Writing workshops, words and weariness

I have a cold. A really stinking, streaming, vile and intractable cold. So if you were expecting to hear from me, and haven’t, this is why.

But even if I’m not up to much, the world moves on. Todd has produced the first pictures for our graphic novel pitch, and very fine they are too. James Burt, over at Literature Network reminded me of why I have my doubts about the value of writing workshops, and missed one point that really concerns me – these workshops are only ever about ‘literary’ fiction and if you want to write genre fiction you need to find a specialist workshop, or – gods forbid – commercial fiction … don’t bring that tainted phrase to the workshop because you will probably be stoned, or at least verbally pummelled. Lest we forget (although I had to get James to remind me) Dan Brown and David Foster Wallace were in the same writing group – but I’m willing to bet Mr Brown didn’t pitch up with bits of … da Vinci … for group crit!

There’s another reason I really don’t like workshops in the long term. It’s the long term. If you need a deadline, or a group crit, to get you to write, you’re not building a sustainable writing career, you’re building props and crutches. Your writing discipline might take the form of irresistible urges, or painful hours of nothingness (Flaubert). You may need to lock yourself in a room to write without allowing yourself to be distracted (Colette), or you may be the kind who has to be dragged away from your desk. What you shouldn’t be doing is teaching yourself that other people are expecting/waiting for your work – because, particularly for novel length work, unless you’re very lucky, that process happens rarely and not having anybody waiting for your work can destroy a beginning writer’s ability to write it! Building dependency on other writers is a very bad idea, because other writers are no more equipped with patience, kindness and clear sightedness than the population as a whole. If you’re lucky enough to find one or two people with whom you can exchange work on a regular basis that’s a different thing.

Workshops also breed what Zadie Smith called MFA Cookie Cutter fiction – which was a bit of a bastard, as she was saying it, in part, about me, and I’ve never taken an MFA or any other kind of writing degree. But if you read slush for any magazine of worth, you soon get to see the standard ‘workshopped’ story. They are good and clean and all seem very much alike … I wonder why?

So a workshop process is a good one, as part of your writing trajectory, or to dip into and out of at various stages in your writing career, and I do this all the time so please accept I’m not a workshop hater, I find dedicated workshops such as novel exchanges to be almost invaluable, but becoming a workshop junkie really isn’t good for you, or your fiction.

lolcat courtesy of stuffonmycat at Flickr


  1. Charles Lambert
    26th November 2009

    I couldn’t agree more, Kay.

  2. Emerging Writer
    27th November 2009

    I agree and disagree. I agree you often see workshopped stories that are clean and same-y but they’s the ones that often win or get published. But I disagree about genre/commercial fiction. We workshop both ‘high-art, literary” and commercial in my group. Just because you appreciate one, doesn’t mean you won’t appreciate the other. And writing is writing, whatever. Even Dan Brown (and dare I say Stephanie Meyer) should know that

  3. Vanessa Gebbie
    29th November 2009

    Two things to ponder really – no answers (are there any in this game?)

    1) Writing in any genre can be made stronger via learning solid craft.


    2) if a writer wants to focus on a specific genre, seeking constructive feedback from writers who know zilch about that genre may be a bit of a waste of time?


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