Last week, my friend Brad Torgersen had a post saying “the purpose of workshops is to make it possible for you to walk away from workshops.”

I’m going to disagree with him, at least a little bit.Not markedly. I think part of our issue is the definition of “workshop.”

Let’s say there are levels to workshops. The first I attended was the Oregon Coast Professional Writer Workshop and if it were still running and supposing that I could take it again and the format had been updated for the new world of publishing, would I take it?

Not really.  Although it was an “advanced” workshop it was a workshop for advanced beginners.  Our learning to break out of the bonds of our early learning, to go out and figure out what our limits as writers were was invaluable. But I’ve done it.  It was the workshop that taught me to start strong, so that readers would keep reading past the first paragraph or so, and also taught me that yes, I can write 15k words in a day.  More if I need to.

At this point I’ve got a good idea of my limitations and limiting factors, and therefore that would be fairly useless.  I also have the tips and tricks on how to force the writing to come faster (even if I can’t always apply them because of external circumstances.)

Does that mean I have no use for workshops?

Well… no.  What I need now is targeted workshops.  Suppose someone who is really good at it, like Larry Correia gave a workshop on how to write fast-moving action that moves the plot.  If I had the money, I’d go across the country to take that workshop, do the exercises, and hopefully emerge a better writer on the other end.

When I was trying to figure out plotting which was my glaring weakness when I started out (not in the sense of not having one, in the sense of having too much of one, and not foreshadowing, which weirdly most editors perceived as not having a plot.) I took one of Holly Lisle’s workshops (and I’d published five? six? books then, so solidly professional.) If Dave Freer taught a workshop on foreshadowing for a sense of a deeper world, I’d take it in a heartbeat.

Workshops are important because they can show you something relatively simple that you’ve been missing for years, because you’re you. Writing is a very interior art.  Sometimes it’s important to look at your efforts and attempts to break out of your rut through someone else’s eyes.  Good workshops are good at holding up a mirror.

It is also, as I believe I said in the past, something that can’t be taught, it can only be learned. So I don’t believe workshops can necessarily fix what’s wrong with your writing. (and there’s always something wrong) They can just make you aware of it and give you ideas to get around it, but in the end you’re going to have to work around it and find what you personally can do that works for that flaw.

Yes, if you keep at it and become a pro, you’ll eventually have trouble finding workshops that will help.  This is because you need to have a workshop where people are more or less at the same level, or the flaws they point in your writing won’t be the right flaws.  I mean, you have flaws, everyone does.  But if you go to a workshop that either doesn’t know your genre marking (“but you need to explain, scientifically, how time travel works.” or “This isn’t science fiction. It’s nothing like Star Trek.”) or one of raw beginners, still trying to figure out what they think are immutable rules (“You never use said as a speech tag. Important writing teacher says that’s wrong.” — when you’re actually using action tags, say.) you won’t learn anything and by the end of the workshop you’ll be profane at them, and that’s not good for anyone.

But if you find a workshop at your level — again, admitting that it’s more difficult as you go forth — it can still help immensely.

By its very nature, being very personal, you tend to develop in your own unique direction.  Have you noticed that mega bestsellers at some point become markedly worse writers than they were in the middle of their career?  They didn’t lose any of their strength. They just overdeveloped those, while weakening the parts they don’t find fun or don’t even see because they’re inherent to the way they think.

And because they’re going to sell a minimum of a million books, give or take two, it doesn’t matter to them.  But from the POV of art, they are worse than they were.

If you can find a workshop with people at about your level, or a workshop taught by people who do some aspect of writing you do badly and they do really well really really well, it’s worth your while to attend and to learn. You will emerge a better writer.

If you can’t some really big and very accomplished authors teach online courses.

Or if you want to change or experiment with genres, and an author in that field is giving a course or a lecture, it might be worth it to check out.  I often feel I could use some more training in cozies, mostly because it has been years and reading them for fun is different from writing them.

These days I prefer online courses and workshops, but that might be because I’ve become a curmudgeon who likes staying at home. (Happens.)

What if you can find neither workshops nor courses? How do you keep from going stale?

Keep a clear view on what you need to work on/practice/learn next.  There’s always something, yes, even after thirty something books. And when you’re reading and find something exceptionally done? Study how it was done and try to practice.  Short stories are a great place to practice techniques you’re not absolutely sure of. They require less investment.

Do what you can and find ways to learn what you need to. As long as you keep in mind that an interior art sometimes needs a reality check? You’ll be fine.

So your purpose is to grow away from BEGINNER workshops, towards bigger, better, more challenging workshops, shall we say?

Just like in this field, you grow out of problems into bigger problems.

Aren’t you glad you ran away with this particular circus?

Now go do it.

8 thoughts on “Workshops

  1. Great post! I’d only add that I’ve found it important to try different teachers on for size. I had to go through some that just didn’t move me in a positive direction, skill-wise, despite the material they were teaching.

    Also, sometimes you think you need to learn something (say, how to outline a novel), but it turns out you’re much happier writing into the dark (therefore, you end up writing more, therefore, you end up learning more), so you’d be better off taking courses under teachers who encourage you to produce.

    1. Likewise with how to write books.

      Very few of them are useless — the only glaring exemptions being N Types of Plot* — but a number need to be read with salt shaker in hand.

      * N Types of characters are very close, but sometimes they are useful for ideas on differentiating characters, and I’ve heard of people who test whether they can recognize the type of their characters to decide whether more development is needed.

  2. I took Dean Wesley Smith’s workshop on writing cover matter and blurbs a few years ago. It was worth the money and time. It was also very focused on just one small topic related to selling the books. I ended up writing the PR material for my non-fiction book based on his ideas, along with my fiction work. So a narrow focus workshop taught by someone who really knows that part of the field works very, very well. At least for me.

  3. May I put in a request for ‘the tips and tricks on how to force the writing to come faster”? I’d love more of those. I’ve got some, but not enough, and “butt in chair” only gets you so far so fast.

    1. Daily quota that’s longer than the amount of time it takes you to get warmed up. You can make up past ones, but not use excess for future quota.

      The other one is switch between projects. It’s dangerous.

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