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When to Stop Workshopping

by Director

Beginning writers are always told about how important peer review, workshopping, and getting feedback is to their development. The emphasis on feedback happens for a reason–writing is a social act, and it is in understanding how it is received that we begin to see the patterns that allow us to gain better control over both the quality and exact implications of our messages. This is true whether you are engaged in creative writing, journalism, or research and practical writing.

What creative types have to deal with that sets us apart is simple: There are no clean templates or style guides for us. We can learn about genre, technique, and even story structure, but the exact shape of our plot has to be structured around the psychological reality of our characters. This magnifies the importance of audience feedback, because mere style is not enough to make sure we are understood. Narrative itself is rarely enough, and rhetoric, while it serves the needs of a story, is insufficient to make it whole.

Workshopping lets us see the balance of these elements, and to hear whether or not they are achieving the desired result. At the same time, though, feedback from an audience with little interest or investment in a particular style, technique, or topic limits the range of productive feedback we can receive. Consider seeking feedback in another form, either through a new workshop or through other kinds of channels,┬áif you’re working with any of the following:

  • A workshop audience that is plainly uninterested in the genre or topic.
  • One whose background readings and/or writing experience makes them ill-suited to understand the techniques you favor.
  • A group of people who have reviewed this same piece in more than one previous incarnation.
  • Readers who do not reflect the target audience for your piece.

Local writing groups, online meeting spaces, and even blogging platforms like Tumblr can provide you with the keys to find your next workshop space, and programs like the Prague Summer Program for Writers exist to bring writers into new communities, where their work can connect with more diverse audiences, allowing them the experience of a wider reading. This, in turn, helps build up your own confidence in your judgment as it informs your base of knowledge about the way your work will be viewed by different kinds of people.

Notebook Exercises: Character Sketch

by Director

As you develop your story, whether it’s a short-short or a novel, there are a few basic pieces of prep work you need to do. For shorter works, many writers find themselves making this preparation mental instead of writing out every step, but sometimes it’s helpful to write things out, even if you’re only going to be with a character or setting for a short time. This character sketch exercise can be used for book length projects or flash fiction, it’s just a matter of the length you give yourself and your commitment to detail.

Build a Dossier

To give yourself a good character sketch, you need to lay out some background information first. Set aside some time, and let yourself just get information out in bullet-point. You’ll worry about organizing your creative writing later. To make sure you have a lot to work with, consider all of the following:

  • Family members and their relationship to the character
  • Occupation, primary goal, and/or societal role
  • Past experience and skill set, including education
  • Current major objective or goal
  • Possible secondary/tertiary goals (if needed)
  • Recognizable physical features or characteristics

Once you have a bunch of character information bullet-pointed, you’ll want to move on to organizing it into a narrative. Whether this is the protagonist of your story or not, you will want to get yourself organized around a story starring this character, one that helps you map out the ways that the six items above interact on a day-to-day basis.

Origin Stories and Other Indulgences

There are a few ways you can organize the information, and since this sketch is for you, let yourself explore. If you can build drama and tension into this exercise, great. It will transfer to your main story. If not? OK. This is just for you. Consider how the following scenarios can help you understand this character from the right angle:

  1. How did your character get to be in their current job or role? Why do they owe loyalty to the people they do? Give us the place it started.
  2. Consider the same kind of origin story, but for a code of ethics, honor, or other worldview. Where and how did that begin?
  3. Write a memoir where the character shows us their most powerful family memory.
  4. Become Facebook friends with your character. What kind of private gossip do they share about the other people in your story?

No matter what genre you’re working in, these kinds of formative exercises help to build the world your creative writing takes place in. Even when these extra stories live and die their entire lives in your notebook, the extra information they bring to your judgment in your main projects is irreplaceable.