The Value of Workshops

It’s hard to find workshops and conferences that offer help for more advanced writers. It’s the nature of conferences to predominantly provide help for people just starting out in the business. You want to write, but you don’t know what to do so what better place than a conference to get all of your questions answered? Conferences and workshops helped me a lot when I first got started. It was at a SCBWI conference where I found out that the SASE thing (pronounced sassy in my mind) all the editors seemed to want was actually a Self Addressed Stamped Envelope. I also found out that I was supposed to send in the first three chapters with a query and not three middle chapters where all the action was.

Nowadays I go to conferences to socialize and network. The Pikes Peak Writers Conference, however, often offers some talks for advanced writers. I recently had the opportunity to attend Donald Maass’ workshop at the PPWC conference. I had had the pleasure of hearing him speak at previous conferences and had attended a half day workshop with him last year so I was expecting great things.

I went into the workshop pretty satisfied with the novel I was currently editing. I had written the first draft last summer. I let it sit for six months then incorporated a lot of my critique group suggestions. I let it sit again for a few months, mainly because of work deadlines, though I still wanted to do a big overhaul, deepening the emotions and tightening the writing before sending it to my agent. I decided to wait until after the workshop with Donald Maass as I was sure I would come away from that motivated and with even better ideas on how to polish the story.

I’m so glad I waited. Donald Maass has a way of shaking up your story and making you see it with fresh eyes. I saw so many issues that I had been blind to, including having a secondary character do some of the things my main character should have done. (I can’t believe I missed that.) Also, I have always shunned symbolism. Blame a BA in English literature. In college I always wondered how they were so sure of the symbolism in novels. Did they ever consult the authors? Since many of them were writing about these works a hundred years later, I doubted it. How would I feel if someone claimed to know more about my work than I did? Sometimes a cigar is just a cigar. Consequently I never consciously tried to use symbolism in my writing. But Donald Maass made the argument that nowadays writers need to combine the story telling abilities of the genre writer with the lyrical images of the literary writer in order to create books that have staying power. He suggested focusing on an object in the climax and then go back and mention it several times in the book as a way to incorporate symbolism. I realized I already had an object that I mentioned several times in the book and it would be easy to plant it in the climax too. In effect, I used his technique in reverse. It opened my eyes to the possibilities of using symbols.

Another technique Mr. Maass mentioned was to add micro tension to your work. I had heard him speak about this in the past and have also read about it in his book The Fire in Fiction. It works best for me to use this with emotion—giving my characters conflicted feelings. For example, wanting something to happen and at the same time dreading it—getting the letter from the college about your scholarship—excited to find out your fate and at the same time fearful it might not be what you want. It deepens the level of emotion and keeps it from being one note. Mr. Maass also said to use it in your sentence structure so that there is a push pull in the construction. While I can see the value in that, it’s hard to do. I occasionally pull it off but it’s not something I’ve mastered. Still, it’s a good idea to keep in mind during editing. It’s something I can use to tweak my sentences, especially in key scenes where that added tension could deepen the moment.

It’s important to continue to push yourself as a writer so that  your writing remains fresh, interesting, and surprising. Searching for workshops and conferences that offer more substantive talks for your level of writing is well worth the effort. You never want to reach a point where you think you know it all. If you do then it’s time to go to a conference or workshop and find out how much you still need to learn.

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