A Necessary Evil Continued …


Part 2: The Mythical Creature

In a previous post, I may have suggested that good workshoppers were mythical creatures, but in reality they’re not. My workshoppers are sometimes beastly, (don’t worry, they’ve workshopped this piece too and they know I love them unconditionally … mostly) but hey, they do exist. I’ve snared me a few good ones. Through trial and error, after error, I learnt how to be selective. The process may have taken me a while but my storytelling has improved, so has my writing but best of all I’m more confident. You need confidence just as much as you need your sanity in the writing industry.

So let’s get back to the serious business of what to look for in a good workshopper. Warning! This post may be just a little more on the serious side and that’s because finding good workshoppers isn’t something to joke about.

The first sign of a good workshopper is:

Jason Voorhees runs away from them. When they slice and dice their red ink across the page, they have purpose, questions lurking at the back of their minds and they’re not afraid to bring them to the forefront. They will discuss why they’ve made the page bleed; why they went for the jugular and severed the artery. They don’t do it to change the story. They have serious questions as to whether or not there’s something needing to be fixed, expanded or looked at from a different perspective, and no psycho punk-slasher will ever get in their way of making a good story great. Run Jason. Run.

How I love to hate them.

They find a problem. They offer solutions but at the end of the day they let you fix ’em. Most of us would like others to fix things for us, but it’s your story isn’t it? Because getting someone else to do the fixing can sometimes change more than just the story. And when they do offer solutions or strategies, they do it through discussions. Seeing if it actually works or gels with the writer can be fun. It may even give the other writers in the workshopping group an idea or help them solve a problem they’re having with their own manuscript.

You wouldn’t believe how many times I leave a workshop group and I think, gee my head hurts, but that’s when I know I’ve had a good workshop.

Workshoppers who know when to be delicate or when to be tough are definitely keepers. No point rushing in head first when someone is in the middle of some serious family invading life trauma causing the victim to have a complete and utter meltdown. A nervous beginner who has just joined the group should be introduced to good workshopping slowly, which leads to the next point.

Great workshoppers will explain their questions or concerns about the manuscript to help the writer understand where they’re coming from. If someone doesn’t understand, (and it doesn’t have to be the writer) then they will explain it again. I love watching other writers having a ding or ping moment. Their eyes light up and you just know they’ve learned something that will enhance their craft. (The difference between a ding and ping moment is: a ding moment happens instantaneously and the ping moment takes a little while to get through.)

I seriously need to do something about my brain. I’m having far too many ping moments and not enough dings lately.

They are not genre-ists.

Let’s see, in my two workshopping crews, I have a couple of Science Fiction writers, an Academic writer who is also tackling some serious autobiographical inkblotting, a Young Adult fiction writer, an Action-Adventure writer, an Urban Fantasy writer, a Children’s writer, a poet, a script writer and me. I’m the one who slings horror and dark comedy at them. But it’s not just the story they talk about. Any question arising in the world of writing from how do we…, to what about this…, is thoroughly discussed or passionately debated but it’s never argumentative. Who cares what genre is waiting to be read. A good story is a good story regardless of a label.

Editing is for the later drafts, unless you ask for it. No point doing all those insidious punctuation and grammar changes in the first or second drafts when the story might change, or voice might change or tense might change. Yeah I know I sound like a stalker’s heavy breathing, but that’s just how I see things. Editing is for the almost completed, the almost finished. Good workshoppers will of course pick up really obvious problems like the sentence with too many ideas in it! (Here’s the lowdown. I hadn’t actually put that bold sentence in. It was a suggestion by a smarty pants workshopper. But hey! It works to prove a point. I had mentioned that I love them mostly, right.) The smaller problems will always emerge and be dealt with later. There’s no point putting bait out to trap a lion if he’s already eaten. Or overwhelming the poor workshopper with too many ideas in one sentence … I wish I had an evil chuckle.

They will let you have a small hissy fit; freak out, cry, throw a tantrum, have a moment of self-doubt and then they will politely tell you to pull your head in and act like a professional writer. Just to let you know, I haven’t had a hissy fit or thrown a tantrum but I have had a freak out or two and plenty of self-doubting moments; so have the others, so I don’t feel so bad. Come to think of it, I haven’t cried yet, but I’ve come close, but that was for reasons other than writing.

As soon as a page is set out in front of them, they stick their friendships in the closet with their other skeletons. They are professionals offering advice. Friendship has nothing to do with it nor does it have a place at the workshop table. Sounds harsh, but it’s never personal.

They know that you are not what you write.

Bless them.

They entice you or may challenge you to experiment. And I’m not talking about drugs, but the effects are just as euphoric—after the fear and frustration has gone.

No topic is taboo. If you’re writing to express a political stance, if you write about someone getting hurt or raped, a character on a rampage while their veins are filled with drugs, about a man beating on his wife or a mother killing her child, it doesn’t matter. What matters is the quality of the writing, storytelling technique and structure. In other words, it’s all about the craft of writing, not the content.

If you find these wonderful workshoppers, you’ll know that you’re in good company. There is one more aspect that I haven’t mentioned yet. How could I have forgotten the most important character trait of a good workshopper? (It’s called Mother’s Disposition or Lack There Of. While trying to write this post, I’ve made lunch, saved the floor from my elderly cat who can’t seem to find the open door and the children are still hungry, having already eaten a sandwich, an apple, a kiwi fruit, a glass of chocolate milk, the list goes on.)

So what is the most important aspect a workshopper can have?

They never tell you what you can’t write. They want you to be unique, yourself.

During your writing career, you will meet a lot of people who will make you feel insecure. Get rid of these people and don’t give up on the dream. Most of all, you must find people who complement your writing. I don’t mean they like everything you write. I’m talking about finding other writers whose strengths are your weaknesses. If you aren’t any good at punctuation, find someone who is. If that person has trouble with structure and that happens to be your core strength then it could be a match made in writing heaven. It’s just something to think about. Everyone has individual needs. Find those who can help you strive to become the writer you desperately want to be. It’s all about give and take, not take and break.

It’s humbling to know that the people I surround myself with are a lot like me but very different at the same time. Without their support, who knows what would’ve happened to me as a writer. I know for one thing this blog would never have happened.

Until we meet again.

Write with confidence

Write with gusto

Write because you love it

E.J. McLaughlin