Thursday, September 15, 2005

Online Writing Workshops

The other day I mentioned one of the two ways to build control of your writing. Today I thought I'd mention the other one: online writing workshops. Most online workshops are really just electronic versions of the critique circle: Everyone makes copies of their latest piece for everyone else in the group, the group reads the piece, and then provides a critique of what worked and what didn't work in the piece. In the case of online workshops, that "critique circle" can have hundreds or even thousands of members. This is good and bad. It's good because you have a chance to get feedback from a very diverse population of writers, something that's difficult to do in an in-person workshop. It's bad because, well, no one can read and critique thousands of pieces every week. There's a reason editors no longer provide feedback when they reject a piece. Most online workshops handle this problem by having people "purchase" critiques of their work. The currency of this purchase is not money, it's critiques of others' work. The more pieces you critique, the more "credits" you earn to get your own pieces critiqued. It's a pretty good system.

Some people (rightfully) have concerns about posting their work on the Internet, even to a closed group. After all, electronic magazines are becoming more and more common, and they are buying first electronic publication rights. The generally accepted legal opinion is that posting your work to a closed, restricted group is not publication, because it is not available to anyone. The dissenters to this opinion reply, "Well, neither is an electronic magazine -- you have to subscribe first." And superficially, the process does look the same. The reason it's not a problem is that the piece you submit for critique often is quite different from the piece that is eventually sumbitted for publication. If you're so good that nothing changes from draft to final, then why are you bothering with critique circles? Still, posting your work on an open web page is probably not a good idea unless a) you have sold the piece and have permission from the publisher to post excerpts, b) you are just using the piece as a marketing tool and don't intend to sell it (but if it's a good represeentation of your work, why didn't you submit it for publication?), or c) you don't intend to sell to an electronic magazine, you plan to only sell first print rights. This last is viable, but risky. What if the editor decides he wants the piece, but only if he can place it in both the print and electronic versions of his magazine? It's just not worth the risk. Stick to the closed groups if you are going to go this route.

The question then becomes, which group should you join? There are many, many writing workshops out there. Some are good, some are not so. The first thing you need to ask yourself is, "Why am I joining this group in the first place?" Are you just looking for someone to critique your novel? Are you looking for critiques on short stories? Are only interested in critiquing other people's work? Some combination of the above? If you are really interested in learning the craft, you need to produce as many finished pieces as possible, otherwise you don't get as much practice with writing an entire story. Short stories are really more effective than novels here. Critiques of individual chapters of a novel are very difficult to do, since the reader doesn't have the whole tale in front of him. In reality, though, you will learn more from critiquing other people's work than you will from having your own work critiqued. You learn to recognize the glaring errors and areas that don't quite work and learn to avoid them in your own writing.

So where do you go? Some workshops are free, some require a small fee (usually less than $50/year). Some workshops are conducted as classes, complete with a dedicated instructor who gives you personal attention and live chats with your classmates. These can run as much as $400 for a ten-week session, but I can attest that they are an outstanding experience. Online Writing Workshops for Science Fiction, Fantasy, and Horror actually has a pretty good list of their competitors, which of course means that they must be pretty confident in their product. I found their list to have only a slight slant, but was overall a pretty fair representation. Some of the free workshops have a pretty long waiting list to get your own pieces critiqued, but if you are only interested in critiquing others (in order to build you own skills), that's not really an issue. A couple of workshops missing from this list include The Other Worlds Writers' Workshop and SFNovelists. The former is free and is an email-only critique circle. I've been a part of this and found it useful, although you do tend to get fantasy authors trying to build credits by critiquing science fiction and vice versa, which isn't terribly helpful. SFNovelist is devoted exclusively to writers of hard science fiction novels, which of course is my interest. There is a small fee to join this group. The problem with SFnovelist is that you will read and write far fewer pieces, simply due to the length of the story involved. This is fine if you have honed your craft are looking to move on to the next level, but if you are really looking to build your skills, this may not be the best route to take.

One thing that Online Writing Workshops can offer that most can't is the chance to read critiques done by professional, big-name SF authors such as Kelly Link (who was also a Clarion instructor), although the chance of your piece getting such a critique is pretty low. I can attest that Gotham Writers' Workshop, whose teachers are similar professionals, are also outstanding. There's nothing like getting the personal attention of a pro. It certainly made a big difference in my writing, and I now have a contact in a published author who I think would write me a recommendation (assuming the piece I submitted was any good). That's well worth the $400 cost of admission.

So, which am I going to join? I will probably give Online Writing Workshops and SFNovelist both a try. The total cost will be around $100, but both have trial periods (six months in the case of SFNovelist), so I'll have plenty of time to see if they are what I need at this stage in my career. My real quandry is whether I want to spend time writing short stories for OWW or devote my actual writing time towards the novel. I'm leaning towards the latter, particularly since, as I mentioned above, I think the real learning comes from the critique and not from the writing itself. I can get that by critiquing short stories through OWW and writing only an occasional one for them myself.

I have to say, though, I'm looking forward to getting back into a community of writers again!

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