Lessons Learned from Writers Workshops

During Q&A at about every third or forth speech I give, someone asks, “Have you every been to a writer’s workshop?” The answer is yes, I’ve been to two types.

When I got serious about writing my first novel, I started attending a small, weekly one run by a book editor with about eight to ten aspiring writers. At each one, we’d bring a passage, read it and get critiques from the group and the editor. Most of the regulars were writing fantasy, romance or sci-fi while I was plugging away at a book in the military historical fiction genre. From it, I learned three things. One, make sure the group has a several, as in more than two or three who are writing in your genre. Two, have a thick skin. And three, make sure they are at your level, i.e. or close to good enough to get published.

After about three months, the editor pulled me aside and said “you’re farther along than any member this group, and it is holding you back.” She also gave me the names of two other groups and I went to one or two meetings. It was held mid-week and job travel kept me from continuing.

So, I looked on the internet and picked two that were long weekend workshops that offered coaching and insight from experts. They were held at very nice hotels and at $2,500 not cheap. Including transportation, parking at one’s home airport, tolls, etc., the real cost was over $3,000.

To qualify, each had its own requirements sent well before the workshop. If I remember, I sent a plot summary; the first three chapters; sample query; list of competitive books; a bio, and a marketing plan outline. Keep in mind, this was in 2005 – 2008 before the advent of self-publishing, print-on-demand, etc.

What I wasn’t prepared for was the amount of “selling” that went on by presenters are pushing their books and services. I bought several, read some or all of them and within six months, took them to Half Price Books.

Were these two workshops worthwhile? Yes and no. A lot depends on the number of respondents writing books in your genre and coaches – editors, agents, publishers – familiar with your genre. At one, out of about a hundred aspiring authors, there were just two of us writing historical fiction. At the other, about twenty out of about 200.

What did I learn? A lot that very simple to explain, but much harder to execute.

  1. Make your characters different and interesting.
  2. Every scene should follow the same sequence – context (where the scene takes place in terms of sights, smells, noise, etc.); action (what are the characters are doing); and conversation (what are the characters saying), and if a appropriate, a “hook” to a later part of the story to keep them reading.
  3. Each scene is written primarily from through the eyes of one character.
  4. Don’t be afraid to write about things you don’t know, but do the research.

If you were to ask me if I would go again, I would only if is there are many opportunities to network with agents who handle my genres and publishers. That’s where the real value is so when your query arrives on his or her desk, the agent knows you. It gives it a better chance of getting read and maybe, acted upon.

That’s the long answer to the writer’s workshop answer.

Marc Liebman

October 2017

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