Workshop Trip Report, Part One

I got back home yesterday from David Farland’s Novel Revision workshop, where I spent a week with ten other writers in Saint George, Utah, critiquing each other’s stories and absorbing a truly gargantuan amount of knowledge.

For those unfamiliar, David Farland (real name David Wolverton) is the best-selling author of the Rune Lords series, plus a bunch of others. His recent YA novel Nightingale has won a bunch of awards. He’s been teaching writing and running workshops for over ten years, and taught authors like Brandon Sanderson and Stephanie Meyers when they were first starting out.

The focus of the workshop was to take our novels and improve them, even if they were already very good. Dave read and critiqued the first hundred pages and the outlines, while the entire class was given the first twenty pages and the outlines to do a group critique.

I received the other samples in early August. It was intimidating – they were all very good. Some seemed to me that they could pretty much be published as is. I started to ask myself if I was ready, if I was crazy to think I was at this level yet. That started a bit of a self-doubt cycle which hurt my writing this month.

It was nice to hear at the workshop that most other people had the same thing happen to them. It just serves as another reminder that most of the battles we fight when we’re doing stuff like this are internal. Self-doubt isn’t always a bad thing, but it should never interfere with your productivity.

Here’s the run-down:

Sunday, 8/26

I arrived at Saint George via a shuttle from the Las Vegas airport. The highway took us through the north-west corner of Arizona and wound through a beautiful canyon for about ten miles, before opening up as we hit Utah into red rocks and ridges, with just enough green to keep you from thinking you’re in the desert. It reminded me a lot of Flagstaff, though the hundred degree heat made enjoying the landscape a bit harder.

The shuttle deposited me at the Ramada Inn, where the workshop was to be held. After so many vacations to touristy places, it was nice to go somewhere more laid back. I grabbed dinner, then headed to my room to review the manuscripts and try to prepare myself – I was going to be the second person critiqued. I admit I didn’t sleep well that night.

Monday, 8/27

I grabbed breakfast at the hotel and met Nancy, a writer whom I’d previously met at SuperStars. It was nice to see a familiar face, so we chatted for a while before heading into the board room. The workshop started at 9. We spent the morning getting to know each other, then Dave talked briefly about the plan for the week. Right after that we headed into the first critique.

One of the reasons I was nervous about going second is I thought the person going first was the strongest writer in the group. Her urban fantasy story was wonderfully written, engaging, and did a nice job of putting a new twist on the standard Greek gods trope. The format of the group critique was each other attendee got three minutes to give their take, then Dave would give a longer critique. After the author was welcome to ask questions, which sometimes turned into discussions.

I was impressed by how professional everyone was, at both giving and receiving critiques. Even when they didn’t like something, it was clear that the comments were meant to be constructive. In the case of the first manuscript, much of the discussion turned to the short prologue, and whether it needed to be there. At first the group thought it could be cut, but after some ideas were tossed around, it was clear the prologue could be strengthened and add a lot to the story.

I was up after lunch, and as usual, my nervousness was unfounded. The comments were useful and constructive, and mostly centered around areas I knew were weak, namely the setting. The good news was most people really enjoyed my story and were eager to know what else was in store for Gare. One guy didn’t like the non-human PoV, but I knew going in I was going to lose a certain percentage of readers, and that was a good reminder that you can’t please everyone.

Dave’s critique, on the other hand, was revelatory.

He pointed out a bunch of things I already knew, but he made one over-arcing comment which shocked me (in a good way): he said the second fifty pages were substantially stronger than the first fifty.

It shocked me, because going in, I would have bet you money on it being the opposite. I was wrong, and the reason I was wrong is interesting. The second fifty pages were part of a section I’d been struggling on for months. I’m not even sure how many times I did full and partial iterations on those pages – probably at least six. I’ve got reams of discarded scenes that didn’t work. I struggled with it so much, that I simply assumed the result still had issues. Whereas, the first fifty pages, I’d done only two versions of. Not that I thought it was perfect – but I’d thought it was solid enough that I should focus my attention elsewhere.

The problem with my first fifty pages was that it was underwritten. I’d neglected a number of conflicts that I shouldn’t have, which would give the story itself far more depth. There were a few scenes I sketched out, in attempt to show time passing until the next big story event. At one point, I had Gare observe that he was bored. Dave kindly pointed out that when your main character is saying he’s bored, you as the writer need to seriously consider whether the reader will be bored as well.

I’d also neglected the setting (a known problem), and got some suggestions as to how to fix that. Setting ended up being a weakness for pretty much all of us at the workshop, so it was nice to get feedback there.

He also pointed out a number of smaller issues, and marked up the manuscript itself, showing me where I can cut words and where I can make the writing stronger.

Even with those issues, Dave  said he very much enjoyed the story, and as an editor, would want to see the full manuscript. Talking with the other’s afterward, I got the same impression from most of them.

It feels good that I was able to put something out that could be publishable – it feels great to know that I can make it a heck of a lot better. Publishable isn’t the end-all of quality.

I had a one-on-one dinner with Dave that night, where we talked more about the critiques, as well as what my goals were and my general plan. He gave me some pointers and told some awesome stories about a crazy friend of his, who got caught up in one of the end-of-the-world UFO cults.

That night, I spent a few hours writing, putting together a new scene that focused on bringing my setting and descriptions to life. By the time I got to bed, I was exhausted, but I went to sleep happy.

I’ll finish this up next week. Thanks for reading, all, and enjoy the long weekend!

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6 thoughts on “Workshop Trip Report, Part One

  1. Stefan says:

    That part about the second 50 pages is pretty inspiring – you know, hard work and determination will always improve something even if you don’t notice it. Great post.

  2. […] create my first publication-quality novel. That meant  attending a couple workshops, SuperStars and David Farland’s Novel Revision workshop. There, I got to hear about storytelling from some real masters. David Farland, in particular, […]

  3. Tian says:

    Hey dude, I still remember your short story submission for the Blizzard fanfic contest a couple of years ago. It’s great to hear that you have progressed to the “near publication” level! Very inspiring. I’m glad I found the link over at Kevin’s blog : )

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