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.



A3 · March 16, 2012 at 10:24 pm

Well, I am glad I got to be in a writing workshop with you last year. You shared with me an insight that I keep returning to:
“Science Fiction is about the big ideas.”
I’ve taken that as a challenge, and I’ve shared it with several other writers in the critters online critiquing group when their work was good but just didn’t seem to have enough oomph to it.
So I got a lot out of workshopping with you last year, and I’m trying to pass on what I learned.
So thanks!

Patrice Sarath · March 17, 2012 at 7:15 am

Was that me? I hope that was me. ; -)

I am always glad that whatever insights I can pass on to workshoppers strike a chord. I remember when I workshopped and there were plenty of ah ha! moments that helped me improve my writing. And there are a few workshops that I would love to attend — the Rain Forest Writers Retreat for one — because no one ever stops learning.

J. Kathleen Cheney · March 17, 2012 at 7:46 am

Usually at that workshop, they try to divide up all the ‘beginner’ manuscripts so that each group gets only one. In some cases, it’s truly obvious which one that it. Painfully obvious.

In ours a couple of years ago, Martha and I weren’t sure which it was (we disagreed) but one of the people left after the critique session, likely with hurt feelings. I had the idea that she honestly expected us to say ‘This is the best manuscript ever’ and we didn’t….

A3 · March 17, 2012 at 8:09 am

It was you & only you – it was at Apollocon.

Patrice Sarath · March 17, 2012 at 8:42 am

It is something I do believe in. We’re in a genre that shouldn’t think small.

Jeannette, I’ve been in workshop situations where I’ve absolutely expected the teachers to take me aside and say, this is the best thing I’ve ever read. And been really really wrong about that. Ouch.

On the other hand…sigh. I don’t know how slush readers do it. Yes, beginners have to start somewhere! Yes, no one is a genius straight out of the gate. And so, with that in mind, I’ve decided that I’m not the best teacher for those students any more.

Audrey Lockwood · March 17, 2012 at 9:10 am

I remember one of the big things you helped me with was description. It’s still one of the pieces I struggle with, but now I think about it more often and more effectively, in part because of some of your comments.

Matthew Bey · March 17, 2012 at 10:34 am

Patrice, as an editor, I think you’re being too lenient by drawing the line at beginners. There is nothing more reprehensible and irresponsible than expressing oneself artistically.

Patrice Sarath · March 17, 2012 at 10:53 am

Matt, is that why you left? Because that’s sad. I’ve always thought you were one of the better writers I’ve known. Everything you’ve written has always stayed with me and it always keeps me thinking. Plus, your use of punctuation was always above average.

Of course, if you are just kidding, well then.

Patrice Sarath · March 17, 2012 at 10:54 am

Audrey for me it’s plot. I have become competent at dialog, but I will always struggle over creating a plot.

Patrice Sarath · March 17, 2012 at 7:17 pm

I should also say that I am in general a fan of workshops. I think that for students who are prepared, they can be a wonderful boost of information and writing tips that help writers get to the next level. The camaraderie is also a real bonus. So I’m not trashing workshops, just saying they might not be useful for beginners.

And of course, if you are a beginner reading this, feel free to cheerfully ignore this little rant! No one knows better than each writer what they need to learn and grow.

J. Kathleen Cheney · March 21, 2012 at 6:52 pm

Yes, sadly I think most of us have had that experience at one time or another in our history…

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