Post-Workshop Let-Down

It doesn’t take long. A weekend, in fact. You spend five solid days and nights immersed in writing with other writers, and the workshop becomes a routine, something you wake up and look forward to each morning. Then, the week comes to an end, you pack the car, turn in your room key, eat the final meal with people who’ve become family, and go home to face the reality of day-to-day writing.

In the midst of a scene, you turn to ask one of your workshop-mates if something will work, and you realize you’re all alone now, in your writing cave, with only The Google for company. And, well, you miss hearing how great your writing is.

Let’s face it. You learn a lot in a workshop, mainly how other people perceive the words you’ve decided are golden and untouchable. When the emphasis is a positive experience, as it is at Tinker Mountain Writers Workshop, you definitely get the praise, but you also understand what you need to work on to improve your writing. You come away feeling good about yourself and your writing, no matter your level of experience. That daily dose of “I really liked how you…” becomes addictive, and you crave it once you’re home and don’t have anyone telling you how good you are.

And that’s a good thing, because as with anything, complacency will ruin your writing.

 

Post-workshop, you feel as if you’re writing in a vacuum without those voices saying, “What did you mean here?” You know, the questions you never ask yourself while you’re in creative mode. A workshop goes beyond beta readers or a critique group. Your betas and your critique group members become accustomed and somewhat inured to your style, your characters, your writing. A workshop puts fresh eyes on your work, scrutiny that can put a spotlight on weaknesses you’ve missed.

Now, it does require a leap of faith to put what you’ve sweated blood over in the hands of strangers for them to vivisect while you sit there unable to say a word. I make it sound like a nightmare, and it is daunting; however, you will be a better writer because of it.

But, in the week following the workshop, you can’t help but think, Wow, this time last week, we were going over my short story, or, Was it just a week ago we sat around the lounge and debated the worthiness of James Joyce (uh, no debate there). You miss the company of writers; you miss your family; you miss the challenges they offer you. You lament that you’ll have to wait a year to do this again.

Somehow, you’ll muddle through.

Getting Ready for Tinker Mountain

TMWW logoI’ve made my to-do list for the next week so come Sunday afternoon, I can hit the road and arrive in Roanoke for this year’s Tinker Mountain Writer’s Workshop. It’s the tenth anniversary, with a lot of extra workshops and new instructors. As usual I’m nervous, excited, and, well, nervous.

The past two years have been very positive experiences. Last year, for example, led to having an agent review a manuscript. (He turned it down but said lots of positive things.) The first year I attended was the first time any of my MSS had been critiqued by total strangers, and they liked it, they really liked it. This year is the first time a portion of one of my genre MSS is being critiqued by strangers. The workshop I’m attending is “Crafting High Quality Genre Fiction,” and the instructor is Laura Benedict. She also happens to be the spouse of my first Tinker Mountain instructor, Pinckney Benedict.

The forty pages I sent in comes from an MS titled A War of Deception, which is loosely based on the Robert Hansenn spy case from the early 2000s. I say loosely because it started out as a fictionalized version of that event with my U.N. spy characters in the mix. It turned into a study of revenge when what I intended to be a subplot became the main plot. The title comes from a Sun Tzu quote in the Art of War, one of my favorite books: “All warfare is based on deception.”

I’m sure I’ve mentioned my love affair with the Art of War before. I had the audio book on my iPod and listened to it every day on the way to work. It was that kind of workplace at times. Plus, Sun Tzu has a lot to say about spies and espionage which resonates today.

Anyway, the nervousness comes from having my genre fiction workshopped. It’s a first, though the material workshopped in my first Tinker Mountain visit was a speculative fiction piece I submitted because I didn’t have anything else ready. However, I don’t consider myself a speculative fiction writer. A lot of my flash fiction falls into that genre but only because I’m not sure I could sustain a full-length spec fic novel, even that particular manuscript. It seems I inadvertently channelled Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale when I wrote it for NaNoWriMo a few years ago. When Pinckney encouraged me to work on that MS, I explained about the striking similarity to Atwood’s dystopian piece–“Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery,” he said. Ms. Atwood may not think so, however.

This year’s MS is one of my “historical thrillers,” to borrow a term from Alan Furst, a writer of espionage fiction I hope to emulate. It’s got a mole in the FBI, sex, violence, marital discord, and two mysteries to be solved. I hope I have a third great experience. Even if the rest of the workshop hates it– Ack! Let’s not put that in my head!

So, off to do laundry, water plants, and pack, etc., and be ready for a worthwhile week of workshopping, craft lectures, and writer friends that is Tinker Mountain Writer’s Workshop.

Critique Group Sagas

Note: This is an opinion piece generalized in nature and does not refer to any specific author or writer. If you see yourself in this piece, though, my work here is done.

I’m currently in two writing critique groups. I consider them essential as a writer; otherwise, I end up in a continuous loop of thinking how wonderful my writing is. All that seems obvious and clear to me in my work may not to a reader, and that’s one aspect of a critique group: looking at someone’s work through the eyes of a reader.

Because we’re also writers, we bring that to the critique table, too. In one of my groups, which has been meeting for some time, we have discussions about foreshadowing, conflict resolution, and denouement. Fascinating stuff, all that writing knowledge/trivia.

However, I also bring an editor’s skills to the table. I was a reporter for and editor of a magazine for more than fifteen years, and I edited hundreds of government documents from correspondence to blue ribbon reports. When I read something for a critique group, the MS gets a reader, writer, and editor’s eye. Some are not so appreciative of the latter. My standard reaction is, “Get accustomed to it. It’s better to catch the typos, style errors, and punctuation and grammatical flubs now rather than have an agent or publisher reject your MS for them later.”

For someone who is about to undergo his or her first experience with a critique group, that triple-threat may be intimidating. I don’t intend for it to be. In my warped little mind, I’m being helpful. When I look back on some of my earlier writing, published without the benefit of a critique group, I wish I’d had someone like me to find those embarrassing slip-ups and to point out the things which would make an agent toss an MS into a slush pile.

Critique groups aren’t mutual admiration societies, even though I can’t wait until I receive the next installment of every member’s work. Yes, I come to admire and look forward to their writing, but there is also mutual trust and honesty. We trust each other to be honest. You can’t simply say, “It doesn’t work for me.” You have to explain yourself, and the excuse can’t be you just don’t like something. For example, I’m not a fan of most YA, fantasy, or romance writing (or the various iterations thereof), but if it’s a good story and the writing shines, I’ll read it and probably enjoy it.

Some people seem to approach a critique group with an attitude of not wanting the details, just the big picture. Yes, the details are annoying and nitpick-ish, but they’re there for a reason. A comment about correct placement of commas or use of a semi-colon, etc., are not mortal blows to your writing. Rather, when I read an MS where the grammar’s good, the punctuation spot-on, and the style elements appropriate, I think to myself, “Here is someone who took the time to learn all the aspects of being a writer.”

Having an idea for a story is excellent. Putting it down on paper (or in the computer) is also excellent; you can now call yourself a writer. Staying a writer depends on your willingness to learn–whether through the feedback from a critique group, a writer’s workshop, or writing conferences. (I’m amazed by people who call themselves writers who don’t go to writers conferences or workshops.) You don’t just write and say, “That’s it. Let someone else worry about the silly punctuation details.” Breaking news: Publishers don’t employ copy editors anymore, and the only writers who get to dump a mistake-riddled MS on a publisher is someone like F. Scott Fitzgerald; and he’s dead.

Pointing out punctuation, style, and grammar errors isn’t a reflection on your ability to be a story-teller. You might say it is a comment on your writing ability. Well, yes, because that’s part of the package of being a writer. Can you call yourself a writer if you don’t constantly refresh your writing knowledge and skills? You could, but I’ll still point out the problems, and, believe me, I don’t pull these things out of my arse.

The devil is in the details; learn from them. I know I do. If you don’t want to hear the details from me, at least invest in some time-honored resources: The Chicago Manual of Style, The Elements of Style, or Garner’s Modern American Usage are just some of them, but those three on your writing resources shelf will take you a long way.

Non-Fiction in a Fiction Critique Group?

Sounds like a contradiction in terms, doesn’t it? A couple of years ago, I started an off-shoot of my main writers group, SWAG Writers, for critiquing fiction. We began with six people, and after the first meeting we ended up with three regulars. One person was accepted into a graduate program and moved. One indicated she really had nothing prepared to critique, and the third didn’t take well having her grammar and punctuation corrected. But they were all writers of fiction.

The three of us stumbled on for a while, but it wasn’t working well, so we disbanded. Two of us continued to exchange our work online, but we became so accustomed to each others’ work, we realized we couldn’t give it that “other eyes” assessment.

Fast-forward a year, count in some new additions to SWAG, and, huzzah, we have six people again. I learned a bit from the earlier experience. Before we met for the first time, I asked everyone to submit to each other a couple of pages of their work, so we could all decide whether the experience would be beneficial to us; then, we met to critique those two pages. That’s when we discovered, gasp, one of the members is writing a biography.

SWAG is open to all writers in the area–poets, lyricists, fiction writers, non-fiction writers, even crossword puzzle designers. But, clearly, the poets and fiction writers outnumber the non-fiction writers. A few of the poets get together informally, and here we had the re-constituted fiction critique group. There is, however, nowhere else for the non-fiction writer to go. So, we thought, what the heck, let’s give it a go.

A couple of us have experience with non-fiction. In fact, since I got a job as a publications assistant with an aviation insurance consortium in 1976, most of my editing and writing experience has been in non-fiction, specifically in the technical aviation safety area. I was a reporter on and editor of an aviation safety magazine, and for a little more than a year, I wrote non-fiction feature articles for my local newspaper. I have a lot of experience editing non-fiction, not the least of which is my degree in history. Another member of the critique group is a newspaper editor. (She is in the group to have her fiction critiqued, however.)

No problem, you say. Not a problem exactly–editing fiction and non-fiction have similar approaches (grammar, punctuation, etc.), they both tell a story though one is strictly fact-based and has to have the references to substantiate those facts. Now, yes, if you write historical fiction, you have references out the wazoo. The difference is you don’t have to cite them. Yes, you can put a list at the end of your book, but, trust me, the readers hardly ever look there. In a non-fiction piece, particularly a biography, just about everything you say has to have a citation.

When I review or critique a fiction piece, I involve myself completely in the story and characters. In a biography, you can do that too, especially with the current fashion in non-fiction writing, which is to make it “read” like a work of fiction–good characters, action, conflict, etc. Non-fiction writing is still scholarly, but now it just doesn’t sound like it.

Still, and I can’t quite put my finger on it, critiquing fiction and non-fiction is different. When I read the fiction pieces for the upcoming meeting, I was caught up in the characters and the conflict in the stories. When I read the non-fiction piece–which is a rough draft with references listed but not cited–I found myself making notes like, “how do you know this,” “how can you prove that,” etc. I needed the citations, even though I recall from writing my own monographs and senior theses that you usually put those in on the final draft.

I’ve been focusing on my fiction the last four years, the writing there of, that is. It’s a bit of a head-shake for me to break that habit and get back into reviewing and evaluating non-fiction, and unrelated to aviation at that. I just hope I can be of use to that biographer, that my fiction brain can make the abrupt adjustment.

Still, it’s a diverse group of writers, and I’m all heady with anticipation.