But I am thrilled beyond words to get back to our ongoing discussion of novel writing. Today we’ll tackle one of the trickier issues facing the contemporary writer: workshops.
Whether you’re an MFA student or a member of informal writer’s group or a loner with a few semi-willing (bribed) friends, at some point someone will be reading your novel draft with a critical eye. Ideally, it will be a second or third draft, at least, but the time will come–probably when you’re beyond sick of thinking about your own work–when you’ll need another pair of eyes. Probably more than one pair.
So this week, we will think through how to bring your novel to a critique setting. And–bonus!–how to critique someone else’s novel in turn.
First comes the decision to share your work. This is never an easy thing. Rather, it will probably feel something like abandoning a small child in a park full of people you sort of know. Even dear friends will seem a bit suspicious in this light. So as tempting as it might be to share your draft as soon as possible, take a moment. Don’t do it when you feel ready, because you might never feel ready. But if you’re not sure what needs to be done next for your draft, it might be time. If you’re tinkering with sentences instead of plot points, it might be time. If you’re already thinking about your next novel, it’s probably time.
There is only one problematic time to share your novel: when it isn’t finished.
And I don’t mean finished in terms of revision, I mean that you don’t have the whole thing written. You haven’t written “The end” at the end of your manuscript. You don’t know what happens.
It’s tempting to get feedback as soon as you have a first chapter, but this very often causes more problems that it solves. Consider that it’s bad enough to have your own critical voice in your head when you’re writing a first draft. You don’t need your professor’s critical voice. Or your workshop leader’s. Or your classmate’s. Or your significant other’s. Even if they say predominantly positive things, these discussions can produce an incredible feeling of paralysis.
But let’s say that your novel is finished. You have a complete draft. You share it with a group of people. Likely, you’ll sit down to talk to those people, either individually or as a group. Unless you want clarification on a point, I suggest you mostly listen to what they have to say. Take notes, even if they’ve written you letters or made marginal comments. Interesting ideas come impromptu out of workshop discussions all the time. Some of what is said you will already know — don’t acknowledge that. Some ideas will be completely irrelevant to your work — don’t acknowledge that either. At the end of the discussion, thank your group and be ready to reciprocate. Reading a novel is no small task. You’ve been given an investment of energy and time, whatever the quality of the feedback.
Afterwards, I suggest waiting to read any additional comments. Workshops can be emotionally draining. If you need to cry or go for a walk or see a movie to clear your head, go for it. As with your drafts, give yourself some distance. Do something else for a few days–preferably a week or two–and then, when it’s not so fresh, reread your workshop notes. Read the letters. Think about what criticism resonates with you. Don’t try to make everyone happy as you plan your next revision–fiction by committee is a terrible, terrible thing. If you are especially resistant to a note about one of your darlings, think about why. Don’t do anything drastic. Reread your draft with these ideas in mind. Make your own notes. Start planning a new revision.
And above all, don’t beat yourself up. Writing a novel is a process with many stages. This is one stage to producing the best novel you can.
Reading a novel is no small task. Go ahead and pat yourself on the back–you deserve it. My best advice for workshopping a novel is to read sensitively. Is this a complete work? If not, focus on the potential rather than the problems. Make note of scenes which you find moving or interesting. This isn’t the microscopic sort of criticism you deal out for poetry or short fiction or essays. Novels are big–think big when you’re critiquing, unless you’ve specifically been asked to look for minutiae. Consider the broad structure of the novel. Can you diagram it? How does the conflict build? What is its effect? What effect do the other technical choices in the novel have? Don’t feel like you have to offer criticism about every aspect. Stick to what speaks to you–or what intrigues or troubles you. Your writer isn’t looking for all the answers. She might even have a few of them already. You’re just providing the next step in her process, the next thing for her to think about as she continues her revisions.