Workshopping — a rant (sort of)

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.


ArmadilloCon Day 1 — writers workshop

I’m posting from the end of a long day at the convention, so please forgive any typos and incoherence. I’ve been on the go since 6:30.

The first day was the writers workshop. We had excellent commentary from the teachers on everything from the necessity of redrafting to applying the screenwriting formul to novels (an excellent presentation by Lou Anders with great relevance to writing novels) to discussing the place of epublishing for writers. In the final case, basically, don’t do it as a beginning writer. It’s established writers with backlists and experience who can get the most out of self-publishing their work for Kindle or Nook.

We broke up into groups after lunch and went over the stories. The writers got feedback from their teachers and fellow students and I saw plenty of conversation afterwards as students got together and enthusiastically discussed the day’s critiques. Workshops are an excellent way to get together with fellow writers and talk craft.

After the workshop, I got together with Kimberly Frost and a slew of other writers and we went to dinner and had a great time, and then it was back to the con for opening ceremonies. With Mark Finn as toastmaster (wearing a fez, throwing toast into the audience and lauding primatology) it was entertaining and fun.

The evening panels included worldbuilding, moderated by Elizabeth Bear and future worlds and economies, which include Bruce Sterling and a host of others, and was a thought-provoking panel with plenty of back and forth with the audience, and a reading by JM McDermott, who read a retelling of a Eurydice short story that was both lovely and slightly depressing and at the same time hopeful. Chatted a bit, but at that point it was 10:30 and I was done.

So now I’m here, ready for bed, and exhausted. Hence the fact that there are no links in this post.

Tomorrow I read, interview Paolo, and do other panels and parties. Will post later.

Thanks to Stina Leicht and the workshoppers and students for a most excellent day.

ApolloCon schedule

Here’s my preliminary schedule for ApolloCon, June 25-27. Things may change, but this is the gist of it. Hope to see you there.

Fri 10:00PM – 11:00PM What they know now that they didn’t know then.
Scott Cupp, Patrice Sarath, Melanie Miller Fletcher, Bennie Grezlik (M), Lou Antonelli

Sat 9:00AM – 12:00PM Writers Workshop
Patrice Sarath (M)

Sat 1:00PM – 2:00PM Autographs: Rhonda Eudaly and Patrice Sarath Autograph Table
Patrice Sarath, Rhonda Eudaly

Sat 3:00PM – 4:00PM Readings: Bennie Grezlik and Patrice Sarath
Bennie Grezlik, Patrice Sarath
25 minute reading session in 50 minute shared slot.

Sat 5:00PM – 6:00PM SF Civil Rights Scorecard
Patrice Sarath, David B. Carren, Lee Thomas (M), Julia Mandala, Alexis Glynn Latner

Sun 10:00AM – 11:00AM No excuses! Writer’s Boot Camp
Rhonda Eudaly, Katharine Eliska Kimbriel, Rosemary Clement-Moore, Patrice Sarath(M), Michael Bracken

Sun 12:00PM – 1:00PM The Sporting Geek
K. Hutson Price (M), Larry Friesen, Sam Cooper, Patrice Sarath

I like this. I’m looking forward to digging into these topics. I’ve already got a few things I want to bring up for the first panel Friday night — What they know now they didn’t know then. What did SF writers predict and what did they miss? That’s the kind of topic that reminds me of late nights in college talking about Stuff.

I was thinking it was okay to have an hour for lunch after the workshop before the autographing, but it might not give me a lot of time. So if I get to the autograph table late, just try to catch me at the con if you would like me to sign something. I’ve never signed a body part, by the way. You could be the first!