Writing and Writer’s Workshops

The dog ate my homework.
The dog ate my homework.

I have a writer’s workshop coming up soon, so I’ve been going through my notes and reminding myself of what it is I wish to convey and how to best go about communicating it to my students. I can’t stand waffling and hot air, so I tend to give very short very concentrated workshops. They last a week maximum (sometimes in the case of workshops given to schools, the week is spread out in little pieces over a month or more) I don’t tend to focus on ‘voice’ or ‘finding your story’ or any of the other more esoteric subjects. My aim is simply to bring the participants back to the basics and to have them build themselves up from that base level, a piece at a time, until they’ve explored what it is they are writing and how they are writing it.

Often folks turn up with their own work in hand (sometimes entire novels) thinking that they are joining a critique group. I hate to see the disappointment in their faces when they realise that they are not going to have the chance to share their baby with the class. It’s a very understandable disappointment. Writing is possibly the loneliest job in the world and sometimes the need to share is so bad it hurts. But at my workshops, I’m not trying to provide a critique group for anyone’s work-in-progress.* What I am trying to do is provide the tools that will get a writer through the frustration and floundering that often comes with writing a novel length piece of fiction.

I come away from every one of these workshops refreshed, with a renewed sense of purpose about my own work and a clearer idea of where I’m going. Even with (almost) nine novels under my belt I need to be reminded how to step back. I need to be reminded that writing is always going to be hard work, but that I can do it if I just keep a clear vision of what I’m trying to say. I need to be reminded to practice what I preach in other words. :)

I also come away with the knowledge that at least one person has sat through the entire thing going this sh*t is for beginners, man. I’m so much better than this, what the f**k am I doing here? They never fully engage with the exercises, never give themselves over to the core of what the workshop is about, because in their mind they’ve gone past needing to think about the fundamentals. They’re usually one of the folks who have an unfinished novel under their arm on the way in and a scowl on their face on the way out. I don’t blame them for the scowl, they just pissed away their fees and wasted a whole lot of their time – and mine – because they came to the workshop wanting only one thing; someone to read their work and tell them that they’re great.

The truth is, though, no-one can do that for you! For every person who tells you that your work is great there will be another who will tell you that it is not. And in a way they’ll both be right because quality is subjective. Maybe your work is great, maybe it’s not. But there is absolutely no one in the world who can make that distinction for you. Only you know what it is you want to achieve with your work and only you can achieve it.** The last thing a writer needs – especially someone struggling to find their feet – is to listen to all the conflicting voices yammering at them as to what will and won’t make their work ‘great’.

But I can tell you what every single fiction writer does need, regardless of genre, regardless of style, regardless of ambition:

You need to know what it is you are writing. (Seriously – It’s very easy to lose sight of what you’re doing when you’re 100k into what could possibly be a 300k work and you’ve seven plot threads, nine character arcs, four main themes, your taxes are due, your kid is failing school and your boss just told you they’re thinking of laying off half the work force.)

You need to know how to take what is in your head and communicate it to the reader.

You need to know your characters inside out.

You need to know your plot inside out.

And then you need the balls to just keep going – to just keep ploughing through to the end: through all the self-doubt, through all the financial hardships, through all the confusion and frustration and hair-tearing arrrghhhhh that is part and parcel of every single work worth writing.

That’s what my workshops are about. After that it’s all subjective. After that it’s all business and marketing and stuff other than writing. And that’s a whole different ball game.

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* I don’t think that a good crit is possible within the confines of one week – even a very intensive week – especially not a week in which ten or twelve other writers are all hoping to get the same level of insight into their present story. For an ongoing insight into your WIP your best bet is to join a writing group (if you believe in them that is. Personally, and this will get me hung in some quarters, I’m not so sure of the benefits. So many writing groups turn into talking shops or style tyrannies that sometimes I wonder whether they do more harm than good. But I digress …).back to top

**This is not to suggest that you block your ears to criticism and carry on regardless. But you do need a good filter to help you sift the constructive from the destructive. And then a strong knowledge of where your work is going in order to help you use the constructive properly. You have to ask yourself very carefully ‘in what way does this crit apply to what I am doing?’ or ‘are they offering a solution that really solves my problem or are they sensing a different flaw in the work that they can’t articulate?’ Learning to decode and utilise good criticism needs an essay all to itself (and is also something I address in the workshops).back to top