Writing workshops: caveat emptor
One of the best things my wife and I ever did, was pony up some cash for my first writing workshop. Having endured years and years of rejection letters, by 2008 I was hoping to bust out of a serious slump. My wife asked the question, “What else can we do?” I’d never done workshops before. They were too expensive, and they required too much time away from work and home — especially the king of all science fiction and fantasy workshops, Clarion. But it was precisely because I’d never done a workshop before, that my wife and I determined to get me to one. She asked me which workshop looked best, for a “get your feet wet” event, and I chose the weekend-long Kris and Dean Show being put on in Lincoln City, Oregon, at the eclectic Anchor Inn — by Kristine Kathryn Rusch and Dean Wesley Smith. This was June of 2009. It turned out to be something of a watershed event, for me as an aspiring professional. In two delightfully exhausting days, Kris and Dean ran the table: from matters of craft, to matters of publishing, as well as self-promotion, book-keeping, personal writerly habits, known pitfalls, and of course myths and conventional (false) wisdoms.
I walked away feeling like I’d learned more in one weekend than in all the many hundreds of hours I’d spent reading “How to write books” books.
Of course, Kris and Dean had been around the science fiction and fantasy scene for a long, long time. Dean had given me some of my first-ever personalized rejection letters, back when he was editing the Star Trek: Strange New Worlds anthology contest. I walked in the front door at the Anchor Inn believing that Kris and Dean could help me, and I was right. There are things I learned at the Kris and Dean Show which still powerfully influence me, even seven years later. Plus, it was a hoot being able to sit in a giant living room — Anchor Inn, helluva venue — with two dozen other writers, all of whom had the same stars in their eyes.
Aspiring authorhood is a lonely thing, especially since you don’t (yet) have anything to show for your effort. It’s almost embarrassing talking to people about it, because they get that look in their eyes, like if you’ve told them you aspire to become a movie star. The look that says, “Uh-huh, riiiiiiiiiiiight,” and they smile and quickly change the subject. Because they can’t take you seriously. Which is hell on any aspirant, due to the fact the aspirant herself is struggling to take herself seriously!
It’s 2015, and I haven’t done a workshop in over three years. Not because I think I know everything worth knowing, but because I’ve been busy trying to put everything I’ve learned to use; in my career. Having established myself with several short fiction markets, and one major SF/F novel publisher, all focus and effort has therefore been on new production. Because I’ve seen what the genuine pros are doing — the men and women who are making six figures. I know their habits and their plans. I’ve observed the “machinery” of success in motion. All that remains is to pattern, model, and replicate.
But I could not have reached this point, without a lot of learning along the way.
So, let’s assume you want to do a workshop. There are now dozens of them to choose from. Some are venerable and well known. Others are not. They each cost various amounts of money. Some are conducted as distance courses, via the internet. There are hundreds of potential instructors. How do you know which ones are worth their salt, and which ones aren’t?
The answer is: it depends on what you want to get out of them.
Not every workshop is geared toward every writer (or aspiring writer) at every level.
Ask some of these questions, to help yourself get what you need from your workshop experience. Which is not a guarantee against disappointment — in every workshop class, there will always be a few people who walk away feeling let down. But you will go into the experience with the odds improved; that you will exit the experience feeling like you’ve gotten what it was you came for.
Do you want to learn about the business, or do you want to learn about craft?
In many workshops, there is invariably going to be some bleedover on these topics. But most workshops will tend to focus on one topic, or the other. If you go to a craft workshop, and are more interested in business knowledge, you might be wasting your time. Ditto for going to a business workshop, but being interested in questions of craft. You might get some of them answered, but you’re probably going to spend most of your time being frustrated. My own personal thought is that people who have written less than 500,000 words of fiction (lifetime, including short pieces, novels, and anything else) will probably get a lot more out of a craft workshop, than a business workshop. Because if you haven’t done at least 500,000 words of fiction, your skills may not be “entry level” yet — you’re not at the place in your career where business knowledge is going to be useful, because you’re still not solid in your ability to tell a story that audiences will find worth buying. Likewise, if you’ve sold a short story or two, or maybe you’ve managed to interest a publisher in your book, or maybe you’ve got some self-published novels ready to go on-line through indie publishing, then you’re probably at a point where a solid business seminar (like Kevin J. Anderson’s Superstars) is going to help you to plan and execute a business model.
Who are the instructors? What kind of careers have they had?
This is a big one. One of the best things I ever did, was stop wasting my time with “How to write books” books, by people who’d only ever published “How to write books” books. With the large number of workshops being offered every year, spread out across the calendar, it will be hugely useful for you to look at the individuals who are being brought in to teach. What have they done in their professional lives? Do they have the kinds of careers you would like to emulate? Do they even have a career? I’ve seen more than a few instances of workshops — especially fly-by-night on-line workshops — being offered by “instructors” with tissue-thin resumés. I’m going to politely nudge you away from spending your money on those. Look for the workshops being taught by people with lots and lots of experience, and substantial publishing track records. Folks with many, many books in print. People who’ve landed on bestseller lists. The ones who have generated and maintained an expanding, healthy audience. They are the ones who will know more about how to succeed in the field than anyone else. Of course, not everyone wants to sell. (I think that’s silly, myself, but there are plenty of writers wrapped up in the art of the thing. Which is fine.) Are the instructors at your workshop you want to attend, the kinds of writers who win a lot of literary awards? Are they always showing up on “best of” lists, for short fiction, year to year? Did they themselves graduate from MFA programs that have produced other literary notables? The old joke says that those who can’t do, teach. And this is true in writing, as in anything else. I want to strongly suggest that the “doing” is a key component, for determining if the people who claim to be teaching, actually know what they’re talking about.
What’s the word of mouth like?
As in all things, word of mouth may say more about a writing workshop, than anything else. I’ve been very vocal about my enthusiasm for the workshops I’ve taken from Dave Wolverton (Million-Dollar Outlines) as well as the novel and short story workshops I took from Kris Rusch and Dean Wesley Smith. I am also a big fan of the previously-mentioned Superstars business workshop, as well as the long-running Writers and Illustrators of the Future workshop — which is a prize you can win, when you enter the Writers and Illustrators of the Future Contest. All of these things helped me a great deal, and all of them involved top-drawer professionals who have cut their teeth in the publishing world. Of course, venue has a lot to do with it too. I mentioned the Anchor Inn, in Lincoln City, OR. That was an amazing place to experience a writing workshop. Especially as a first-timer. I went away raving as much about the setting, as I did about the learning. So, ask around. Of those who have done these workshops before you, what’s their opinion? How much did they get out of it? How satisfied were they with the experience? Did they feel like they got their money’s worth?
Are you comfortable with face-to-face critique?
Most craft-focused workshops, involve some kind of face-to-face critique system — either the instructors critiquing the students, or the students critiquing the students, or both. If your answer is, “No,” let me gently suggest that this is a great reason to go. That may sound like counterintuitive advice, but I firmly believe half or more of the problem with most aspiring authors, is that they never work up the courage to crawl out of their shells. I know, I know, writers being habitually shy and introverted is an earned stereotype in this profession. But just because the stereotype may be accurate, doesn’t mean you — as the workshop attendee — have to live down to it. Challenge yourself. Make yourself go through the hard knocks of putting a book or a story into the frying pan of professional and/or public scrutiny. Even if your book or story gets dumped into the fire, you’re going to be glad for the toughening-up.
Okay, let’s assume you’ve asked these questions, and you’ve narrowed it down to two or three workshops that look good to you.
Here are some additional questions, to help you make your final pick.
How much money is too much? Also: how much time is too much?
One of the reasons I never did Clarion West — even though it was right in my own back yard, in the Pacific Northwest — is because Clarion West asked for thousands of dollars, and weeks of time. I never had weeks of time to give, nor thousands of dollars to spend, on a workshop. Even though it sounded amazing. So, as the years went by, I more or less gave up on Clarion West. And I am glad — in hindsight — to have discovered that Clarion West was not necessary, for me to become a professional. I have been able to learn what I needed to by doing shorter, less expensive workshops. Like drinking a Coca-Cola in sips, versus one long, gulping chug. Just because a given workshop or program may be venerable, and enjoy a lot of notoriety around the field — Clarion certainly does — this doesn’t necessarily mean you’re missing out, if you have to let your budget dictate your actions. If you’ve smartly narrowed your selection, electing to go with instructors whose careers do all the talking necessary, even a very short and/or less expensive workshop, can prove hugely valuable. (ergo, The Kris and Dean Show.) Of course, there are people who’ve walked out of longer and/or more involved, more expensive workshops, and they would not trade that time — that particular environment for learning — for all the money in the world. It was that useful and/or valuable. Just don’t get tied up in knots because a longer or more costly workshop simply isn’t within your grasp. To borrow a line from Kipling: there are nine and sixty ways of making tribal lays, and each and every one of them is right.
Are you seeking a learning experience, or are you seeking a social club?
This question gets tricky, because it’s been my experience that many workshops almost inevitably become social events, whether the instructors intend them to be, or not. It’s a heady thing, to be surrounded by your “kind” of people, all of you babbling (over drinks, at meals, during breaks) about writing: hopes, aspirations, frustrations, plans, ideas, etc. For many aspiring writers, a workshop is their first — and only? — chance to be among like minds. Throw in the pros, many of whom aren’t shy about after-hours or meal time elbow-rubbing, and the environment can turn positively electric. In fact, more than one writer I know is a recidivist at a given, favorite workshop, precisely because that workshop has become a “battery re-charger” for them. A place to come every year, and get the debris of ordinary life sloughed off, so that that dream can shine fully for a few days. And they can go back home feeling renewed, restored, and ready to tackle another year of hard work, setbacks, loneliness, and unrewarded or frustrated effort. My only real guidance in this regard, would be to suggest you seek out and/or locate your local convention. A three-day convention pass costs far less money than a workshop, and if that convention has a solid writing track, you’re probably going to discover most of the same social aspects, as you would at a workshop proper. So, if you’re short on cash, but desperate to spend some time among other writers, a con may be just the thing. Even a writing group that meets face-to-face on a weekly or monthly basis, can do the trick. And again, it will cost much less money. Of course, you will also have a lot less exclusive access to the professionals. Though this is not always the case — especially at an event like LTUE, which I adore, and highly recommend to anyone.
Which brings me to caveats . . . . let’s talk about those too.
A workshop or a convention, is not a replacement for writing.
I have observed this phenomenon over the years: the same faces showing up at the same events, year after year, and when you ask them how they’ve been, what they’ve been working on, etc., they have precious little to talk about. Invariably they will put forth the range of usual complaints about family, school, work, church, and other obligations, all of which have an uncanny way of blocking or derailing the best-laid authorial plans. And all of these things are valid. Make no mistake: every author who sees her year go down the tubes, because life happens, should not feel bad about being diverted from the True Path for six months or a year, or more. The only time this starts to get telling, is when it happens year in and year out. Over several years. That’s when you — as the person sitting on the other side of the panels — begin to see who the “serious” aspiring authors are, and who the permanent aspiring authors are. And that’s a sobering realization. Because some of the permanent aspirants may be amazingly talented. They may even be your close friends. But you can’t make them prioritize their writing. You can’t make them be successful. All you can do is encourage them to keep going, keep trying, and put special emphasis on the idea that the books and stories will never happen unless writing becomes a top-most priority in that person’s weekly schedule. And no, simply going to a con or a workshop, is never a replacement for actual production. It may feel like it. But in the end, you have to go home, and you have to stick yourself in the loft, or in the closet, or even in the bathroom — with your tablet or laptop to keep you company — then close the damned door, let everything else in your life fly to hell for a few hours a week, and produce.
Social circles can turn toxic.
As a fresh aspirant, surrounded by other fresh aspirants, you desperately want to believe that it’s the Three Musketeers: all for one, and one for all. And this illusion will be easy to maintain in the beginning, because everyone is at the same level, and nobody has had time to rub anyone else wrong to the extent that good old human behavior begins to infect the circle. But sooner or later, if you’re in that circle for years, things will inevitably begin to turn. One or more people start making sales, while the rest of the circle does not. This breeds jealousy. One or more people in the circle turn into snipers — always tearing down the work of the others, under the guise of “helping” — thus the group ceases to be a place where you learn to get better, you simply live in fear of releasing your latest book or story into the hands of the butchers who will invariably carve you to pieces. Sometimes, it may be a political thing too. Or it may be a clash of personalities. Or somebody in the group may begin to groom the group — as a crop of “followers” dedicated to stroking that person’s ego. And so on, and so forth. I’ve seen all of this happen to various writing circles, and have even experienced a bit of it myself, and I can state firmly that no social circle, no writing group, no workshop, no convention, is worth sacrificing yourself for the sake of somebody else’s pique, or agenda. The moment you begin to feel like the circle isn’t giving you what you need anymore, or has become actively toxic to your state of being and your goals, don’t be afraid to simply walk away. And it doesn’t have to be a huffy flounce, either. In fact, I’d recommend that it not be a huffy flounce. Just . . . stop showing up. Seek a new circle. Or, better yet, test your wings solo. I knew I was doing some of my best work, when I finally felt like I could send it off to an editor without worrying about what a critique session might say. Because a writing group may or may not know anything about what makes a good book or story work.
Some workshops can blur into promotion pulpits for the instructors.
Another reason to pull back, is if you detect that the workshop is merely serving as a promotional pulpit for the instructor. Now, almost all workshops tend to be somewhat promotional, if only because some person or group of persons is standing up and saying, “Come to us, and we will show you how it’s done!” They’re saying they’ve got the goods. They’ve cracked it. And they know how to pass this along to you, if you will only invest x amount of dollars and spend y amount of time on their workshop. But there may be a time when you feel like the workshop has become too deliberately focused on pumping up instructor(s) at the expense of the learning environment. (One particularly well known SF/F author is said to have spent his entire week at Clarion, giving lazy critiques and treating the event as if it was merely a promotional junket for him, versus an event explicitly designed to focus on the nascent careers of the students.) Again, don’t be afraid to walk away — even walk out. No, you probably won’t get your money back. But you can at least guard your time. Hopefully, you’ve got more than one instructor to work with, and you can focus your attention on those who seem to be helping you the most, with what you want to work on. And again, if the word-of-mouth about a given workshop says that it’s more about the instructors, than about the students, that might be a sign to stay away.
What value recidivism?
I have done the same workshop twice, but I’ve never done the same workshop three times. I’ve seen people do the same workshop again and again and again, for various reasons. I think the one good reason to do any workshop more than once, is if you feel like you learn something new and career-advancing every single time. But if you’re going for the social event? There are easier, cheaper ways to get a writing gang or club together. If you’re doing it to hang out with the pros? Again, check up on your local convention(s). If you make yourself known to the pros that frequent that con, especially among SF/F authors, they will often adopt you as one of their own, and you’ll get all the access you could ever hope for — at far less cost. Only you will know, in your heart, what draws you back to an event, time and time again. I can’t tell you that your reasons are wrong — because they’re not. But I’d be lying if I said I didn’t wonder about some people who become practically addicted to certain workshop(s), or certain instructor(s). Some of this can simply be chalked up to cult-of-personality. Many pro authors are naturally magnetic, and will generate a halo of followers without even trying. Other pro authors deliberately foster and cultivate that halo, for promotional and ego purposes. My best suggestion to you, is that you do not want to get caught up in anyone’s halo. Your objective is to become that professional author’s peer. This requires a certain level of self-awareness, and an ability to separate enthusiasm for the dream — your dream — from your enthusiasm for a place, a group, and whichever people sit at the head of that group.
Professionals are merely people too.
This is the suckiest part about making the transition from aspirant, to pro. When you realize that some of the people you admire, perhaps even idolize, and at whose feet you have sat, are just as human as everybody else — with body parts just as stinky. The guy who spins amazing yarns — you have and love all of his books! — is a boozing womanizer, who has neglected his way into three divorces. The woman who has entranced you with her award-winning stories, turns out to be your political polar opposite, and is not shy about letting the world know she thinks everyone who disagrees with her politics, is a monster. The man who wrote your favorite book of all time, and who seems like the most charming person in the world on his blog, turns out to be a grumpy troll in person, who snaps at the slightest irritant. The woman who has book after book turned into hit movies, and who seems to be the very paragon of professionalism, actually turns out to be a career flake, who needlessly quarrels with editors, agents, and fans alike. And so on, and so forth. It’s almost a truism, that authors are difficult people. One of your challenges, as someone seeking to learn, will be to separate the person, from the knowledge. You’re not coming to these people because you want a life coach — in fact, I’d suggest writers are, as a class of creative professional, second only to actors and musicians, in terms of being the last people from whom you’d want to take life lessons. As Tom Clancy once said, writing (as a profession) is a form of self-induced mental illness. You’re there to get tips on craft, as well as business. Beyond that . . . keep your own counsel. Mix and match your notes. Find out what works for you and discard the rest.
And absolutely do not fall for the self-romanticization that many pros, and pro-ams, seem to indulge in. You are trying to become an entertainer. You are not Buddha. You are not Jesus. You’re not here to change the world. If you think you are here to change the world . . . well, good luck with that. Plenty of entertainers have gone down that crooked path. It’s not a road I’d suggest taking.
Just focus on telling your stories — and your workshops should be a tool to that end. Not every tool is equally useful to every tool-user. Find what works. Be thankful for the instructors who genuinely understand how to teach. Keep your head up, and understand that the publishing world continues to evolve — what worked ten years ago, or what was iron-clad true twenty years ago, may not work, nor be true, now. Don’t be afraid to revisit something that clicked in the beginning, and which does not click now; and discard it. Your process won’t be a set-in-stone thing. It will evolve as you evolve. Hopefully for the better.