To say that 2020 has turned out vastly different from what we were all envisioning is the understatement of this same year. When 2020 began my wife and I were planning a trip to the UK for April, I was wrapping up work on one project and about to begin scripting work on a TV series, we were looking forward to the entry of our child into kindergarten and (for me especially) the reclamation of the hours between 8am and 3pm Mondays-Fridays.
Then Corona happened, and it all went to shit.
No UK this year. The TV series (and my paycheck from it) is on indefinite hold, and our child is currently in a mixed in-person and remote learning program. Everyone is in the same holding pattern they were in March, which feels like YEARS ago. We’re in mourning for the year we’d hoped we’d have but never did. We mourn visits to museums and the public pool, the loss of Halloween and Thanksgiving, and just going to the movies.
So, we’re adjusting, but as it is, some things remain the same. take the school thing. Dropping your child off/picking them up means chatting with the other parents. Questions fly about, and inevitably you get asked what you “do” for a living. And when I mention I’m a writer, the questions really start flying. They want to know what you’ve done, obviously, but a lot more want to know more detailed information because they have always wanted to write a novel, or a short story, or a play, or a screenplay or … you get the point.
But the ones who’ve really done some serious thinking about writing dig even deeper;
“How do I get an agent?”
“How do I find a publisher?”
To the above two, my answer is “beats me”. There’s no bulletproof way of acquiring either, other than writing good work and getting it out to people. It’s a marathon, not a sprint. And for a person whose career as a writer began in 1999 I didn’t get my first official Literary (i.e. “Book” agent) until 2014, and my first novel wasn’t published until 2017.
Then the even more specific questions follow.
“I was thinking of attending this writer’s workshop. What is your opinion?”
“What about NaNoWriMo? Should I take part? What do you think?”
So far (fingers crossed) I haven’t been asked the questions writers dread hearing, like “I’ve written a novel; could you read it for me and give me some pointers?” and “I have a great idea for a novel. If you write it, we can split the money! Sound good?”
I won’t dignify the latter two with a response, but with the former, I do have opinions, actually, on the whole “Writer’s Workshop” and “NaNoWriMo” things.
What do I think …? Well, they’re fine? I guess?
I mean, they’re clearly popular enough to be something I get asked about. And they clearly do serve some purpose to the struggling writer. It’s hard, doing what we do. You may scoff, you may say “what, making stuff up and writing it down? Anybody can do that.” And that’s true, but can “anybody” do that every day? Can “anyone” devote months of work, day-to-day work, on a project with no guarantee of result that tells you “this is worthwhile”?
[For the uninitiated: “NaNoWriMo” is “National Novel Writing Month” where you’re supposed to dedicate the entirety of November to writing a first draft of a novel, ending up somewhere in the 50,000 word range. You register, you post your progress, and at the end of that month, assuming you’re successful, you have a novel with your name on it.]
Short version: If a workshop or retreat helps, if a NaNoWriMo puts your butt in your chair and makes you do the work, that helps. But I feel in the long term – I’m talking long term career as a writer – I believe they may do you more harm than good.
Writing is a solitary profession. It has to be. I share a philosophy with Stephen King that basically states; “First Draft; door is closed. Second Draft; Door is open”.
Your first draft is for you and you alone. It’s you telling yourself the story. It’s the kitchen sink draft. Everything goes in. Then when done it goes goes in the drawer and you hopefully forget about it for a bit.
The second draft is where the real work begins. You’re reading it to yourself for yourself, and you’re deciding what works and what doesn’t, what you need more of, what you need less of. After that second draft you may be ready to show it to some people for feedback.
[I’m more of a two drafts and a polish before showing guy. I like a cool-down period after finishing the draft to do some touch ups, but really I walk away for two weeks then give it a read-through. That’s if I think it’s ready for a read. Some books are more difficult than others and may require another draft, or to be shelved permanently. Yeah, that’s a thing that happens too. Not often but sometimes a project just doesn’t come together. It might in time, you might discover that missing piece and find where it belongs. But generally, two drafts and a polish is my litmus. By that point I know whether or not I’ve got something worth showing.
Now, with a writers workshop or retreat, you’re basically in a First Draft situation of writing, but forced to bump that to a Second Draft conclusion where you’re getting critique and feedback on something you just wrote. In that regard, I do believe that receiving feedback on a First Draft is counter-productive and has killed more writing careers than it’s helped.
Because you need that time away, to let the story rest, to let it breathe. It’s like cutting into a freshly grilled steak right after it comes off the barbecue; all those juices just spill out on the plate; you lose the flavor, the tenderness of the cut. You need to let that meat rest for the full effect. Writing is the same way. You need it to rest a little, and get some distance from it so you can attack it in the next draft with a more critical eye. The danger of the immediate critique is that you’re still close to that material; so much so that any criticism is going to worry at you. And how can it not? You only just finished it.
Now, if you’re interested in going to a writer’s retreat because of the social aspect; the dinners, the movie and Karaoke nights, the camaraderie of reconnecting with old friends (and making new ones), or just building and maintaining your network then they’re really good for that and by all means GO. You’ll have the time of your life, you’ll forge friendships that will remain with you as long as you live.
As for NaNoWriMo and writing the novel, it kind of does the opposite of its intent; it forces you to sprint, basically, to craft and finish that 50,000 word manuscript in 30 days. It puts you in competition with other writers when the only person you should be in competition with is yourself. Everyone reads at a different pace; they write at a different pace. It’s the equivalent of handing everyone a thick doorstop of a book on November first and expecting everyone to read it to completion by the 30th. Not everyone reads at the same pace. Not everybody can. And even if you do; how much of the book are you actually absorbing?
Again, using the meal metaphor; do you want to hurriedly wolf your food down like a dog, or do you want to take your time to savor it? Think of those flavors, the spices, the seasonings, how the various ingredients of something as simple as a garden salad compliment each other. Now think of it all shoved into a blender and pureed and slammed down the gullet. It’s technically the same meal, except for all the parts that are different.
Writing should not be a race or sprint to completion. It should be pleasant. You should derive joy from the creative process. You shouldn’t be eying a clock. Because nobody who reads and enjoys a book is ever going to care how quickly it was written.
I do, however, believe that there are some benefits to writing retreats/workshops and NaNoWriMo.
A good writing courses can teach you one very valuable thing; grammar, and how to use it. But there isn’t a course/workshop/retreat in existence that can’t teach you what you can’t already teach yourself. Read a lot. Write a lot. Lather. Rinse. Repeat.
NaNoWriMo will condition you to put your butt in that chair and bang those words out, day after day (which is really the essence of being a writer; the ability to set a schedule and stick to it, rather than ‘when the mood takes you’. I speak as a writer who wrote the last third of Magicians Impossible while suffering crippling back pain that was so bad at times I was having spasms and could only sit for thirty minutes at a time before I needed an hour to rest.
Look, there’s no silver bullet or magic spell to any of this. Any writing workshop or retreat that promises a pathway to a book deal or an agent should be avoided. Knocking out a draft in a month is also not going to get you anywhere anytime soon.
I say all of this because I know there are aspiring writers out there without the means to attend a workshop or a retreat. Without the time to NaNoWriMo themselves in November. The parents with kids, the adults with minimum wage jobs. In these very uncertain times, hunkering down with your nose to the grindstone isn’t just work; it’s survival. And I’d hate to see someone struggling to make ends meet figure if they can’t afford the money for a conference or retreat (or the time to bang out a novel in a month) that they then discouraged from taking up their pen and writing. Think of the volumes of stories dreamt and never written because life was too much, too demanding, too discouraging.
So to those parents, to those people who say they always wanted to write a novel, the best advice I can give is to find what way works best for you, and do that. But do it consistently. Writing is discipline, and how disciplined you are in pursuing it will determine, more than anything, whether or not you have what it takes to go the distance.