The Idiot’s Guide to Writer Workshops

As Joe Konrath loves to point out, “There’s a word for a writer who never gives up…published.”

As an aspiring writer, everyone has something to tell you, some advice to give you, some secret to success, but I think Joe’s understated counsel is as good as it gets: Don’t give up.

I have one more thing to add, something that I’ve found along the road to writing a novel, finding an agent, looking for a publisher, losing an agent, finding a publisher, and turning down publication (in favor of self-publishing, god help me):  You have to know who to trust.  Or, saying that another way, you have to know who to listen to.

Steven King has a great book about the craft: On Writing, and his take on feedback is to find one “Ideal Reader” (for him, it’s his wife) and listen to what they say.  (It should be someone who “gets” you and “gets” the novel.)  Everyone else who gives you feedback has an angle: what they want from you or your book and how they think they can get it, and that angle may not be what you want for YOUR book.  Your agent wants something that will sell (to editors) more easily, your editor wants something that will appeal to more readers (Romance sells better than literature).  The people in your workshop group want you to say nice things about their work.  (They pretend to be happy about your talent and success, but they are not.)  Your conference leader wants you to come to their next conference.  You critique partner wants you to write the book they would write.

Every time you get feedback on your work, take the feedback (or suggestion) and try to understand it from the point of view of the giver.  If the feedback is coming from someone who wants you to reciprocate with false praise, or wants you to read their query, or wants you to offer to be their agent, or wants you to review their book, or wants you to tweet their publication, then you should ignore what they say.  It’s crap.

If the feedback comes from someone with nothing to gain (and something to lose!), then listen a bit more to what they say, but balance it against what you hear from other unbiased readers:  If one person thinks there’s too much sex and another thinks there’s too little: they cancel.  If your ideal reader likes it the way it is, you’re golden.  If not, listen carefully and keep your own mouth shut.  Then go back to you computer and talk to your characters!  What do they think?  (When trustworthy people use the “sandwich” approach to feedback — praise, criticism, praise — ignore the bread–they just made that part up to buffer the truth.)

In the end, you have to go with what works for you, and you have to refuse to give up when you can’t find an agent, or your agent dumps you, or fifteen NYC editors tell you your book is great but it’s impossible to sell in the current market, or you finally find an editor who loves your book but can’t do any more for you than you can do for yourself.

A ship is the harbor is safe, but that is not what ships are built for.  You cannot discover new oceans unless you have courage to lose sight of the shore.  As Miss Frizzle says, “Take chances; get messy.”

Be brave and true to yourself, and don’t give up.  There’s your best advice.

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