Engaging The Rules Of Workshopping

Rule Number 1:

This post isn’t about sticking your finger up your nose and picking a winner. Although gross, it is however, much easier to do and probably less traumatic than workshopping your manuscript.

You see, like most writers attending classes or workshops, we nervously accept the fact that we have to eventually show our work to others. Through the shuffling of paper, our voice squeaks, and suddenly we’re apologizing before we’ve even read a single word, making excuses as to why the story might suck. We do this to rationalise the attack that we think will ultimately destroy our resolve and confidence. What we are really doing is being defensive. It’s not hard to be when you have other writers or fellow students attacking you. And that’s exactly how it feels.

We apologise to defuse the attack, but by doing so, we are making ourselves as wide open and as uncomfortable as a woolly mammoth stuck on a tropical island with one coconut tree. We inevitably give the people working our stories ammunition. Most go on the attack because they haven’t learnt good workshopping skills yet, but there are those out there who go on the attack to make themselves feel better.

Until you find yourself in a professional workshop environment, you won’t ever feel comfortable. You will always leave yourself vulnerable to the bombardment of criticism. Harsh criticism and personal remarks do the most harm and I am sad to say that the good and constructive criticism gets lost in all the negativity.

Rule number 1: Don’t make any apologies unless you’ve accidentally clogged the toilet with biohazard waste material that chokes the air with leftover tuna casserole.

This rule came about because of a telephone call with a fellow workshopper. ‘Do you remember how we used to always make excuses before workshopping?’ The horror! The horror! But something was said that gave me a ding moment that was so exceptionally loud, I though the microwave just had a conniption fit. “What are you worried about? You don’t do that anymore. You tell us what you want. You own what you think is wrong with the story and the writing and get us to look at it.”

Upon reflection, she was right. (I hope she doesn’t read this post.)

I own it. It is my story. Instead of worrying about what others might think about the genre I write in, or whether it was a reflection on my person, I trained myself to focus on more important things. So how did I get from being defensive and apologetic to taking control and being confident? (Yet I still get butterflies when I workshop a story. I own those too. It’s who I am.)

Clause 1a: Repeat after me. I am not what I write. There is one exception—autobiography—but we’re discussing fiction. Repeat it again: I AM NOT what I write.

NOTE: I am not a demon who loses herself in a moment of torturous pleasure when fishing for a kidney.

Clause 1b: I will not apologise for writing horror, fantasy, comedy, romance, science fiction, thriller, detective, urban fantasy … If any unprofessional workshopper tells you they don’t do … tell them you’re workshopping your story, not the genre.

There are some other words you could say to them, but it would be rude and disrespectful and we are professionals, are we not?

Clause 1c: I will not say: I think the pace might need looking at, I think I have a problem with my character, there may be too many ideas in one sentence and I definitely will not say I need you to find all the mistakes. The Horror! The Humiliation! The Inevitable Attack!

Instead, I will say: Please look at the pace; my character feels like he needs more development; I know there are too many ideas in some sentences, could you help me find them; and I will always ask, what’s good about the piece.

Don’t always assume that workshoppers will tell you what’s working because sometimes we tend to focus on the questions and tasks in front of us; we naturally assume you already know what you’re good at. (I will discuss this in a future rule.)

Clause 1d: Through your writing journey, do not apologise for anything you write because deep down you’re apologising for existing and that isn’t what a writer or “normal” person should be doing. (Is there a concept of normal when so many of us are different?)

A writer, a confident writer will embrace what they write, create new life and help take their readers on a journey. For me, that is a very good reason for living. (I better include that my family is also a very-very-VERY good reason for living.)

By not apologizing for all the mistakes and inconsistencies, by owning them, you will find the most important feature a writer needs to have—Confidence—in yourself and in your story.

Until the next rule,

E. J. McLaughlin

7 thoughts on “Engaging The Rules Of Workshopping

  1. deelaytful says:

    EXCELLENT! And highly relatable piece. Mind if I share a couple of mine:

    When I’m being workshopped, I don’t speak. At all. Afterwards, I just thank everyone for reading and commenting. And smile.

    When I’m giving notes to someone in a workshop, I never give a positive note. If all we wanted was to make each other feel good by giving each positive feedback, might as well do an orgy.

    • I agree with what you say about wanting to make each other feel good, we’re here to workshop. Part of good workshopping is finding the good bits. You don’t say this bit is so pretty or I like this sooo much. You say the description was done well.

      Professional workshoppers aren’t there to boost someone’s ego. And while I am being workshopped, I take it all in and smile too, no matter how awful the experience is. Being positive isn’t about being nice, it’s about saying what works, leave it in.

      As for the orgy, I think that would be messier than any first draft I’ve ever handed for workshopping!

      I hope you to hear from you in coming posts, where more rules are sure to follow.

    • Sue Gannon says:

      “When I’m being workshopped, I don’t speak. At all.” Sounds to me like someone’s giving you bad workshop. In my group we discuss what works and what doesn’t and, more importantly, WHY things do or don’t work. THAT’S positive feedback. Anyone saying that they like something has to explain why they like it — what’s good about it, what the writer did right Same goes for what they don’t like. The whole purpose of workshop is to make the work better. We leave our egos at the door. You can only do that with workshoppers who understand that it’s all just about the work. We all start with: “How do I make this better?”

      I’ve worked with people who have cut out the good stuff because no one told them it was good. I’ve also worked with people who have said: “Don’t you dare cut this.” That’s what good workshoppers do.

      I hope you find some good workshoppers.

  2. Tamara says:

    *Applause* Brilliantly put, and oh so true.

  3. Pete Aldin says:

    It ate my original comment and I can’t rewrite it. I loved your feedback yesterday at our writers’ circle. I love this rule. Glad you wrote this!

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