Have you ever been to a writers' workshop? We’ve been to quite a few over the years. Being as the speculative fiction writing community is one of the best mentored writing communities (at least in the United States), and a lot of the New Myths audience comprises aspiring writers who may be considering attending workshops to further their writing aspirations, we thought we’d offer some of our thoughts about workshopping, and an overview of the workshops we’ve attended.
Most of the workshops reviewed below are of the science fiction/fantasy/horror variety, but we’ve thrown in what mainstream conferences we’ve attended because the elements that make up quality writing—and successful writers--are the same in all genres.
If you want to read about Christian Writers’ Conferences, we have an overview from novelist and frequent attendee Sandra Schoger Foster here.
If you want to skip our prattle and go directly to the conference reviews, click here.
There is no twenty-five-words-or-less one-size-fits-all statement that can be made about all workshops or even about the workshopping concept. The value of workshops depends upon a lot of variables, the biggest being you, the writer attendee. But other variables are also important.
Among the other variables are the workshop focus, the leader/instructor/moderator (call them what you like, and, depending on the individual workshop, different titles apply), the setting, duration, entry requirements, format and expectations (both the leader’s and yours). There are also the two big pink elephants in the room that some folks don’t talk about-- the workshop cost, which, unfortunately, guides the choice of too many potential attendees, and secondly, the group of individuals that make up your workshop (yes, “personality”-- yours, individuals at the workshop, and the group. Group interaction is a big factor). The personality thing is the toughest one to “manage;” you may know something about your own personality, but it is hard to predict what individual personalities or group personality you will encounter there. The combined effect of all these variables will determine the suitability of a given workshop for your needs, and, depending on who you are and what you are like, any single one of these elements may substantively make or break how much you get out of a workshop and how well you “like” the experience.
Those last two value judgments are worth a disclaimer. How well you “like” a workshop is a lot less important than what you get out of it. Furthermore, what you get out of a workshop can’t be evaluated solely on how many stories or novels you sell after the workshop, or how soon that happens. What you get out of a workshop has more to do with how you as a writer are affected in terms of confidence, competence, commitment, creativity and passion for your writing.
We separate commitment and passion on purpose. Commitment has to do with discipline-- forcing your butt into the chair every day and putting out a few pages. The passion has to do with breaking the internal barriers to writing what is really on your mind and in your heart, no matter whether anyone buys it or not. Passion and integrity are Siamese twins.
Having said that, let’s don’t downplay the impact on publication -- probably the largest motivator for most workshop attendees. We believe, though, that if your workshop experience helps hone your craft without imparting a stronger sense of the necessary passion and commitment, you still may not benefit much from the experience.
If you focus on increasing the numbers of tribal members who are going along for the ride, instead of focusing on finding yourself, you wind up writing for other tribes and never will get around to writing your own stories and finding your own tribe (go ahead, call it a “readership” if it makes you feel better).
…Shake out your expectations and fantasies until all you have left for reasons to write are: writing your own stories and having endless outrageous roller-coaster rides doing so.
If approval, fame, applause, and riches follow, then that will be nice, but not necessary. It’s choosing to make those things “necessary” that changes our focus and sets us up for failure.”
Scott has never earned more than $400 in a year from writing, and that was from co-authoring a children’s book that has yet to see publication. His short stories have never brought in more than $65 apiece. Bob’s career sales from fiction and related writing are just approaching $400 (last year was a good year!). And yet we write week after week, hour after hour. We spend thousands of dollars on writers' conferences and books on writing. We have our own, professional web sites. Our writing (regardless of its commercial success today) is well beyond a hobby, or even a “job.” It’s closer to an entrepreneurial venture, starting our own business--a business where we are producing product inventory that no one has yet seen (our stories), the market for which has yet to be determined. Perhaps we are the sole market for our stories. Or our spouses or mothers-- who never understood them anyway.
We’ve been to about twenty workshops between the two of us since the early ‘90s. Our experiences were different but dovetailed in recent years.
Bob describes his journey into the writing life through workshops as follows: “My first workshop was a weekender with Rachel McAlpine in New Zealand. I was working on a year-long agricultural research project; there was a slow spell and I was looking for something to do. I’d been thinking about writing fiction in my spare time. I’d earned a BA in English before switching fields (a long story). Rachel’s workshop focused on “mainstream writing” and was primarily motivational. That was lucky for me, since at that moment, motivation was what I needed more than anything else. When I came back to the U.S., I eventually attended a number of other workshops. Want the list? OK, here goes. They included the James Gunnworkshops in science fiction at KU (University of Kansas) in Lawrence, Kansas (a two-week affair); I attended four of them during the 90s. I also did two one-week mainstream workshops in those years, the Coos Bay Oregon Writers Workshop (then unaffiliated with any formal institution) and theYellow Bay Writers' Workshop organized by the University of Montana’s English department. The last decade took me to Clarion West (six weeks) in Seattle in 2003, Odyssey (six weeks) in Manchester, NH in 2008, “The Kris and Dean Show” a weekend workshop with Kristine Kathryn Rusch and Dean Wesley Smith in June 2009, the weeklong TNEO, “The Never Ending Odyssey” (an Odyssey alum workshop) in July 2009, and, most recently, Kris and Dean’s two week “Master Class” in October 2009. Most of Kris and Dean’s workshops are in Lincoln, OR.
This brings up a good point: as W. Edwards Deming would say: Improving your writing is a process of continuous improvement. Rarely do I remember specific classes from workshops, or even specific advice. But I always come home with a renewed sense of purpose, inspiration, and reminders to do what I know should be done, but what seems so often to escape my muse.
Other conferences I’ve attended include Hay en Wye in Wales, the Southern California Writers Conference (multiple times), the San Diego Writers Conference, the Maui Writers Conference, and the Odyssey Fantasy Writing Workshop in New Hampshire.
When you read our specific comments on each workshop below it will become obvious that each has its own particular merits and challenges. Most of the workshops followed the “Milford” format to some degree, usually interspersed with classroom sessions of traditional instruction, focused on elements of craft or aspects of professional skills such as marketing. A few took other approaches. All but the weekenders involved a major writing component before and during the workshop.
The “Milford” format (sometimes called the Clarion format) is an approach to creative writing workshops that was initiated by Damon Knight, founder of SFWA. The method is mentioned and outlined in the excellent creative writing text Writing Fiction by Janet Burroway and is also easily googled for details. In essence, it involves writing stories for group evaluation at the workshop, with rules for concise roundtable critiquing without ad homonym remarks by critiquers, and without authors defending their stories during the critiquing. It is an excellent way for authors to obtain the insight of a knowledgeable test audience for reaction to their work. To be successful, the rules of the method must be adhered to and the author needs to remember that the critiquers are not legislators, dictators, or even editors. They don’t have a vote and cannot force an author to remake a story; it is ultimately up to the author to process the feedback and decide what to do about it. Neil Gaiman once said, “Remember: when people tell you something's wrong or doesn't work, they are almost always right. When they tell you exactly what's wrong and how to fix it, they are almost always wrong.”
I wanted to mention a book called Storyteller: Writing Lessons and More from 27 Years of the Clarion Writers’ Workshop by Kate Wilhelm. If ever you’re thinking of applying for one of the ‘competitive’ conferences (Odyssey; Clarion, Clarion West and various affiliates; O.C. Card’s Literary Bootcamp, etc.) you should read this book. Kate shepherded Clarion during the go-go days of the 60s and 70s, and her libertine stories are hilarious. I was thankful that Odyssey was far more disciplined and conservative than Kate’s portrayal of Clarion (I’m older and have already proved myself on the partying front), but between stories of outrageous student exploits, Kate manages to give a pretty good idea of what to expect from six weeks of training.
“McWorkshops.” You can look in almost any writing magazine or go online and find scores of workshops that are put on by “trained presenters.” They may have some valuable content, or they may not. What they won’t have is what the marketplace refers to as “service after the sale.” The presenters may or may not have writing credentials that amount to anything. They almost certainly won’t care if you could write before you got there or if you can write any better after you’ve been there. These are usually short term affairs and usually have a very glossy commercial look and feel to them. If you like motel training sessions with coffee breaks and easy freeway access, these are for you.
“Mutual Admiration Workshops.” These tend to be workshops put together by friends for whom the camaraderie is more important than the craft building. There is often a social dynamic where the participants feel compelled to compliment the work of the participants regardless of their true feeling about the stories, and where the tools and protocols have not been developed for offering honest feedback without being offensive. These can be sincere group efforts to improve the craft of participants, but often are incapable of clearing the performance bar at a high enough standard to get the job done.
“Pandemonium Workshops.” These are workshops assembled by groups who have likely never been exposed to any form of structured professional workshop model. Timelines are nonexistent, critiques get off subject and can get personal. There are no rules. Jeanne Cavelos of Odyssey refers to these as “Free-For-All Workshops.” The problem is, in some cases, folks actually pay handsomely for these experiences, so there is a little irony in that label.
“Personality Cult Workshops.” These workshops are all about the presenters. Their presentations are long on personal writing/submitting/revising/publishing etc. war stories, and short on comprehensive synthesis or first principles. You read the presenter’s work and are extolled to emulate it. If the presenter likes you, you may get invited to take some additional special instruction. You may even get asked out on a date or to join the staff if your devotion to the presenter is strong enough.
“Straightforward Disciplined Workshops.” These workshops are structured. They draw from a diversity of perspectives and experiences synthesized by professionals. They have rules that are stated and explained at the outset and participants are required to adhere to them. They are overseen by professionals who direct, monitor and moderate the ebb and flow of discussion and give knowledgeable dispassionate professional instruction. They are usually anchored by established recognized writers, whose main activity/income is not conducting workshops, but writing.
The good thing about major writing workshops of quality is that they usually have researchable track records and reputations. All the major workshops with good reputations fall into the category of “Straightforward Disciplined Workshops.” They usually have alumni that are anxious to testify to the value of the workshop, and the alumni usually have measurable publication success that they are willing to attribute to some degree or another to the workshop experience.
Straightforward Disciplined Workshops usually limit participation to 10 to 16 participants. This is done so that an adequate amount of individual attention can be given to the participants during the limited time available, as well as to allow attendees to have time to read and critique several stories produced by their fellow attendees. There is often a degree of bonding both among the workshop presenters and attendees, as well as among the attendees themselves.
These workshops try to reinforce the foundations of good writing: talent, craft, and perseverance. Talent is, arguably, something that cannot be taught, but can certainly be coached, nurtured, and cultivated. Steven King has said "Talent is cheaper than table salt. What separates the talented individual from the successful one is a lot of hard work." Bob, the ex-aggie, refers to the end product of talent, craft and perseverance as skill and uses the analogy of genotype and phenotype to explain it all. Talent is genotype, skill is phenotype, craft is crop management, and perseverance is multi-cropping. When the genotype (natural talent) has been nurtured with good craft to maximize its phenotypic expression (skill), the result is an excellent quality harvestable crop (manuscript sale to a professional market). Perseverance means planting a crop over and over again, in several farm fields, every plantable season and rotating crops (writing every day, marketing every story relentlessly until sold, and then writing some more).
Teaching craft at a workshop includes drawing attention to the basics of English, manuscript preparation, and known story craft. Reality check: a workshop can’t (i.e. doesn’t have time to) do much for your English basics if you are under-prepared beyond flagging your deficiency. Perseverance is usually fostered in a good workshop through a degree of what some might call boot camp rigor, but fused with encouragement and a mentoring atmosphere.
We mentioned commitment earlier. Good workshops teach commitment by teaching attendees practical lessons in perseverance, which includes learning how to handle feedback and rejection. If you can write six stories (4,000 to 10,000 words each) in six weeks, undergo all the critiques, all while reading and critiquing the output of 10 to 16 other writers at the same time (and do any other assignments given to you), it will validate your capacity to perform in a writing life with huge demands on your time and attention. Multi-week workshops typically involve strings of twenty-hour work days, intensely focused on your writing in the context of a community of writers who are, at the same time, your comrades and your competitors.
You learn perseverance. Simply put, you learn to put in the hours and do the work. No excuses. And amid your own output, you also learn to listen to feedback. Process it. Utilize it. And regardless of how it feels, you learn not to give up, no matter what.
Feedback is that double edged sword that writers crave when they can’t find it, but that can cut deeply when they pick it up and handle it carelessly. A good workshop teaches you the categories of feedback and how to handle feedback without wounding yourself fatally.
There are three categories of feedback. The first is feedback that helps you figure out how to overcome problems you were already aware of. The second is feedback that draws your attention to problems you thought you had already fixed, but which, apparently, hadn’t been fixed well enough. The third is feedback that opens your eyes to problems in your writing you did not know existed. This last category is among the most important since it teaches the writer to see what he or she actually wrote and conveyed through their writing (as seen through the eyes of an unbiased reader) -- not what the writer thought they had written or conveyed.
In the end, it is how you react to feedback that counts. How well you react to critiques will determine how far you get with your writing. A writer needs to learn not to be defensive or to obsess about fixing things. Rather he or she learns to let it in, assimilate it and process it. It doesn’t mean one completely accepts every criticism. It merely provides a glimpse into the mind of the reader and gives the author a chance to decide if and what about their writing he or she might choose to alter in order to produce a different reaction.
Just for general edification, many writers strive to write short stories of around 4,000 words. That’s a good marketing length, short enough to fit in most magazines, but long enough to have plot and character development. Most adult books range from 70,000 to 110,000 words. First books tend to come in shorter because the printing costs are less. Thus the publisher takes less risk when printing the first-run 5,000 copies or whatever it happens to be.
Workshops may be the best environment available to writers to learn lessons like commitment, perseverance and how to handle feedback. It has been our experience that workshops by professional writers have taught aspects of writing that seemed elusive and unobtainable in the traditional academic environment. That brings us to one last element that is in rich supply at good workshops-- the emphasis on creativity.
A workshop is that one rare place where the creative brain and the critical brain of the writer are trained to work together, if not simultaneously, then at least in an orchestrated and coordinated fashion. It is a chance to learn anatomy from the inside out.
The challenge for first time workshoppers is twofold. The first is to have a realistic understanding of what a workshop should be and reasonable expectations of what they will have to endure and commit to. The second is to do the necessary homework to choose the right workshop for the full spectrum of their needs. We hope this article helps New Myths readers equip themselves to meet that challenge.
One of the best aspects is that it has great after-conference support, including its own chat group, critique exchange, online classes, and an annual week-long alumni program.
The downsides? First, it’s a competitive program. Jeanne only accepts 16 students a year, so you have to be a pretty good writer to be accepted. Second, the cost. While $1,900 isn’t much considering what you get, most attendees also have to figure in six weeks of lost wages. So participation skews towards people who haven’t started their careers and people who have finished theirs.
On a final note, I’d put this down as a “conservative” conference. Excessive partying is actively discouraged. You attend Odyssey to network and learn. I made friendships through Odyssey that will last a lifetime.
Hay en Wye. Approximate dates: May 27-June 6. Location: Wales, Great Britian. This is the mother of all Reader Oriented Conferences. Hay en Wye is a little town in Wales billed as the used bookstore capital of the world. It may be. Dozens of used bookstores, each larger than the last, fill the age-old boutiques of Hay en Wye, upstairs, downstairs, overflowing musty cellars, the myriad shelves disorient like some kind of sages’ labyrinth. The conference itself is huge. When I attended, they received about 10,000 visitors per day. Lectures went on in four tents simultaneously. Lectures, for the most part, meant authors reading from their own works. They had such big shots as P.D. James, Norman Mailer, Bill Clinton and Sophie Marceau.
Hay en Wye emphasizes the love of the written word and intellectual pursuits in general. There are a few classes on how to write; none on writing as a business. In the evening different bands played in each tent so you could choose your music and your ambiance—concert hall, intimate recital, dancing, and just about everything else, with an emphasis on local music. They even held garden tours and cooking classes. On returning home, I told all my friends that it was a vacation for the brain. They thought I was nuts.
I should mention one guest at Hay en Wye: Robert McKee of Story fame. I didn’t know who he was at the time, so I only signed up for his Comedy Writing day. It was fabulous, one of the only times I came away with specific tips I can consciously still use. McKee still lectures in four-day blocks on screenplay writing in LA and New York (all the big shot screenwriters in Hollywood have taken them), and I highly recommend going if you get the chance.
Halifax Writing Festival. Approximate dates: April 1-4. Location: Halifax, Nova Scotia. This is a small event, and was cancelled in 2010. I expect it will renew in the future. Like Hay en Wye, the Halifax Writing Festival celebrates literature in general and has more in common with the Los Angeles Book Fair than what we’ve come to expect from writers' conferences. If you’re in the area, it’s well worth going. If you are not, Halifax is one of my favorite cities in the world. It’d be a great excuse to visit Nova Scotia and maybe you could deduct the airfare!
The Southern California Writers Conference. Approximate dates: February 18-23: Location: San Diego, California, with affiliated programs in Newport Beach, Calif. (dubbed the LA Writers Conference) from Sept. 24-26; and Palm Springs, Calif., currently on hiatus. This is the “friendliest” conference I’ve ever seen. It seems like everyone there knows—and likes—each other. The biggest name writers don’t attend, but the ones who do can be found mingling with the attendees late into the evening. It’s famous for its critique sessions, overseen by the guest writers, running until the wee hours. The final day is usually a bummer as everyone is recovering from the late nights. A great place to network.
San Diego Writers’ Conference. Approximate dates: Jan 29-31. Location: San Diego, California. This is far more business-like that the nearbySouthern California Writers Conference, meaning that it starts and ends on time, and it is less friendly and more purposeful. It is famous for the number of agents that attend. If you have a completed manuscript, this is the place for you. Bring it, and pay the extra dough to pitch your project. Every year first-time authors get deals this way.
The Hawai’i Writers’ Conference (Formerly Maui Writers’ Conference). Approximate dates: Sept. 4-7. Location: Hawai’i. When I attended, it was called the Maui Writers’ Conference. The location drew the biggest names in literature. Now, while it’s always fun to look upon the writers who sell 1 million books and dream that someday there will be I, selling books doesn’t make one the best lecturer. Nor the worst. I found them average on that score. But what really disappointed me was that the lecturers were kept far apart from the attendees. Unlike the Southern California Writers Conference where everyone could be found in the bar at one time or another, at Maui the writers had their separate lounge and never mingled. They gave autographs at specific times. Stopping someone in the halls was considered bad manners. If it weren’t for the world-class scenery, I’d have to dub this one a McConference.
Writers Write in Fresno, California. There doesn’t seem to be any listing for this conference anymore, but I recall it as a well organized, craft-oriented affair. Because of its small size and location, it didn’t attract the biggest-name writers, and fell somewhere between McWorkshop and Straightforward Disciplined Workshop on the chart. The great thing about these small workshops is that workshopping isn’t just possible, it’s mandatory. You have to be a dedicated introvert not to meet someone here.
James Gunn. This workshop lasts two weeks and draws from the knowledge and experience of its primary instructor James Gunn. The workshop is conducted at the University of Kansas. Professor Gunn, in addition to his KU English Department credentials, has extensive short story and novel credits. He is a product of the “Golden Age” of Science Fiction and was a close associate of that era’s luminaries, including Isaac Asimov and Frederik Pohl. Pohl is a regular workshop guest, along with one or two additional writer celebrities who drop in on the workshop in conjunction with the final weekend’s annual Campbell Conference. The workshop concentrates on basics of short story structure and theme. Because of its shorter duration (vsClarion or Odyssey) structured “instruction” is minimal and craft is not covered in as much depth as longer workshops. A parallel novel workshop is conducted simultaneously by Gunn protégé Kij Johnson. Full workshop details are available at http://www2.ku.edu/~sfcenter/SFworkshop.htm. I attended four iterations of the short story workshop. It was very helpful in getting my feet on the ground. Subject matter presentation was often seasoned with a more academic flavor than commercial, and it was my perception that principles were presented more as absolutes than as creative options, which was more typical of subsequent experiences. If you are just wading into your speculative fiction writing experience, this is a great place to start.
Clarion West. This program in 2003 was a six-week workshop experience. In the Clarion workshops (San Diego, Seattle, and Brisbane, Australia) each week is anchored by a writer in residence. They are drawn from the most current successful writers in speculative fiction. Each presents about two hours of structured instruction before the day’s two hours of story critiquing. Workshoppers gain significant exposure to the pro writers in a variety of settings, from casual to formal. Each week has outside forums and parties designed specifically for attendees by the local writer community. For Clarion West, based in Seattle, the networking opportunities stemming from this aspect are very robust. The Clarion concept is exceptionally rich in opportunity to learn creative insights from notable authors. If there is a “weakness,” it is that the subject matter “taught” by each writer in residence is not completely coordinated with the other five authors. Gaps, overlaps and occasional contradictions occur. Although the gaps and overlaps are unfortunate, the contradictions are often enlightening. There is less of a sense of “someone being in charge” than at the other major SF workshops, which can contribute to occasional chaos. The writer perspective dominates and the general commercial/editorial perspective gets less attention. Many aspects of basic craft are never presented because the cadre of writers in charge of “instruction” vary from year to year and there is no “core curriculum” consistent from year to year. I found the venue of Clarion West (a Seattle sorority house) problematic. In 2003, the Greek community was openly hostile to the geek community. In 2008, the facility suffered walk-through theft of several workshop laptops. Much of the time “writers camp” felt like “concentration camp,” where concentration was often impossible. I’m told the situation has improved. I can’t speak for aesthetics of the other Clarion venues. All in all, the Clarion workshops are top flight experiences. Acceptance is highly competitive, so if you can get in, DO IT.
Odyssey. This was described well by Scott. I’ll just add a couple thoughts. The workshop environment was serene and secure. Jeanne Cavelos, a former editor, added continual insights from the editorial perspective that grounded instruction in a way I had not experienced before. She also made it clear where the buck stopped on any issue, which helped keep the in-class and out-of-class atmospherics under control (Jeanne openly shares that the need for that was learned the hard way in the early years of Odyssey). Five weeks have a one-day-visit by a writer, editor or agent. One week has a weeklong writer-in-residence who takes over the full instructional load. The core curriculum of Odyssey is EXTREMELY comprehensive and well organized. I have a BA in English and I can attest that Odyssey taught “story” more clearly and insightfully than my university degree program and several subsequent college creative writing classes. The week taught by the resident author had been thoroughly coordinated with the core curriculum of the other five weeks. If I were to contrast Clarion with Odyssey I would say the emphasis at Clarion was a creative emphasis on story theme, or SFnal gimmick (Jeanne calls it Novum). At Odyssey, emphasis was on story craft, with a systematic coverage of all the elements of which craft is composed. Like Clarion, Odyssey is highly competitive. If you can get in, DO IT.
Kris Rusch and Dean Smith. The workshops of Kristine Kathryn Rusch and Dean Wesley Smith, frankly, are in a category unto themselves. They are both prolific writers, have both been independent publishers and editors, and have extensive experience with (and many good things to say about) the other major Milford-style workshops. But Kris and Dean do not follow the typical Milford format. The specific approach varies with each of their several topical workshops. I attended a weekender entitled “The Kris and Dean Show.” It was full out conversational style lecture format and covered the major aspects of what the writing life is all about, provided motivation, insights about the commercial aspects, and just enough about story craft and submission formats to keep an enlightened new-comer from falling on his face as he begins submitting manuscripts to magazines or publishing houses. It was compact, fast moving, well focused, fun, and good value. The second Kris and Dean workshop I attended was their two week “Master Class.” Acceptance to the Master Class is competitive, at the discretion of the class leaders. Your contact with them is your “application” and “interview.” The essence of the Kris and Dean Master Class by day is highly instructional of writing craft and market reality, and by evening and the wee hours of the night is more or less a two week simulation of living the life of a successful writer in a high pressure commercial writing situation. It is beyond a boot camp experience. It is Airborne Ranger school for writers who already have a lot of confidence, if not a lot of publication credentials. It is not for everyone. It is a tough, even grueling experience that will test your mettle. Kris and Dean also offer weekend and several-day workshops on specific concise topics, such as voice, marketing etc. For details on all their workshops visit Dean Wesley Smith’s web site, and, as it will direct, contact him directly to discuss your interests and potential application. The venue of Kris and Deans’ workshops is Lincoln City, Oregon, a really delightful, secure and serene setting, usually in the Anchor Inn Motel, one of the most fun (and reasonably priced) places to stay I have ever experienced. In comparing what I have gotten from Kris and Dean’s Master Class with Clarion or Odyssey would be like the difference between school and the real world, or military training and war. You will really think it is the real thing until the night of the farewell party. I would not recommend attending the Master Class until you have had at least one previous writing-intensive workshop already under your belt. If you can get accepted, DO IT… but be mentally prepared.
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