On Writing Workshops

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I just completed my third writing workshop.

It made me want to share something with you. Before I started this little adventure online, I never socialized or involved myself in a writing community. I never belonged to a writer’s group, offline or on. I read books and wrote my stories and admired talented authors from afar. I had no one to ask for advice. Sure, I read the guides on writing–mostly advice from other authors–but I had no one to really test my writing on.

And yet, I never lacked inspiration. Honestly, it didn’t take much for me to get inspired. I found inspiration everywhere. That wasn’t the problem. The demon that dogged me for many years (and still does to an extent) was insecurity. Lack of confidence in my own writing ability killed more stories than I care to remember.

So, when it came to writing, I had only myself and you know how it is when you get so close to the words: you can’t trust yourself to remain objective, even if you convince yourself, in no uncertain terms, you can. Why do you think Stephen King’s “Kill your darlings” is such a popular meme?

Having had no soundboard meant I lost context in the process. Even when I tried my honest best, errors and crappy writing always seemed to slip through the cracks unnoticed, as they usually do, when eyes grow tired.

Luckily we have editors and beta readers. You need strangers to test the arrangement of your words, to make sure they work in the context you’ve put them and that they enhance the story. I never had that until I started taking my writing seriously and became active online. Until I attended my first workshop, I had no way of bouncing my ideas and words off others to see whether they jumped the way I intended.

I attended my first workshop in 2014, aptly called Virtual Writer Workshop, designed and hosted by author M.J. Kelley. I met M.J. on twitter and around the same time made some other friends in the process.

One of whom was the very talented writer and editor, Jessica West. She edited Bullies and Soggy Soup Bones for me. In fact, I put Bullies through the second writing workshop I attended, and based on the comments and advice I received there I amended the story, and in the process it grew and blossomed. When it finally reached Jessica, few changes were needed, and they were mostly cosmetic in nature. I’m still proud of that story. It’s a different tale. Not stuck in any genre. Just a small fiction piece written honestly.

Which brings me to the reason for today’s post. After completing my third writing workshop, I was again reminded how powerful and useful participation in something like this can be to a writer. The experience enriches you and teaches you about your own writing.

Now I know the writers involved in a workshop must be serious and professional for it to work for everyone who participate, but just as important–if not more important–is the way the workshop is managed. And here is where I have so much praise for M.J. The guy is super professional. He designed the workshop to focus solely on the writing process and content, with various moderators covering each group’s submissions, and assisted by very specific rules of critiquing. This way eliminates the risk of egos running amok and opens up the floor to craft development only.

Everyone is in the same boat; including both published and newbie writers. They are there to learn and improve. When you critique a story, you read it critically to see whether it works, and if it doesn’t, why it doesn’t. Something awesome happens when you analyse a fellow writer’s work. You learn about the mechanics of a story, how all the moving parts fit together to make the story come alive. While you don’t always see it when you write your own stuff (unless you wait a couple of weeks before you eyeball your story again), analysing another writer’s story helps you identify your own weak areas, but it also shows you your strengths.

The other thing about the workshop is that whatever comments or suggestions you receive, they are not cast in stone. It’s just another writer’s opinion based on their own style and experience. You don’t have to accept it if you don’t want to, but it is good to have an open mind. That is how you learn more about yourself and your abilities. And when one or two persons start saying the same thing, then you might want to pay attention and consider their recommendations.

At the end of the day, putting your story through a workshop allows you to see how other people view your creation. It is a chance to check whether a joke or emotional scene is successful, whether you’ve covered all possible plot holes, or whether a certain image works in relation to a specific scene or fit the tone of the overall story.

This post, therefore, celebrates the existence and importance of writer’s workshops generally, and specifically M.J. Kelley’s Virtual Writer Workshop. It is an important educational tool in your writering journey. Now, looking back, it’s difficult for me to comprehend how I ever survived without the team. The perspective I gleaned  has helped me zoom in on the trouble areas in my writing. For that, I will forever be grateful to M.J. and to those awesome writer people who attended the workshops.

If I can, I want to keep attending these workshops to test my writing and gauge whether my weak spots are growing stronger. I also want to meet fellow writers struggling through the same emotional obstacle course we, as writers, face daily.

Yes, writing is a solitary profession. We prefer it this way. But we are human, still, not some dumb machine; so it’s good to interact with like-minded people. It’s good to talk shop and inspire each other and just foster a general camaraderie born from the same desperation:

To write beautifully. To entertain and entice. To spin magic with words.

 Woelf

18 thoughts on “On Writing Workshops

  1. Very eloquently put. And it’s always an honor to have you as a contributor in the workshop, Woelf. Thank you for your hard work and dedication. I feel privileged and thrilled to be mentioned in this post. Thank you.

  2. I find it interesting that you quote Stephen King in his book “On Writing”. Well, you quote a meme circulating the Internet anyway. However, in a post all about writing workshops, you don’t even mention his take on this subject. Have you read it? If so, what are your thoughts as to his opinion on this subject?

    1. I didn’t want to write about his take. Besides, I only used the meme as reference. It is well known and understood. I have a copy of King’s On Writing that I’ve read a few times.

      I’ve written things I thought absolutely beautiful, but they didn’t serve the story and so they had to go.

  3. You didn’t want to write about his take. Fair enough. But I suppose I would have simply to play devil’s advocate. I’m just wondering if maybe he was right. I searched for anything on M.J. Kelley and can find nothing confirming his “published” works. If I were to decide to join any type of writers workshop, which I’m not sure I would as a personal preference, I would definitly want to make sure I got my money’s worth. I would want my research to pull up something other than LinkedIn, google+, Facebook, and the “author’s” own website confirming he has the credentials. But that’s just me.

    1. Hey, man. I shared my experience in this post. Nothing more. I stand by my words. If you feel M.J.’s workshop isn’t a right fit for you based on your googling activities, that is fine.

  4. I’m a woman. Regardless, I’m not trolling. I’m just saying it would be nice if he is so well regarded as having a great workshop and has something of substance to offer, it would be nice to find a link to something, anything, backing up his credentials. Maybe as a writer, you would be more prone to giving a better attempt at trying to convince me rather than shrug off my apprehensions. The proverbial college try? I simply asked some questions and was looking for a little more insight. But I have it now. Thanks.

  5. Great post – I can relate to it totally & thanks for the practical tips on writer’s workshops. I’m feeling a little lost in editing right now so have subscribed to MJ’s site to see whether it’s something that could help. Fingers crossed!

    1. My pleasure. When I get too close and spend too much time on a piece it feels like I’m drowning in words. My sentences and word choices stop making sense to me. The workshop allows for a fresh perspective.

      If you have any further questions I’m sure MJ won’t mind answering them or, if you want, just contact me via my contact page, and I’ll help if I can.

      Good luck!

  6. I agree wholeheartedly. My writing grew a lot after I joined an online community of writers – even I can see it. And that’s for the reasons you said: you get your work critiqued, and that’s awesome, and you critique other people’s work, and that’s awesome too, because you learn from this process as well.

    I only attended one in-person workshop so far and I’d like to say how different an experience that was.
    One thing I regret about the online workshop is that, awesome as critiques may be, I always feel like I receive a parcial opinion. That’s fine with me, because that partial opinion regards what’s not working with the story, but on the other end, I never get a reader’s reaction. It’a very difficult for me understaing what IS working alongside what’s not working, because everyone is so invested in telling you what’s not working, they often forget to tell you what they actually like.
    As I said, it’s mostly fine, because I do want to fix what is not working, but still it does tend to give you an altered impression of your story. That’s why you still need a keen eye when dealing with this kind of critiques.

    On the other hand, the in-person workshop, even when focuses on what’s not working, it’s more illuminating on the whole. Because you attend in persona, you can ‘see’ people’s reaction when they read your work. Even if you don’t get a comment on what they like, you ‘see’ it by yourself.
    For me, this experience was invaluable, because it gave me a more complete idea of my story’s effectiveness.

    Bottom line: confront yourself with other. One way or another, but find a way. That’s the fastest way to grow in a meangful way.
    Personal opinion 😉

    1. I love the different perspectives I get. Not everyone agrees on a point. I might have something in my story that doesn’t work for one reader, but then another comes along and love it. So, you have to look at it objectively. You’re still the writer and you have placed words in the order that they are for a reason. You just need to learn to differentiate between lumpy writing and style or voice. I think grammar errors and such speak for themselves.

      1. I think it’s even more than that.

        I’m revising my first thee chapters once more (I’m not going to count how many times I’ve already done it), and I can tell you this is the highst level of revision I’ve ever reached. I can feel it, because something is happeneing to me that has never happened before.
        Before this novel (and even at the previous stages of this novel), I was always able to see whether I needed to revise something. I knew by myslef if there was still work to do. Critters where invaluable because sometimes I didn’t really know what direction to go, and they gave me a hint at it. But now? Now there are things I’m sure are in the story, but readers don’t see them. And I know those elements are in the story, because if I try to explain what I’m trying to do, reader see it. But not when they read.

        It’s such a strange situation. Especially when I do fix the ‘problem’, readers say ‘now it’s cool’… and I can’t even see how I did it, because to me that character or that situation had been like that all along.

        Has it ever happened to you? It’s so weird.

        In this situation, only a different pair of eyes can help you. That’s why, lonely as writing can be, I think we can never do everything by ourselves. Sooner or later, we need help.

  7. Oh sure. Some times you write something and it is the best you can do at the time, because that is all you saw and felt at the time of writing the piece, but then, when you submit your story and the critiques come in, especially those with suggestions, you suddenly see something else–something you didn’t realize before, and you’re like, “How the hell did I miss that?!”

    The thing with editing your own work is that after a while you lose context–even emotion–and so you have to take a break and let other eyes inspect your words. Just makes sense.

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