Workshops – I. Choosing a workshop


Overview of workshops for the creative writer

An organizer, usually a workshop leader, forms a group of (paying) writers who present their works for critique by the leader(s) and fellow students. Some didactic teaching may be included. At times, a theme for the workshop may be used to organize the discussion–for examples; characterization, plotting, dialogue, etc. Some workshops include the study of published authors. Some workshops include a manuscript critique by a teacher and/or editing of the manuscript (rarely in depth). Workshops may stand alone or be associated with other functions such as lectures, readings, and marketing instruction (pitching), and may be part of a broader offerings of education for poets, scriptwriters, and genre fiction writers.

Authors who seek further education in workshops face a varied choice in structure; curriculum content; teaching skills; and quality of writing and general achievement of fellow students; cost; and time required—from two to ten days. Many workshops are associated with universities, colleges, or even community colleges. Examples: Iowa, Kenyon, NAPA Valley Community College. Many workshops are by independent teachers (Jenks-Edgarian, Rosemary Danielle), and some have associations with literary organizations (The Pirate’s Alley Faulkner Society).

Most fiction workshops work with student short stories, and sometimes excerpts from longer works. But in general, the critique of a novel does not lend itself well to study in workshops lasting a few days.

Rules for Selection

Don’t assume academics equals excellence.
Because  workshop is at universities does nor mean it will be valuable. Professional teachers with English degrees are often not good writers. A week’s exposure to someone with an MFA or other academic credentials who barely understands the difficulties of becoming a great writer can damage the progress of student writers. For example, narration and point of view are two difficult concepts to learn and teach. Teaching inaccurate or fuzzy thinking can damage a student’s potential.

Find marketing elsewhere

Avoid workshops that advertise pitching your stories or novel to publishers or agents. Don’t spend time learning how to write marketing or cover letters, or socializing with agents. A workshop for serious writers should be about your improvement as a writer. Learn to market when you’re a good writer.

Look at the essence

No matter what your stage of development, don’t spend learning time on how to convince others of the value of your writing–learn to make your writing good and therefore valuable. You are not writing to be rich, you are writing to achieve experience and skills so you can create something of significance. (If you’re good and lucky, you might get rich.) Financial success is secondary, and should be left to experienced marketers, such as agents, and not be the responsibility of the author, who doesn’t have the time for self-promotion.

Find best-quality student participants

Choose workshops where you know or sense the quality of fellow students is rich with ideas and experience. Usually these workshops are competitive and they have strict criteria for application and high quality-thresholds for admission. Again, don’t assume programs associated with academics always select great students. Nepotism, friendships, payback, all can have a role in many selection processes.

Choose workshops of the right size

Numbers matter. Don’t go to workshops with over twelve or under eight students. Too few or too many seriously alters the learning experience.

Submit your best work

Always send your best work for the workshop. Although some workshops encourage you to send “work in progress”, always send your best and most polished effort. When your writing is being evaluated by others, it is an opportunity to please and impress them. Give it your best shot. And every workshop participant and teacher can critique anyone’s manuscript, no matter how polished or accomplished the manuscript may be.

Avoid free time

Don’t go to workshops that express pride in ample free time for writing and reflection. You do that all year. Go to workshops with maximum exposure to teachers and other writers.

Find excellent teachers

Carefully evaluate the teachers. Word of mouth is best and seek the opinion of those who have taken a workshop with that teacher. Check the Internet. Look at CVs and teaching credits, academic appointments and prizes. However, because a teacher has won a prize never guarantees a great learning experience, but it does reflect a level of acceptance that can be valuable to the student. Read samples of instructors’ published writings–often available on the Internet as promotion. Invariably, teachers who publish static, self-indulgent prose with little or no attention to story are not good teachers. Read enough of what the teacher has published to see how they will define their didactic content and direct discussions. Talk to other students who will respond to specific questions about workshop content.

Above all, don’t seek workshops with poor communicators as teachers. Not infrequently, very good writers are poor verbal communicators, and may exhibit frustration, outright meanness, or infantile regression in class as a result of their inabilities. If word of mouth says an instructor can’t communicate, don’t attend the workshop with the false belief that you will learn something significant through some mysterious nonverbal osmosis. This is true no matter how famous the author is.

Seek unified purpose

Go to a workshop focused on one type of writing: literary, memoir, biography, creative nonfiction, genre. Do not go to workshops that mix purposes. Mixed purpose is a formula for failure because an instructor has not thought through the teaching process, or even worse, is presenting workshops to make a living.

Don’t go to workshops obviously designed to make money for the promoters. Walk away from promises of success and practice sessions where you can learn to promote. Nothing ruins a workshop for a serious writer as effectively as flagrant profit motive.

Don’t go on vacation

Avoid workshops that have a camping–or vacation-atmosphere–hook to get you to attend. Take vacations with people you like in settings you crave.

Some workshops at schools have dorm rooms (vacated in the summer) for workshop participants. They may be quaint but can be uncomfortable and detract from learning. A good night’s sleep promotes a rested day of learning.

Others have settings in mountains, in foreign countries, at beach resorts. All fine, but don’t go to a workshop where the prime goal is time for relaxation with some time for writing. Go to workshops where setting does not detract from your goal to improve your writing.

Be aware of jetlag effects. Workshops require concentrated effort and for more than a few, the first few days of an opposite-coast workshop can present odd periods of inattention due to jetlag. If you think it might be problem, arrive a few days early. A good workshop is expensive and rare to find, and don’t ruin it with poor adjustment to time differences.

Seek storytelling as well as craft

Go to workshops that emphasize story, and assume skill with craft as secondary in the curriculum. Many workshops are totally craft oriented and lump fiction and non-fiction writing skills together. Although useful at all stages in career, the workshop that emphasizes only sentence length, word choice, revision, dialogue writing, effective plotting, likeable in-depth characters, manuscript preparation, can miss the crucial and exciting aspects of a dramatic story.

Instructors who emphasize drama with conflict and action, cause and effect, character motivation, character driven plots, emotional arcs, characterization, and techniques for pleasing the reader with theme and meaning, are difficult to find but worth the search.

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