Writing and Workshopping

A friend of mine is doing a study of writers and workshopping, and asked me for a comment about my experience in workshopping groups, both as writer and teacher.

I realised it would be easier to write a blog post about it, so here it is.

My first workshop was in Year 9 when my beloved English teacher, Mrs Alden, organised for me to attend a poetry workshop – she even drove me there a couple of times a term after school! (Blessings be upon you, wherever you are, Mrs Alden!)

We didn’t really do much ‘workshopping’ in the sense of critiquing each other’s work, but it was my first experience of being among people who loved words and loved writing and we supported each other a good deal through the difficult teenage years.

We even published some stapled-together books of poetry which local school used as resource material. So I guess that was my first publication.

This experience taught me the value of hanging out with like-minded people. People who thought writing was an admirable activity, not something weird and time-wasting.

That’s one of the great benefits of workshopping groups. Finding a peer group is no small thing.

When I began writing (mostly fan fiction for friends’ zines – hi, Karen Miller!), my friends would read and comment. Some were good at that, and helped me. Some weren’t.

As a scriptwriter for ABC Kids, I didn’t have a workshopping group –I had a director and producer instead. That taught me to take criticism. Writers are the low face on the totem pole of television – it’s better at the ABC than elsewhere, but I’ll never forget the day I had to completely rewrite a script because the outside broadcast van we needed for the shoot had been commandeered by the cricket!

When I started writing children’s books, I found I missed those critical eyes on my manuscript. So I enrolled in a Master of Arts at the University of Technology, Sydney, primarily because they required all Masters students in Writing to join a workshopping group.

A version of that group lasted for 8 years, and some members of it still read my work and comment on it for me. It was the single most useful experience in my writing life. It taught me, not only how to take criticism and use it to improve my writing, but also how to look at a piece of writing critically myself. By critiquing other people’s work, I learnt more than I did from being critiqued myself, and I see the same thing happening, over and over again, with my novel writing students.

I think this is one thing that can be invisible to new writers. When new writers enter a workshop group they are focused on getting feedback on their own work. Perfectly understandable. That’s what the group is for.

But so often, we learn most about writing by reading and thinking about other people’s work. I think that’s for several reasons.

The first is that, of course, it’s easier to be objective about someone else’s writing. But after a while, we learn how to be objective; it becomes a familiar state of mind, and therefore easier to access when we look at our own work.

The second is that it’s easier to recognise problems in your own work by seeing them reflected in another piece of writing. I can’t tell you the number of times I’ve heard a student exclaim, ‘Oh my God, I do that too!’ when an issue has been raised in a workshop group. (I’ve been known to do it myself.) Often someone else raises the issue – but because it’s about the other person, the defensive barriers aren’t up and we are able to see the problem clearly, and also see where we have made the same mistake.

And thirdly, workshops generate skills. This is particularly true if the workshop is run by a professional, but even when it’s not, the group will bring a range of different skills and abilities to the critiques, and participants can learn these skills from one another.

In the workshop group I was in for so many years, I learned which group member was great on analysing scenes; which had a good ear for dialogue; which understood voice and style. I learnt from all of them. I might never match any of them in their particular speciality, but I got better at all of them.

And one of the skills – absolutely essential to any writer – was to know when to ignore advice. Workshop members always bring their own experience and prejeudices to their responses to your work. In the end, you have to follow your own instincts and your own story.

Of course, all too often the feedback you get is identical to your own fears about the work; if you think something in the story is dodgy, it probably is, and having your fears confirmed over and over again (in a nice, encouraging way), helps you to take your concerns seriously, and to realise that ignoring those niggles just results in more work later on. You come to identify your problems earlier and earlier in a manuscript. I often say to my students that my experience of writing (30 books and counting) only saves me one or two drafts. It doesn’t mean I don’t make mistakes – I just identify them earlier now, and correct them as I go (at least,that’s the aim).

I have never in my life sent a story or a novel to a publisher without having had it read and commented on by several people. I don’t have a regular workshop group anymore, but I have highly valued beta readers and I would be lost without them.

Getting out of the doldrums

I’ve just read over the second pages (proofs) of The Soldier’s Wife.

This can be a traumatic experience. It’s often at this stage (if not earlier) that the writer is convinced the book is utter crap: boring, repetitive, flat, and without a spark of true creativity.

I’ve learnt to recognise those moments. I think of them as the doldrums, when there is no wind in my sails at all. This is when it’s very very helpful to have an editor (and in my case a husband) to say, ‘No, no, Pamela, it’s a terrific book’. This is one of the most important but little regarded duties of an editor (or a writer’s partner).

Every writer I know goes through some moments of self doubt. When it comes relatively late in the process, you know you’re pretty safe; you’re just suffering from reading too many drafts of the same material. Put it aside for a few months and it’ll be fine.

But what about when it comes early? What about when you’re half way through a manuscript and you are suddenly convinced that it’s no good?

My suspicion is that, if it really is sudden, you should ignore it and keep writing. Pretty soon the desire to find out what happens next, and how it happens, will kick in and override the anxiety.

But sometimes it’s not sudden. Sometimes it’s a slow, creeping suspicion. Sometimes you become gradually disenchanted – with your characters, with your world, with your plot. What then?

Well, that depends. If this always happens to you – if you have a pile of unfinished novels in the bottom drawer (or the archived hard drive) then my advice to you is: ignore the anxiety. It’s just fear that you’re not good enough. And you never will be good enough if you don’t finish anything.

If you are thinking to yourself, ‘I can’t let anyone see this’, then don’t. Accept that you are writing solely to improve your craft, or for personal pleasure, and have at it.

But finish it. Don’t get distracted, don’t get afraid, don’t start that shiny new story which is bubbling away. Just keep going.

However, if it’s never happened to you before – if you are a blithe finisher of things – then getting a second opinion might be a good idea at this point. This is why I love writing courses; even if you don’t learn a lot, you are likely to meet people you can workshop with.

The best friend a writer can have is one who will say, ‘This is not good’. And then tell you exactly why. And if one, or two, or more of your beta readers agree that it’s not working, why then it might be time for the bottom drawer. Not everything we write can be good.

But don’t throw it out. Because in five years’ time, you’ll be thinking about needing one more character in your new book, and you’ll suddenly realise that this is where the main character from the unsuccessful novel really belongs. Or you’ll think, ‘The story was not good, but the world was great. I’ll use the world and ditch the people I put in it.’ (Been there, done that.)

Never throw anything away. Because not only can you recycle it, but when you become a famous writer and universities and libraries are competing to receive your papers, they will want everything, especially the stuff you didn’t use, because then they will have stuff about you that nobody else does!

I’m glad to say that I didn’t sail into the doldrums when I read the proofs of The Soldier’s Wife. I hope that’s a good sign!