JOANNA ELM, Author, Journalist, Attorney

Do Writing Workshops Really Work?

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View from our workshop in St. Augustine, FL

It’s Squib Saturday, and it’s also about a month since I returned from the Algonkian Author-Mentor Novel Workshop in St. Augustine, Florida.  I was horrified to realize that in the last month I have not written a single word for my new thriller. Which brought me to the $64,000 question: Do writing workshops really work?

It’s okay, I told myself as the realization of my non-productivity hit me.  You need to unwind, decompress, let all those great new ideas percolate and settle in your head. It seems like I wasn’t the only one judging by the observations in the “weekly reports” of my new writer colleagues from the workshop.

Who’s Writing Now?

Because our group was a small one ( just eight of us)  we have stayed in touch with email updates on our writing progress:  “Have run dry my writing engines,” wrote one last week; “been sitting here at Barnes and Noble for one hour supposedly writing,” wrote another; “feeling unmotivated and uninspired” wrote a third. “Have yet to get back to a routine of writing … Excuses, excuses,” wrote a fourth.

Algonkian Workshop

Hallie Ephron, bestselling novelist

The author-mentor workshop is not cheap (it ran upwards of $2,000 for four days with lodging in St. Augustine, Florida) but, of course, it’s not a rinky-dink writers’ conference. Writers are selected on the basis of  a written pitch of their novel-in-progress. During the four days of the workshop we had access to six “mentors” including Hallie Ephron, a bestselling suspense novelist, and Pulitzer prize-winning author, Robert Olen Butler who dissected the first 500 words of each of our novels in lengthy one-on-one meetings. I wrote about the workshop a few weeks ago and said that we all “worked our butts off.” It was not the sort of workshop where everyone patted each other on the back.

Bad Guys Rule

Robert Olen Butler

In my previous account of the workshop I touched on the questions that were asked about my female protagonist as well as the suggestions that were made of how to make her more empathetic. (Yep, that’s a fault of mine: my heroines tend to be a little bit more hard-bitten than readers might like.) What resonated much more with me, however, were the discussions of my “bad guy.” Robert Olen Butler, author of From Where You Dream liked him so much he suggested my “bad guy” should be  “the” story.  Algonkian director and author, Michael Neff suggested re-structuring the novel with a device known as “dramatic irony” where readers will know almost from the outset who the “bad guy” is, but will have the thrill of following the female protagonist as she discovers the truth.

Hannibal Lecter, Anyone?

Yes, I loved, really loved that idea. So yes, I have been thinking and noodling and jotting down thoughts in an outline that now focusses on my antagonist. Think Hannibal Lecter. (Haha, I wish.)  In any event, thinking and noodling to restructure a novel best takes place away from one’s desk. That’s what I’ve been telling myself. And, as I’ve been reading the weekly reports of my writer friends and colleagues, I think that’s what they are going through as well. After all, what good would it have done us to simply come home from our workshop and carry on regardless with our manuscripts?

Writer Reflections

Doug Spak

A couple of days ago I asked the writers in our small group to reflect, and write a couple of paragraphs about their experience at the workshop and how it has affected their works-in-progress.  The replies are coming in: For example, author Doug Spak, working on his novel,  Bad Road Down wrote : “I’m finding it difficult to assimilate the different feedback received from all of the professionals with whom we met [but] I would do it all over again tomorrow. I learned so much about storytelling and what it takes to sell a story to publishers.”

Read more from Doug NEXT WEEK when my writer colleagues and friends rate the Algonkian Workshop’s impact on their writing and their works-in-progress

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4 Comments

  1. Do work shops really work?

    Yes for those that garner your tuition,

    What it takes to SELL a book to a publisher?

    GEE I BELIEVE A BOOK IS WRITTEN TO PERPUTUATE ONES STORY FOR THOSE THAT FOLLOW US.

    WRONG,WRONG AND WRONG!!! OH WELL!

    NOW I CAN GO FOR A SWIM.

  2. Well two or one out of three is not a complete “STRIKE Out”.

    One of my take aways,not as an author, is that AGENTS ARE ADDICTED TO BAGLES, OH WEll one opinion! And as to publishers,vultuers circling in the sky
    waiting for their next worthless best garbage seller. The buffet includes dishonesty,bleeding, war,and all the condiments of sex and follow the $$$$$$

  3. Pingback: Writers Rate The Four-Day Novel Workshop - JOANNA ELM, Author, Journalist, Attorney

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