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TO BE OR NOT TO BE (CRITIQUED): WRITERS' GROUPS AND WORKSHOPSBy author Mary Rosenblum
Should you join a writers' group for mutual critiquing and support? How do you know if one will do you any good? How useful is a one-time only workshop, such as those offered at some science-fiction conventions? New writers ask these questions over and over again, and you can hear plenty of horror stories about the Writers' Group from Hell.
The fundamental purpose of any critique group or workshop is critical input. Ideally, this input will enable the writer to view her or his work with a new clarity of vision. We all know our own worlds and characters far too well by the time we've finished a story. Time and distance can give us clear eyes for the missing details or plot holes, but a sound critiquer can do the job immediately. I have never yet submitted a story without giving it to at least one person to critique. Some pieces go to several individuals, or to my local writers' group, depending on what is needed. My work would be weaker without this input.
But as helpful as they can be, workshops and writers' groups are not for everyone. If criticism in any form kills the story for a particular writer, then he or she should certainly pass. As I see it, the critiquing process is a contract between writer and critiquer. The critiquer has made a commitment to suggest ways in which this particular story might be made stronger. His or her job is not to comment on the quality of the writer's work as a whole, or to suggest a different story that might work better. In turn, the writer has promised to take what the critiquer says seriously, but with an appropriate measure of salt. Not everyone will comprehend the story you try to tell. Sometimes you must simply disregard a critique with the silent understanding that this particular person misread this particular story. Of course, if five other people also misread the story, it probably needs work.
In order to benefit from a critique--and to benefit without damage to self and story--you should have an idea of what might be wrong with the story before you submit it. You can listen to the comments and compare them to your own suspicions. Is the plot weak? Does this character behave plausibly at the crisis? Did people get the subtle subtext you wove into the action? If you know that there is nothing wrong with this story, then you have no business submitting it to a workshop. Send it to an editor. A workshop is a poor source of validation.
One of the greatest dangers in long-standing workshops, I believe, is the self-congratulatory group. In the name of support, everything gets a pat on the back, or even rave reviews. The temptation is to write for that adoring audience, instead of for those unappreciative editors. Too much praise is an addictive drug. A group that is too tolerant is as bad as a group that is too negative, in my opinion.
And what about the one-time workshop? These can be good, I believe. I have participated in quite a few, and have spent a lot of time providing thorough and supportive critiques. I have met participants who obviously wanted nothing more than validation and the name of a good agent. I have met rather fragile people who were far too willing to look on us "pros" as gods incarnate. And I have met people who truly benefited from my time and effort. In a one-time workshop, you know almost nothing about your critiquer, and therefore should be very wary about taking their evaluations as gospel. It's all opinion, after all. One-time workshops are, I think, mostly useful for gathering a consensus response. If everyone hated your protagonist, you have learned something. If almost everyone loved your aliens, you have learned something. If one person says you're the next Philip K. Dick and someone else tells you to take up plumbing fast, you haven't learned much at all. Factor out the extremes, and look for consensus. You will at least be getting input that is somewhat more informed than what you get from your mother. Maybe.
To sum it up: workshops can be a tool to use to the benefit of your prose. They are not magic, but in my personal experience, they have been quite useful. In a group situation a synergy may develop as people discuss a story. I find this energy to be a source of insight and inspiration. But if criticism does more harm than good, you don't need it. If a particular group feels too negative, leave it. If it has become too positive and uncritical, leave it. In order to get the most out of a writers' group professionally--as opposed to socially--think of yourself as a consumer in search of a useful service, and act like one.