How to pick a writing workshop

 

By Pari

“Pari, in a future blog post, could you go through in a little detail how you happened to pick this particular workshop. Workshops aren’t cheap and your insights on separating the good from the bad would be really useful.” Chris Hamilton

Thanks for the idea, Chris. I’ve been thinking about it ever since my last post. Here are a few questions that should help you in the decision-making process. Ask them yourself when you’re looking at workshops.

What am I looking for?
Bingo. This is the biggie. Sure it’s obvious; it’s also neglected. Many writers have a weird “Do Me” attitude. These people abdicate responsibility for their learning at the same time they’re spending the money and time to do it.

Stop!

Ask yourself: Am I interested in general craft, dialog, networking (that might spur you to take a course/workshop from a “name” writer), plot structure, novel writing, bringing more emotion into my writing, or the business of writing?

Without a clear idea of what you hope to take away from the class, you can’t possibly narrow the field.

Do I really want to be in a student mindset?
Be honest. Do you really want to be a learner or do you think you know it all already?

Will you embrace comments, feedback and information on assignments and in lectures or will you spend your hard-earned money to fight everything and then bitch about the class afterward?

Related to this is the time factor: are you ready to jump in and attend the entire class, do all the exercises and other assignments, conduct the required research  . . . or will you be pissed at the demands on your already busy schedule?

Whom do I respect?
This consideration is two fold.

  1. Whom do I respect enough to ask for candid recommendations about the workshop/class?
    Pick carefully. If possible, you want people that know your writing. I’ve had acquaintances tell me NOT to take a class because they believed I didn’t need it. I trusted them. Before I ever considered the Master Class, I asked around, talked to friends who’d gone through it. Believe me, I really thought I knew what I was getting into <g>.
  2. Do I respect the instructors?
    If you don’t know them already, contact them. Get to know them — at least a little —  through emails and, if appropriate, conversations. Please .  . . If you don’t feel like you can respect them, for heaven’s sake DON’T give them your time and money because you somehow feel they’d “be good for you.” Sheesh. I know people who’ve done this. Argh!

This also gets into the whole concern about teachers or classes compromising your “voice.” It’s a crucial consideration.

When I first started writing, I was very open and willing to take classes from all kinds of people. Luckily I didn’t have a lot of money or I probably would’ve ruined my writing for life.

Let’s face it. There are a lot of instructors out there that teach more from ego than from anything else.

The first part of the respect question has to do with “objective” input. That’s why you have to respect the sources.

The second part of the question has to do with your own gut. Pay attention to it! If something stinks like durian fruit, don’t just through your sweet-smelling time and money at it and expect it turn into a fresh gardenia.

How much money do I have to do this?
Obvious, hunh?

The master class cost a lot, but for what I wanted it was a bigger bargain than going to the myriad classes I’d need to attend to get half of the information.

So . . . some things aren’t quite so obvious after all.

What kind of a commitment am I – and my family – willing to make?
Time. Money. Emotion. Absence from home. Gas expenses. Hotel costs. Emotional focus.

There are classes that require a day, a few hours/week, weeks, months.

What is your learning style?

Do you want an immersion experience or a tidbit here and there?

Will this class impact your family, day job, other activities? Is that all right?
I can tell you that if you attend a class that takes you from home for an extended time – that requires sacrifices made on your behalf — you’re going to get push-back when you return. Be ready for it.

And THINK ABOUT IT.

Don’t skimp on this step because you intuitively feel everything is going to be copacetic.

Pari’s experience:

I did ask myself these questions before committing to the Master Class. I hadn’t been to a writing or craft or business workshop in years and years – except as an instructor. For me, the worries were time, money and my voice as a writer. I asked around and found writers/people I admire with all of my heart. And then asked them what they thought.

I thought I knew what I was getting into and it was far different than anyone could have ever told me; no one can totally predict how another will respond. Still, the Master Class was perfect for me and my requirements. I’m a better writer and business person as a result and know that this is only the beginning of the effects of those two incredible weeks.

But if many of my friends asked me if they should attend it, I’m not sure I’d say “yes.” It would depend tremendously on the person asking, on that person’s current career, and most definitely on what I knew about her or his homelife. (Because push-back can be a bitch; believe me.)

So, Chris, I hope this helped.

Everyone else: I hope it helps you too!

Questions for today’s discussion:

  1. Did I miss anything?
  2. If you’ve attended a professional workshop – writing or in another field – what questions did you ask yourself before picking it?

15 thoughts on “How to pick a writing workshop

  1. Cathy

    Great advice, Pari, that applies as much to conferences and retreats as it does to a masterclass.

    The only thing I can add is, if at all possible, find out a little about the other attendees. Are they writers? Or Wannabees? Beginners or ready to take a step up?

    I attended a day-long ‘masterclass’ added to a weekend conference. The speaker was a Very Big Name in a genre I enjoy and had a decent reputation as an instructor. It was an excruciating day of Come Worship At The Altar Of Me, made worse by the gushing groupies in the audience.

    In direct contrast, I recently attended a masterclass that had not just terrific teachers, but women (and one brave man) who were there to learn and improve. The sharing and support went beyond listening at critique sessions. There was the premise queen who distilled a dozen stories to a line or two. The computer guru who built templates from the training materials. The plot mavens who found working through turning points and motivations a fantastic way to spend the afternoon.
    It may be hard to predict exactly who will show up – and it’s not difficult to avoid the one person who finds it necessary to complain – but each class does develop a vibe (is that too 70ish a word?) probably driven by the organizers.

    Reply
  2. pari noskin taichert

    Cathy,
    You make an excellent point! Thank you so much for mentioning it.

    I DID check out every member of my MC — if the person had a website — before the class. And you’re right that the diversity had a huge and wonderful impact.

    We also got to know each other via a listserv. Most of us are still active on it now — encouraging and supporting each other.

    And you’re right about the Church of ME that some instructors promote/encourage/adore. It’s annoying. I’ve never attended a workshop like that because I can usually sniff those out a mile away – – — but I’d say that it’s critical in those cases (just like at conventions/conferences) to ask around.

    Bottom line: Find out — if you can — BEFORE you spend your precious time and money.

    Reply
  3. Chris Hamilton

    First of all, thanks very much for answering my question. The discussion is timely because I’m starting a workshop in Orlando every other Tuesday after the first of the year. Looking at each other’s work is a key part of the workshop, which I’m good with, as long as I don’t get "That sentence is a fragment."

    (Thanks, Sherlock. I know that. I wrote it that way on purpose.)

    So I asked my questions very forthrightly…had about a half an hour Q&A with the person and decided to send in my check. Her "Writing from a Prompt" session at the Florida Writers Conference spurred me, in about 25 minutes, to write the best thing I’ve ever written (and the new, kick-butt opening to my WIP).

    My goal is to use what I learn to polish my work so someday I can be part of a happening blog of witty and accomplished published writers like this one.

    Chris

    Reply
  4. pari noskin taichert

    Chris,
    Heh heh heh. "Witty and accomplished"? Wow. Thanks.

    Actually, I really appreciated your question because it made me think about how some of these things aren’t nearly as obvious as one might expect. But there are so many classes, workshops, seminars, retreats . . . out there that it’s becoming more and more important to look at them critically Before sending in that check.

    I hope the one you attend will be incredibly worthwhile!

    Reply
  5. Karen M.

    Is anybody going to the Berkeley Mystery Writing Intensive this weekend in Berkeley, CA? It’s presented by Murderati’s own Cornelia Read with other authors, agents and faculty, too. Here’s the link: Berkeley Mystery Writing Intensive

    It’s got writing (e.g. good beginnings, memorable characters, sex–I assume that means writing about it), business (e.g. query letters, pitches, publishing trends), and law enforcement panels on the schedule.

    Reply
  6. Sylvia

    Excellent post Pari.

    What I’ve looked for in the past was the instructor and if possible their reputation as an instructor if I could find such information.

    Cathy makes great points about on both "the altar of me" instructor and other attendees who are there as groupies, looking for therapy or god forbid general acceptance in the population at large.

    I also look at the style and technique of the instructor’s own work.

    Reply
  7. Sharon J.

    Great post!

    Just wanted to chime in about the Berkeley Mystery Writing Intensive this coming weekend.

    I am an aspiring writer and found the Book Passage Mystery Conference (in Marin County, CA) to be a fabulous experience but it’s only once a year so I always attend other stuff throughout the year (local SINC and MWA events, B-Con, Left Coast Crime, etc) for inspiration, networking, and because writing is lonely so it’s nice to see adults who are passionate about the same thing.

    Cornelia Read is a Book Passage alum and decided to begin offering workshops to help people navigate the process. Her upcoming workshop is best suited to people who are almost finished, looking for inspiration to finish, or have a completed manuscript and are struggling with getting represented.

    The line-up of instructors is impressive–Bay area authors, a NY-based literary agent, and someone who can talk about what stories are likely to be adapted for the screen. It’s also CHEAP–$249 for the entire weekend. If you live in or near the SF Bay Area, you should check it out.

    Reply
  8. pari noskin taichert

    Sylvia,
    Thank you.

    And I think that’s a wonderful idea to look at the instructor’s work — if it’s available. I did do that inadvertently with my MC because one of the reading assignments was an anthology of the Century’s Best Mysteries and Kristine Rusch’s wonder G-Men was in it.

    Great story.

    I was really delighted to have her as our main craft instructor.

    Reply
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