Tuesday, July 11, 2006

In case you thought Hong Kong was a distant memory, here is a night street scene. Colourful and lively (I think it's actually the Ladies Market in Mong Kok).

Critiquing. Workshopping. Manuscript assessment. Feedback.
Whatever you call it, it's about someone else telling you what they think of your writing. Family members are notorious for comments such as, "That's nice" or "Don't give up your day job". Good critiquing points out strengths and weaknesses, and makes helpful suggestions. But examples of terrible critiquing/feedback abound, and can virtually kill a writer's passion in extreme cases.
Case 1: a young writer, 12 years old, has been writing for some time in secret. She finally gets up the courage to show her teacher, who says very dismissively, "Yes, nice, dear", and moves on. Young writer doesn't write again for more than 40 years.
Case 2: Writer A has been writing very well and getting some stories and poems published for about 10 years, while working on her novel. She is an excellent workshopper, generous with her time and very good with comments. She attends a high-powered residential workshop with influential writers and editors, and a number of participant writers she already knows. In an effort to score points and big-note themselves, a number of participant writers move into "vicious workshop mode" and also make cutting personal comments. Writer A is unable to write again for 2 years.
Case 3: Writer B is a very good, committed writer with several notable publishing and contest credits against her name. She attends a high-level workshop and presents a story for feedback. After the workshop, Writer C approaches her and accuses her of stealing her idea and work. Luckily, Writer B knows that Writer C is a bit of a problem already, and is able to dismiss her accusations, but has it shaken her confidence a little?
Case 4: Writer D attends a big conference where manuscript critiques are offered for an extra sum of money. At the last conference, she was lucky enough to be allocated to a publisher who liked her novel and asked her to send it in (although it was rejected). This time, Writer D is allocated to another writer who tears her new novel apart, rips it to shreds, spends the whole 20 minutes criticising every inch of it and offers no helpful suggestions or encouragement at all. Writer D takes her novel home, throws it in the bottom drawer and can't look at it again for more than two years.
Case 5: Writer E attends a workshop that he loves, due to the unflagging support of the others in the group. Each month he reads out his writing, as do the others, they all congratulate and praise each other and feel wonderful about their stories and novels. Hardly anyone in the group is published. Writer E decides to attend a writing class and learn more about getting published. He finds his writing receives a great deal of feedback, mostly critical, none of which he wants or enjoys, and he spends each week arguing with the teacher over minor issues. He leaves the class at the end of the year, disappointed and disheartened, until he attends his group again.

OK, what point am I trying to make here? That writing groups and workshops suck? No, definitely not. But you have to decide what you're there for, what you want from the workshop, and how to sort out the helpful, useful comments from the personal agenda stuff. Everyone in a workshop has a personal agenda. Often it's "please love my writing because I really need help with my confidence in what I'm doing". Workshops are not about building confidence. I think the higher the level of critiquing you are expecting, the less shoulder-patting encouragement you will get.
You should be presenting writing that you've done your absolute best with, but there is something not working in it and you need help to find out what it is and how to fix it. A good workshop will do that for you. It won't tell you the piece is wonderful when it's not.
And workshops work best when everyone contributes. A member who arrives and has not bothered to read anyone else's work or make comments, and makes the excuse that they've been too busy ... would you want to spend precious time and energy on their piece? Me neither.
Enough of that. Reading? "Princess Academy" by Shannon Hale, which was a Newbery Honor book this year. Very enjoyable, a fantasy kind of setting (small mountain village where the girls all have to go to a princess training academy for a year as the prince is supposed to choose one of them to marry) and the action towards the end didn't hold back. Interesting to see that the bandits were very real and nasty, and the threat felt real - I won't spoil the ending if you haven't read it, but I thought it might have toed the PC line and been "nicer" at that point. Thank goodness it didn't and the author wrote it as it needed to be.
I've also just started "Between the Lines" which is a writing book about the more subtle aspects of fiction writing. I like the quote at the beginning from Thomas E. Kennedy - "There's no doubt that teaching is the best way to learn because it forces you to test your assumptions and see if they're really true."
And this one from John Gardner: "Though the literary dabbler may write a fine story now and then, the true writer is one for whom technique has become, as it is for the concert pianist, second nature."


Lee said...

I know from concert pianists that when technique becomes second nature, the risk is that one never re-evaluates that very technique.

Snail said...

Gawd, workshopping scares the living daylights out of me. On the other hand, having your work critiqued by someone who knows what they're doing—that's fantastic. (Okay, it's still scary but in a energising sort of way.)

Sherryl said...

I think good writers are constantly re-evaluating. It's called rewriting! And no matter how good you think you are (or how good the reviews might say you are), you still have to rewrite. It's an art in itself.