Throughout April, we've been shining a spotlight on speculative fiction writers, admiring their tightly-knit communities, and celebrating what they do well. Today's post comes from speculative fiction writer, Marlee Jane Ward, whose time at the Clarion West Writers Workshop in Seattle has made her a workshopping convert.
Image source: Flickr / deanhochman
Sure, I can put my all into a piece and self-edit til the wee hours of the morning, but it's not enough. It's time to workshop this baby. The more eyes on a piece before it gets to the peepers of long-suffering slush readers, the better, I say.
How do you workshop your pieces? Do you? Have you got a faithful set of beta-readers who lap up every word and are keen to offer advice? If not, run and get some now. Beg, borrow or steal. Perhaps don't steal (certainly don't steal mine, I need them). Click over to Meetup.com and find a local workshopping group that's genre-specific. No luck? MAKE ONE. I guarantee there are authors who are gnashing their choppers for a hard sci-fi, an epic fantasy, an M/M werewolf romance fic workshop group.
Workshop-wise? Email is your best friend. Second best friend? Skype and Google Hangouts. If you're in a regional area and can't find an actual real-meat-world group of fellow alt-history/steampunk/post-apocalyptic-diner-fic author-fiends, you are going to find them online. What a wondrous modern age we live in. Do tradesies. Story-swapsies. Offer postcards and fresh-baked goods and those granny squares that you can't stop crocheting late at night while trying to tangle-tease out plot holes. Exchange! Exchange ideas and eyes and brains for a bit and get an outsiders perspective on your work. Give a fresh perspective on someone else’s stuff.
I'm spoiled. In 2014 I was lucky enough to attend the Clarion West Writers Workshop in Seattle and there I got given a workshop thrashing that I wont soon forget. Every Wednesday morning my story - written in a frenzy over the previous week (and often til the early hours of the night before) - was up for discussion. I got the ideas, opinions and advice of eighteen writers (my fellow students plus one instructor.) Each story got at least an hours' worth of attention and every possible facet was explored. I've never experienced such intimate wrangling of my words. It was equal parts exciting and terrifying. Terrocitement!
Now, I know I'll never have a workshop experience like it again (six-week intensive! Live-in! Our own chef!), but I'm trying to build my circle up out here in 'reality'. It's not easy. People got shit to do, and jobs and their own stuff to write. But put in the effort to go through the pieces sent to you and you'll get rewarded. Instead of being a garbage-person, surrounded by your own filth and building a layer of cat-hair on your person, watching another episode of Fringe - take that fifty minutes, deal with your Joshua 'Grumpy-Cat' Jackson withdrawals, dust off the fur, and jam out some ideas and opinions. You get back what you put in. Josh will be there when you get back. I promise.
Line editing is great! Constructive criticism is wonderful! Suggestions on character development, pacing and plot structure are all useful. Even if all you have to say is, “Gee, shiz, I totes loved this part', that's helpful. It's all helpful.
Workshopping isn't just about the things we've done wrong. Sometimes validation comes, especially if there's a little bit I've worked particularly hard on, or that I love a lot and it gets a shout-out from a fresh pair of eyes. The most valuable aspect of workshopping circles are the individual ideas that come up. I can't tell you how many times someone has read a piece of mine and said, 'I dug this part, but have you thought about maybe doing this?' No, I hadn't - but now I really wish I had and I'm totally gonna. One brain can only brain so far – many brains make light work, and take stories to new heights.
One of my best and most faithful first-readers isn't a writer. He's a reader. He loves spec-fic short stories, subscribes to all the mags I submit to, and I find his perspective the most valuable of all. Find someone to read your stories who is the actual audience for your stuff. Listen to their suggestions. Writers can get really caught up in the craft aspects of the story; readers can give an extremely useful perspective on areas like plot, action and readability. I mean, in the end, who are you writing for? Other writers? Not so. The endgame of the whole wording-caper is to have an audience of readers, and who better to give advice than the intended recipients?
If you've got a good group of first-readers and workshoppers, tend those sweet, delicious babes. Treat them like gold. If you haven't, use all available means to get them. Check out the Meetup Writers Workshops page, head over to Reddit (avoiding the trolls) and peruse r/writersgroup or r/scifiwriting. Join forums that cater to your specific group and rally a bunch of worders and readers and well-wishers around your cause. Your eyes and brains and creativity are just one totally biased set of senses. The more squishy organs you can get to absorb and think about your stories, the better.
Marlee Jane Ward is a writer, reader and weirdo from Melbourne. She attended the Clarion West Writers Workshop in 2014. Her debut novella Welcome To Orphancorp is shortlisted for Seizure Online's Viva La Novella. She's got stories coming out all over the joint later in 2015, but in the meantime, check out her blog.
Sam van Zweden was Writers Bloc’s Online Editor from 2013 - 2015. A Melbourne-based writer and blogger, her work has appeared in The Big Issue, Voiceworks, Tincture Journal, Page seventeen, and others. She’s passionate about creative nonfiction and cross stitch. She tweets @samvanzweden.