As I was about to start writing this I was going to say I’d always recommend workshopping but then I decided maybe that wasn’t true. The trick is workshopping with the right people because then it can be a fantastic and useful experience, but to find the right people you have to experience the wrong ones.
The most intimidating person I ever found in a workshop was The All Knowing, this person is never wrong, they have their idea of what literature should be and if you don’t fit it then you’re wrong. Not to offend literary writers but The All Knowing usually thinks they are a ‘literary’ writer, whether right or wrong, but this experience may be because I prefer to write genre fiction which always made me wrong. Nobody has the right to make you feel bad about the genre you want to write. I’m not a fan of romance fiction but if you want to write it then write it. I love urban fantasy fiction but that doesn’t mean you have to write urban fantasy.
When I was younger I did give into this idea that I was wrong and I can say from experience that if you try to conform to another person’s idea of what is ‘right’ then your writing will not be as good and you will be dissatisfied (for more on using your own style try my article on Making The New From The Old). Instead of writing my story as I thought it should be I was trying to ‘intellectualise’ it, when I wasn’t being in anyway less clever than anyone else it was simply that particular person dismissing my efforts because it was a fantasy story so they thought it was a waste of time. A workshop should never be like that.
But don’t let the terrifying prospect of The All Knowing put you off, for every All Knowing there’s going to be a roomful of people as uncertain as you are and they are your allies. These people will have ideas of what they are looking for in a story which might not be the same as yours but they will suggest not demand and amongst them you will find people you work really well with.
However, there is also the prospect of the style of workshop. Is it a small one where you can workshop multiple pieces as a group or a bigger one where you split off into smaller groups? Do you submit beforehand and take notes or turn up manuscript clutched in hand? Is it one where you sit silently and listen to the feedback then question or is it one where ideas get ping-ponged around freeform? If you get a chance try them all to find out which works for you.
Personally when I ran workshops I preferred a more freeform approach, you could sit and write notes as people gave you feedback but you could question at the same time. Sometimes this led to arguments, not aggressive rude arguments, I wouldn’t allow that, but occasionally there’d be a point of contention and it would be argued out in a reasonable way. That said, simply because there was an argument over a plot point or an idea of style didn’t mean you had to go home, have a cry and then completely rewrite something. Most people who participate in writing workshops with a view to be writers do so because they’re passionate about writing and sometimes passionate people argue their points passionately.
Mostly we behaved like reasonable adults.
An ideal workshop is one where someone approaches your work from a different perspective or simply with a fresh set of eyes and perhaps coaxes something out of you. As you gain experience and learn about reader reaction and develop your ability as a writer you’ll probably find that you can anticipate a response because you’ve got a feeling that something isn’t working or something else needs a little development.
Having said that there are many wonderful writers out there who have never workshopped anything, and sometimes there are ones you think could have used some workshopping. As always my answer to your quandary is to try a workshop, give it a few sessions and see if it works for you, if it doesn’t then you might at least have some material for a story but if it does work for you then you’ll discover a very valuable resource.
If you want to know how workshops really helped me then if I hadn’t been to any I would never have had the courage to lead a group in debate and I definitely wouldn’t be writing these articles.