I used to think I didn’t need to do a writing workshop. Sure, didn’t I know how to write? Hadn’t I been taught in school, and always done well in English? I was the girl whose English stories were always read out in class, with my face turning puce. When I started writing children’s novels, I didn’t have to stop and think how to write, I felt like I already knew how-that it came naturally to me. I was always a big reader, so I understood books. So what did I need a writing class for?
Fast forward two years and a bundle of rejections later, and I decided that I would try a writing class, see if I was missing an ingredient. I learned that I wasn’t missing any ingredients, but I didn’t know how to season my work. Bland stories don’t jump out of the publisher’s slush pile.
These are some things I’ve learned from writing classes:
Nobody knows everything, because everyone writes differently
I was probably a bit overconfident (okay, maybe smug, but confidence sounds better, and is absolutely necessary to make it as a writer) at first. I started my first class thinking I wasn’t going to get much out of it. Which is exactly the wrong attitude to have. I was thrown off my high horse fairly lively, and I came home after that class with my mind opened to new ways of writing.
It wasn’t mind blowing, it wasn’t like someone had just turned on a light switch. It was more like someone had exchanged the old low voltage bulb with a high power one, and I could now see the cobwebs. Sometimes it’s the littlest changes you make to a text that make it stand out. And how you make that little change is different for everyone, but the more ways you learn, the more likely it is that’ll you’ll find a way that suits you.
An honest critique
Workshops are all different, but every workshop I’ve attended has provided some new way of critiquing my own writing. Sometimes it’s from just the facilitator, sometimes it’s from both the facilitator and participants. One of my favourite writing workshops is a “Children’s Fiction Workshop” in the Big Smoke in Dublin. This workshop is a critiquing workshop, and we all read each others work beforehand, and make detailed notes about what works, and what needs more work. The workshop facilitator, Claire Hennessy, runs a smooth ship, making sure there’s a good balance of praise (we need our confidence, remember?) and constructive criticism/feedback. I admit that my stomach squirms the whole way up on the train to Dublin when I’m going to this workshop. But it’s never squirming on the way home. The whole point is to improve your work and build your confidence; not to throw it onto the train tracks.
There is a lingo to learn
I am not good at grammar knowledge. I keep having to refresh my understanding of grammar; what is a pronoun, what is an adverb, etc? I don’t know why this is, but it’s just an annoying part of me that I have to accept, and to keep retraining.
But-grammar isn’t the only lingo that helps you in the writing industry. There’s a whole lingo attached to being a writer; voice, YA, arc, hook. It goes on. I didn’t know this until I started attending events, but sometimes this is an awkward place to learn the lingo, as you’re almost expected to know it. The lingo is thrown around like confetti, and you don’t want to be the one person in the room pretending that a piece of that confetti got stuck in your eye so you don’t have to answer a question that you don’t understand.
Writing workshops are a place where you’re very free to ask questions. You don’t feel the social pressure of knowing it all, and you realise the other participants also don’t know everything. You’d be amazed how quickly you learn the lingo, even for a grammar-dummy like me.
Reading is subjective
I once attended a workshop that squashed my confidence. My work was over-criticised and I took the teacher’s word as Gospel. But when I shared the story with someone else in the business, they were able to see where I coming from, and point out the merits and flaws. I realised that the first teacher hadn’t understood my angle, and hadn’t bothered to tread gently on my words (and words really are dreams when you’re an aspiring writer). Now, I admit there were flaws in that piece of writing. Reading it now, I can see where I went wrong. But it would have been helpful if that had been explained to me, rather than the teacher acting like the whole piece should end up in a rubbish heap.
So, just because the teacher is the professional, you still need to remember that reading is subjective. And just because the teacher doesn’t like it, doesn’t mean that no-one will. So go in with a thick skin, and take the critiques with a pinch of salt. You should never leave a workshop feeling worse about your writing. And if you do, take it from me, you just need to find a different class.
Just because you know how to write, doesn’t mean that you know the best way to write. This month I did a workshop with Sheena Wilkinson through SCBWI. I wasn’t sure what to expect, but I really loved Sheena’s latest book, “Name Upon Name”, so I decided to go along. Also, there’s not a huge amount of workshops for children’s writing in Cork, so I wanted to show my support when there was one (Thanks Colleen!).
I didn’t know I needed to be taught techniques until this workshop. Sheena was very clear that what she teaches is what works for her, but I quickly saw that it was also going to work for me. Simple tips, exercises, graphs that made editing easier, to help you see if your text has the right balance of dialogue, action etc. Sometimes you just need to be shown. And even if you don’t find the techniques of one teacher/facilitator work for you, at least you’ll learn what doesn’t work. Since that workshop, I edit in a whole new way. I see chapters differently, always looking for balance, which has saved me time and improved my confidence.
I could go on and on about the merits of workshops. There’s the socialising (I’ve met a great bunch of emerging writers like myself), the kick up the arse you need, the ability to now see where you’re going wrong in a piece of text etc etc. But to really find out all the benefits of going to workshops, you’ll just have to go to one yourself.
Published writers have gone through all the sweat and tea that aspiring authors are going through now. So if they are willing to share their tips, short-cuts and techniques they learnt along the way, get going and soak that up. Learn how to season your text, and help it to leave a taste on the reader’s tongue.