#5onFri: Five Tips for Finding the Right Workshop

by Victoria Duncan
published in Community

Really, I never expected accolades. I’d prepared myself for the tough feedback I hoped would help me grow as a writer. I may be an accomplished columnist but I have much to learn about writing fiction. I didn’t anticipate praise but neither did I expect to leave feeling like something scraped off the sidewalk. But, in fact, that is how I felt—or worse—after traveling a long distance for a much-anticipated writers’ retreat and workshop.

After completing an intensive, on-line, story development course, I’d received positive feedback from my program coach and was prepared to invest in the program’s year-long commitment.  However, before I plunked down my credit card, I attended their retreat, facilitated by the program’s founder. Although it was an investment that turned out to be a disappointment, this saved me from a costlier mistake. It was an excruciating lesson. May my experience help you avoid a similar setback!

If you consider attending a workshop or retreat, here’s some advice:

1) Avoid being a guinea pig

Wait till the kinks are worked out. Don’t be dazzled by the facilitator’s reputation. Read reviews from former attendees but keep in mind that a program or teacher posts positive feedback as a marketing tool. This was the program’s first in-person event. Their on-line presence offers a solid approach to teaching craft. Future workshops may meet that standard but this event nearly crushed my dream.

 2) Find a workshop that meets you where you are

On arrival, I felt excited and eager to learn. The upside was meeting interesting writers and time to write. The downside was a lack of support and favoritism towards those whose books were near publication and for those writing what was judged as hot in the marketplace. Sharing your writing leaves one feeling vulnerable and writers need interest and encouragement along with tough love. I would have even welcomed the suggestion to find a fresh idea—but I didn’t appreciate feeling dismissed because of my stage of development and, perhaps, because my subject may not have interested this teacher.

Mixing newbies with those ready to pitch does not work without adequate staff. If you are a beginner, look for an event that emphasizes craft. If you are seasoned, seek out a publishing or pitch session. Spending time with writers at a slightly more advanced position can pull you forward but hurling yourself in with those too far ahead will not serve you well.

3) Seek out a workshop specific to your area of interest

With 20 participants at every stage of writing from newbies to published writers working on their next pitches, the lone teacher seemed stretched thin. As a group, we included writers of nonfiction, memoir and fiction. In the area of fiction alone, the genres represented included, romance, literary, contemporary, YA, historical, and science fiction.  Any workshop that tries to be all things to all writers at all stages will fall short.

4) Know what you are buying

Consider the student to teacher ratio. Determine how much instruction and individual attention is promised vs. socializing and time to write. My mistake was hitching my wagon to a writing teacher I held in high esteem without reading the fine print. An individual consultation of five minutes was not worth my investment, travel and time.

As the event concluded, our workshop leader threw out three reasons for writing and briskly issued us a challenge. Her reasons for persevering with writing were: to raise your voice, to make an impact and to prove you can.  Her challenge: If these reasons did not resonate, and if we didn’t wish to work hard and take risks, we should walk away and take up golfing or knitting instead. Yes, I understand perseverance but encouragement along the journey, particularly when it has been paid for, would have been welcome.

So, my fifth point of advice is:

5) Hold true to your vision

After reflection, I moved from despondent to irritated to determined. Any writing guru’s attitude is just that–an attitude and not a divination. To answer her challenge, I am not walking away. I found another avenue to learn the skills I need from a source that encourages and offers honest and thoughtful critique and inspires me to work harder and believe I can succeed. May you find that too!

Victoria Duncan lives in Annapolis, MD where she writes, among other things, a self-help column for a regional magazine, Outlook by the Bay

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