Engaging The Rules Of Workshopping

workshopping photo final

# 1
Re-blogged

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’m sorry but I think the pace might need looking at, I’m so sorry but I think I have a problem with my character, sorry about this but 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,

EJ

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Black Serenade Update:

The air in the room is Vulcan hot. The heat hits me like a solar flare that’s been trapped in my living room and is dying to be released and the only way out is through me. I can’t breathe damn it! The sweat stings my eyes and a single word is swirling inside my brain and it’s ready to erupt … Doom, Doom, DOOOOMMM … I tell ya.

Oh EJ, get a grip.

It’s not the end of the world.

Just because I received the first draft of my screenplay Black Serenade back from the harbingers of doom—I mean workshoppers—isn’t a reason to disintegrate to ash. No I am not a vampire. I am a writer who is worrying over nothing.

So what was the verdict?

Cut a couple of scenes.

Yeah, I knew that all ready.

The three main characters need their relationships developed.

I knew that too! But the good news is, talking and workshopping has helped me combat the problem.

Sentence structure.

That was a given. It’s a first draft.

The good news:

Don’t change the sequence, story isn’t a problem. Beginning, middle and end flow.

I got the three Gs. Gross, Gruesome and Gorgeous. I love those three Gs. I shall strive harder to get more of them.

See, workshopping isn’t so bad. All that gloom and doom for nothing—the panic. What panic? I was just working the tension. Alright. I know you know. Even though I have great workshoppers I still get the jitters. Sometimes I feel nauseous and other times I find myself holding my breath. But no matter how much constructive criticism I get, I move forward. I get over the nerves and decide which advice to follow, which advice to think about and which advice to ignore.

I’ve applied for a Mentorship program. Now that’s a reason to feel nervous. Wish me luck.

Signing out,

EJ McLaughlin.

Black Serenade

This post came about because I have a screenplay that’s been begging me to work on it, but I let it down, failed it miserably because this was one of the stories that got hacked to death by bad workshopping. Let’s get one thing clear. I wasn’t being a precious princess who was afraid of killing her darlings. I love killing my darlings because at the end of the journey a better story unfolds. Every week I was told by the same group of people, day in and week out, (because we all took the same classes) that I shouldn’t bother with horror, it’s not something we should read or watch, why does there have to be blood, there’s something wrong with people who like or write horror.

Hello. Is anybody home?

My tag line is: Love; devour it before it devours you. There’s some degree of expectation of seeing blood in a horror romance and not a romance horror. Not forgetting that they would scribble out entire scenes without a word as to why. Some of the advice was good, but too much of it was bad, including the personal jabs. I put away my screenplay Black Serenade for all the wrong reasons. Unintentionally I let these bad workshoppers get to me, make myself doubt who I was as a writer and scariest of all, I let them.

That’s what bad workshopping does. It erodes your confidence bit by bit until you become afraid of something that you’ve created. I even have a novel that has been sitting dormant on my bookshelf for four years waiting to be reworked. (Guess what?)

Sure I kept writing. I even managed to finish my novel, Never Bargain With God and have sent out query letters to agents. I have other projects waiting. So why did I feel inclined to ignore Black Serenade? Because, it brought back the fear associated with losing confidence. It made me feel inadequate, frustrated and not worth the ink needed to have it printed out. I can’t believe how hard this is for me to write. Just because some unprofessional workshoppers dug their claws in, I was ready to sacrifice what I had worked so hard on.

While doing these posts on workshopping, I had a revelation. I not like that now. I have professional workshoppers who scare me for a whole different reason. They slash their way through my work and it’s all constructive criticism. I love it. I’m not dwelling in the past anymore. Bad workshopping is a thing of the past.

After rereading my screenplay, I decided to rewrite it as I wanted it to be from the beginning. It only took four days. I was happy. I was an ogre if I wasn’t writing it. So, Black Serenade has made it as my first post in Screenplay Scrapbook.

It’s currently out of my hands and into the dependable and reliable story deconstructionists I know. I’ll keep you posted on how it goes.

The reinvigorated,

E. J. McLaughlin

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

A Necessary Evil Continued …

Workshoppers:

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

A Necessary Evil

 

Workshoppers:

Part One: EEEK!

Let me tell you a little story about the not so delicate procedure of finding the ideal workshoppers. It has taken me five years, some of it brutal, some of it not so bad, to find the right kind of writers, people I feel confident in showing my work to.

Now I’ve had my fair share of horror stories regarding workshoppers: I don’t do horror, this is how I would write the story, Grandmas can’t be nasty … oh how I could rave on all day about what I didn’t need, but if I keep writing about the negative, I’ll be pulling out my hair with a pair of tweezers and stabbing out my eyes with my red pen. I have no fear about those horrible history moments anymore because they thickened my skin to the hide of a rhino? No delicate handling necessary.

Yes, I was a mess after each workshop. I almost (almost) quit being a writer, but I took two tablespoons of cement, hardened up and now use those not so nice—evil—days as motivation to continue. As far as writers go, if you’re serious then you need to make sure you have a good group of people around you. I have written this so other writers can hopefully weed out the bad before their roots take hold and destroy the beauty of the full bloomed story just dying to be written.

So who makes the naughty list when it comes to workshoppers?

Somehow, after workshopping, you believe that the workshopper is related to Jason Voorhees because they have hacked your printed pages, made them bleed with red ink and have totally missed the plot because they can’t justify why they have made all those changes—changes that have distorted the voice, tone, atmosphere, style, character, plot … should I go on?

At what point didn’t they understand that it’s just a draft, and it’s your story?

They love your work so much that they wouldn’t change a single word. The character rocks. The story is awesome even though you’ve accidently changed the name and sex of your character midway through the manuscript. At some point we’ve all done this. My habit is changing hair color. Thank the Lord of Writing for eagle-eyed workshoppers.

Couldn’t you just slap ’em?

They claim to be writing professionals yet they don’t do genres. It’s all about the story, the characters not what genre the story is written in. Every story, short or long, follows the basic principles of structure. (Maybe I’ve been sticking my head in pig’s doodee all these years believing that all genres were created/treated equally.) This type of workshopper needs to get together with their kind and leave the rest of us alone. Actually, they need stabbing a few times.

Where’s Freddy when you need him?

Look out! Duck! Hide! They tell you, it’s not the story, it’s you. If a workshopper attacks you on a personal level, has a dig, RUN AWAY screaming I AM NOT WHAT I WRITE. Trust me on that. Run away as fast as you can and never look back. I am no more a monster than the zombie sitting next to me. I am flesh and bone just like you. I have feelings too you know.

If I were anything like the monsters I write about, I would’ve been inclined to squish their heads until their brains oozed out of the cracks. I wouldn’t want to eat their brains so I would let them dry out on the shag pile. Why would I want to eat the brains of a … can’t get too catty now. While I put Mrs. Angry Writer back in her cage, here’s a couple more reasons not to associate with workshoppers like these:

Let’s spend hours on mine, mine, mine …

Being a professional, you’ve workshopped someone else’s manuscript. You’ve answered every question to the best of your ability, but when it’s your turn to have your manuscript worked on they get one or two pages in and tell you that they simply can’t do anymore. They don’t want to workshop anymore.

Well fry them in hell oil.

Have you ever had someone say, “Can you make it a little less scary,” or “Can you leave the blood out?” “Does the zombie, when shot in the foot, have to keep moving?” Well that’s like asking you to leave the science out of science fiction or the fantastical out of fantasy. What are these workshoppers on?

Seriously.

There is one type of workshopper that everyone needs to avoid—the bloodhound of negativity. Personally I would rather have Bigfoot stalking me than have to listen to the wah-wah-wahs of the negative patrol. That’s right. They pick everything that’s wrong with the story. EVERYTHING. They pride themselves on finding every little insidious blot. And when they find something that’s monumentally huge they stick to the point like a fly drowning in honey. They think they have earned the right to rub the mistake in your face and just when you think they’ve finished they tell everyone at the most inconvenient time to make you look like an idiot. And wait there’s more. Sorry no steak knives. The inkslingers (the black plague has nothing on these guys) are on the attack. They just won’t let up until they see they have broken you to the point of never wanting to look at the story ever again.

Even if the work is a first draft, there is praise to be given. (Finishing a first draft is a cause for celebration.) There is always room for the positive. Reveling in someone’s mistake is just plain nasty. You have to learn from your own mistakes and from the mistakes of others. I do it all the time. But I don’t rub it in their faces. I’m grateful to those who can teach me while we learn together, grow together and become serious writers who know how to have fun once in a while.

Now that we know that the above workshoppers are about as healthy as a cup of coffee laced with arsenic there’s one thing and only one thing you can do:

Stand up for yourself. Set a workshop charter. Tell them exactly what you want and need from the group. If they go off the beaten track, remind them what you want. Grow together as a workshopping crew. If they don’t like it, leave. If they don’t want to grow, to be professional, dump them. (We tend to dump boyfriends and girlfriends for far less.)

Workshoppers are a very important tool in a writer’s arsenal. When you have keen eyes focused on your work, it helps bring out the best in you and your writing. Someone once said that writing is a solitary profession. Yes, I sometimes write on my own. But I’m never alone. My workshop crew are not just there when we meet once a fortnight. We can call, text, email, we even visit one another to discuss, help or offer our shoulder to cry on. If you look hard enough you’ll find the right murder of crows to help you grow into the writer you need to be.

Phew! I got through the negative aspects of workshoppers without the slightest hint of a migraine or panic attack. Those tablespoons of cement have really worked well. My spine isn’t so brittle anymore. So get out there, if you seek, you shall find.

So what are good workshoppers? For one thing they are not mythical creatures hiding in the woods. They do exist.

To be continued …

Until the next time.

Write with passion.
Write with imagination.
Have faith in who you are as a writer.
Even if you haven’t found your niche yet.

E. J. McLaughlin