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Monday, May 28, 2012

Making the Most of Writers' Workshops

Michael Hauge

Like most professionals, writers should always be seeking ways to expand their knowledge. This might be achieved through reading craft books that delve into your weakness (grammar, characterization, emotions), through feedback from your critique partner or group, or through workshops. The first two options are cheap (free), but workshops provide you with an experience that will raise your manuscript to a level beyond what the other two might provide—if you find the right workshops.

When searching for a workshop, there are several things you should consider:

1. Your goals

Before you select a course, you need to know what your goals are. It could be craft related, such as story structure. It could deal with social networking or marketing. Or it could pertain to research, such as a behavioral analysis of serial killers. Do you want a course that will provide feedback on excerpt from your novel? Most don’t do this, so if this is something of interest, contact the course provider and find out if the instructor is only providing lectures and an opportunity to ask questions, or if you will be asked to submit assignments for feedback. 

2. Location 

If you can’t travel or your schedule doesn’t permit you to attend a live workshop, online courses are a perfect solution. Some conferences (e.g. Romance Writers of America and Thrillfest) enable you to download for a minimal fee the audio from workshops. Not all workshops are available, but it’s a perfect option if you can’t attend the conference, or if two workshops you want to attend are offered at the same time.

3. Time

If you’re busy, you might want to select a course that is online, as previously mentioned, and allows you to be a lurker. Be realistic if you are expected hand in assignments. If you don’t have the time to do them, you might want to skip the class, unless you know you’ll still benefit as a lurker. 

Try not to get behind on the reading of the lecture material; otherwise, you’ll miss out on your chance to ask questions. There is nothing worse than finally reading the material two weeks after the course ends, only to discover you have tons of unanswered questions. If you’re going to be a lurker and there are assignments that get instructor feedback, DO read what the instructor had to say about each one. You’ll learn a lot from studying the comments. Even if you’re not lurking, check out the instructor’s feedback and comments on the other students’ assignments. It’s worth the effort. You might discover errors you constantly make, but which didn’t show up in the excerpts you submitted for feedback.

4. Reputation of the Instructor

This is where a little investigative research is required. If the instructor is Stephen King and he’s offering a workshop on writing horror and thrillers, well, what are you waiting for? Sign up now. If he’s instructing on writing erotica, you might want to pass. It could be an instructor has seen a boom with a certain genre and decided to offer a course on it. However, she might not have the necessary background, other than she’s read a few bestselling novels from the genre. If she’s published in the genre, then you can be assured she knows what she’s talking about. Better yet, read at least one of her novels to make sure she does know the subject. No point spending money on a course on characterization when you find her characters to be no thicker than cardboard. 

Another reason to do the investigation is to make sure you don’t end up with an instructor who doesn’t follow through on the course expectations. I was recently in a course in which the instructor constantly promised to post the latest lecture or provide feedback on assignments, but more often than not, it didn’t happen. Her feedback was brilliant, when she bothered to give it. Turns out, the instructor was notorious for not living up to her promises. 

Unfortunately, it’s not so easy to find out about an instructor’s reputation, even with the popularity of social networking. While bloggers gush about awesome instructors, they tend to avoid talking about the duds. If you belong to a writing organization, you might be able to post the question on a forum, and give individuals the opinion of contacting you offline. 

5. Cost

Cost does not equate to quality. I’ve spent over $250 for a course that was a major disappointment (not the aforementioned one), and $30 for one that was amazing. Both offered critiques, but the latter resulted in editor-quality line edits. The other didn’t. The latter had course material not found in a craft book. The former had course material that could be found in any book on writing young adult stories. 

Have you participated in any workshops? Did you find them to be of value? Do you have any other suggestions for getting the most out of your workshop experience?

Stina Lindenblatt writes young adult novels. In her spare time, she’s a photographer and blogging addict, and can be found hanging out on her blog, Seeing Creative.  @stinall


Paul Tobin said...

Thank you for the interesting post. you clarified my own thinking.

Rebekkah Niles said...

I've taken a few online courses through various RWA chapters, and they were terrific. The most helpful one I've taken (they were all helpful, but this one was particularly needed!) was one on writing queries, followed by one on elevator pitches. In both cases, the instructors helped the active students develop and hone our pieces, gave honest feedback, and kept working with us.

One thing to know is that these instructors are often hosting courses while continuing to work on their day jobs, so sometimes they can't get back to you right away - there may be days when they don't get online at all. But my instructors have always been good about answering all the questions asked when they do manage to get back on.

Tim said...

Recently went to the Southern California Writer's Conference in San Diego. It was ... okay. At least two of the seminars were a waste of time. Instructors were unprepared and had little to say. They rambled. Others were pretty good. One of the morning speakers gave me an idea for a novel that I already had inside of me--just didn't know it.

I get the impression that many go to this event year after year. Can't see the logic of that.

Also took a course from a local writer. A better editor and teacher than he is writer, but I did learn some stuff and got two good short stories out of it.

Next time I go it will be to a new one entirely. I will say that if you get a chance to go to a seminar taught by Justine Musk, it's a good better. She is local to SoCal.

Stina said...

I was in a workshop at the RWA nationals last year, and the instructor was brilliant. Within five minutes of the start of it, her comment sparked an idea for me that solved a problem I was having with my story. That was worth the cost of the conference right there. :)