Thursday, 19 November 2009

Workshop Woes

Your palms are hot and sweaty, your mouth is dry. The blood pounds in your ears so hard you can’t hear what anyone is saying. You think you might be having a heart attack. Vaguely, through misty eyes, you see the workshop leader nod in your direction and mouth your name. Yup, it’s your turn to read.

Sharing work is a bit like placing your precious baby on the ground and inviting all and sundry to bash its little brains out. But it has to be done because reading out work in a workshop is one of the quickest ways to improve. Firstly, what seemed all right when it was just you and your laptop now issues forth in leaden dollops. Did I really write this, you think. It’s dreadful. And I’ve just shifted Point of View again. Having an audience sharpens your senses; you hear what they're hearing, not how it sounds in your head. Secondly, there is feedback, ideally specific feedback. You’ll never improve if all the feedback you get is of the ‘that’s lovely’ kind. Ask why it’s lovely – is it the language, the characterisation, the detail…? Stuck with a bunch of ‘it’s lovely’ bleaters, you've got to ask questions as relentlessly as Jeremy Paxman interviewing a dodgy politician: which character did you like best? Could you imagine the setting? What mood did it create for you?

Then, having read, you can relax and listen to someone else. And, surprise surprise, it’s much easier to learn from critiquing another’s work than it is to learn from your own. Again, be as specific as you can. Is the third paragraph too long, could it be sharpened, are there too many adjectives? Is the structure right – does the piece open in the right place, does the ending work? Is the dialogue being used effectively or is it simply waffle? Practice being an editor.

We start as readers first, then become writers. Somewhere along the line we must also learn to be editors, and to work with editors. Workshopping shortcuts the process. The only problem is, somehow it’s always your favourite, most beloved baby that gets the worst battering. And that's really hard. But hey - welcome to the life of a writer.


Bethany Mason said...

I have to admit that I'm one of those weird writers who enjoy workshopping and editing - yes, you read that right! The main problem I have is getting it out on the page in the first place, the theory being, of course, that once you have the raw product you can mould and improve it til perfection (one which can never be reached no doubt). So remember that those of us who seem to be confident in our workshopping, might not, in fact, will not be confident in another aspect. Every one is different after all.

Sarah Duncan said...

Oh I'm so with you, I love workshopping and editing, and I struggle getting the first draft down. But for myself and most students I teach, I think reading aloud is usually terrifying - and nowadays I'm usually reading aloud stuff that's been professionally edited and published - and until one IS confident it can completely distort what one hears and how one reacts. But as you say, everyone is different, and long may that last.