Writing Process: The Workshopping

At the moment I’ve sent the book out to my agent, I know it’s also ready to be workshopped.  I have a weekly writing group that I submit to regularly.  Sometimes I feel like I ought to be submitting every single week, but I have to remember that if I workshop while I’m writing the first draft, or after the book has been submitted to editors, it’s a recipe for disaster.  When I’m drafting, I need to feel good about what I’m doing; hearing about everything I failed to do is destructive.  After it’s out, I really need to not know what I missed, because it freaks me out.  So between the second and third drafts is my workshopping window.  It takes about three months to get a book through my writing group if we meet every week, which lines up pretty well with the time I spend waiting on my agent and the time I spend doing his revisions.

I know a lot of people don’t like writing groups, but I find them invaluable.  Some of that may be because I have the best writing group ever.  I’ve been in a lot of writing groups, but the one I’m in now is by far the best I’ve ever had.  They can go on forever about what they like about a book, and then dig into everything that would make it even more awesome than that.  I almost always leave group with a clear vision of how I can turn each scene into the scene I meant to write, rather than the scene I actually wrote.

I have to be careful, though.  My readers are so good that they will find problems forever and ever–no book is ever going to get through that group without gathering suggestions for revision.  That’s good; suggestions are what we’re all there for.

There are a few factors that make my writing group so good.  I’m going to bullet them for clarity.

  • We talk about good things first, and usually at length.  It’s so important to know what you’re doing right.  It’s so helpful to hear that other people liked certain lines or scenes or themes as much as you wanted them to.  It also keeps the discussion positive.  We’re all there to build each other up, not tear each other down.
  • We talk about big things next.  (Or level threes, as we call them–things that would make you put the book down.)  It’s always lovely to hear the silence when we call for level threes.  No one had a huge problem?  Great news!  But even on the weeks when the threes seem to go on forever, it’s nice to have them grouped together, so that when we also spend five minutes on why this particular sentence didn’t work, I can keep the size of the problem in perspective.
  • We have different reading interests.  This can be both a positive and a negative thing: if I had a nickel for every time certain group members have told me they are not in the audience for my work, I would bury them under a mountain of nickels.  But I usually view this as a challenge.  I know if I can get my gushy love scene or my teenager angstyness past these readers–and still have them like the book!–that what I’ve written is golden.
  • We recognize when we are not in the audience for each others’ work.  It’s tempting to always try to turn a book into something you like.  And to some extent, that’s what you’re in a writing group to express: your opinion.  But sometimes the polite thing to do is admit you’re not the intended audience, state your opinion, and understand that the changes that would make you like the piece are contrary to the pieces’ best interest.  We wouldn’t always read for fun everything we’re asked to critique.  There’s nothing wrong with that.
  • We want each other to succeed.  That’s why we’re meeting together, after all.
  • We’re friends, and we talk about things besides writing.  I love everyone in the group.  I want to see them even if it’s not for work.  We have fun.  We laugh a lot.  We talk about hermaphroditic nazi terantudogs.  A good time is had by all.
  • We don’t require submissions.  Not everyone produces at the same rate.  (Or at all.)  Pressure can be the enemy of production.
  • We apply social pressure when it’s helpful.  Some of our writing group members have volunteered to throw money in a party fund every time they don’t submit.  Participation in that is voluntary, but it applies some healthy pressure and also has yielded a sizeable party fund.  (So apparently at some time in the future, we will party.)
  • We take the group seriously.  Attendance is expected.  If you’re not going to attend, an excuse is also expected. Readingis mandatory.  And for the most part, everyone shows up, everyone reads, and everyone participates in discussion of the pieces.
  • But we don’t take the group too seriously.  If we don’t have enough submissions to meet, it’s okay if we cancel for a week.  If someone needs a break, that’s okay.  (Even a long break.  We’ve had members miss months at a time due to family medical emergencies, for example.  It’s okay.  They come back when they can.)
  • Membership fluctuates over time.  People move, people have other life demands, people flake.  So over time people leave, and we invite others when we have space.  Sometimes people leave for a time, and then come back.  Sometimes they leave and we wish they would come back.  (Looking at you, Lesley.)

Writing group is a big commitment–a night of my week, every week, plus reading time.  But it’s one of my favorite nights of the week, so I’m glad we do it.  Plus, without the feedback these guys give me, my writing would be much, much worse.