Challenging Myself

Whether you’re a spy or you’re writing about spies, you never want to become complacent. Indeed, Moscow Rule number seven encourages lulling your enemy into complacency.

Every now and then, writers have to step out of the comfort zone you’ve constructed: a trusted editor, beta readers who’ll be honest, critique groups who love your work, and fans who love everything you write. If you’re thin-skinned when it comes to criticism, this is a safe and cozy place to be.

However, it might not be the right place to be. In fact, when you do get that three or fewer star review, you might be far more devastated unless you’ve faced constructive criticism.

I’ll accept gladly constructive criticism, criticism that helps me improve my ability to tell a story. What I won’t accept are comments that make it obvious you never really read the work or those that come from jealousy, both of which I’ve experienced.

Writer Workshops

Most everyone who knows me as a writer knows I attend an annual residential writing workshop at Hollins University in Roanoke, Virginia — Tinker Mountain Writers Workshop. My first summer there was in 2012, and the workshop’s name has long since escaped me. It did involve critiquing 40 pages of a novel, and the instructor was Pinckney Benedict, a founder of the Queens MFA Program and a creative writing instructor in the MFA program at Southern Illinois University.

As the workshop approached, I became more and more nervous. I had been in critique groups with mixed results, but this was different. This was an MFA-level seminar. I knew my work — an as-yet still unpublished dystopian, quasi-Atwoodian novel — would be picked apart. When I arrived on the Sunday afternoon before the workshop started on Monday, my instructor and my whole group met to discuss the process. Benedict made it sound as if the workshop would be utter torture. I remembered thinking I could reload my car, go home, and no one would be the wiser.

However, the point was to learn to be a better writer, and, well, I’d spent a lot of money on the workshop. It didn’t help that my manuscript was scheduled to be dead last, on Friday morning before we went home on Friday afternoon. In my head, that meant Benedict thought my work sucked. I was, however, pleasantly surprised and glad to have been so wrong.

He loved the manuscript. There were no harsh words, only constructive criticism, which was exactly what I was looking for. So, I came back the next year to another noveling workshop led by Fred Leebron with the same result — helpful criticism.

In the succeeding years, I’ve returned to take workshops on fiction, i.e., having worked critiqued, learning how to make a podcast, and for several years in a row, I’ve done a generative workshop with Dan Mueller, a creative writing instructor from the University of New Mexico. Those generative workshops, where we read a short story and then receive a prompt on its theme to write about, have been wonderful exercises. There is no formal critiquing of an edited manuscript but a discussion of something you may have written literally the night before.

So, all my experiences in 11 years (2023 is the 12th) have been utterly positive, encouraging, and validating.

When that happens, it’s time for a change.

Back to the Beginning

This year, I decided to return to the traditional workshop format: You submit 20 pages of a novel ahead of time to give the instructor and the other workshop participants time to read and think about it, then you meet as a group and . . . critique it.

This year’s workshop is Historical Fiction — I figured after 20+ publications of historical fiction maybe it was time to see if I’m doing it right. The instructor is Rachel Beanland, an award-winning author of historical fiction. So, no pressure. Not.

The manuscript I selected was the second draft of a NaNoWriMo novel project from several years back, For My Country, which I’ve written as a semi-memoir by one of my secondary characters, Olga Lubova, the former KGB colonel who staged her death, left the Soviet Union shortly before its collapse, and became the au pair/bodyguard to my protagonist Alexei Bukharin’s granddaughter.

And the pre-workshop worry is back. I don’t think I know any of the other participants, so there goes some of my confidence. I’ve never met Ms. Beanland, so there goes more of my confidence. If you’ve read my books, you know my characters are complicated, to say the least, so, of course, my inner demons are nagging me — “What if they hate it?”

You know what? Who cares if they do?

Back in 2017, on the advice of one of my Tinker Mountain instructors, I opted for independent publishing under my own imprint. I have stories I want to tell, and I want to tell them my way. I don’t want to water down characters or add tropes to make my stories more “commercial.”

That doesn’t mean I’ll publish anything that I put on the page. I publish only after editing and revising it myself, perhaps even a total rewrite, and after a professional editor has done her job. I hire artists to do professional covers. I hire proofreaders. I do everything a traditional publisher does, and there isn’t a single one of my books I’m not proud of.

So, if this is my first negative experience at Tinker Mountain Writers Workshop, so be it. I’ll still write, and For My Country will still be published.

That, or I can reload my car and go home, no one the wiser.