Writers and Workshops

The very first writing workshop I ever attended turned me off them for life (I thought at the time). Fifteen years ago I spent three whole weeks* as a Lancaster University undergrad, taking Creative Writing as a minor alongside my science degree. To get onto this module you had to queue up in front of a specific table in a huge hall of similar tables and hand a writing sample to the lecturer who was sitting there. I had written my piece the day before, and it was about a writer who was trying to come up with something that would prove he was a good writer. (Oooh, meta!) The lecturer scanned the first couple of paragraphs, running her finger along the words, and then said, rather unenthusiastically for my liking, “Yeah, okay. Fine.” I was in.

A few days later I attended my first lecture; my notes from it could be condensed into a single line, and that line would be keep your ideas in a notebook. I’d already spent my entire adolescence reading books like On Writing, From Pitch to Publication and every new edition of The Writers’ and Artists’ Handbook. Keep a notebook? Um yeah, like, I know? But there was worse yet to come: a workshop where five or six of us would sit around in a circle, read a piece of work aloud and then brace ourselves while the others sandblasted our soul—I mean, our writing. I learned nothing except that we were all really, really bad and that a surprising number of people were writing novels about what “really” happened to Princess Diana.

(And this was 2001. It wasn’t exactly a hot topic.)

Flash-forward now to the summer of 2004. The ending of a long relationship at first felt like being dangerous unmoored, and then deliciously free. Single for the first time since I was a teenager, I spend one of my first weekends alone doing something that’s just for me: I book myself into a fancy hotel in Dublin and attend a two-day workshop at the Irish Writers’ Centre that I think might have been called Start Your Novel or Finish Your Novel or Stop Arsing Around and Write Your Bloody Novel, For Feck’s Sake. This workshop felt totally different. For one thing, it was useful. And for another, it was the first time I spent any time around people who were as serious about writing as I was. Going back down to Cork on the Sunday evening I was buzzing with motivation, buoyed by encouragement and, best of all, I felt like I finally had permission to write, to say, ‘I want to be a writer’.

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(Lancaster, all was forgiven.)

Then adventure distracted me. In 2005 I moved to the Netherlands to take up a seasonal job, had the best seven months of my life and then went back there the following year to have more fun. I went from there to working in Walt Disney World, and from there to backpacking across Central America. When I eventually got back to Ireland and I started seriously thinking about writing again, I was more focused on it than ever – which is why I ended up at an Inkwell Getting Published workshop in Killiney, Co. Dublin in April 2010.

This workshop has since become legendary. Monica McInerney and Sinead Moriarty dropped in to talk to us, and we all sat there in awe – and jealously, of course – wondering if we’d ever get published and if they had magic pens. “We” including Maria Duffy, whose sixth book will be published by Hachette this week, and Hazel Gaynor, a New York Times and USA Today bestselling author of historical fiction. The facilitator, Vanessa O’Loughlin, now writes crime under the name Sam Blake, and her debut Little Bones spent an amazing four weeks at No. 1 when it was published earlier this year. Oh, and there was me, of course. Five years later, Atlantic pre-empted my debut, Distress Signals, as part of a 2-book deal, it debuted on the Irish bestseller list back in May and has been optioned for TV.

(You know, just in case you’re new around these parts.)

There are benefits to attending a workshop that are obvious: you learn useful information that needed to know. That’s what you pay for. But it’s what you get in addition to that that I think makes attending workshops, seminars and other writing events really, really worthwhile.

If you want to be a doctor or a teacher or an entrepreneur, you will come across people in your normal, daily life who already do those things. But how often do you accidentally cross paths with a professional writer, and in a setting where you can pick their brains? And we all know that telling friends and family your career plans involve a 6-figure book deal doesn’t exactly result in a cheerleading routine complete with pom-poms, which is why it’s so important to spend time around people who not only share the same goal as you, but believe it’s possible too (because it IS).

And finally, giving an afternoon or a weekend over to your writing self isn’t indulgent, but necessary. Imagine your creative self is like a well that needs refilling every so often; spending time thinking, talking and focusing only on your writing will do that. On a more practical level, events like these can get you face-to-face with editors, agents and other contacts who might help you get a step up down the line.

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A little story: the first time I met Monica McInerney was at that 2010 Inkwell writing workshop. She had brought some of her books to show us and when the workshop was over she invited us to take home one of them if we wanted, and I wasn’t shy – I took one and asked her if she would sign it. She wrote in it that she was looking forward to reading my novel. In this picture, six years later, Monica is getting me to sign a copy of my novel for her, and I’m reminding her of the workshop, and I’m starting to cry. (I love this picture!)

What do you think? Have you ever done a writing or publishing workshop? How was it? Did it help?

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If you are in or near Dublin, the Dalkey Creates Festival kicks off next weekend. It has a stellar range of workshops including Writing Historical Fiction with the aforementioned Hazel Gaynor, Writing Crime with Louise Philips, Writing Memoir with Alana Kirk – and, yay for you, Vanessa O’Loughlin is doing a Getting Published workshop there too! There’s also a chance to find out exactly what editors are looking for from Ciara Doorley, editorial director at Hachette Ireland. Visit the Dalkey Creates website to find out more

*Well, one of them was Freshers’ Week, so technically it was two.

18 thoughts on “Writers and Workshops

  1. millie schmidt says:

    Great photo! What a special moment 🙂 I’m participating in my very first publishing workshop starting this weekend. I can’t beleive it’s taken me this long to buck up the courage to attend a workshop, especially considering there’s a wonderful writing centre and program of events in my town. A few local authors will be there and I’m pretty nervous to meet them! Will probably end up blogging about it hahah

  2. Kathryn Evans says:

    Yes, yes, yes!!!! My Monica was Malorie Blackman (swoon) . I so agree with everything you said – I even had the horrible circle of shame at my university poetry workshop!!!

  3. Joel D Canfield says:

    I love that photo and the story.

    Got to meet Liane Moriarty a few weeks ago. After she’d talked about 6 of her 7 books I asked “What about ‘The Last Anniversary’? It’s my favorite.”

    She said, “Mine too, but most people don’t seem to get it.”

    Maybe I have a modicum of writer’s sense after all.

    I’ve just moved from the middle of nowhere near the Canadian border to the edge of the big city near the Mexican border, and suddenly I have access to dozens of writing groups of all kinds. I’m terrified and overjoyed at the prospects for finding a handful of kindred spirits.

  4. Widdershins says:

    My first workshop was back in OZ with Trudi Canavan, a couple of decades ago, and I still have my notes around here somewhere. I’d never met a published author before, and with long hindsight, my biggest takeaway was that it’s possible to be one. 🙂

  5. alexaworthy says:

    In college, I absolutely loved workshopping! Maybe I was lucky for having good students in my classes and good faculty. I just moved to a completely new city, Boston, and I’ve been to a few writing workshops via meetup that I really enjoyed! This workshop was free, although you did need to submit a writing sample in order to attend. Now that I’m closer to the city, I’m hoping to check out some other programs!

  6. Terence Park says:

    Never done a writing workshop. Been to varied writing groups – each working slightly different. Anything from genre specific to read out anything you’ve done and we’ll critique. At some some I’ll save enough to trial a workshop. There’s an Arvon centre near but it ain’t cheap.

  7. Susan Lee Kerr says:

    Great to hear from you again Catherine. Yes you are right, workshops or good creative writing classes really really help. Ahem, I was a creative writing tutor in adult ed for 12 years. A longish running class is best because very often you meet a couple of people who become writing buddies and friends for life. The support from like-minded people is so important.

  8. cicampbell2013 says:

    I’ve been to a couple of weekend workshops and a week-long one with Arvon some years ago. Loved them all. Learned so much and met great people. I’d love to go to another but now have health issues that would make it more difficult. But I enjoy the online writing communities and blogs like yours, Catherine. Help me feel connected to like minds.

  9. dragons4me3 says:

    This made me smile wryly, thinking of my experiences. I have had several “professional” or at least “published” writers look at some of my work. One slammed my manuscript sample on the table (it was a writer’s group offering critiques at a sci-fi convention) and declared, “Nobody talks like that!” Another professional writer in the group declared the character of a teen prostitute was unbelievable because the girl’s parents would not have allowed her to be a hooker. Everyone else in the room stared at the middle class, middle aged, very whitebread lady. The nonpros in the group loved the story. Another critic once told me my characters were unbelievable because they were “too nice” in a Christian short story. I once paid extra at a conference for a published writer to critique my manuscript, only to have him glance at it and say, “Yeah? So?” So I gave up on asking “professionals” opinions for my work and self published a couple of short story collections of Christian fiction through Createspace and Kindle. Why nobody post reviews I’ll never know, but they tell me to my face that they are blown away by the stories. One lady told my whole church one of my books changed her life. One reader’s wife told me her husband has reread my book about 50 times and won’t allow anybody to borrow it. One lady complained that her son in law glanced through the book and promptly stole it and has never brought it back. I’m working on the third collection and a novel. Who knows, maybe someday J K Rowling will ask for my autograph. If you’re going to dream, dream big.

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