Start Your Own Writerís Workshop
by Emily Pohl-Weary (epw@interlog.com)

How could being in a writers' workshop possibly help you? Let me list the ways... It gives you the opportunity to pick the brains of four to eight fascinating minds, find out about interesting literary events, copy edit yourself, increase your comfort reading in public, and reminds you that there are other writers out there going through the same crap. Running your work past a trusted group of critical minds and editors canít hurt, believe me. Itís equally productive for fiction, non-fiction and poetry.

Thatís the ideal situation, of course. Sometimes I walk away feeling frustrated by how much more work I have to do on an article or how many terrible interpretations of a poem are possible. Unlike the concrete DIY resources on this website, this one is probably going to be a little more touchy-feely. I think writersí groups have a bit of a bad rep because of that. The benefits of a workshop are not always tangible over the short term. You do not always leave the meetings with a completed story, or even sterling advice.

Of course, strive for the ideal if you are thinking of forming your own workshop. Donít let less-than-positive potentialities phase you. Imposing a little structure on the process will help ensure that your group is useful. Like most situations in life, you will need to walk a fine line between chaos and control. In fact I canít think of a single reason not to recommend the process, so below I have outlined the steps to forming your own group in a roughly chronological order:

1. Make Friends With Like-Minded Writers

OK, Iím not advocating the distasteful act of schmoozing. Rather, Iím talking about making friends with people you actually like, who happen to be writers. Everybody who participates needs to feel like theyíre a valued part of the meetings. They donít want to be pandered to as experts, be bossed around, get bored, or feel like the other members of the group are bored by them. This is probably the most valuable step in the whole process.

I make zines, like to trade with other zinesters and read tons of them, so I am naturally interested in meeting other writers who do similar stuff. My writing is also influenced by science fiction and magical realism, so I tend to value the input of people who understand and appreciate this. If you donít make zines, you can always meet writers by going to small readings around town and developing personal friendships with the people whose writing inspires you. Another way Iíve met great writers is by actually use the email address thatís attached to the bottom of a particularly interesting article or story in a local mag.

You must initially choose people for the workshop with the same discerning criteria that you would pick, say, an employer, in order to set the workshopís tone. Not all the writers you know will be suitable. Aside from respecting their work, and liking them, you will need to find people with a similar code of critiquing tactics. This is very important because the workshop can get catty or competitive if the group dynamic shifts away from open (but tactful) criticism and genuine excitement for each piece of new work. That really sucks. Itís painful to watch individuals feel intimidated, dread the moment they have to read, get picked on, or become defensive. That just makes everyone want to go home.

Donít feel bad about picking people carefully. You can use the excuse of having certain set criteria. A good criteria to have is that everyone needs to have already shown their work to strangers prior to coming to a meeting - whether itís through a zine, a short story publication or having written for their school paper. Iíve seen a number of nice people get incredibly defensive the first four or five times they expose their work to criticism, even if itís constructive. You can also use the excuse of having too many members.

The ideal size for your workshop is between four and eight writers. Eight is already pushing it, any more than that and you wonít be able to focus on everyoneís work. Less than four can start to feel claustrophobic and too much weight is placed on each personís opinion. . Some of the people youíve invited may invite new people, or decide that they really wanted to be a librarian instead of a writer - new blood will flow in and out. This is a good thing. Rest assured that once the workshopís been going for a little while, it will take on a life of its own. Let it happen naturally.

2. Think About Structure

Whatever you decide about how things should be structured, the important thing is to be flexible. If you get together a half-dozen individuals of varying skill and confidence levels, they will undoubtedly all have different concepts about how a successful workshop should be run. Your job as initiator is to suggest a structure and see how it fits the group you have assembled.

Agree on some basics right off the bat, and let new members know about these things prior to their first meeting. Some of the basics I can think of are: each person should bring enough copies for the others; and if people have not been able to put a certain amount work into preparing for the meeting, they should skip the meeting altogether. These common denominators might be different depending on how spicy you want the feedback to be: mild (positive feedback only), medium (a mix) or extra hot (highly critical).

Some of the things that might need to be discussed at various points along the way are venue changes, acceptable themes or genres, how to avoid getting competitive, techniques for sharing criticism and the physical size of the group if it gets too big. Find out if people are getting what they want out of the group.

Personally, I have no use for writing games that "get your creative juices flowing." Some groups like to start off with one or two of these, but I think theyíre a waste of my time. And I hate wasting my time. Iíd just stop going to a group like that. But then again, I have no problem starting artistic projects - itís finishing them thatís tough! I had a bad experience once, when I was part of a group that was dominated by social workers and all they wanted to do was play stupid games like, "Letís write about the colour green for 7 Ĺ minutes," or "OK, girls, 1Ö 2Ö 3! Write for 15 minutes without stopping." Ugh. Blech. Well, if youíre different from me, and feel like some communal writing time would be useful or even fun, go right ahead.

3. Select a Venue

You can run the workshop in your living room, a local coffee shop or diner, or the study room in the library. My point is here that venue is only important in that you want to pick a place where:

a) you can sit around for up to three hours at a time without feeling pressure to shell out big bucks;

b) you enjoy hanging out, because it has to be fun to be there;

c) everyone can easily get to (make sure your venue is on the subway line!);

d) people at opposite ends of the table can hear each other read - relative quiet is essential - you donít want to be competing with Stereophonics or Hole.

I think my favourite venue was a busy local diner, where nobody cared or noticed that we were pursuing the writerly arts. They didnít play any obnoxious music. I also hate feeling like a cliché, so sometimes I have a hard time relaxing in more trendy places where it feels like everyoneís scoping you out. Of course, my beloved greasy diner only worked well because that workshop was small - there were only three or four of us meeting - and we could all cram into one booth!

I particularly recommend places you would normally hang out anyhow, if you feel comfortable enough chancing encounters with non-writer friends who may want to sit down and listen to the readings for a while. This way everyone definitely knows how to get there, and this will usually cut down on headaches about whether itís more or less accessible for certain people.

4. Introduce Everybody & Discuss Your Ideas

Itís important to introduce people to each other, and let people say a little about their work or artistic endeavours. If someoneís writing a novel and will be workshopping pieces of it, this is the time for them to tell everyone. Each time you bring a new person into the group, make sure to introduce everyone again.

The workshop is not only a forum for critiquing each otherís writing, it should also become a source of information for any writing-related news. I find it interesting to hear about a great book or author someone has discovered, reading series that need to fill a few slots, an event your group is organizing, an upcoming zine fair, a party, etc. People should feel comfortable to throw things out to the crowd.

5. Start Reading

This is the easy/hard part. A lot of people have a tough time reading out loud to a group of peers, especially if itís their first time sharing their writing. My suggestion is to just pick a consensual victim to go first (often someone will offer themselves up), and then go with the time-tested clockwise method. While it can be excruciatingly painful the first time around, this step gets easier and easier the more you do it.

While one person is reading out loud, the others should be following on paper and scribbling quick little notes to discuss later. A certain amount of note-taking diligence is important, because by the time a reading is finished, youíll usually have completely forgotten the beginning of the piece, and all the great suggestions you wanted to give the author. The pace of a workshop generally does not allow for you to go back and re-read the entire work. Another option is for people to read the pieces silently, or to have read them before-hand, but this way you don't get any practice for doing public readings.

6. Get Critical

I find itís best to critique each personís writing in turn, right after they read. It means that the material is still fresh in peopleís minds and they are excited about the reading. It also lends a certain amount of completion to what can otherwise feel like an infuriatingly ephemeral process.

I also find that an informal limit of 15-20 minutes per person is a long enough period of time to get feedback. Any more than that and you start to lose people, or spin in circles. It just drags on and onÖ I was part of a group once where people just kept repeating themselves and giving contradictory feedback. Thatís not that helpful. I think that if people disagree with some of the criticism thatís being given, they should voice their opinion and then both parties should drop the matter after a fairly brief interchange. If the author wants to bring this subject up again, he or she can do it later.

This stage is crucial to the success of the workshop, because readers can leave the process feeling dejected or they can leave it feeling like they have just been helped by a group of people who are interested in seeing their work come to fruition. If the latter situation occurs more frequently than the former, you know you have created a constructive writerís workshop.

Oh yeah, my last point here is that people will have differing experience with critiquing and being critiqued. I think itís important to keep in mind that no matter what other people say about your writing, itís up to you to ultimately decide whether you want to change something - just like when an editor wants to make changes to something he/she is considering for publication. Despite the fact that the other writers are trying to help, and may feel very strongly about the necessity for certain changes to your text, itís ultimately up to you to decide whether you want to use or discard any of the advice youíve been given. I find that just keeping this in the back of your mind helps you accept criticism much more gracefully.

Roadblocks

OK, your writerís workshop is up and running. Itís smooth sailing now, right? Sorta. Little things will seep in here and there and if they arenít dealt with early, can poison the environment. Iím going to list a few of the things:

Getting Defensive: This is a tough one. Iím putting it first, because itís most common. Defensiveness can make it impossible for people to give you any feedback at all. It never feels good to watch your hilarious story about Muppy the Rabbit fall completely flat, and if a few key people criticize your work strongly, it can start to feel like all the other people in the group hate your writing. It is also incredibly frustrating to find out that a piece youíve been crunched over for the past week needs a lot more work. Most often, people find it hard to hear straight criticism for the first time. Itís intimidating. If they continue to have that feeling, they will most likely drop out of the group after a couple of meetings. Once youíve been part of a workshop for a while, you will almost be able to predict that certain people will get prickly when it comes time to being critiqued.

Being Mean: If your workshop is a good one, when someone freaks out and doesnít think about what theyíre saying, theyíll stick out like a sore thumb. Iíve seen a group work itself into a fever pitch and people get downright nasty, saying things like, "Itís just plain bad." Usually the people who are being mean ostracize themselves pretty quickly.

Different Objectives: Not everybody wants the same thing out of a writersí group. Some people are doing it to pass the time, as a purely social engagement or even (gasp) to hob-nob with writers. Usually this problem takes care of itself because the people who arenít serious about writing will eventually drop out

Too Many People: A problem of success! If this happens, you can consider breaking down into groups based on fiction, non-fiction and poetry, although, personally, I like getting different perspectives. You could also try girls vs. boys or uptown vs. downtown or humorous vs. serious or fiction vs. non-fiction. You can decide together whatís best, as long as nobody feels like theyíre being kicked out of the core group.

Using the Internet

Iíve been focussing on how to run a writerís group once youíve met a bunch of other serious writers who all live in the same city. What about writers who donít live near enough to a group of writers and still want feedback? Using the Internet is a good possibility. You can try contacting someone whose writing you like and sending them a piece of fiction or an article to elicit their reaction. This actually works surprisingly well, despite the fact that you lack the personal bond that comes from sitting across a table from another person, arguing about niggling details. When I have not been able to attend the meetings in person, Iíve still continued to send pieces to other writer friends and the results have been great. This also allows for better formulated and more detailed criticism, substantive editing and carefully thought-through responses.

There are also a few writerís workshops that are run entirely on-line. This is a great idea and I imagine theyíre helpful and fun. Take a peek on the Internet, or check out these ones which looked good:

  • for short stories and one-act plays, try Zoetrope: http://workshop.fcoppola.com/
  • for poetry, fiction and non-fiction, try Local Writerís Workshop, at www.elanworks.com/lww/about.html
  • for science fiction and fantasy, try Del Rey Online Workshop at www.randomhouse.com/delrey/workshop/
  • for mystery and suspense, try Smort at http://members.home.net/smort/msww.htm