I’ve been meaning to write this blog post for ages. It’s about a creative writing workshop I gave in October. But I allowed the time fairies to steal my spare hours and it’s only now that I’m able to seize the opportunity to tell you about it. I’m telling you about it because it demonstrates what good feedback can achieve for a writer as their work develops.
As I give more and more creative writing classes, I’m starting to be more ambitious in the scope of those classes. I want to work more with students who are aiming seriously towards publication, or who at the very least want to produce full length pieces of writing. I’ve been fortunate to have students return for more classes, and I want to offer more to those students.
So I’ve started to offer intensive one-day workshops aimed specifically at students who are completing a novel, a non-fiction book or a book of short stories. The workshop I gave last October was one of those. The aim of the workshop was to help bring these writers closer to the finishing line, through in-depth exercises and feedback, three willing souls came to lay their work bare and have it critiqued.
Get Into Character
We jumped straight in at the deep end, with exercises designed to help the writers get to know their central characters better. They created a sketch of their character, filling in details about their lives, and the deep, dark secrets that made them who they are. The writers then walked around the room as their characters and imagined what the characters would eat for their last meal.
Interaction between characters forms the basis for many stories, so I got the writers to think about the impact of their character’s status on their interactions. I’ve discussed character status in a previous blog post, and it’s a useful way of determining how characters behave in potential conflict situations. The conflict situation I imagined for them involved their central characters giving another character a lift.
Point of View
Then we explored the impact of the point of view from which a story is told. Point of view has a strong impact on the atmosphere of a story, and on how much you learn about the characters. I related an incident involving an obstreperous old woman on a train, and got the writers to retell it, using a first person and third person viewpoint.
The Art of Giving Feedback
After lunch, it was time for the good stuff. Bearing in mind that people’s brains turn to mush after food, the afternoon activities were based more on discussion. But that discussion was certainly meaty. I’d asked the participants to send in five-page samples of their work and now it was time to dissect it.
Before the participants read their samples, I asked them to tell us what they wanted us to look out for in their work. Getting feedback is never easy, no matter how kindly it’s delivered. If you ask for the feedback you want, you’ll be more ready for it when it comes, and more receptive to the advice given. So the participants asked out to look out for things like character development and the flow of the story. Or else they just wanted to know if it was good enough, plain and simple.
After they had finished reading and they sat squirming, we softened the blow by first telling them what we liked about the pieces. Then we highlighted areas to work on, giving suggestions and asking questions. Feedback is easier to take if it comes in the form of a question, like What is the character supposed to be doing in that scene, or a suggestion, like I suggest you add in a few details to make it clear that the story is set in the present. This is more palatable than outright criticism like, Your characterisation is crap, or being prescriptive: You should set your story in the present.
The students gained lots of new insights into their work, which they could then use to improve and develop the work. When a new pair of eyes come to a piece of writing, they see things that yours do not, because you’re too close to it. Their observations can set off a lightbulb flash in your head. At the very least, you won’t feel as if you’re quite mad for wanting to write a book, or that you’re alone while you’re doing so.
Have you ever been to a workshop like this? How did you feel your work benefited from it? Were there any ways it could have been improved upon?
The students gained lots of new insights into their work, that they could then use to improve and develop the work. When a new pair of eyes come to a piece of writing, they see things that yours do not, because you’re too close to it. Their observations can set off a lightbulb flash in your head. At the very least, you won’t feel as if you’er quite mad for wanting to write a book, or that you’re alone while you’re doing so.
Have you ever been to a workshop like this? How did you feel your work benefitted from it? Were there any ways it could have been improved upon?