Monday, August 23, 2010

Killer Boots: Getting Clear about Workshopping with Suzy, Chelsea, Diana and Chuck

There are two kinds of writer’s workshops – those within the confines of an MFA program and those outside.

An MFA program will teach you the art of writing – the process of outlining, drafting and crafting with a fierce passion. Along the way, you’ll learn all kinds of technical jargon about plot structure and character development and so on. You’ll learn how to give and receive feedback constructively, (ahem, well, maybe). You’ll most likely learn a thing or two about publishing in literary journals, chapbooks, and other literary type magazines, but rarely will you hear much talk of mainstream publishing….anything outside the university or academic press system.

Then there are the writer’s workshops outside the MFA club. These range from a few like-minded friends getting together once a month to read and respond to each-other’s work to a group of well seasoned, published writers getting together weekly to read, critique and discuss their work in progress…with firm deadlines to meet from their editors.

Many writers come to me with questions about workshops from how to start one to what level of writer should be included to frequency of meeting, etc. To answer the first question, “How to start a workshop,” do your research. Start with the universities…I’m sure there’s a creative writing or English comp professor out there who’s in a writer’s workshop outside university walls. Ask your local indie bookseller, who typically knows the who’s who of your local literary scene, if they know of any workshops open to new writers. Ask your local librarian who might know of some workshops…they may be meeting there, you never know. The point is, get out of the house and ask! If you come up dry despite your best efforts, take the initiative to start your own. Ask writers you feel would contribute a certain educated voice to your group no matter their professional background…and don’t feel you need to only invite genre specific writers. Learn and explore outside your artistic comfort zone.

We’re kicking off a two week blogshop featuring members from one of the most dedicated, successful workshops in the country. You won’t find these folks in Iowa City or Irvine. And if you’re invited to join, you’d better come prepared and get over the fact you’re sharing your work with several of Portland’s bestselling authors and an award-winning journalist. They’ll come to the group with pages in hand, ready to talk shop – and so had you. Check your starry eyes at the door.

With us is New York Times bestselling thriller author Chelsea Cain (Heartsick; Sweetheart and more); freelance author Suzy Vitello Soule (a veteran of the group who’s working on a major book series right now that I can’t wait to read!); New York Times bestselling author Chuck Palahniuk (another veteran of the group and author of Fight Club; Invisible Monsters; Choke and more); and award-winning journalist, radio host and all around multi-media maven, Diana Page Jordan. For more background info, read this great article by Jeff Baker in
The Oregonian.

This is going to be a longer post than usual, so get cozy.

I asked the group:

How has workshopping your material helped you grow as a writer?

Suzy: Often, a writer has a hard time separating the story in her head from the story on the page. A good workshop points out the difference.

Chelsea: I really owe every bit of my success as a thriller writer to my writing workshop. I came to workshop four or five years ago with a whole lot of training in non-fiction writing and no clue how to write fiction. I mean, no clue. I had never taken a fiction writing class. I had a draft of my first thriller HEARTSICK, and we went through the thing chunk-by-chunk week after week. Along the way, I got a master class in fiction from some of the finest writers out there. Writers with MFAs. Who know stuff. I use those lessons every single time I sit down to write.

Diana: Absolutely, totally, without a doubt, it has. Having “grown up” in radio
– where I would go to a site, interview several people, break down the audio, write the script, four scripts usually, and then deliver the story on the air within an hour – I had no clue what second drafts were all about. I also learned the concept of unpacking – which, when I joined Workshop – seemed to be the favored comment from Chuck, Chelsea, and Suzy for my writing. Our group was that small when I joined, which helped, too, in the midwifing of a traumatic memoir. I didn’t even know what a workshop was until Chuck serendipitously invited me into Workshop. That invitation is a magical story, which made it into my memoir.

Chuck: Being among talented, dedicated writers, people who value the same artistic passions I value and have been trained by a wide assortment of brilliant past teachers, this gives me continued access to a far greater variety of recreational drugs.

TLC: Very funny, Chuck. Suzy touches on a good point – a good workshop is not only about art appreciation and being passionate about your story but translating that story that’s been mulling around upstairs, the one that’s been keeping you up at night, to the page through careful crafting. Good writing is equal parts craft and art.

How has it helped you gain clarity about where your story is going and who your characters are?

Suzy: Again, the creative process can give a writer a false sense of what has been conveyed—how strongly a character has been drawn, or how well the writing handles transitions. Objective, intelligent feedback is like having a second, more removed brain. It’s a great starting point for revision.

Chelsea: That’s not really the job of the workshop. That’s the writer’s job. If you don’t know where your story is going and who your characters are, all the writing workshops in the world can’t help you. This is one of the other things that the writing group has taught me – if you, as the writer, don’t do the work before you bring the piece in to workshop, it just wastes everyone’s time. Ideally, to get the full benefit of feedback, any work you bring in should be as good as you can possibly make it.

Diana: My BS in Journalism and Communications (University of Florida) can get me only so far. Being in Workshop is like borrowing an honorary MFA – these writers are brilliant people. Among other things, I gained clarity about POV, arc, and other key concepts. In most cases, I didn’t even know these things had names until I stumbled over them, and the writers pointed them out.

Chuck: Not so much. Workshop serves me better by reminding me where my characters have been: other writers will recall plot points or themes I've forgotten and allow me to bring them to the fore. "Bring them to the fore" that's some fancy talk'n. If other people can see where the story is going -- I'm not doing my job well.

TLC: So, clearly this process means something different to all of you. While I totally agree with Chelsea (because I don’t wanna see your work until it’s darn near perfect), Suzy and Chuck have great points, too. Sometimes you need that reaction…that feedback to see if you’re headed in the right direction creatively and adjust if you’re not. But it all boils down to you being in control of your work and your characters.

Do you ask each other for specific feedback about what is or isn't working or are you more laid back about how the feedback comes to you?

Suzy: Completely depends on what stage the draft is at when being critiqued. With early drafts, one often wants a general, overall reaction. Once an agent or editor has asked for specific changes, our members are not shy about being very detailed regarding the feedback they’re looking for.

Chelsea: It depends on the piece. Again, in a perfect world, we only bring in pieces that we’ve done all the work on that we can – pieces that are, in our mind, finished first drafts that are in our minds, doing what they’re supposed to do. Because if we bring in stuff that isn’t “finished”
and give feedback that we could have given ourselves, then what’s the point of that? But it’s not a perfect world, and sometimes we bring in stuff before it’s cooked. And sometimes we get stuck and just need help to free the ship from the iceberg. So occasionally someone will preface workshop with a particular concern, so the group can focus on that. “I don’t think the end is working here,” or “I’m looking for more ways to show who this character is.” I try not to do that because I’d rather see if any of this stuff shows up organically in conversation afterward. Maybe the end is working better than I thought, but if I plant the idea that it isn’t working then we spend the next forty-five minutes talking about it. If the trouble area doesn’t come up during conversation, then I’ll toss it around at the end of comments. “Did anyone else think the end sucked?” And I’ll see what people said then. But honestly, the group is so sharp, that if they don’t smell something foul then there’s probably not a dead body under the floorboards.

Diana: Yes, we ask each other for specific feedback, and this is true, of us all, to an individual. We each seem to feel free to follow up until we are content that we’ve “got it.”

Chuck: First, everyone in the group tells Chelsea how fabulous her boots look -- pinkie-swear, Chelsea wears a different pair to workshop every week. Second, before reading our work each of us might give a vague, technical description along the lines of, "This scene comes as the First Act Climax, but it Sets Up some big events in the Second Act and Buries A Gun I'll need for the Reveal in the Third Act." We adore Writer Plotting Jargon because it makes us feel less like writing nerds and more like International Spies.

TLC: So, like Suzy said, if you’ve got something specific you need feedback on due to an agent or editor’s comments, bring it up. While it’s important to be mindful of the feedback you’re given from your agent or editor, there will be times when the feedback you’re given from your workshop group differs...and you may see eye to eye with your group rather than your agent/editor. If this is the case, discuss it with your agent and/or editor.

And like Chelsea said, sometimes it’s not worth it to shine a spotlight on something you’re feeling insecure about when it’s a non-issue. Sometimes it’s best to not say anything at all, unless you’re really stuck, and see if your group spots it. If you’re really stuck, speak up.

Diana points to the backbone of what a workshop is all about – support and growth. To get good feedback, you’ve got to be willing to give it. A good workshop will be an almost harmonic balance of give and take between its authors.

It might not hurt to brush up on the writing jargon Chuck talks about if you, like Chelsea and Diana, haven’t had much experience with this language. And invest in some killer boots. Every international spy needs a pair.

Ok, my dears, that’s all for this week. Part two of this blogshop with The Portland Group, as I’m calling them, will return next Monday.

Your exercise this week:

If you’re already in a workshop, think of how it’s working for you and in what ways it could improve…don’t forget to examine your role in workshop. If you find there are areas that could be better…like everyone being totally prepared, address it diplomatically with the group…or the leader, if you have one. Maybe it’s an issue of feedback…are you learning from the kind of feedback you’re getting? If not, be more specific about the kind of feedback you need to get you on the right track.

For those of you NOT in a workshop, please consider joining or starting one! Try to join one that is not only focused on the art and craft of storytelling but on HOW to bring your work to an audience, if that’s your goal.

Thanks for joining us.

Have a fruitful week, writers!
Have any good workshopping tips to share? Do tell!

About the Contributors:

Suzy Vitello Soule writes for a living. Her work has been published in various journals, including Mississippi Review, Better Homes & Gardens and Willamette Week. Her personal essay, "Dancing With the Paper Rose", was included in the anthology The Spirit of Pregnancy, by NTC Press. Suzy has won several awards for fiction and poetry, including The Atlantic Monthly’s Student Writing Award, STORY Magazine’s Famous Fiction Competition, and Willamette Week’s Short Fiction Award.

Chelsea Cain is the author of The New York Times Bestselling thrillers EVIL AT HEART, SWEETHEART and HEARTSICK. Her next book THE NIGHT SEASON will be out in March 2011. All take place in Portland, Oregon, and focus on Det. Archie Sheridan, rainbow-haired journalist Susan Ward, and Sheridan’s lovely nemesis, the serial killer Gretchen Lowell.

Chelsea’s books have been published in over 20 languages, recommended on “The Today Show,” appeared in episodes of HBO’s “True Blood” and ABC’s “Castle,” and named among Stephen King’s top ten favorite books of the year. NPR included her book HEARTSICK in their list of the top 100 thrillers ever written. According to Booklist, “Popular entertainment just doesn’t get much better than this.” Entertainment Weekly adds, “In addition to spiky characters, Cain has a crisp voice, a wicked sense of humor, and an imagination for all the horrors that can unfold in a locked basement.” Chelsea lives in Portland with her husband and remarkably well-adjusted five-year-old daughter.

Diana Page Jordan is an award winning broadcast journalist, initially drawn to that industry as she wanted to be as close to the truth as possible. Her mission is to inspire, entertain, educate and enlighten.

She is a news anchor, reporter and talk show host, based in Portland, Oregon, originally from New York City. Diana has interviewed hundreds of best-selling authors of all genre for her own show on AP Radio, for an audio segment of her creation on Barnes and Noble dot com for XM Satellite, Westwood One TV and radio in Portland. She has also reviewed books on Martha Stewart Living and Sirius and the local ABC-TV affiliate. Diana has written about authors for The Costco Connection and had three cover stories in the 2009/10 for The Writer's Digest. Her nonfiction is published in four anthologies. She's also written a memoir, screenplay and novel.

Diana writes BookBlog and hosts a weekly show, Open Book with Diana Page Jordan at PDX.FM.

Chuck Palahniuk is the author of several New York Times bestselling books including CHOKE, DIARY, FIGHT CLUB. Often shocking, sometimes controversial but always unique, Palahniuk's body of work has earned a world-wide devout following and a solid place in American fiction.


  1. Hello,
    Would you suggest that the workshop be genre specific? Thank You!

  2. Taking into consideration this group's writing spans several genres, I don't think it's necessary, but if you feel you would learn more from working with just Romance, Sci-Fi, YA or Thriller genre writers, then go with it.

    As long as the group shows up ready to contribute quality work and feedback where all your strengths gel together, you've found the right workshop.

    My one caveat is to avoid writing groups that spend an abundance of time talking about rejection (from agents, editors, etc). Unless they're going to follow up that talk with an action plan.

    Thanks for your question, Anna.


Leave your thoughts! Feel free to share with us your success stories or tips.