How to get through a writer’s workshop without throwing up

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How to get through a writer’s workshop without throwing up

Post by fiercebeagle » October 6th, 2010, 12:59 pm

The worst possible way to kick off your first writer’s workshop is to toss your cookies in the car on the way there. I know, because I did. (A combination of Nervous Stomach Disease and a poorly timed trip to Burger King did me in.) But! I recovered, got through it, and lived to write another day.

Since then I’ve come up with a few strategies for new writers to work through the jitters of sharing their work for the first time. Because there’s nothing in this world scarier than a roomful of writers. Except maybe a roomful of snakes. Or Justin Beiber fans.

Strategy 1: Put your best work forward

Control what you can: Your writing. If there are scenes you’re not sure about, or sentences you’re not happy with, or characters who haven’t quite filled out, that’s okay. Getting feedback from your peers helps. But commentary on a half-assed draft won’t be as construcive as commentary on a draft you feel proud of.

Strategy 2: Be academic about it

Will there be criticism of your work? Of course! That’s the point, after all. Try to see your writing objectively, and even harsh comments or opinions can be useful, if only to shed light on areas you could strengthen. Gird your loins.

Strategy 3: Listen to everything

My writing is my baby, and when somebody points out the flaws, I go directly to Defense Mode, which can only be resolved in a cage match. I’ve learned, though, to put the kibosh on Hulk-like transmogrification and instead focus on what’s being said. If you don’t listen, you can’t A) Justify your writerly choices, or B) See where your writing is weak.

Strategy 4: Leave your internal Gollum voice at home

Most peer readers are not out to get you. Unless you pantsed them in sixth grade gym class, in which case they probably are out to get you. I’d wager a guess that the majority of writers experience anxiety sending their work out into the world and will temper their criticisms with comeraderie. Oh, and you’ll probably get more positive comments than you’d expect.

Strategy 5: Accept the people you cannot change

Are there some Grumpy Guses or Gladyses out there who revel in negativity? Yes. For sure. Just remember that most people want to help each other out.

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Re: How to get through a writer’s workshop without throwing up

Post by Ryan » October 6th, 2010, 2:11 pm

Strategy 5: Accept the people you cannot change
Translation: There will always be a$$holes in the world.

Just the thought of Burger King makes me want to throw up. :)
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Re: How to get through a writer’s workshop without throwing up

Post by hulbertsfriend » October 6th, 2010, 11:26 pm

Enjoyed your post. One thing that works really well on the #&*holes is to look the person in the eye while you explain you have the perfect way to murder someone without leaving a clue... You think, and are curious if it will work... LOL

Ear plugs and helmuts are usually sold in the lobby...

Good Luck and have the best of days,

"All it takes to fly is to hurl yourself at the ground... and miss." Douglas Adams

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Re: How to get through a writer’s workshop without throwing up

Post by Ishta » October 8th, 2010, 10:38 am

"But commentary on a half-assed draft won’t be as construcive as commentary on a draft you feel proud of."

Truer words were never spoken.

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Re: How to get through a writer’s workshop without throwing up

Post by PhilipIsles » December 3rd, 2010, 4:04 pm

During my last writers group, we began discussing how overwhelming the day after our meetings can be. We shared our processes--both emotional and craft processes--and I realized I have a really rather specific method. I decided to write it down because I thought it might be helpful. So here ya go: ... dback.html

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Re: How to get through a writer’s workshop without throwing up

Post by Matt_X » December 4th, 2010, 6:04 am

While specific comments in workshops are usually on target and very helpful, the thing I find most challenging is sifting through the carefully balanced praise/criticsim mix to find whether people actually think the work, overall, is good. Most people in workshops are polite enough to do the "praise sandwich" (also useful for telling parents how their kids are doing in school, or doing an employee's performance review): Start with something positive, give the constructive criticism, and finish with something else positive. But when everybody gets the same formula it's hard to know what the readers' overall assessment of the work is.

One particular workshop comes to mind--one of the participants had written something I thought was just about ready for publication, and another had written a piece of complete drivel, a 5-page political diatribe with two hollow characters thrown in and zero plot. But both of these writers received about 70% positive words and 30% criticism from the group. An alien being watching the workshop would have through both pieces were equally good. I like politeness, and I'm not sure there's a solution to this. Just something I've noticed.

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Re: How to get through a writer’s workshop without throwing up

Post by sbs_mjc1 » December 4th, 2010, 7:01 am

I think a big part of critique is being able to separate when a) someone has a hard-to-hear but accurate criticism of your piece, b) when someone is on a different wavelength and you just don't 'click', or c) when the person is being a jerk. (I say this as perhaps the only person in the world who sees a lot of red ink on one of my pieces and goes 'Squee! Comments!').
My solution to the politeness vs. utility issue is to put explain problems with the piece in terms of what needs to happen to make the story work. For example, instead of 'your characters are really flat and stereotypical', I say 'your characters need more complexity and uniqueness to really grab the reader'.
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Re: How to get through a writer’s workshop without throwing up

Post by polymath » December 4th, 2010, 12:53 pm

Writing workshops, in person or otherwise, are a maze of mixed messages. On one hand, they're ideally a decorous interaction in a contentious arena. It's a battlefield where a writer stands out on the field of honor and silently, reluctantly, optimistically asks to be assaulted by a fanatical horde. Like a gang initiation where a candidate gets jumped in. Everyone takes a turn getting their best shots in and the initiate suffers in silence or fails to pass the ritual's tests. It's a stage where a hot seat offering parades gagged and naked on a runway and the audience shouts out commentary about the offering's appearance faults. It's being a minnow in a fishbowl and everyone's tapping on the glass trying to get a rise out of the sprat.

On the other hand, workshopping is a subjective venue given from contentious personal objective standpoints. A truism of what's become a rallying answer to characterize a subjective phenomena, like art, though the phenomena is open to broad interpretation and lacks clearcut definitions; "I shall not today attempt further to define the kinds of material I understand to be embraced within that shorthand description; and perhaps I could never succeed in intelligibly doing so. But I know it when I see it." U.S. Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart, Jacobellis vs. Ohio, U.S. 184, 1964. [1]

There's no coincidence the above comment was made about freedom of expression limitations related to pornography published under the guise of art's protection as free speech. The signal statement "I know it when I see it" illustrates what's art and what's not is clearly a personal sentiment that no one individual may expect everyone to universally share without exception. Yet there are limitations society's annointed authorities will impose or will not tolerate.

On another hand, opinions are like excretory orifices and biases; everyone and everybody has at least one of each. They are all impossible to satisfactorily or conclusively argue against. Two tragically valid aspects of workshops: The human cognitive bias of finding fault more easily in others than in the self favors critiquing. Humans wear self-blinders. "A Princeton University research team asked people to estimate how susceptible they and 'the average person' were to a long list of judgmental biases; the majority of people claimed to be less biased than the majority of people." [2] Workshopping takes full and admirable advantage of what's otherwise a widely disapproved of human failing: hypocrisy.

The other aspect, critiquers have advance preparation advantage. They've read and evaluated a manuscript and considered and prepared their talking points. A writer on the hot seat gets blasted by a full bore crossfire out of a blue sky. No processing time allowed. Period. So naturally, there's a lag time to catch up. Plainly, the benefits acrue more timely to critiquers than writers. Therein is an overlooked purpose of workshops, developing a critical eye toward others' creations so the eye may learn to look inward. Workshops are not about a writer who graciously self-sacrifices body, mind, heart, and spirit on the altar of creation. Workshops are about developing conscientious, conscious, critical thinking muscles. More workshop benefits acrue to critical thinking critiquers than writers. All things being equal, ideally, a creative work may benefit from a workshopping; however, it takes time and contemplation and application and good judgment to see it through.

Workshopping is a coercive venue. The coercive bribe: A writer gets to showcase a progeny for lauding approval by a like-minded consumer focus group. Uh-huh. The unseen reality, a coercive purpose of focus groups is to teach consumers how to consume a product line. Get them thinking about a product critically, welcome their opinions, and they're on the hook consumers. Do their opinions really matter in the long run to the producer? Maybe; maybe not. A producer is going to follow what the producer will regardless of anyone else's opinions.

Writing is a slow form of reading. Reading critically isn't about finding fault, it's about interpreting intent and meaning for writers and readers. A fundamental question any workshop crtiquer and writer ought best ask is, Does a narrative communicate its intended meaning? Workshops focus on methods. Method is distinguishable though indivisible from message. What's the message of workshops? Learn how to think conscientiously, consciously, criticially for one's self; otherwise, others will do one's thinking to one's detriment.

Mixed messages? Uh-huh.

[1] From case law at Findlaw, for legal professionals; ... &invol=184
[2] Daniel Gilbert, New York Times, "I'm okay, you're biased," April, 16, 2005, page 2; ... nd&emc=rss
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