Twelve years ago, right in the middle of a memoir writing workshop online, I started writing fiction instead. From that day forward, I continued doing two things: writing novels, and signing up for online writing workshops. The comfort of taking a class while wearing my pajamas appeals to me almost as much as the bottomless bowl of popcorn by my side.
This started off innocently enough. I had been a journalist. I had articles and essays published. In these arenas I wrote the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth. It was that memoir workshop where I realized I wasn’t willing to write anyone’s story but my own. Memoirs contain anecdotes and storylines about other people. Without that, my book would have been thin and flimsy and unpublishable. And that’s what I wanted. To be published. The only way to give heft to the story I wanted to tell was to take myself out of it and make stuff up.
I didn’t discriminate much when it came to workshops. Anything would do. Anything could help. I found workshops that focused narrowly on things like dialogue and structure, to workshops that offered broad strokes of knowledge on writing and publishing. All I needed was someone who knew more than me, and that was everyone.
An equal opportunity addict, I signed up for workshops by reputable companies and well-known authors, as well as bloggers who simply “seemed” to know what they were talking about. One of the best things I did was not limit myself to my genre. Thriller writers and romance writers were welcoming and flexible when helping me modify some content to fit the women’s fiction genre.
Tip #1: Look outside your genre box for workshops, or even for writing books. There’s always something to learn from other writers who are masters of their craft. No matter what they write.
With time I found that workshops differed in two major ways. Some provided lessons and posted “homework assignments” and I received feedback from the instructor only, while some are structured so that the workshop participants posted their homework and the class chimed in with feedback of its own. I was always open to having as many writers cooking in my story kitchen as possible. Sometimes the feedback was relevant, sometimes it wasn’t, but even that showed me I was started to grow my writing spine. As I was starting to know myself as a writer, I became more confident in discerning which feedback worked for me or didn’t. And more importantly, why.
Tip #2: Do the homework. Sometimes I’d be in a workshop with ten or twelve writers and only two of us would do the assignments. Can you say extra attention from the instructor?
As I moved forward with my writing, I looked for genre specific workshops, or ones tailored to a struggle I was having with a work-in-progress. I found workshops on countless methods of storytelling and outlining, from three acts to five acts, from timelines to snowflakes. I have taken workshops on how to write flashbacks and others on how not to write flashbacks, on happy endings and tragic ones.
Tip #3: When it comes to any workshops, feedback, or conflicting ideas, take what you need and leave the rest.
You might think I stopped signing up for workshops when I found an agent or had novels published. No way. Accountability and camaraderie inspire me. Meeting new writers intrigues me. Reading and giving feedback challenges me. I always say I’m a workshop junkie. I’m always Googling different topics to see where and how I can learn something new or strengthen a skill.
The thing that did happen after my first novel was published, I was given the opportunity to teach workshops. Not only did I begin to help and connect with writers near and far, of all backgrounds and ages and interests, but –you guessed it—I had access to the workshop materials! For me! Two birds, one workshop.
Tip #4: Being a writer is a never-ending learning process. It can be a solitary endeavor, but it doesn’t have to be lonely.
Do you take workshops? which kind? Any tips/recommendations?
Amy Sue Nathan is the author of Left to Chance, The Good Neighbor, and The Glass Wives all published by St. Martin’s Press. She is also the founder of The Women’s Fiction Writers blog, named a Best Website for Writers four years in a row by Writer’s Digest. Amy’s essays and articles have been widely published in print and online, including The Chicago Tribune, Writer’s Digest, Psychology Today, YourTango and Huffington Post. She is a frequent speaker and workshop presenter, a member of Tall Poppy Writers, and has been a freelance book coach and editor since 2009.
Amy lives near Philadelphia, is the mom of two grown children, and the servant to one geriatric dog. When she’s not taking workshops (and even when she is) she’s working on her fourth novel.