Thoughts on novel workshops

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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 Heaven–style 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.

Remember also that it is a very rare book that appeals to every reader. When people that you respect and admire don't really get or respond to what you're trying to accomplish, it may be that it's because they simply aren't the right audience for your book. Some of their comments may still be useful, but you will probably want to give more weight to the critical comments from people who are the right audience.

And when someone doesn't get what you're doing, it may also be that it was just the wrong day for them to be reading your book. I don't know how many times I've picked up a book and utterly failed to connect with the material, but then picked it up a few weeks or months or even years later and found myself sucked right into the story. No reader is static. We all change, and we all have moods that affect the filters we bring to what we read. In many cases—and this is something [info]bobhowe and I used to talk about a lot—it may that a critique is simply an attempt by a reader to find an intellectual justification for something that is really more of an emotional response to the material.

This goes for all workshops, of course, but I think these things are even more important to keep in mind when the critiquers are reading only a partial manuscript. We as readers don't know the story's destination. All we can do is offer our impressions of how willing we would to keep walking with you based on what you've given us. You're the one with the map. We've handed you some measurements to help you assess how far astray you've led us.

It's your vision, not ours.

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William Shunn

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This page contains a single entry by William Shunn published on June 23, 2009 5:21 PM.

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