I regularly pray that no copies of my earliest adult attempts at fiction writing are ever unearthed. I was making at least half of the common writing mistakes in them: telling when I could be showing; digressing; inadequate character development, etc. How to avoid some of these blights on our writing can largely be learned through reading articles and books, it is true. But there is something more powerful for gleaning insight on your individual writing strengths and weaknesses: quality writing workshops. I have attended three different ones, and in each case, I have come away with specific insights on my own writing (quirks, mistakes and gifts) that took me to a new level. Workshops are also a place where real connection can be made with other writers, and we all know how valuable that kind of mutual support can be.
The first workshop I attended was at the annual Iowa Summer Writing Festival, which provides public access to a vast array of workshops put on by the top-rated Iowa Writers’ Workshop, the first creative writing degree program in the U.S. It was a five day class in “Advanced Novel,” in which each participant had twenty-five pages of their novel “workshopped” by the rest of the class. I have gone back several times since then, under different instructors each time. Even in years I do not plan to attend, I love perusing the catalog of offerings in the dead of winter and imagining a summer writing getaway there.
The way it worked was that we had mornings free to read and make comments on the day’s novel excerpt. The afternoon began with a few writing lessons on topics such as the Writer/Reader Relationship, Points of View, the “was” disease, and so on. The workshopping followed, with the primary goal of providing feedback to the writer about what is and is not working in the manuscript. It can be difficult to hear about what is not working, but in truth, it is a great gift to receive—people taking the time to help others see their own writing through the eyes of readers who are, for the most part, the more astute for being writers themselves.
Another workshop I have been able to attend is Jerry Cleaver’s Writer’s Loft workshop in Chicago, which is based on his useful book, Immediate Fiction. Jerry’s students have produced something like 40 traditionally published novels over the years, so that tells you something. Sadly, Jerry passed away in 2014, but it appears the workshop is continuing under the direction of others.
Finally, I had the great fortune of having two hundred pages of my novel workshopped at a small workshop in San Diego, led by the Los Angeles Times book critic, David Ulin. The value of having more than half of the novel reviewed by others was far beyond what I could have imagined and has turned out to be essential to making my story successful. The perspectives of nine other people—one of whom has been reading and professionally critiquing bestsellers for more than a decade—on aspects of my work both large and small gave me pretty clear direction for my revisions. And these were things I had not seen, perhaps could not have seen, myself. For example, in my case, the story is set at a (real, existing) estate and architecture school where there are two campuses and many locations for action. It was critical for me to hear from everyone that they were confused about the layout, especially when place is so important as to be almost a character in the novel. I also needed to hear that certain things pushed their ability to ‘suspend disbelief,’ along with numerous other insights.
I see writing workshops as a kind of shortcut to better writing that is otherwise difficult to come by without attending graduate school in creative writing. One thing that must be noted is that no matter how great we think our writing is, we are going to hear criticism at workshops. One of my instructors at Iowa, John Dalton, put it so well that I am going to quote him: “If you come to a workshop looking only for validation, that is, for other writers to recognize your talent for language, your tremendous sensitivity and insight, you’re bound to be frustrated and disappointed with the experience. If, however, you say to yourself, ‘I’ve worked on this story in isolation long enough. I’ve given it the best I have. I’ve pushed as far as I can. Now, I need a group of careful readers to give me some perspective on my own work so that I can see it as outside readers do, and make corrections accordingly,’ in this way a good workshop can highlight problem areas in the story and save the writer valuable time on the next revision.”