29 November, 2012
The Writers' Workshop
The Power of the Professionals
My degree is Biological Anthropology. It's not as posh as it sounds. It's basically human biology, focussing on evolution, with a bit of cool stuff about mummies thrown in. The point is, it's a science degree. For my A-levels I did biology, chemistry and maths. I haven't had a lesson in writing since my GCSEs (compulsory exams at the age of 16, for my friends across the Atlantic!). I'm not a qualified writer. But neither am I some creative genius who doesn't need to be taught. For the last few years I've been teaching myself to write by writing a lot, and by reading a lot. I've read fantastic fiction and also great blog posts and articles from other writers willing to give out their words of wisdom for free. It's been fun.
But if I was to choose one thing that made the biggest difference to my writing since I started taking it seriously about two years ago, it would be The Writers' Workshop. Getting a professional critique on my first attempt at writing a novel (a children's fantasy adventure) taught me more than I could have taught myself in years. A nine page in-depth report of everything I'd done wrong (and some of what I'd done right) taught me both general writing skills and about my own weaknesses as a writer.
It wasn't cheap. When you get a critique you are paying a professional to read your whole manuscript (MS) and make detailed notes. And that takes a lot of their time. It also wasn't comfortable. Having someone pick apart your darling MS and point out all your cringe-worthy amateurish mistakes is a humbling experience. But if anybody out there has the money to do it, I cannot recommend it enough. Getting your friends to read your work - however much you trust them to be honest - is valuable, but it isn't the same.
I used the Writer's Workshop and found them amazing. Not only do they use professional authors to write the critiques - so you are getting someone who has been there, done that and learned how to look stylish in the t-shirt - but they can't seem to do enough for you. Since paying for the critique I have had so much free advice from them - from checking over my cover letters to writing a whole blog post for me when I asked a question about submitting to agents! Harry Bingham, who runs the agency, replies to comments on the blog and even e-mailed me personally when he thought he could help with something.
I was lucky that the author who worked with me thought I had enough potential for her to write the longest report she'd ever done. The detailed advice she gave made the book so much better. OK, so I never found an agent for that one, but I did get feedback from a couple of agencies saying they thought I had something going for me, which kept me pressing on. Although my current adult novel, The Art of Letting Go, never went through the WW, the things I learned from that first critique were crucial in helping me to write it well enough to find an agent.
You may not be able to afford a proper critique - I only did in the end because I won a short story competition and put the prize money towards it - but I recommend visiting the website anyway. It has so much to inpsire writers, from agent interviews to writing courses. I don't usually wax lyrical about organisations on this blog, but I really think WW is tremendous. Unlike some organisations out there, it seems to exist to help and encourage writers at all stages, not to extort money off the back of the precious dreams and ambitions of people who love to write.
What's been the one thing that's made the most difference to your writing? (Other than reading and just writing!)