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Evolution of a Workshop Junky

Viable Paradise XV Class

Earlier this month, I attended the Viable Paradise Workshop on Martha's Vineyard. Surrounded by talented writers, both published and unpublished, I learned a ton, from the history of the mass market paperback, to how to conceptualize and pitch a story in ten minutes.

But most interesting were the actual workshop sessions. I've been in plenty of workshops before, from high school creative writing courses to online critique groups to graduate poetry workshops. But over time, my attitude toward the advice I've gotten in these workshops has evolved.

In my first workshops, I found it more helpful to listen to workshop leaders--teachers or instructors--than the other students. It was easiest to parse their advice. Often, teachers (who are more practiced at giving feedback) are able to treat a young writer a little more gently, coaxing them to come around to see their point of view. They're also an obvious authority. When you're a young writer, it's easier to demur to an instructor's clear experience rather than to try and sort out the "good" feedback from the "bad" among your peers.

Later, I came to feel more open to hearing feedback from other writers. However, I was careful about the sort of advice I'd take. "Be a filter," I came to say, "not a sponge." At this stage, I was sure that I could strain out the useful stuff and leave the rest behind. I figured that if some piece of criticism didn't ring true to me as a writer, then I could just discard it. What would be the use of wasting any time with advice that you don't like?

But at Viable Paradise, I found that my perspective on workshop feedback had shifted yet again. I no longer sorted my peers' advice into "good" and "bad." Instead, I found myself listening closely to what everyone had to say. A funny thing happens when you stop and listen to a critique, rather than reacting defensively to it. You begin to be able to read other things in your peers' writing advice. For example, genre preferences became clear. If someone talks about how creepy and unsettling they found a story, and how it upset them, you learn something not just about this particular story but about their feelings on creepy, unsettling writing generally. You also learn about their individual tastes as readers; a writer who favors an active hero might always be frustrated by a passive protagonist.

Armed with this information, I realized I could do something with this critique feedback that I've never been able to before. I could play with reader expectations, skewering genre tropes, emphasizing elements in order to create certain reader expectations, and then deflect them. Back when I was a high school student, I never would have been able to manipulate layers of meaning or intention in quite the same way. Then, it was easier to just do what my teacher told me, and ignore everything else. But as my confidence in my own ability to write has grown, so has my ability to take criticism--and to see how it has more applications than just "fixing your story."

So the next time you're in a critique situation, consider not just listening in with the hope that you'll be able to correct problems in your story--instead, open your ears to the unique insight a reader gives into their own reading life. With this knowledge in hand, you can make your writing less a monologue (even a polished one) and more of a dialogue between the writer, and the reader.
Phoebe North

Phoebe writes stories about aliens for teenagers. She loves both Star Trek and Star Wars and doesn't believe you should ever have to choose. She is the author of Starglass and Starbreak, both from Simon and Schuster.

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  1. This is probably the critique advice I've ever heard. Bravo. And bravo again.

  2. I meant BEST critique advice! See, I got so excited my fingers were fumbling.

  3. Thank you, Gail! I'm glad it was helpful for you. :)

  4. Thanks for sharing such thoughtful advice. I think a lot of critique acceptance takes maturity; it's easy to get defensive, but equally as easy to try to weigh every suggestion the same to the point you lose your vision. People's perceptions and taste vary so much. I think it's probably harder to glean critique advice from a group at a conference who you've never met and probably won't see again.

    Glad you got something out of it and thank you for sharing!

  5. Great advice :)

    I think it also applies for those who are critiquing--it's important to try, as much as possible, to leave your personal preferences out of the feedback you give. Easier said than done, though.


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Item Reviewed: Evolution of a Workshop Junky Rating: 5 Reviewed By: Phoebe North