In the previous post I said the entire point of a writing workshop is that it provides the best means by which an author can determine whether or not they’re hitting the literary target they’re aiming at. Because it’s so easy to go blind to one’s own work there is nothing more useful between conception and publication than feedback that tells a writer whether they are on or off their intended course. A workshop can provide that feedback.
The mechanics of the standard fiction/writing workshop are simple. There are variations and permutations, of course — some of which I comment on below, or will deal with in later posts — but the basics have been remarkably consistent over time.
Workshop Mechanics and Process
The general idea in a fiction workshop is that members take turns submitting (or ‘putting up’) stories for review by the workshop as a whole. The expectation is that each author will do as much as they can to perfect the story they’re working on before it reaches the workshop. In this way the workshop’s feedback advances the author’s knowledge as much as possible.
In advance of each meeting the leader of the workshop asks for volunteers to put up stories for the next gathering. Because writers are a skittish lot, and because fiction often dictates its own pace, trying to schedule individuals into slots that will be available weeks or months ahead usually does not work.
Authors who have a story ready for feedback submit their work to the other members in advance of the their session, giving the members sufficient time to read the story at least once and preferably twice. Ideally these submissions involve hard copies which are printed and made available for each member to mark up while reading. (In order to defray costs and/or eliminate the pick-up errand for widely-distributed members, a digital copy of the file my be sent to each member for individual printing and study.)
At the appointed time, the author and other workshop members gather to discuss the story, with the author traditionally remaining mute until the end of the discussion. (If there is some persistent confusion the author might be asked for clarification simply to get the discussion moving again.) It can be hard for an author to listen without objecting or interjecting comments, but a workshop is not a debate. The members giving feedback know their suggestions and observation can always be dismissed by the author, so no debate is necessary. The author’s only job is to decide how any issues that were discussed do or do not relate to the author’s intent in creating the work, and to adjust the work accordingly.
The psychological and emotional risks associated with workshops can feel overwhelming. What’s useful to remember is that most of the members don’t (and probably shouldn’t) care a whole lot about what any particular writer is writing. The objective in a workshop is not to validate an author’s artistic gifts or storytelling ability, but to find out whether the author’s intended effects in a particular story were achieved.
When the workshop has covered all of the points the members want to tackle, the author may, if time allows, be offered a chance to speak. The best way for an author to maximize this opportunity is to raise questions that may not have been addressed in the discussion. If you’re not sure if Aunt Sadie is sympathetic, ask. If you wonder if people got the gag on page five, ask. If you’ve got a lot of questions, make a list. You may not get through it, but you won’t regret having it.
At the end of the session it’s customary for members to return hard copies of the story to the author. On the hard copies each member should note typos, add relevant line notes or questions, and summarize their overall opinion on the final page. Because some members may be shy about speaking during open discussion, authors will often find additional useful observations in these comments.
The Question of Reading Aloud
In workshops the world over there are many small permutations to the mechanics outlined above, and most are benign. One persistent and significant variant, however, involves authors reading their stories out loud prior to each discussion session.
In my opinion writers should think twice about workshops that follow this practice, for the following reasons:
- Reading a story during a workshop consumes time that could have been spent discussing the text or allowing the author to ask questions. If the length of the workshop is extended to compensate for this lost time, the workshop risks taxing the ability of members to stay focused and attentive. Given that a story can be read and digested by members at their own pace in advance of each meeting, I see no functional advantage to having the text read aloud.
- Reading aloud to others is a performance. Authors who have a rich voice or acting ability will fare better, while authors who are shy, anxious about public speaking, or whose physical voice undermines their narrative voice, will fare worse. Workshop feedback cannot help but take into account these variances, while subsequent readers of the same text will not have this privilege. In effect, feedback given after a live reading may warp the author’s sense of the story, and convince them to make changes that do not benefit the story as text. (Poetry may be an exception.)
- Knowing that a story will be read aloud promotes laziness in the members of the workshop, including the leader/instructor. While members may inevitably fail to read a story from time to time and rely on other members to cover for the fact that they didn’t do the required analysis, any leader/instructor who refuses to engage a work prior to the appointed meeting time is failing in their responsibilities. Given that the number of people reading the text in advance will drop if members know the text will be read aloud prior to discussion, and given that people will inevitably use in-class reading time to add notes or edits to their hard copies, members may end up not only not reading and considering the work in advance, but not even listening to the text as it’s being read.
I honestly don’t know why this tradition persists in some workshops. I see no valid defense of this practice, and no benefit to authors who are required to read their works aloud. (If you have a contrary opinion, I’d be interested in your rationale.)
Workshop Length and Longevity
Once a workshop is up and running it can continue indefinitely. If the workshop is community based or serves a group of professional writers (meaning there’s no fee paid), it can conceivably function forever. Individuals may join or leave, but the workshop itself needs only regular meeting times and moderation of conduct in order to persist.
As a practical matter, most workshops start and stop on a semester schedule that meets the needs of the attending authors and the needs of the people charging for the service. (As abstracted as fees might be in a college or university setting, you’re still paying for that class time.)
As to how long any one workshop session should be, two hours seems to be about right. If two stories are workshopped during that period, with a short beverage and bathroom break in between, members can stay focused and provide solid feedback. On occasions when sessions are extended to allow for a third story, the third story almost inevitably gets short (if unintentional) shrift as a result of fatigue. (The same principle that determines the average running time of a motion picture is at work in workshops. After two hours everyone’s butt gets tired.)
If the point of a workshop is to provide greater analysis in a focused context, then more opinions would seem to be better. And more is better, up to a point. If a workshop becomes too large, however, members may not have time to raise the issues they want to discuss, and over the course of a semester some authors may only have the opportunity to put up one story.
For some reason a workshop size of 14-16 members seems optimal. Any less and the workshop suffers in terms of focus and comprehensive analysis — and particularly so if one or more members skip/miss any given session. If a workshop approaches 20 members the experience tends to feel crowded and redundant.
— Mark Barrett