For anyone whose never taken a workshop class, it can be quite daunting. Not only are you handing over pages of your work, but the entire goal is to have it critiqued and examined under a spotlight of critical attention by a whole group of people with different opinions, different perspectives, and different tastes from the yours. I was nervous going into my first MFA workshop and decided to bite the bullet and go first to get it over with. It went so well and now I’m hooked!
There are typically two parts to a workshop, first, the group shares “what’s working” in the story. Is the concept really engaging and original? Were the characters well developed? Was the dialog natural and easy? Was the setting so fleshed-out you felt like you were there? Were you dying to know what happened after the pages you were given? You’ll be all aglow at the end of part 1–feeling destined for the NYT Bestseller list. Soak it in and remember that feeling when it’s time to start revising.
The second part is the critique. The group shares what didn’t work, where the problems were, where the opportunities for development lie. Part two is the gold mine. If you pay attention, you are given the opportunity to revise your story based on the perspective of an entire group of readers! This is your opportunity to create something that readers want to read and get perspective and objectivity. I don’t know about you but I get close to my stories and can easily lose sight of what’s missing and what I’m assuming the reader will infer (thank you, Ascending Arcs of Energy).
The whole point of workshopping your story is to make it better. That seems obvious, but I think people forget. They get defensive and become unreceptive to your thoughts. It’s quite distressing to try and explain your critique when the author is clearly shut down. In one workshop, the author shut down the entire conversation by telling the group that their piece was being written for a very small, niche audience who would understand all the references we had drawn attention to. Okay, I guess we’re done then?
I found my workshop to be invaluable. I’ve been working on a novel for about a year now and have been totally stalled. I submitted a 25 page excerpt for my workshop and left with a direction by which to guide my revision. I think I’ve added about 15K words just from the preliminary review of the classes critical assessments. I am about to start a more dedicated revision based on the class’s comments to prepare for my second workshop in several weeks.
Here are some examples of the comments I received and found the most illuminating (the story is about the triangular relationship dynamic between three childhood friends–two men and woman. One of the men, John, and the woman have been dating since high school. The second man, Frank, is the MC/narrator, and is in love with the woman):
–“I need to see more angst from the MC. I don’t believe he could be that in love because we don’t see enough of his struggle.”
This was such a helpful comment. I had to keep in mind that the class only got an excerpt of an entire, full-length novel, but I realized I needed to show more of the MC’s turmoil up-front to keep everyone engaged and build the conflict. I wrote and tweaked several scenes to show his anxiety and agree that it definitely decreased the psychic distance.
–“I’m not sure why Frank [the MC] is so loyal to John. What’s their history?”
I’d struggled with this from the beginning. How much backstory does the reader need? I’d been hesitant to give too much, for fear it would shift the focus from Frank’s struggle to Frank and John’s relationship but my workshop made it clear: they need that information to understand motive. This is the huge benefit of having so many different readers share their thoughts.
–“There are places where Frank’s voice sounds very feminine and I wasn’t sure if he was gay and in love with John.”
Several classmates made this observation and in reading the places they’d pointed out, I had to laugh–it was totally my voice coming through and the places they’d highlighted were down right girlie. I think this goes back to the whole idea of psychic distance and feeling what the narrator feels. When I’m not careful and Faerl Marie becomes the narrator, the voice changes (if only very subtly) and psychic distance is increased. This may be one of the most difficult parts of being a female writer with a male narrator. I regularly have to ask myself, “Would J (my husband) say that?” If the answer is no, then I have to ask myself if it’s because J is that different from my MC or if it’s because it’s me speaking and not the MC.
–“Frank is too good, too nice, too selfless. I have a hard time believing he’s real.”
I have a hard time not making my protagonists too good. They have quirks and little flaws but I find it difficult to assign real shortcomings to them in the same way I may find it difficult to describe the real shortcomings of my best friend. It feels disloyal, a betrayal of our relationship. Alas, I’m being told that my MC’s “goodness” decreases engagement as it makes him unrelatable and unreal–two fatal flaws in fiction. I’m working on it.
P.S. Don’t forget, we’re celebrating The Golden Apple’s 2nd birthday with a fabulous giveaway! Enter each time you see the image, for a chance to win one of six copies!