How to Surive an Attack from an Ex-M15 Agent: Eleven Steps to Getting the Most out of Your Writing Workshop

By: Jameson Croteau

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Someone told me— right before my transatlantic flight—that Englishmen hate confrontation. Flash forward to my writing internship in London and I have an ex-MI5 agent, veins popping purple through the Skype window on my 16-inch laptop screen, about to burst from my criticism of his second to-be-published novel. His vitriol, hardly avoiding curses, were being hurled across the internet, burning the connection lines along the way. I think that I had touched a sore spot in his relationship with his work. I had probed, innocently I can’t quite say, the motivation of the protagonist. And now, I was going to pay.

“I don’t need an American twig without a degree commenting on my work.” He had said (read: screamed) to my advisor as I was shuffled safely away and out of the screenshot.

I could’ve been gentler, sure, but I was convinced that his main character didn’t have a reason to go back to the Falklands midway in the third act of his sprawling Paris thriller. This mishap, though scary at first—the distance over Skype between myself and the ex-MI5 agent felt about as sturdy as a printer paper shield—confirmed to me the importance of being a successful workshopper. Had Mr. ex-MI5 been a bit more receiving of criticism, I assure you that he’d be a better writer. All it takes is some etiquette and the right mindset to progress. This being said, here are my eleven steps to acquiring the most from your workshopping experience.

Step 1: Breathe

Inhale deep. Hold. Exhale.

It’s as simple as that.

Every writer has anxieties about their work, regardless of that person’s level of experience (or lack thereof). Once you hit submit, your work is in a state that won’t change until after you hear the feedback from your peers. Therefore, there’s nothing left for you to do but sit back and ride the wave that you just created…hoping that it sends back a ripple or two.

Step 2: Breathe

Yep. Do it again.

Now put down your papers, your notebooks, your laptop and let your work breathe. For the purposes of the workshop, you and your art have just been through a somewhat messy break up. Give it time before you start sending it late-night pining texts.

Stephen King in his memoir of the craft, On Writing, suggests a six-week period of breathing space before working on the second draft of a piece. I won’t say your break has to last that long, but allow yourself space so that you can return to your work with a fresh eye. You want to be able to let your critics’ comments rattle around in your head before you see what sticks. Then, hopefully, you’ll be back at your desk with some new, evolved ideas and a fire in your gut.

Step 3: Shut Up and Shut It Down.

The workshops that I have been a part of tend to thrive when they are open discussions with one caveat: the writer’s whose piece is being critiqued is not allowed to talk. Sure, this rule is broken all the time, but trust me that the less talking that the author does during the critique of their piece, the more likely they are to get an honest opinion.

It comes down to the fact that if your work is a finished product you will be willing to let it stand on it’s own. As an author, you will never have the luxury of standing over a reader’s shoulder to explain the reasoning behind your choices. You have to be able to let the voice in your prose or poetry stand on its own.

Part of this process involves shutting down your ego. Even the greatest performers crave criticism. There’s no way to grow if you aren’t open to your work being deconstructed, analyzed, and put back together. Take the time to go over everyone’s comments and concerns from the first-year creative writing student, to the “Guy in your MFA” types, to the perennial published author, and even to your grandmother (though be sure to have a saltshaker on hand). Your audience will always differ, and you’ll never know who out there is going to pick your book up on a whim and starting reading. It’s impossible to appeal to everyone, but make sure that your voice and your work are as traveled and viewed as possible. To make this happen you have to be both humble and accepting.

Step 4: Find Strangers

As hard as it is to separate yourself from your work, it will be even harder for your fellow workshoppers to do so. Finding a talented and driven group of writing strangers is a nearly impossible task, I know. At this point, the experience that you’ve had workshopping is probably with friends or in a classroom setting. However, it is paramount that you receive the frankest (and therefore helpful) comments possible. Nothing makes a workshop blander than an audience who wants to rip your piece to shreds but is afraid of hurting your feelings. Therefore, submit your work to people who don’t give a damn about you. Your work will thank you for it.

Step 5: Write Everything Down

It seems straightforward, but I hardly see anyone ever do it. I don’t know about you, but I can barely remember the sentences I sketch in my head during a shower by the time that I get dressed. Write everything down. Even if you don’t believe it applies, even if it doesn’t make sense, even if the commenter didn’t read your piece all the way through. You’ll want notes when your trying to develop your second draft. Even if you feel like the comments aren’t what you initially intended, these suggestions need space to settle in your mind. If you take notes, you won’t need to go memory fishing weeks later to remember what the “Guy in your MFA” said that could actually be a practical solution the issues that you’re having with your work.

**Semi-pro tip: if even one commenter spends more than 20 seconds talking about a particular aspect of your piece, that section needs to be given a more comprehensive look over.

Step 6: Tally and Rally

After I’ve accumulated my notes from workshop, I’ll jot down the sections that need to be improved and make a tally. I look for similarities in my peers’ comments, and make a note of what keeps reappearing.

This is the point where you should start asking questions. If things aren’t clear in the workshop, they won’t be clear when you go back to work on your piece. Once you’ve gathered your data, start where you got the most “hits” (be it time spent or number of mentions). If it’s a point of contention, consider that section further. You don’t have to get it right, but at least coming at these points from different angles will increase the chances of something about your own work being revealed to you.

Also, the best way to receive a good workshop is to give great ones in return. The next few tips we be about leveling up your workshop game.

Step 7: Be a Doctor

Other than learning how to stare down a PO’ed ex-MI5 officer, the most valuable tidbit that I learned during my internship in London was to “be a doctor.”

Good workshopping, in my opinion, requires you to do three things:

1). Find.

2). Diagnose.

3). Prescribe.

Never be the person that says “Sara isn’t a believable character.” You shouldn’t even say “Sara isn’t a believable character because she has no identified motives.” Be the person that clearly states “Sara isn’t believable, but I suggest doing x, y, or even z to help pin down her character.”

Even if the author doesn’t take your idea (and most times they won’t), they will be forced to think about it. And this process will usually spur some new, more creative thought that will benefit the piece as a whole. Going the extra mile with your suggestions will make your comments more reliable and note worthy. And ultimately it helps the writer, which is always the end goal.

Step 8: Reciprocate

Guy Kawasaki , famous for being Apple’s Chief Evangelist, writes in his how-to startup book: The Art of the Start 2.0, that reciprocation is paramount for creating an enduring company. He goes on to write that trading one resource or activity for another doesn’t create lasting relationships. Trading creates work that must be done, whereas reciprocation creates work that ought to be done. It establishes a relationship as well as an obligation.

So be like Guy, go out of your way to pick out the best few or the most active members of your workshop and go the extra mile for them. Take their piece and do a line-by-line edit. Start a conversation with them about their piece and in turn—while I can’t guarantee they’ll do the same for you—when it’s your workshop slot they will be more mindful about your work.

Step 9: Be Frank and Constructed

Be a writer’s best friend. Shoot them straight, but be pithy and contained. Your comments lose value when they start to rant and become jumbled. A simple tactic I learned in high school that still works well today is that you have to comment on four things when reading a piece: the most and least interesting bit and the most and least convincing. This is the bare minimum I do. Every piece, no matter how terrible or how perfect, will have something that can be represented by each of these four points.

Once you have found your points, expand on them as far as you can. This will allow you to be as real as you’re able to while giving feedback that is structured and straight forward. It works because it clearly states where the writer succeeds and where they had some slipups. And it’s short and simple. Remember the trimmer the vessel the more it can carry.

Step 10: Be Thankful

We have to admit it, writers can be an overbearing bunch, even to each other. If we’re lucky enough to have someone out there look at our first draft drivel or monster manuscripts, say thanks. They just may do it again.

Step 11: Don’t be an angry MI5 agent. Please.

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