The process of critiquing partial novels this week and of having a partial novel critiqued this week has made me think a lot about what a workshop is and what it isn't. I've particularly wanted to share those thoughts with the writers who are attending a Blue Heavenstyle workshop for the first time, because talking about novel fragments the way we do is a very different thing from what happens in workshops more oriented toward short stories. It's not my style to take anyone aside and put an avuncular arm around their shoulder, and I don't know that that's necessary anyway, but I do want to say my piece.
Your workshop (any workshop, really) is a tool. Your workshop is not a pronouncement from God. Especially when we're doing fragments, you're going to hear suggestions for improving your manuscript that sound absolutely plausible, that are uttered with complete conviction and even vehemence, and that would serve to make the first fifty pages of your novel more involving and exciting and enticing to an editor. But those comments may still be absolutely wrong for the novel you're trying to write.
Your job as a writer is to keep your vision for your novel first and foremost in your mind. Yes, your first fifty pages may not be as involving and exciting as they can be, and they may be setting the wrong expectations for the story that follows. Your job, though, is to measure all those comments against your vision for your novel, and to use them as a guide to telling your story in the best way you possibly can. What the comments tell you are where your novel is failing to create the sort of understanding and response in your readers that you are trying to achieve. They are a calibration tool for letting you know how far you've strayed from the mark you're trying to hit. They amount to a differential guide, not to a bible.
You very well may end up using some or even a lot of the suggestions you get in the workshop. That's okay. But use them only if they bring you closer to achieving your vision. Remember that only you know what that vision is. Use the workshop to help you craft an opening for your book that clearly and immediately sets the stage for the unfolding of that vision.