Tuesday, 22 November 2011

Workshoppers and Readers - Why You Need Both

I am a BIG fan of workshopping - giving and getting feedback is the quickest way to develop as a writer, in my opinion. But it shouldn't be used as the only method of working on a novel.

The problem is that workshops, by their nature, can only look at small pieces at a time - a chapter or maybe two would be the maximum. You can (and should) edit each section thoroughly but be careful of losing sight of the bigger picture. The question 'Does the story work?' can only be answered by looking at the novel as a whole, not in little sections.

So, you need to find some people who will be readers. It's a good idea if they can be different to your workshoppers so they can come to the story fresh. It's good if they're writers too, but they don't have to be, so long as they read your genre. That's essential. Ask them about the story, ask them about how the characters are coming across, ask them about pace. Don't ask them to do a line edit - leave that for your workshop group.

I know several people who have spent years workshopping their novels, when IMO they'd be better off sending it out to readers. I understand why people do this - no one wants to ask a friend (let alone a book doctor) to commit several hours of their time to reading your novel until it's as perfect as you can possibly make it - but at some point it has to be done.

The perfect pattern would be: workshop until the first draft is done. Then send it out to readers, to check the story as whole works. Then back to workshopping to refine the text. Repeat as required.

Think of your editing as beautiful embroidery on a dress. There's little point in doing the finest work if the fabric of the dress is poor, or the style is wrong. Getting that right is what a reader will help you to do, and the workshop will help with the embroidery.


penny simpson said...

Excellent post Sarah. I have a fortnightly reader and we seem to have clicked with each others books and it works well. Also helps to a continuity person in case you suddenly forget that Charles had a long moustache in chapter one! If not I had a good experience with a book doctor who gave me the overview I guess you're talking about. It is pricey, they do tell it like it is but, as you say think about all that embroidery time.!

Writer Pat Newcombe said...

I do agree with the system you describe. The only thing for me is that I want to change things every time I look at my ms and sometimes I end up with the version I first thought of - even after workshopping and editing!

Philip C James said...

I have a few quotes on my Facebook profile and one of them reads:

"No work of art is ever finished, merely abandoned..."

but if you're publishing to make money, at some point I guess you have to acknowledge the law of diminishing returns, pop it in a jiffy bag and send your baby out into the world (if writers, and romantic novelists at that, will permit me such mixed and irreverent metaphors...)

Sarah Duncan said...

Penny, sounds like you've got a strong feedback system going. And yes, one of the best things about using a book doctor should be the overview you describe. Glad you had a good experience.

Pat, I know that system all too well - life as a perpetual tinkerer. But as Phil says, you've got to send it out at some time.

Phil, nothing wrong with a mixed metaphor every now and then. Love the quote.