Back in the spring when I handed over the first two chapters of my novel to my fellow creative writing peers, I got a stomachache that lasted five days. Professor Doyle mentioned in the beginning of the semester that we should keep our stories below 30 pages. I was handing them a manuscript consisting of 32 pages, plus it was barely even double spaced (1.5 inches). It felt as though I was putting them through hazing, but it needed to be done. I wasn’t getting efficient reviews from the four people I’d asked to read my stuff (one of which was my mom). A “Oh, it is good” hardly helps.
Many published authors have said that one must keep their stories secret until they’re completed and ready for the public eye. I feel like such a rookie, though, and I am desperate for criticism. There were several points in those chapters that I felt uncertain about and I had to know what was clear and what was confusing or illogical.
Having your work picked apart and studied by other people always feels like going through brain surgery without the pain killers and the medication that puts you to sleep. There is only the paralysis and the itching sensation of being wide awake. At the end of it all, I was glad the professor and my classmates ripped the chapters apart, because it wiped away my doubts and I returned to the dorms with several handy ideas. I felt invigorated! I also needed a strong cup of coffee.
Important things to remember during the workshop
Now that you’ve heard this anecdote, I’d like leave you with some thoughts I’ve gathered from these academic experiences.
Everyone sitting down in that classroom has a different kind of imagination, taste, depth, passion, many/few interests and (hopefully) a style of their own. (By the way, when I say ‘depth,’ I mean how far they might go in using metaphors, symbols, foreshadowing, et cetera, and if they have a moral or message in their pieces.) What you all got in common is that you’re learning. Sure, there might one or two writers who are absolutely amazing and you wonder why they’re not famous yet. Others might write predictably or stupidly. Regardless, everyone has the chance to improve and grow.
* Be fearless and even if you are afraid, run into the fire. Most great writers suffer a little in the process. And remember, even after your work is done and published, some will still complain about something or other. So you might as well do your best, turn in the script and see what happens.
* Listen to your peers. Respect that people have their opinions. Take some advice in consideration, dismiss some advice. It’s up to you to do what you will.
* Don’t be a dick about it when you give out critiques and suggestions. Just don’t.
* Don’t become defensive or hurt. Remember that your peers aren’t in your head and they judged the piece by itself. If you failed to convey an idea or emotion, or whatever the fault might be, you have the chance to fix it later.
* Whatever your literary taste might be, leave it out when you read someone else work. Whether science fiction or historical fiction or whatever genre isn’t your cup of tea, it doesn’t matter. Read the damn thing, write down what’s good, bad and ugly, and get over yourself.
* If you’re a “grammar Nazi” like me, or if you do everything in your might to mix it up in your writing, please avoid growing irritated by the typical ‘porcelain skin,’ ‘cold as ice,’ the mistaken there-their-they’re (oh my God) and other details that might come up. I’ve seen this so many times. It’s funny how young writers think they’re so clever when they are just re-inventing an expression that has existed for centuries. It might seem petty, but as Sherlock Holmes once said, “To a great mind, nothing is little.” The details — or lack thereof, if you’re a minimalist (cool) — put your piece in a whole other light. My advice is that you take a deep breath and write some suggestions in the margins.
* Participate! PARTICIPATE! Go to those sessions with something to say, and make sure to have both admiration and critique up your sleeve. Certain people hardly say a peep, which bugs me. I view workshops as literary discussion; the piece we’re talking about just happens to be done by an amateur. It doesn’t make it less substantial, though.
* Have fun in the workshop. Yes, you’re here to do a job, but you are in the same boat so try to be friends (or friendly) and relax.
Before I wrap this up, I would like say thank you to the good men and women who took time out of their busy day to read my stuff. Your advice helped me immensely, and thanks to you, this novel has moved forward much more smoothly and I’m still keeping some things in mind as my protagonist tackles her challenges. And thank you to those who continue in assisting me.
Well then. Back to the workbench.