Four nights a week, the Central Phoenix Writers Workshop meets to critique and commiserate. A recent Wednesday evening session is pictured above a half hour before the meeting begins. It draws twenty or so writers most of the year, with more in the summer when school is out and the school’s teachers of English and composition have time to focus on their own works. (The Sunday, Monday, and Tuesday groups are typically smaller.)
Most writers bring six (6) copies of 1000-2500 words from something in development. Fiction is the most common, often a murder mystery, but factual memoirs, poetry, and outright porn may be included. (In the latter case, the author is obligated to tell the organizer who discretely selects the members of that critique group and its “read aloud” location.)
How It Works
The workshop formally begins at 7:00 PM. Writers register on-line–see the link above–or with the organizer before the meeting begins. Groups of five or six are announced. Each then moves to a different area. There’s the two tables seen above, the (indoor) porch by the main entrance, the deep freeze–a back room that’s always frigid, the couch and spongy red chairs around the fireplace, and “over there” in the living room.
In the designated locations, each small group has a moderator who reviews the process, specifies who goes when, and generally keeps things on track.
When it’s your turn, you “briefly” set up what you’ve brought to read–what genre is it, where is your work set, when does the action take place, who are the characters, and where does this piece fit into your larger work or is it complete as is. You then read your piece aloud. As you do, the listeners mark-up their copies for simple things like commas, word choice, paragraph breaks, and so forth. When you finish, each listener is encouraged to start with positive statements: what they like about the work, clever phrases that should be kept, well-written surprises, and so forth. They can also point out problem areas where they think your piece could be improved. Specific suggestions may be made but everyone knows it is ultimately the author’s decision about what to keep, what to change, and what to toss. (It is perfectly acceptable for an author to say, “I understand what you’re saying–thank you very much” and then completely ignore the criticism.)
Moderators attempt to complete each small group by 9:00PM but, depending on content and criticisms, ending times vary.
I go through my mark-ups over the next couple of days. A “WC” (Word Choice) or similar mark means the reviewer thinks I should find a better word. “Synonym wimpyword” works great on Google.
Commas in fiction may be quite different from what is taught in high school English. While they should always be used to separate different items in a list, there’s the issue of the so-called Oxford Comma. (Google that if needed.) Opinions on that particular comma vary from person to person, author to author. Generally, a comma indicates a brief pause. That’s where the reading aloud really helps. It demonstrates where the author “sees” (takes) a pause. That’s often a comma. And if they don’t pause, or if the pause seems natural at that point, then no comma. (FYI: Major publishers each have rules of style. They will, to varying degree and dependent on the author’s prominence, suggest, request, or require conformance.
Character problems such as “I don’t think she would say this” and structural issues like “You’re telegraphing the ending here; don’t do that” take more effort to fix. But, in the overall scheme of things, they are some of the most valuable observations. Most often these are verbal comments not otherwise be notated. I write these down on my reading copy during the session.
Incidentally, when I have a piece that I consider finished, I don’t take it to the Workshop. I’ve put as much time and effort into it as I want. While my writing can always be improved, at some point, I have to move on.
Taking the Plunge
If you want to write, the Central Phoenix Writers Workshop is a godsend. The more you participate, the better you’ll get. There are meetings in other parts of the Valley of the Sun (Phoenix metropolitan area). Click the link at the beginning of this post to find them.
If you live somewhere else, browse the pages (at the link) and copy/paste to create your own workshop. Choose a location, confirm your plans with the venue to be sure they are agreeable to your plan. (We pretty much “take over” the coffee house on Wednesday night but they are delighted to have twenty customers for drinks and food on a night when they’d otherwise have less than a dozen.) Then print up some flyers and sprinkle them around at coffee shops and, of course, tell your friends and co-authors.
In time, you will grow your own version of what I consider to be my single most valuable tool.