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How writing workshops work

My sonar has picked up sundry comments about the local writing workshop I manage, that indicate most civilians don’t know how workshops function. I suppose this makes sense — I wasn’t familiar with “workshop” until I marched off to MFA-Land in 2004, trusty red pen in my school satchel.

* A group of writers agree to meet on a regular basis — in our case, once a month. We take turns meeting in our homes, which means we can serve wine and cookies and not worry about deadlines. In our workshop, writers submit a mix of short fiction, long fiction, and creative nonfiction.

* We agree in advance on a writing schedule, and revisit the schedule monthly. This is important, because it gives us time to forecast our personal writing. Most of us work full-time and eke out writing in the wee private interstices of our lives.

* We workshop three or four pieces at a time. (I was taught to never use “workshop” as a verb… therefore, it gives me wicked pleasure to do so.) Writers submit manuscripts by email. I have a discussion list set up just for this purpose, and for meeting reminders, directions, etc.

* Reviewers in that month’s workshop prepare a summary of at least one-half-page in length, with in-line comments for the manuscript. Here I’d have to go into the extended magic of what we’re looking for, but non-writers might find it surprisingly mechanical. We dig into the way the piece does or does not work — the elements of craft.

* A cost/environmental note. As of this last meeting, we have just approved no longer printing out the full manuscript, if you choose not to, and submitting it electronically, with tracked changes. My modified behavior is to print out the manuscripts single-spaced and double-sided; I think better on paper, with my trusty red fine-point Flair. But I agree this is a good option.

* Shortly before the workshop, it is recommended workshoppees read their manuscripts one last time. As a writing friend once pointed out, this is the last time you’ll like your piece for a while.

* We meet, settle in, do business, share our recent successes, and then start the workshop, one piece at a time. We go around the room sharing our feedback. One of us acts as a timekeeper.

* Our group offers a great balance of constructive but frank criticism. We begin by trying to summarize “the heart of the piece,” then share what works, what doesn’t work, and our ideas for where to take the piece.  Generally, I think any piece, however bad in its current form, can survive and triumph, if the writer has the skill and the will to make it happen, so I always preface my comments with “As this piece evolves…” or “In future revisions…” Unless — and this is very rare — the piece is drop-dead, publish-it-now, gorgeous — in which case, and heed me here, even the most amazing piece can and will be tweaked. We could workshop Jane Austen and find room for improvement.

* The person being workshopped sits quietly, taking notes. He does not interrupt, question the reviewers, or provide corrections. Following the feedback, the workshoppee may ask questions. (The workshoppee will also be workshopping others that night, which is highly therapeutic.)

* The workshop ends, and the writers go home to lick wounds, revise, and write. It’s up to each writer to determine what to do with feedback — accept it, reject it, keep it in mind.

I generally listen for majority opinions and for the opinions of people who really liked my piece. I also pay attention to the enthusiasm level. A piece may have serious mechanical difficulties but strike a chord. “Falling In,” which will appear in Powder, the anthology about women veterans I will soon start nagging you to buy, originally had a very jumbled chronology in the first half of the essay. I thought the timeline was edgy, and represented the narrator’s confusion. Most workshop reviewers thought the timeline was simply confusing.  (It helps essayists to workshop with fiction writers, who are merciless about narrative and instantly pounce on the parts of a piece that slow down.) Yet they liked the essay, laughed about it, quoted bits from it without referring back to the manuscript, and clearly felt jazzed about it. As noted earlier on this blog, I revised “Falling In” and set it aside, sulking; but when I went back a month later to re-read it with relatively fresh eyeballs, they were right — and the proof is in the pudding.

There’s more to it than that, of course. I’m reading And Then We Came to the End,  and it’s a wonderful book that reminds me if you put enough people together long enough, they become sort of a family. That’s a great part of this workshop, too.

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