Writers Workshops Do's and Don'ts
I recently returned from Futurescapes, a three-day writers workshop at the breathtaking Sundance Resort in Utah. It was a tremendously valuable experience, and I highly recommend it to anyone writing in the science fiction/fantasy genres. For those who don’t, there are still dozens, if not hundreds, of workshops out there for anyone seeking to improve their craft and make connections.
Here are seven tips for those considering a writing-related workshop/conference.
1. Go. Just go. It is worth every penny to get a variety of opinions and critiques on your work, to meet influential people in the industry, and to build a community of your peers.
2. Know when to take critique. As the writer, you know your story the best. If the critique you receive does not further your vision for your world, then you don’t have to take it. It’s okay to politely listen to critical feedback and then ignore it.
Be prepared for a variety of responses. Some in your workshop will not “get” your story. For example, I brought a YA speculative thriller to Futurescapes. Not everyone in my group enjoys that genre, and not everyone would pick up my book at the bookstore, even after it’s polished and in print. That’s okay. It goes the opposite way too—not everyone is the target audience for that genre anyway.
Sifting through critique and knowing which to pay attention to and which to ignore is a skill that requires practice and an understanding of your vision for your work. Bringing your writing to a workshop is a great place to exercise that skill. All this being said…
3. Do take critique, especially if multiple people are giving you the same feedback. Don’t waste your money coming to a workshop if you think you have nothing to learn, and if you aren’t willing to listen.
I’ll readily admit to entertaining the fantasy that I would show up to the workshop, be told that my writing was exquisite and flawless, and be offered a book deal on the spot. Yet even without such fanciful thinking, receiving critique is hard. My knee-jerk reaction to critique is to start hearing the Charlie Brown teacher talking at me in an unintelligible jumble of syllables and sounds. My ego can’t easily distinguish between good feedback and personal attacks.
My advice? Listen to the person giving feedback, ask questions, and take notes, then put those notes away. Walk away for a few minutes, an hour, or a day. Come back and look over those notes only after the emotional defenses are down and the rational brain has had a chance to step in. A lot of feedback is meant to bring you even closer to your vision for your work, which is a good thing.
4. Be kind. When giving feedback, share the positives, too. Remember, part of the reason for going to a workshop is to build a community. Writing is such a solitary venture. It can be rejuvenating to go to a workshop and be filled by the enthusiasm of other writers. The people you meet at workshop can become critique partners, beta readers, even fans. Chances are these people will buy your book some day if you do a good job with it and don’t alienate them in the process. Buy their books, too. Support each other.
5. Meet with agents/editors (and don’t be a creep). A workshop is an excellent time to meet agents in person and determine if they would actually be a good fit for you and your project. Admittedly, if an agent made me an offer of representation, I’d be hard-pressed to say no to it. But you are allowed to be discerning about whom you work with on your project. I’ve heard it said that aside from a spouse, an agent is the most important relationship a writer can cultivate. They will hopefully be someone you have the privilege of working with for years and years. You want that relationship to work, and a workshop is an excellent opportunity to find out if your personalities mesh.
6. Practice self-care. Break up the intense mental and emotional work of editing with physical exercise and fresh air. Get plenty of sleep. Take time alone. Enjoy your surroundings, especially if you get to travel to a new location for your workshop.
7. Take a break after it’s over. The day after the workshop, I tried to look at my writing and felt like I had completely lost all ability to write. It's completely normal to feel useless as a writer for quite a while after finishing a workshop. It's okay. Your brain is processing everything you learned. The words will come. Meanwhile, you’ll have a whole new community to support you with that process as you transition from the intensity of workshop to the stresses of regular life.