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Workshop Lessons

 Red Hood's Revenge 

Happy Release Day to Jim C. Hines (aka jimhines).   

Workshop Lessons by Jim C. Hines

Thanks for the guest blog spot, Jon! With all the work you've been doing for FindAWritingGroup.com, I figured I'd chat about something workshop-related.

In my experience, a good writing group teaches you much more than just how to improve that story or chapter you brought to the group. I spent several years working with a group here in Michigan, and I've run a number of workshops at various conventions. One of the things I discovered early on was that I learned as much or more from reading and critiquing other people's work as I did from hearing their feedback about mine.

I also learned that the value of that feedback went far beyond the obvious. You learn not only to listen to what one particular person says about your work, but to evaluate the group's feedback as a whole. That's a lesson that brings unexpected benefits years later when you're a published author.

I've been thinking about this a lot as I read the early reviews of RED HOOD'S REVENGE. One review in Publisher's Weekly said it's the best of the series so far. Another reviewer said it was pretty good, but that it was her least favorite of the three. The other reviews I've seen follow the same pattern: either it didn't really work for them, or they're completely excited about it.

I'm thrilled. Sure, it would be nice if everyone liked the book ... or would it? Thinking back to my workshop experiences, reactions to any given story tended to fall into one of several patterns.

1. Everyone in the group thinks your story is broken. This is a bad sign. If the whole group is telling you something's wrong with your story, it would behoove you to listen. This happened more often than I like to admit, but it also helped me to identify and fix those flaws. So it's a useful thing for a workshop, but not something I want to experience with my published work, thank you.

2. Everyone has different opinions, a.k.a., feedback stew. Everyone has a different suggestion for what worked and what didn't. This is comforting in that there's nothing as blatantly wrong as in reaction #1, but it's not all that helpful, either. In those cases, my job was to sort through everything people were saying and decide what to use and what not to. (Which is what the author should always be doing with feedback, but even more so in this case.)

3. The whole group thinks it's a pretty good story. Go me! There's usually some room for improvement, and my group would always point out something for me to work on, but it feels awfully nice to get this sort of reaction.  Some of these stories ended up selling, and some didn't.

4. Part of the group loves it, and the other part hates it. Sometimes this means you've got some work to do on the story. But sometimes this means you have something special.

I don't believe you'll ever write a story that everyone loves, but you can write those type 3 stories that most people will think are pretty good. You can also write type 4 stories. These are the stories that people will get excited about. The ones that stand out and get people talking. Some people will love them, and in all likelihood, some people will hate them. If you split your writing group's opinion, it doesn't necessarily mean your story is broken; it may mean you've got a powerful story, one which may not work for everyone ... but when it does, it works well. 

I've seen it happen with my published short fiction, too. "Sister of the Hedge" was my first and only story to make the preliminary Nebula ballot. This story also received some of the nastiest reviews of any story I've written.

So sure, my new book may generate some mixed reviews, but I'm okay with that. In fact, I take it as a sign I'm doing something right. That I'm moving beyond the safe "type 3" books and into something which, I hope, is even better. I thank my workshopping experience for helping me learn that lesson.

 Red Hood's RevengeRed Hood's RevengeRed Hood's RevengeRed Hood's RevengeRed Hood's RevengeRed Hood's RevengeRed Hood's Revenge

RED HOOD'S REVENGE is Jim C. Hines' third book about a trio of butt-kicking fairy tale princesses, and his sixth published fantasy novel. When the book comes out on July 6, Jim will be on vacation somewhere in Michigan's Upper Penninsula, far from reviews and Amazon rankings and Internet connectivity of any kind. (Which means he won't be able to respond to comments for a little while -- sorry!) Jim is also the author of more than 40 published short stories. Most days, he spends far too much time online, blogging at http://www.jimchines.com/blog and of course, here on Live Journal as jimhines.


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( 13 comments — Leave a comment )
Jul. 6th, 2010 06:17 pm (UTC)
I love those stories, or bits of stories, that generate a passionate response whether positive or negative. ALL responses are helpful, but those passionate ones make the writerly heart pitter-patter the most.

Great post, Jim! And thanks, Jon, for putting it here!
Jul. 7th, 2010 05:27 pm (UTC)
My pleasure, Terri :)
Jul. 11th, 2010 02:49 pm (UTC)
Thanks! And yep, I know what you mean. It's that sense of "Hey, I wrote something that generated a powerful response. Go me!" :-)
Jul. 6th, 2010 08:35 pm (UTC)
Great post,Jim and Jon. It is true, you can't pleas the masses. But you can learn from them if you listen and evaluate what is being said.
Jul. 7th, 2010 05:27 pm (UTC)
'you can't please the masses.'

It would be nice, though ;)
Jul. 11th, 2010 02:47 pm (UTC)
Depends ... some masses have better taste than others ;-)

I've definitely learned things from reviews, though. Not all, but sometimes someone will point out a weakness (or a strength) in my writing that I hadn't been aware of, and if I notice a trend in what the reviews are saying, that can be very helpful.
Jul. 6th, 2010 09:20 pm (UTC)
Great post, and highly relevant to the critique process I'm going through right now on OWW. I had a short story get the #2 reaction, and two months later I'm still trying to sort out the feedback stew. In a way, it's much easier to be told outright, "This sucks" than to have seven different people say, "This is awesome! Very original! Just fix ____ and it'll be perfect," with seven very different fill-ins for that blank.

Thanks for the post, Jim and Jon!

Jul. 7th, 2010 05:28 pm (UTC)
Yeah, you can't write a story by committee.
Jul. 11th, 2010 02:50 pm (UTC)
What do you mean? Isn't that how they did Atlanta Nights?
Jul. 7th, 2010 12:32 am (UTC)
LOL. I have a few stories that everyone in various groups loved. I've not yet sold... a single one of them.
I have one story where someone told me 'you will never sell this'. I sold it on the first submission.
If a story evokes strong emotions (even of hatred) it means you may be onto something good.
If everyone loves your story, you're most likely to be onto something bland.
What you have to weed out, though, is the points where people got confused.
Jul. 7th, 2010 05:29 pm (UTC)
'What you have to weed out, though, is the points where people got confused.'

True, very true.
Jul. 11th, 2010 02:52 pm (UTC)
Yep. I had a similar experience. Wrote a diabetic vampire story and sent it to one editor who described it as so bad he couldn't believe I had written it. Sent it out again, and it sold to Marion Zimmer Bradley's Fantasy Magazine, my second pro sale.

Passion from readers can be a very good sign :-)
(Deleted comment)
Jul. 13th, 2010 09:33 am (UTC)
A good critique group is worth it's weight in gold, but you have to watch out for the negative Nellies - the one's who relish their moment in the spotlight and love to tear into other people's stories.

I get uncomfortable when people find enjoyment through slamming someone else's work. I think it says more about the critiquer than the writer, and not in a good way.

Fortunately, folks like that are in the minority :)
( 13 comments — Leave a comment )

Things What I Wrote and Other Stuff

No longer in print but there are still some copies floating around out there

No longer in print but there are still some copies floating around out there



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