Workshopping Entire Books – A Novel Idea
Okay, sorry. Couldn’t resist the pun. Don’t hold it against me.
For those who have attended writing workshops, you know that there is not enough time and too many students to actually work on more than a chapter or so. You can get a lot out of it, but it isn’t quite what we all crave, to work holistically on the novel from cover to cover.
Happily, as I found myself halfway through my first draft this April, my friend, Theresa, had a great idea. She was also working on a draft of her latest book and knew two friends who were hard at work on their own pieces. She suggested that we form our own workshop and dedicate ourselves to working on the manuscripts in their entirety. We were all pretty excited by the thought. So as a group, we decided to workshop each book, one after the other. We would take a month or so to read the novel, make copious notes in the margins and then provide broader feedback that addressed the work as a whole.
As it turned out, the timing worked out perfectly. Some of us needed more time to finish our own stories and it staggered the books nicely. We started with Nicole’s book, moved onto Theresa’s and, in our most recent session, discussed mine. Katie will be next.
It has been a terrific experience for all of us. The level and quality of the feedback has been invaluable to each of the writers, who each left the workshop meetings with a lot to think about. The notes in the margins tended to be the kind of things you’d expect in any workshop: grammar, requests for further clarity, watch-outs on POV, opportunities to expand or take more time with a passage, dialogue coaching, characterization notes and the like. But what made these sessions so powerful was the fact that we were able to look at the work as a whole and have discussions that were not myopically focused on a single chapter.
One of the tools we used, and I forget who suggested it, was very telling and led to a surprising amount of discussion and insight. It was suggested that each of the readers try their hand at writing a synopsis of the novel. I have to admit that I did not see the true value of this when it was first suggested, but was amazed how writing a tight paragraph or two highlighted some of the more far-reaching opportunities for improvement.
In one case, an element that the author saw as the spiritual center of their book, was left out of the reader’s synopsis’. It became clear to the author that she needed to thread it more consistently through the book and develop it further as a result. In another case, where I had written little more than glowing commentary in the margins, the synopsis discussion led to a debate on whose story it actually was. We questioned who the main character was and then had different development input based on the author’s answer. My own showed up areas where I could better develop some emotional cues that would make later sections more poignant as well as pointing out some bigger unanswered questions I needed to tackle.
The point being that all of these very important insights would likely not have come up in a workshop focused on a handful of pages. So if you can connect with other writers in your area, you may find this a very worthwhile exercise. Thanks, Theresa!