Workshop 101: Keeping Perspective (and a plug for Writing Excuses)

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Sometimes I forget that I operate in a community I have no real place in. I am an academic to one degree, but sometimes I think that’s a very acute angle.

I took a scene in to my workshopping class earlier this week. When I initially wrote it, I was very pleased. But as I edited it yesterday morning, I realized that the scene did in fact have some major issues. However, that’s what workshopping is for, so I still took it anyway. My piece turned into a hour-long lecture in which my professor went through every one of his pet peeves.

Sure, admittedly, my piece deserved some of that criticism. But I’ve found, especially with my graduate professors, that some of them tend to forget that literature is not the only genre being written. The current trends in the literary world are to the sparse, to leave as much unsaid as possible. This is a good practice, especially if you’re an author—like myself—who tends to overstate when understatement will say plenty.

However, my piece isn’t literature. I don’t want it to be literature. I would never want it to be on the literature shelves. It doesn’t belong there, and it’s not intended for that audience. I want it to be geared to young adults, or just past young adult. An easy read that doesn’t insult your intelligence.

After this workshopping session, I found myself feeling really angry. What good is workshopping advice if my classmates and professor are incapable of seeing the piece for what it is? If they can’t pull out of their writing and reading sphere and help the author, then every word they say is meaningless.

I was carrying this anger around for a couple of days, and letting it really get to me, to the point that I was bemoaning that I would never pass my thesis defense. It was bordering on ridiculous, and certainly not the attitude I should have after having as many workshopping classes and writing groups as I’ve had.

And now I make a plug, because these guys cheered me up and helped kick me back in perspective. If you’re a writer, especially a genre writer, and you’ve never listened to Writing Excuses, I suggest you do. ASAP. Writing Excuses is a podcast hosted by Brandon Sanderson, Dan Wells, and Howard Tayler. These guys are all still fairly green in the publishing industry, but they all have books out there and have recently gone through the publishing system. Meaning: they’ve been there, and they haven’t forgotten what it’s like. I first learned about the podcast as an undergrad while in Brandon’s workshop class, and I’ve found it continues to help me.

Two episodes in particular helped to put me back on track. One was 3.11 on trimming and the other 3.5 on criticism. I’ve had class with Brandon, I’ve sat in on panels with Dan and Howard, so it’s rare they say something I haven’t heard before, but reminders don’t hurt anyone. Howard mentions that he always has to overwrite, and ends up deleting the beginning. Every time. I know I have to do that, too. Brandon talked about Navel Gazing, your character turning introspective and thinking about everything important in his life…my characters do this WAY too often. It reminded me that even if my professor didn’t understand my genre, these guys do, and had the exact same advice…although they said it better.

I can generally take criticism, but I had a hard time with just how negative it was this last time around, and Brandon shared a story he experienced in his writing group. While working on Wheel of Time (yes, that guy), he took a draft of a different book to writing group that was really rough and he knew was bad. All he heard from his writing group was all the bad that he already knew about the book, and got nothing that could help him on the draft.

That was my problem on Tuesday. I knew after a second read through that it needed more work, but I took it anyway. I knew there were some big problems, and I knew they would probably be the targets. And they were.

My workshops can still be useful, but I can’t take a severely flawed manuscript full of a professor’s pet peeves and expect to get something else out of it. If I expect them to step out of their realm of comfort, then I have to step up to the plate and give them a reason to do so.

So, thank you, Brandon, for reminding me of something I’m pretty sure you told us in class.

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