic comedy towards the twisted, or encourage your historical fiction to become a ghost story? Listen for majority opinions (if everyone found those back flashes unintelligible, perhaps they are. If the person who only likes terse experimental fiction work harps on it, consider the source.)

Your book needs your passion -- not the reduction of a committee.

7. Be cautious of the five-page-a-week workshops. It has been my experience that a group which looks at a large chunk of one (or two) writer's work in one night benefits more than those that read a few pages of all. Reasons? Reading weekly installments of five pages a week leaves the group more likely to want to be in on writing the next scene -- thus making writing by committee more likely.

8. If you are 'advanced' consider an 'entire book' writer's group. My current (and perfect) group will do the entire book. We meet less often (sometimes once a month, sometimes less often) and read more. Our goals are getting a read on the entire arc of the novel and it's been invaluable.

9. Fresh work might not be the best for critique groups. I believe you should let your work cool down a bit before sending it to anyone's eyes. Going through at least one revision is helpful -- this allows you to hear yourself before the committee voice rushes in.

10. Don't drink. That's a rule I use for myself. I believe alcohol engenders stupidity in all things. Wine is for partying, relaxing, or watching television. Not for helping each other reach full writing potential.

(PS: This discussion continues at Grub Street's Muse & The Marketplace conference this weekend, at the workshop Manuscript & Workshop Critique: Managing & Using Criticism & Complaints.)