I’m not teaching at any workshops this year, for one big reason — burnout. I kinda yelled at a beginner at last year’s ArmadilloCon Writers Workshop (ably run by Stina Leicht), so I decided to just withdraw for a while. Yelling doesn’t help. The problem is, being polite and enthusiastic and providing great writing critiques won’t help either. The beginners still make beginner mistakes, each year. Different beginners, same mistakes.
Yes, we all have to start out learning how to write. HOWEVER, as grownups there are certain things we should already know when we sit down to write, and those things are grammar and punctuation. When an adult comes in to a writers workshop and doesn’t know these basic tools, it’s embarassing. Except these beginners aren’t embarassed at all.
If you don’t know how to punctuate dialog in your sentences, it tells me one important thing about you — you don’t read books. That’s right, you are in a writers workshop, wanting to write books, but you don’t read them.
If you don’t understand basic grammar, it tells me you don’t care about the basic tools of the trade you are trying to break into.
Both of these things show contempt for the craft that I’ve spent most of my adult life trying to get better at. So it makes me cranky.
Inevitably, the people who think these basic tools don’t matter also tell crap stories. Everything is off — plot, character, pacing, setting. Nothing is fixable.
And the problem is, workshops encourage these beginners to pay their money and sign up (or sign up for free, depending how the workshop is run). I think workshops should actively discourage beginners. They soak up time and energy and make very little progress.
Instead, if you are a beginning writer, here’s what you should do. Read, first and foremost. And read carefully, so you can see how the writers you love string words together. Write, every day if possible, even on the days when the words don’t flow and your muse is sulky.
And most importantly of all, get yourself a copy of The Elements of Style by Strunk & White, and read it. Use it. Refer to it. You don’t need AP Style, or the Chicago Manual of Style. Just this one slender book with all the rules for grammar and punctuation is all you need.
You’ll know when you’re ready for a workshop. A good rule of thumb is that when you’ve sent out work to a magazine or online market, and the rejections start coming back with personalized notes, that’s when you are ready to workshop. But if you are only hearing from family members and friends, or if you are vanity publishing on an anything goes site, you aren’t ready. Do yourself a favor; wait to workshop until you know you are getting there.
And for Pete’s sake, the comma goes inside the quotes.