“I’m so nervous. They’re workshopping my story this afternoon.” Workshop used as a verb may not be listed in Websters, but the term is commonly used by many experienced writers. To workshop a story or novel chapter means that other people in a critique group read your work, then comment on it with the goal of assisting you in making your story better and in the end helping you be a stronger writer.
Do you need to have your prose workshopped? Is Rush Limbaugh nuts? Almost all writers can benefit from the workshop experience. I remember one writer who participated in a workshop for the first time. His prose was achingly beautiful, but his narrative technique, characterization and plotting were rudimentary. His progression over a few weeks was amazing Workshops come in all shapes and sizes. Some are big, some are small. I had the honor of attending a large biweekly critique group of science fiction/fantasy heavy hitters sponsored by Kris Rusch and Dean Wesley Smith down in Eugene a couple of times. That group would have 20 attendees or more. Processes vary. Most groups have you submit your story a week or two before the meeting, so folks can read it and prepare their comments. In one speculative fiction critique group hosted by Mick and Mary Beth O’Halloran. Each of us would read our stories out loud and the comments would be made on the fly. I’m not sure about the depth of the comments, but reading your prose out loud does provide you with a helpful sense of the flow and pacing of your story.
Where do you find that elusive workshop experience? My first experience was through Mt. Hood Community College. They offered a weekly class in story writing. The class was fairly basic. We worked through writing exercises with the goal of creating one finished short story by the end of the term. To be honest, the main benefit of the class was just to provide encouragement for the participants.
If you’ve been writing a while, you might check out writer’s conferences. I know that the Key West Literary Seminar hosts workshops the week before their main conference. A couple of organizations exclusively host workshops. Haystack Program of the Arts was the one of the best I attended. Alas, they’ve folded. The Iowa Summer Writing Festival is just as good, perhaps better. The classes are taught by Iowa MFA grads and the University of Iowa treats the attendees very well. If you’re a science fiction/fantasy writer with seven weeks to blow, check out Clarion Writer’s Workshop. Graduation may not guarantee publication, but be sure agents and editors will take notice if you mention that you’re a Clarion graduate in your query letter. Be forewarned, Clarion isn’t for the faint of heart. They’ll work your fanny off and you’ll have to submit your best stuff to get accepted.
If travel to a workshop isn’t convenient for you, check around your local area. Annie Bloom’s Books here in Portland hosted a dandy eight-week thriller/mystery workshop led by author April Henry. Check your local writer’s organizations. Willamette Writers often puts on Saturday workshops. Locally, I often see writers’ workshops advertised on the net or on Craigslist. I would be careful joining an unknown group. If they charge a fee, be careful. Ask to sit in on a session to see if the group is right for you.
Best of all, join a writers’ group. Joining a group is an important step in your writing life. Many writers’ groups use the workshop process. Ask around. See if someone is looking for a member. If not, think about starting a group yourself.
You’ve got that story sitting on your computer. Get out there and workshop that sucker. You’ll be a better writer for it. If enough of us do it, maybe workshopping will be listed in Websters someday.