Whether you’ve been writing for a while or dreaming of getting away and actually having time to write, many of us have wondered if a writer’s workshop was right for us.
At WorldCon 80, otherwise known as ChiCon8, I attended the panel: The Writing Workshop Workshop where moderator Erin Underwood led panelists Ian Muneshwar, Tegan Moor, James Patrick Kelly, and Caroline M Yoachim in a discussion aimed at answering that very question.
The panel description was as follows: Learning about the experience others have had at writing workshops can be inspiring, but the process of seeking one out and applying can be daunting. Likewise, those who have experience publishing or teaching might want to share what they know, but have no idea how to go about joining a workshop’s faculty or how to start their own. This discussion focuses on what established workshops are doing, at what stage of career a workshop is beneficial, and how to make the most of your time at a workshop.
What is a writer’s workshop?
At its most basic, a writer’s workshop can be anywhere from hours to months long, often with instructors, writing exercises, critiques, and connections. The social aspect and connection with both teachers and other writers are key features — it’s both about the craft and the networking.
What methods do they use?
While there are many methods and schools of thought, a lot of the traditional writer workshops started off with one method.
The writer shares a story or novel snippet in advance. During the critique session, the peer-level writers go around the room and read their summary critiques. The writer is not allowed to respond more than a ‘yes’ or ‘no’, just take notes. At the end, the writer gives their thanks and the crosstalk at the end can be the best part. There are no bad critiques.
The critique consists of:
- What worked
- What didn’t work
- What might work better
- Line edits
The critique focuses on:
- Story structure/plot
These days, many workshops are getting away from a strict Milford-method, allowing the writer to give an introduction including the intent of the story or scene. In more casual settings, the writer will be able to respond to all critique as it comes, or have the critique as a discussion amongst the group.
Many workshops have teachers and guest writers giving talks about different aspects of writing, assigning exercises, or even giving their own critiques of the writing samples, leading to more pedagogical critiques, instead of a peer-level reviews.
Benefits and Risks of Workshops
While short story writers are the best fit for workshops, novelists who can write short, or who participate in the longer workshops can make it work. It’s best when you go into the workshop with a goal — often when you’ve been sending stories out and getting rejections. But, remember that getting into a workshop isn’t the Golden Ticket. While 1/3rd of Clarion graduates have a long careers, some learn they’d rather be editors, and some? Never touch their writing again.
Be thoughtful with your words when critiquing — you should be focused on making the story better, not just showing off your knowledge of the craft or demonstrating how you could write it better.
The risks can be scary. So much depends on the group, the workshop’s focus, and the timing.
- Critique can break you down and make you hate the craft
- Can trigger impostor syndrome
- If you don’t mesh with the group, workshops can be isolating and draining
- Missteps at a workshop can throw you
- The pace and pressure may be bad for your writing
- The workshop timing and costs might not work for your life
But, when the benefits align, the rewards can be even greater.
- Workshops can fire up your love of writing
- Critique can build your works
- Learning how to filter feedback
- Whose feedback is helpful — for which aspects of your story
- What feedback is helpful — and what feedback to ignore
- Learning how to critique others’ works, especially those near your writing level, can help you identify similar issues — and similar fixes — for your own writing
- Learning from your mistakes and missteps can help you grow
What if you can’t attend a workshop?
Workshops are expensive — both as a time and a monetary commitment. While there are scholarships available, few people outside of a school calendar really have time for long weeks or months off of work.
That doesn’t mean you’re cut off. These days, there are plenty of long weekend or even online opportunities. And you don’t have to pay for the big names to get a solid experience.
Look for a good critique group!
- Impetus to write – so you always have something new to share
- If you feel like you’re the best, the group may not be challenging you
- If you feel like you’re the best, but you feel you can teach, it can work
- If the other writers don’t get your style or your genre, it may be a bad fit. Try a new group.
Reputable Genre Workshops
Many of the top-tier workshops require lengthy applications and writing samples to even be short-listed. Pay attention to the selection criteria and which year they’re looking for applicants for.
- Clarion – Established in 1968 at Clarion State College (now University) in Pennsylvania. The workshop is now in University CA, San Diego.
- Clarion West – Founded by Clarion alum in 1971 and based in Seattle.
- Odyssey – Founded in 1996, typically based at Saint Anselm College in Goffstown, New Hampshire, although, a large portion is now offered online.
- Hugo House – Founded in 1996 in Seattle.
- LitReactor – Founded in 2011, based online.
- Rambo Academy for Wayward Writers – Founded by Cat Rambo around 2010, based online.
- Taos Toolbox – Founded by 2005 in Taos Ski Valley, now in Angel Fire, New Mexico.
- Viable Paradise – Founded in 2016, and based in Martha’s Vineyard, Massachusetts.
- Rainforest Writers Village – Founded in 2007, and based on Lake Quinault, Washington.
Other places to connect with writers
FB groups, SFWA (Science Fiction Writers of America), Clarion West’s write-alongs, ask questions on twitter or other social media platforms. Critters.org is a platform for critique, that can be hit-or-miss. Check out your genre writers group (Romance has a strong mentorship and networking platform).
Most writers really benefit from trusted external feedback, if you haven’t found the right group yet, keep looking.
Remember, you don’t need to go to a workshop to become a better writer.